The Real Dodge Brothers

Advertising is seldom what it seems. If you’re looking for reality, commercials are not only not real, but sometimes not to be taken seriously at all. And I’m not talking about funny commercials.

Take the Dodge Brothers ads for Fiat/Chrysler (visual, top left). The ads looking to immortalize the Dodge brothers would have you believe those young bucks were hell-raisers, racing up and down semi-rural roads looking for speed, possibly drag racing their buddies for money. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Horace and John (left and right, respectively at top right) grew up in Niles, Michigan, with John being the older of the two. John was born in 1864 while Horace was born in 1868, which by anyone’s math made them both well into their 40s by the time they started developing their own first automobile in 1914.

John and Horace were not interested in speed. The family had moved to Detroit by the mid-1880s and the mechanically minded brothers were working at places like a marine boiler factory and later a machine shop across the river in Windsor, Ontario. John was an inventor, and having built and patented a dust-shielded bicycle hub bearing in 1896, they paired up to build their first bicycles the next year for the E & D Bicycle Company. Three years later, with their shares of the business netting them $10,000, they quit the bicycle business to open their own machine shop back home in Detroit.

One of their first contracts was designing and building engines for Oldsmobile. It was not at all long before they became one of the largest auto parts makers in Detroit.

Henry Ford’s company had already gone bankrupt more than twice before looking to the Dodges for help. They’d already started building engines for him; now they’d be partners. They would own 10% of Ford—and all of it—if Ford went broke again. They were smarter than anyone gave them credit: they borrowed 75Gs for new tooling and built Ford a totally new car. The Dodges designed and built the entire Model T drivetrain (engine, transmission, differential, etc.), and by the end of 1914 had churned out 650 cars for Ford, now their only customer.

But Ford’s ego was not going to let him continue to have someone else build his cars. He bought out the Dodges the next year for $25 million, and that gave the brothers enough to start making their own line. In 1915, they had sold 45,000 units, making them the 3rd largest automobile producer in the country.

The thing about the brothers was that they were innovators. They pioneered features in cars that later became standard: all-steel body construction (while others continued with wood frames), 12-volt ignition systems (6-volt systems were the norm until 1950), and sliding-gear transmissions. Their first cars had 35 horsepower (compared to Ford’s 20).

This kind of upscale quality gave them a great reputation in the industry. The lower left visual is their 1915 touring car, a definite step up for most customers, and at right, their line of trucks gave them an industry pat on the back. Their 1916 touring cars were used by Lt. George Patton to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa because the US Army trusted the durability of Dodge.

But in 1920, with Dodge now the second-leading seller of cars, tragedy struck the family. John, now 55, died of pneumonia in January and Horace, 52, in December. The family eventually sold the company to an investment group, which by 1928 sold it to Chrysler.

That’s the real story of the Dodges. Their automotive input was short in time but long on legacy.

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Look for the next column on December 1. I’m taking next week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

 

Those Disaster Graphics

First let me say that this particular edition is not a critique. It’s an observation.

I can’t say with any certainty just which year in my memory saw the most disasters, either natural or man-made. But 2017 would have to rank as one of the front runners in either category.

The major news outlets are still commanding our attention with the latest developments on any of these stories. Apparently the hurricane season has wrapped and tornadoes are probably waning, but with climate change, you never know. Wildfires made big headlines recently. And then we’ve had the mass shootings several times this year.

It seems just a few weeks separate each of the above, but sometimes the disasters overlap. You almost cringe every time you turn on the news, expecting a tragedy somewhere. This country has had its share this year for sure.

So you turn on the news, and accompanying the disaster lead-in you see something like one of the visuals above.

Like I said, I’m not going to criticize any of these. These are graphics thrown together quickly at news organizations like CNN, Fox News, The Weather Channel, and sometimes at local affiliate stations across the country. They have to be done literally within hours of first hearing about the impending catastrophe.

And more than likely it’s one person on the news staff putting the graphic together (in this age of teams, which I’ll get to in another article). And it’s literally a thankless job.

The job is merely what you see—assembling a jarring type-driven message, with an accompanying background “atmosphere”: maybe a map cross-faded over a generic photo of a tornado; maybe a rifle scope’s crosshairs over a blurred image of an emergency vehicle; or maybe a shot of firefighters blended with the orange cast of an immense inferno.

