Halloween: Our Most Visual Holiday

For those of you reading this in the future, today is Halloween. If Halloween does not exist in your time, I can tell you that it was an ancient custom filled with magic, during which kids dressed like monsters, men dressed like women, and women dressed like they were in Las Vegas. Everyone got candy, except for the kids who went to that one house where they gave out apples and toothbrushes.

If you are a time-traveling visitor from the past, here are some interesting facts about today’s Halloween: We don’t carve jack-o-lanterns out of turnips anymore! Now we use pumpkins. (Did you know that pumpkins are actually a fruit, not a vegetable? It’s a crazy world we live in.) And jack-o-lanterns, instead of welcoming the souls of deceased loved ones the way they used to, now welcome ungrateful, entitled children in plastic masks from Wal Mart.

Halloween is one of the most striking holidays from a visual perspective. It has a distinctive color palette: ominous, somber black, and the official color of prop comedian Carrot Top, orange. Centuries ago, Halloween was associated with orange and black because of the season of the holiday (fall) and the time of day that the holiday was observed (night).

These days, the visual vernacular of Halloween is spooky and ghoulish—ghosts, demons, witches, and all sorts of gruesome stuff:

Halloween has lost most of its original reason for being as a religious holiday, and it’s now perpetuated almost entirely through a commonly accepted visual aesthetic (also through the promise of candy). Ultimately, when the trick-or-treaters come by our houses tonight, we’ll all be aware that we’re witnessing a really well-branded product, with a well-defined color palette and visual voice.

That said, I hope you’ll share photos of your costumes with us either here on the blog or on our Facebook page. Happy Halloween!

My Affair with Movie Title Sequences

In about a decade, I plan to have a midlife crisis, during which I will undergo a bunch of plastic surgery, quit my job, and move to Los Angeles to work as a movie title sequence designer. Also, I will live in a refrigerator box because LA is expensive and I’ll have spent all of my money on a red sports car.

My first love in graphic design is print design—the interaction of type and image on a tangible surface. But if, during my midlife crisis, I were to dump print design for something younger and sexier, movie title sequences would be a great rebound. Title sequences take type and image, then add the elements of time, motion, and audio. So many elements have to work perfectly together to succeed, and when they do, they are truly memorable. I’ve posted a few noteworthy examples below.

Frequently, title sequences are designed by firms that specialize in the medium and that are completely removed from the production of the film. Sometimes this results in a marked difference in quality between the titles and the rest of the film. The Island of Dr. Moreau is a famously terrible movie, but it’s well-known in design circles for its excellent title sequence created by Kyle Cooper of the firm Imaginary Forces.

The title sequence in the movie Catch Me if You Can created by the firm Kuntzel + Deygas tells a story in a visual voice completely different from the rest of the movie, but it works because not only is it visually interesting, it evokes the era in which the film is set and sets the appropriate pace for the rest of the movie.

You can tell that the designers at Shadowplay Studios who created the titles for Thank You for Smoking had fun with the project. The sequence doesn’t attempt to tell a narrative story (as with Catch Me if You Can), but rather uses the unique visual vernacular of cigarette boxes to set an appropriate tone.

One of the most famous title sequence designers was Saul Bass, a graphic designer and film maker who died in 1996. His work influenced (and continues to influence) a generation of designers (you’ll certainly see his influence in the Catch Me if You Can title sequence). Friend of IBD Brian Trosko turned us on to the above video, “Star Wars Versus Saul Bass,” which is the result of a school project in which student Brian Hilmers sets the titles of Star Wars in the Saul Bass’s unique visual voice. (For real Star Wars nerds, it’s essential to watch this video reply, which adapts this spoof to the remastered Star Wars.)

For those of you who are really into this sort of thing, check out the site Art of the Title. There’s enough there to keep you busy for countless hours that might otherwise be spent on work or family.


