The Rule of Third (Base) and other unwritten rules of graphic design/baseball

Not too long ago, my co-author and friend Shea called me with an interesting question: “Is there a way we could somehow incorporate baseball into our blog about graphic design and interpretation?” It seemed like a stretch, but since baseball is a mutual interest, we thought we’d give it a try this week.

In today’s post, I will discuss how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball (actually, for the purposes of this post, they are, in fact, written rules of baseball). Thursday, Shea will address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

If you intentionally hit a batter, don’t aim at his head.
Sometimes a baseball pitcher needs to send a message. Suppose the pitcher is unhappy with a player on the other team for violating one of the many unwritten rules of baseball, and he decides to intentionally plunk him with a pitch. It’s an unwritten rule that the pitcher should aim at the batter’s backside rather than a more vulnerable area, like his head.

Designers send messages, too, and it’s important not to aim at your audience’s head. Large fields of bright red, using lots of different typefaces, bolding everything, and filling every last square inch of white space—these are all examples of being overly aggressive, or aiming at your audience’s head. It’s important to get your message across, but you don’t have to beat people over the head with it.

Don’t step on the foul line.
This is more of a superstition than an unwritten rule, but many players—pitchers, mostly—avoid stepping on the lines drawn on the field as they enter or leave the field between innings. There are parts of the field clearly designated for different purposes—fair territory is for game faces and steadfast focus, foul territory is where players can relax and prepare for the next inning. Stepping on the line between those two areas muddies the distinction between them.

Designers rely on lines and areas with clearly defined purposes as well. A grid system helps designers decide where to place important elements on a page. (See a post on the grid here.)

Don’t slide with your spikes up.
When a runner slides into a base with the spikes on his shoes up, there’s a risk of serious injury. This is something noted jerk and Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb was famous for. Clearly, for designers, this rule relates to using starbursts. You’d have to be a real Ty Cobb to intentionally inflict those pointy aberrations on your audience.

Don’t make the first or third out at third base.
For various strategic reasons that I will resist detailing here, base runners should avoid making the first or third out of an inning trying to reach third base. They’re better off staying at second, if the situation allows, rather than risking making an out at third base. That said, there are occasions where it’s okay to force the issue and aggressively try for third base.

Designers use a Rule of Thirds as a guide to attractive compositions. Like baseball’s Rule of Third Base, though, there are times when the compositional Rule of Thirds can be violated. See a post about the Rule of Thirds here.

Pitchers should not show up their fielders.
When a fielder makes an error, pitchers have to resist outwardly showing their displeasure. Even though the pitcher has inherited a difficult situation because of his teammate’s misstep, he has to suck it up and focus on that next batter.

Similarly, every design project is a collaboration. If the copy writer comes in with too high a word count or the photographer gets thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, the project manager still needs to own the project and work with team members to get it right.

Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter.
This is just a weasely thing to do. Swing the bat. This is not a concern in the American League because no one bunts there.

Well, there you go. Tune in next week when we’ll delve into the importance of working pitch counts when setting type!

I’ve Got Problems

“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong”—Buckminster Fuller

Generally speaking problem solving can be complicated. For me it is simple. I have a problem and my wife tells me how I am going to solve it. It is that easy. It is too bad that in most cases she created the problem for me in the first place.

When problem solving it is important to not lose sight of the problem at hand. It is easy to become distracted with side issues and loosing focus of mission, themes, goals, and the intended audience. If necessary, when working with a group or by yourself, focus specifically on the problem itself and avoid pitfalls that keep you from fulfilling that mission, theme, goal or meeting the needs of the intended audience.

I’m kind of a slow thinker. When problem solving I like to sit back, think, see what happens, collect information, synthesize approaches and then decide. My wife calls this being a procrastinator but I call it being analytical. You should be aware that some solve problems through various approaches that may or may not meld well with your approach. I tend to wait for the “Ah ha” moment to happen. The period before it hits is known as the incubation period.

Inspiration hits me at strange times, usually when I am away from the problem, program, or the computer. For me it is usually when I am driving or watching baseball. I don’t know if is because my mind works differently at those times or if it has to do with me eating peanuts and Cracker Jacks. More than anything it breaks my current cycle of thinking and allows new ideas to flow. The sugar and carbs help too.

If you wait too long in the incubation period you could be forced into the pressure cooker phase of problem solving. I have seen several talented people who thrive and excel under the pressure to meet a groups needs or finish a project under a tight deadline. Solutions to problems can flow out of necessity in this approach. Just leave time at the end for evaluation and re-design if necessary.

The longer I work as an interpreter and a designer I see that the majority of my work is problem solving. In some of my future posts I will take on common problems faced by interpreters and designers. Be on the look out for the I’ve Go Problems titles. If you have a problem professional or socially send them our way and we’ll take them on. In the mean time continue working on what problem solving approach works well for you and your specific situation. Don’t be afraid to take on different approaches or just listen to your significant other.

Why I don’t use drop caps


I have yet to see a good reason for using drop caps (unless it is the year 400, you are creating an illuminated manuscript, and you’re just trying to fit in), but they appear everywhere. Drop caps, where the first letter of a text block is enlarged and “dropped” so that it takes the space of three to five lines of text, violate most of the rules of typographic legibility.

First, in the example above, the individual letters in the word “After” are not the same size, which is poor form in body text. Second, the letters in that word do not share a baseline, which forces the reader to mentally piece together the word rather than reading it fluidly. Third, because of the shape of this particular letter, the drop-cap “A” is actually farther from the “fter” to which it supposedly belongs than it is from “days” in line 2 and “phia” in line 3. Because the “A” is closest to and shares a baseline with “phia” in line 3, it looks like the “A” belongs to the word “Aphia” (there’s a prize for the reader with the best suggested definition of “Aphia”). Readers obviously can figure out which letters belong to which words, but they shouldn’t have to work so hard to do so.

Designers are better served to avoid drop caps and use another method of creating graphic contrast, such as setting the first few words of a text block in small caps, bolding or changing the color of the first few words of a text block, or good, old-fashioned white space.

NOTE: The text in the example above was selected randomly online and just happens to be from the October 30, 2008, Philadelphia Inquirer, reset typographically for the purposes of this post.