I’m more than certain each news agency keeps a huge digital library of stock photos to draw from. They have to. Of course these images are necessary, meant to pull you into the story.

And these graphics all accomplish the task. There’s no subtlety here. They speak to dread.

I dare say the graphic artists who are called upon to make these signposts have no real pride in doing them. These visuals, given their emotional effect, are not what you’d put in your portfolio.

Why would you?

 

A Logo Redesign

Usually I don’t do instruction. But occasionally I like to show how the things I preach in this blog can be used to improve an existing design. If we can critique a design, we should be able to tear it down and rebuild it to make it work better, right?

This week we’re going to get into a logo I had cited months ago that certainly needed help. And seeing it on TV over this past weekend reminded me that this would be a good time to get into it. The designer chose a good font to start with, and that helps us as designers but also helps in understanding a few things in this lesson, one of which relates to type design, something that’s a pet subject of mine.

With a sans-serif font such as this one (Avant Garde), it’s much easier to see the letterform relationships: just how one shape of one letterform interacts with another by its close placement (proximity) to another. The elongated rectangular shapes make that much easier to see.

So let’s follow along, class, and see what’s going on. The top left visual shows the existing logo of the State of the Union show, emceed by the reporter Jake Tapper. The first thing we’re going to do is look at the way this was put together.

First, let me say that this logo has too many wacky things going on. Mixing uppercase and lowercase can work, but not so much with the major elements in play, here being the two large words, “State” and “UNION”. Not sure why the designer chose to mix them that way, because there is no interplay between them. Then we have two lines running between those two elements, having some unknown purpose. Notice the small space between the cap S and the cap U, which is not carried through to the two lines above it.

So with the top right visual, we can begin to look at just where those aforementioned relationships should occur. If you recall, one of the main tenets of good design is organization. And with organization, you have flow from one element to another. Good type design follows that tenet, because good type design recognizes letterforms as shapes.

I’ve taken the logo down to the main portions of it to illustrate a some of those wacky things apart from the uppercase and lowercase problem. And using a few dotted lines, we can see the things that are not lining up, consistently. The “t”s have almost exactly the same offset from the vertical elements below. The “a” misses the same opportunity with the “N” below it. And then those lines have a strange feature: they not only end at a place that has no relation to anything else in this design, they’re offset from each other where they end as well as each one being cut off on a diagonal. Not sure what the intention was with that—they play off no other diagonal. Maybe they tried to balance the overhang with the S on the other side, but that doesn’t work, either.

In the lower left visual, I’ve reset the design in a different alignment altogether, for a few different reasons. I couldn’t see the reason for the enlarged S and U, for one. I chose all caps because with just two main elements, it’s easier to line up vertical elements when you have stacked designs such as this. Here, the Ts go hand-in-hand with the U and I below, and notice how the A centers over the N right below it. Then I fattened up the type by choosing a bolder version of Avant Garde. There are a few things that still bug me, but we can bring it all together in a further step.

In the last visual, I’ve butted the word UNION up with STATE and kerned (tightened up horizontally) all the type. I like tight type arrangements. Also I’ve taken apart the U and widened it so the initial stem of the U is centered under the S, which also makes for a more unified type width across the word UNION. Then I set the small element “of the” in lowercase letters to fill the void at right.

It’s easily seen in the original design where the designer intended to use the United States flag colors. I would guess that maybe the two lines are supposed to reflect the flag’s stripes, but the stripes on the flag are red and white, while the stars are white. So…

Putting the star (now white) in the A where it lives in the blue ground like the flag (also as a shape more akin to the A itself) makes much more sense. Then I took the flag stripes and made them wave as a flag would do, but in the shape of the O. Finally, I added the words “with Jake Tapper” in a small area where you still pick them up visually.

Jake Tapper may not always be the host of the show (Lord knows, Meet the Press has had a few), and let’s face it, the words “State of the Union” are the important elements here.

Blatant Plagiarism

Competition in the marketplace is always there, in every area you look. Retail (as in clothing lines), industrial design (as in home appliances), automotive design (as in car features), and consumer services (as in home security)—the list is endless.

Thing is, is it all original? Of course not. Competing advertisers compare their products and/or services in subtle and not-so-subtle ways through images and/or verbiage. Advertisers feel they need to stay current and are not above copying ideas. Sometimes the presentation of an idea can become blurred in the minds of the viewers as to which advertiser did it first.