When I was in high school, I ran on the cross country team in the fall and on the track team in the spring. Cross country was simple (though not easy). Everyone on my team ran 3.1 miles against everyone on the other team. The fastest runners won. I enjoyed cross country and wanted desperately to succeed, but I was not good at it. I was not a fast distance runner.

In track, there were multiple events, from short sprints to two-mile distance events, not to mention field events like shot put and pole vault. As a self-imagined distance runner, I practiced with the distance runners, ran distance events during meets, and made fun of the sprinters for their wussy practices.

Then one day, one of our top sprinters was injured, and because I never placed in any distance event, the coaches pulled me out of the mile and two-mile runs and placed me in the 100-meter dash. To my chagrin, I placed first. Before I knew it, I was the lead sprinter (on a very bad track team, mind you) in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and the anchor of the 400- and 800-meter relay teams. During practice, I would watch the distance runners as they glided around the track, knowing they were scoffing at my wussy sprint drills. I eventually accepted and enjoyed sprinting, but in the fall, I would always go back to the cross country team with the idea that my body might yet morph from that of a stocky sprinter to a lanky distance runner.

As a graduate student in visual communications at Virginia Commonwealth University about a decade ago, my fellow students were supremely talented graphic designers, each with a particular talent or knack that defined them in my mind. Five of them in particular really made an impression on me. Sandie Maxa had an amazing skill for working with color; Mark Sanders used his background in architecture to establish a unique and appealing visual voice; Grace Marraccini applied an elegant and sophisticated touch to everything she produced; Kristy Pennino had a flair for combining her own intricate photographs with simple but expressive type; and Guido Alvarez had a way of thinking about design (and the world) that made me shake my head, smile, and say, “Wow.”

guido_ceroI admired the work of all of these classmates then and still do today. Sometimes I’ll get something as simple as a greeting card from one of them or see something they’ve posted on Facebook and it reminds of the sort of work I imagined I would do some day. (Pictured here is one of my favorites from Guido, a poster for an international film festival that envisions a theater experience that goes beyond popcorn and candy.)

Let me be clear: I love my job. I love that I get to work in a variety of media (print, web, logos, and sometimes video), and I love that I work for an organization filled with great people and whose goals and mission I believe in. But when I started grad school, I thought I’d end up as a poster designer in some European city where I would go out at 5:00 in the morning with a bucket of glue and a paint roller to place edgy posters that I had designed among all the other edgy posters that other designers had designed. (Also, I would own an airplane and not be so tubby.)

Of course, the area where I had the most success in grad school was not where I wanted to succeed but something else altogether: Information design. The best group critique I experienced in six semesters as a graphic design student was for a project in which we were asked to redesign food nutrition labels. In order to break free of this—to explore and embrace a world of rough edges and imperfection—I did my entire thesis project on what graphic designers can learn from yard sale signs.

Guido used to torment me during critiques (I seem to invite that sort of thing), but the most penetrating comment he ever made was, “Your work can be so obvious.” I earned a Master of Fine Arts in 2001, all the while feeling like a distance runner in a sprinter’s body.

Last week, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about graphic design resolutions for the new decade. It was all about detail-type things (using em-dashes instead of two hyphens, not using globes in logos, etc.). It was not about how to think about graphic design.

This week, my real resolution is to visit with my former classmates and other designers online and in person as much as possible (starting with this post), to try to continue to grow and learn as a designer, to focus on the process of graphic design rather than the end result, to identify and break out of boxes, to strive to become a graphic design distance runner.

As a runner, I was constrained by my body type (you don’t see a lot of marathoners with short, thick legs) and I’m not sure that all of the hard work in the world would have made a big difference. But as a designer, I feel I can build on what I perceive as my strengths (organization, information, clarity) and work toward a more expressive and unique visual voice.

Note: You can find Sandie and Mark’s design firm, Q Collective, at www.upwithq.com. Kristy now teaches and posts her students’ work on Flickr. Guido and the weird stuff he does is at www.hyperscholar.com.