And the competition doesn’t have to be in the same category. It can be competition just for your attention, regardless of the message. If it worked for them, it can work for us—can be the attitude.

We pick up on similarities among TV ads because the ads themselves are not only in-your-face, but also because they repeat so often that you get second and third impressions, seeing things you might’ve missed the first time around.

For me, I enjoy the entire medium. Sure, some commercials are grating in their delivery—especially local ads. But every now and then you see a gem, or maybe a series of them that catch your eye.

Back in April of this year, ads for Spectrum started showing up with a cast of classic “monsters” appearing in everyday situations among the normal citizenry. Spectrum, as you may know, is now the umbrella cable company under which are such entities as Time-Warner, Charter Communications, and Bright House Networks. The first in the series (top left visual) has four deadly characters riding a subway car: a mad scientist, a mummy, a werewolf, and the Grim Reaper.

They way the ad runs, nobody pays any attention to the characters. They’d already been integrated into society.

What makes the ad (and the rest in the series) work so well is that the characters gripe about issues that aggravate all the rest of us, including problems with TV reception: Spectrum, being a cable company, is taking a swipe at satellite providers. And here, the Grim Reaper has received a text message on his cell phone from his kids that the satellite dish has corrupted the signal at home. If you haven’t seen how the commercial ends, I won’t ruin it for you.

The ads were conceived by an independent, little-known ad agency named Something Different, located in Brooklyn. And kudos to that bunch because the ads are by far the most refreshing departure I’ve seen in years. Apart from the aforementioned characters, the cast includes the werewolf’s wife, a demon and a vampire couple.

Another in the series has some of the characters playing charades (bottom left visual), while in yet another the werewolf parents are meeting with their son’s teacher.

One of the ads that ran this past summer has the demon and the werewolf under a child’s bed (top right visual). To be honest, this particular ad doesn’t quite fit the mold of the others in the series. Here, the monsters portend horror, but the child is just irritated.

So, anyway, last week a commercial for Progressive Insurance showed up with the same format (bottom right visual), with a demon under a child’s bed. The reference is so blatantly obvious, the context and timing so close, that Progressive had to have copied Spectrum’s ad.

I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is the surest way of getting sued.

 

Art Deco Misunderstood

My wife and I were binge-watching a relatively new TV show a couple weeks ago, named “Nashville Flipped”. The show was appearing on DIY Network, but we had found it on demand. Apparently the show is either between seasons or it was not yet renewed for a third season—we’re not sure. All the information we could find about the show was not totally up-to-date.

The show deals with a house flipper named Troy Dean Schafer, an Erie, PA transplant, who’d been flipping historic homes for several years before landing a spot on DIY Network. Having met Mike Wolf of “American Pickers” fame in a local Walmart, connections paved the way for Troy’s eventual TV show.

He originally had an interior designer do his inside spaces, one Julie Couch, who apparently had left the show before the second season started. Her beautiful interiors are one reason we continued to watch. Go to www.juliecouch.com to see what I mean.

But her absence is more than obvious. Troy’s interiors now suffer from what I’d euphemistically call “eclectic clutter”.

Troy likes what he says is Art Deco. In the first place, Troy likes homes built roughly between 1880 and 1935, but especially the Craftsman style of home, and he’s a good builder and renovator. And he likes to furnish his rebuilds with Art Deco styling. Or so he thinks.

Maybe he and Julie had disagreed as to the application of Art Deco in these homes, but one thing is clear: Julie did not use Art Deco in Troy’s flips. I can only guess that Troy is his own designer now or Mike Wolf (the executive producer of the show) has a hand in using antiques from his Nashville store.

Above (top row) are images exemplifying Art Deco, a design styling that grew out of Paris and Brussels back a little before World War I (or the “Great War” as it was known then), but spread internationally throughout the ’20s and ’30s into all areas of graphic design, architecture, jewelry, industrial design and interior design. Art Deco is distinct, having a certain linearity to it, and that linear feel repeats as a pattern of shapes, making geometric motifs of things found in nature.

There were influences from many areas and parts of the globe to feed this phenomenom, not the least of which being the fascination with Egyptian treasures unearthed in Howard Carter’s excavation of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

Look at the photos in the top row to see Art Deco in all its wonder and beauty. Then look at Troy’s applications below and see if you can find anything approaching a semblance of Art Deco.

Good luck.

Type Design, Part 2

What constitutes a “type design”? How do you know if it’s a type design instead of just regular typesetting?

Let’s examine what type design is again: designing with typographical forms.

So by that definition, a straight typesetting operation—just selecting a font and setting a name or phrase in that font without type size or normal placement differentiation—is not type design.

Designing anything requires one to to apply the placement of shapes to a frame of reference, that being a “field” where you place your design. It can be a rectangle, such as a magazine cover or even a TV background. That’s a basic tenet of design. I suppose you could say that selecting a font to express an idea in print or on the web is an “aesthetic judgment”, but it’s not an example of designing with type, or even design itself.

But using type or type groupings can be a form of type design. The example at top left is such a design. This is minimal type design, but notice that it contains groupings of type; that these groupings have shapes; and that these groups are joined together in a way that forms an overall design (along with the shapes of the photos) within that particular frame of reference. The fact that “Apple” and “Pay” are joined together as a unit, and that they’re made to be the same width to form a unified simple shape, is a form of very simple type design.

The next example is a type design I’ve used before in this column. This design for Dancing with the Stars is an example of using words as shapes. Notice the designer chose the words “dancing” and “stars” for the most prominent shapes (and that these two shapes lock together in their close proximity), keeping “with the” (another shape) as subordinate. It’s far from being completely successful as a good type design, but you get what I’m saying about the shapes.

The third example is much better at using words as shapes. The way these shapes lock together and play off each other makes this one of the best type designs I’ve seen in recent years, and it’s practically perfect except for one tiny flaw. See if you can you spot it.

The last two examples are not type designs. Why is that? One uses a photograph as a substitute for a letterform, while the other uses a combination of a letterform and the shape of a key (rather convoluted) to express an obvious reference. Aside from further critique in those areas, neither works as type design.

What is Type Design?

This week we’re talking about type design. What is it?

I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It’s not designing typefaces or fonts. That’s designing typography, the art of designing fonts. We can get into that at a later date.

No, we’re discussing type design, and that’s designing with type, the art of designing with typographical forms. Above are examples of type design.

Good designers know two things about type design—

1) they know that type forms, both letterforms and words, are shapes

2) they know that as shapes, these forms are parts, or pieces, of design

Some designers don’t regard type forms as shapes. But they are every bit as important in design—especially in type designs (such as logos)—as any other shape or color.

Non-designers would appreciate type forms as shapes merely by taking large type examples and flipping them upside down, looking at the curves, the proportions, and how one part flows into another.

Type has shapes. Elementary speaking, that’s what distinguishes one font family from another. Gill Sans looks entirely different from Myriad. Times Roman does not look at all like Bembo. Of course.

But up close, enlarged and examined closely, the type forms you look at are unique. As art, they are no longer “type”. They no longer have stems, ascenders and descenders, kerns or serifs. Looking at them as art, now they’re shapes. And as shapes, we can rotate them, reverse them, enlarge or reduce them and skew them. Place them where and how we want them to appear anew.

Does the design we assemble with these shapes have to spell something? No. The design can be abstract, without reference to anything else. It can stand alone as the art it is.

But of course it can spell something if the designer intends that. Like a logo or the title of a book.

Remember the thing I said in my “Tenets of Good Design, Part 1”? Design is intentional. Every example you see above is an intentional design. The designers worked the type forms well to achieve the effects they wanted to see on paper or on the computer screen. The placement, the proximity of the shapes, the way the shapes work together make these designs successful.

This is what I wish more designers would see when they do type designs.

 

 

 

 

Letterspacing Again

Anyone who’s ever read my column knows that one of my biggest nits is letterspacing. Ever since I was first taught proper letterspacing in design school, I couldn’t let go of it. Even now I see bad examples everywhere, and there’s no reason for it to exist.

Some of you may say, “Well, that’s the font. It has spacing like that.” Nope, I say. Too bad. Fix it.

I saw an ad the other day on TV touting the services of a local air conditioning and heating firm. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought maybe it was a glitch in the television transmission of the signal. But when I visited their website, there it was: the spacing in the name “And”. It’s just three letterforms and they couldn’t get it right—the giant space between the “n” and the “d”. With just three letterforms, this is certainly not the fault of the font.

I hope they didn’t pay big money for this gaffe. Worse, even if they didn’t, they can’t see it. It’s displayed all over their broadcast area. Do they do work like this, leaving gaps in their installations?

The designer of the logo did this: he/she took a design feature of the Avant Garde font—the cap “A”—and applied it to the Helvetica Bold font for this design. They didn’t quite get the right stem of the cap “A” to a perfect vertical (they didn’t shear it quite enough), but the intent is obvious. He/she liked the angle it presented, adding the snug “n” to it. But just where in his/her mind the “d” fell off that train of thought, I’m not certain.

If I were teaching a class in typography, this error would’ve received an F. And, folks, it ain’t the font.

In looking at the website, you can see the same error on their trucks. Very nice.

You see this kind of thing everywhere. And from reputable firms all over. In some cases the font is to blame. But that’s still no excuse. Thing is, if you don’t know that something is wrong, and there’s nobody around to point out the gaffe, then how are you going to learn? And then this type of thing will continue.

The way I see it is this: either these places hire people to design their logos who have no knowledge of type design, or they don’t care.

Setting type in a word-processing program is different than doing type design with a design application. The bottom image shows what happens when the font or something else is to blame. The space between the second “a” and the “t” in Manatee is too great. My guess is that whatever software or computer platform the Manatee County government is using to design their forms is not using the font’s natural letterspacing correctly or the person typing this did not use the auto-kerning feature available.

Evolution of a Logo

Readers: let me say that Hurricane Irma impacted us to a great deal down here in Florida. We were without power for almost a full week. Therefore, this is the first column after the hurricane.

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A logo, being the face of a company on paper, TV, and the Internet, would normally be something that should stand for a long time. But because times change, and the way some companies do business changes with the times, a company’s logo can and probably should change along with that new model.

Few companies can say they still do business the way they always did. Coca-Cola is one of the few whose core business did not change in over 100 years. They became diversified in their product line to be sure. But then of course the familiar logo had already become ensconced in the mind of millions before any of that tree grew new branches.

RadioShack (now without a space between the two words) has been around for 96 years and its logo has changed 14 times since its inception. (It was always called “Radio Shack” except for a few short years in the early ’70s when it was called “Allied Radio Shack”, a result of an acquisition.) In fact, it changed logo designs ten times since 1963.

Of course, RadioShack has been trying desperately to stay what it used to be back in the ’60s. Long a retail store where one could go to buy all things radio (who does that anymore?), they sold everything from TV antennas to small gadgets that only radio people or audiophiles could identify. They sold parts to make crystal radios and kits to make your own TV set.

But in always searching for new clientele—and never wanting to lose their older customers—they felt the need to ever look fresh by updating their logo time and again. But regardless, they’ve filed for bankruptcy more than once, also this year. And they’re still here along with their 15th logo.

I never did understand that off-center “R” inside the circle, their design from 1995. Perhaps they wanted to distinguish it from a ®, the standard registration mark. I don’t know. But this time around they kept it, using a Gotham font. It has a bland look, somewhat corporate in feel, and the colors they’ve chosen—that washed-out red and seal brown—have come under some criticism from all over. One critique I read referred to the brown choice as “shit” brown. Whatever. To me the color scheme looks like a committee compromise somewhere between Gap-ish and Pottery Barn. And that’s kind, coming from me.

The other logo highlighted this week is Spotify’s design, an update from it’s original incarnation. This music and video streaming service is only eight years old (eleven on paper) and it’s changed already.

Spotify was founded in Sweden and is still headquartered in Stockholm. The logo designers stated that the “sound waves” signify streaming, and that first design has a funky look to it with a bouncing “o” to accentuate the streaming action.

The new design keeps the streaming waves, but puts them in a separate space, a circle, and that allows an adaptation of it to be used as a logo for an app. I had always wondered just why the those waves appeared to be off-angle. But in looking at the original design, the angle is there, the waves looking as though they’re being transmitted to a satellite, which works very well in essence. So Spotify has cleaned up their design to look more contemporary.

RadioShack, on the other hand, hasn’t pulled it together yet after 96 years. And the off-center “R” still makes no sense to me.