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?

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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A Package Design That Remains True

      

As package designs go, few in the marketplace stay true to form as much as Frito-Lay’s. That Dallas firm has recognized their customer better than most.

Sure, there are others such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, those long standing brands from way back (more than 100 years). As history records it, Coca Cola has been around since 1886. Likewise, Pepsi Cola emerged from a local drink—originally “Brad’s Drink” from a pharmacist in North Carolina—in 1898.

The Frito Company was born in 1932. Charles Doolin bought a recipe from a local corn chip manufacturer in San Antonio for $100, and along with a manual potato ricer and an oven, started making his own snack. I had a tough time running down the history of the name, but he called them “Fritos”—I would imagine meaning “fried” or “fritter”.

A year later he’d moved upstate to Dallas and by 1945 granted a license to H. W. Lay & Company (Lay’s Potato Chips) to make and distribute Fritos in the southeast. By 1961, the two merged into Frito-Lay. Then in 1965, Pepsi and Frito-Lay merged, and things were sunny for both companies after that. A year later, Doritos was born.

The name Doritos was derived from the Spanish “doradito”, meaning golden brown.

The thing about Doritos, as in all the Frito-Lay brands, is that it’s maintained the same design flavor, meaning it’s kept its brand design equity in two distinct areas: color and style. The red-orange-yellow color palette tells the consumer that the taste is bold and spicy, and the design style of the type and graphics tells us it’s festive.

Experience just one taste of Nacho Doritos and you won’t forget it. Just seeing the package on the store shelf reminds your taste buds of the spicy flavor.

Looking at the history of the package from left to right reinforces all this. From the 70s’ color blocks through the freeform scribble designs of the 90s reflect the zapping taste inside the bag. And lately the lightning-esque triangle shape of the chips reminds us of what’s inside, that true-to-form snack that remains true to itself.

How many brands across the spectrum can you honestly say remain true to form such as this? Relatively not many.

 

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Letterspacing With Initialed Names

  

It’s probably one of those things you rarely look at. And even if you do, do you really see it?

Graphic design has many facets, many parts. One of the most overlooked areas is typesetting. Back in the day, before the personal computer came to the fore and applications made possible what became “desktop publishing”, we relied on professional typesetting companies to format our text into conventional norms of appearance, flow, proper punctuation and letterspacing.

And now that those typesetters are gone, it’s up to us—the designers—to set our own type according to those time-honored conventions. We still follow things like paragraph conventions (flush left, justified), single-spaced sentences, etc. Why not proper letterspacing with initialed names?

In the visual at the top, which is the correct way to typeset the name? I combed the Internet, that bastion of reference material that holds tons of information, and the reference guides that held sway were these:

• The Penn State Visual & Editorial Standards

• The Modern Language Association Formatting and Style Guide

• The American Psychological Association

• The Chicago Manual of Style

And in all those widely accepted references, it was found that the across-the-board standard is the first example. In other words, spaces after each period. The only exceptions are U.S., abbreviating United States, and P.O., abbreviating post office. But those of course are not proper names.

Funny, because when going to the Internet’s foremost search engine and typing in P. G. Wodehouse, you subsequently get the visual at the bottom. Note the differences in the way the author’s name is listed, all on the same page in Google (the color highlights are mine).

I even found one listing with no punctuation at all.

Either we have two schools of thought on this subject or we have half of all people being largely ignorant of just how to type a name such as this correctly.

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Not the Best Western

      

Close to where I live, there’s a Best Western Hotel. And on the side of the building is their new logo.

Plain and simple. But mostly just plain.

I couldn’t believe it. It’s been almost two years since they changed their logo, but it wasn’t until recently that I saw the new monogram. After seeing it, I immediately thought of my childhood when my parents took us traveling during summer vacations and we often stayed at a Best Western. The hotels weren’t the best, but they were good and they fit my parents’ budget.

The logo was similar in feel to the first one pictured above, although this particular one is the most recent before the change.

So back in 2015, they changed the logo. Something about bringing it into the 21st century or some such malarkey. The official wording had to do with making the new logo reflective of all the “brands” offered by the hotel chain.

What got me was the way they worded the change. Apparently it took them two years to do it. Ouch. That’s one. The word “contemporizing” was mentioned. Really?

They actually said this: “Best Western used today’s graphic design and digital printing capabilities to create an array of logos that use special effects to be distinctive and striking to consumers.” I am not making this up. The italics, however, are mine. Read on…

“The design…uses hand-drawn lettering, which is familiar and personable and pulls through the company’s updated blue color. The centerpiece globe comes to life through the use of special effects such as gradient, highlighting and a 3-D treatment. These effects will be distinctive within the hotel industry which traditionally uses two-dimensional logos.” All that is two. Once again, the italics are mine.

These last two paragraphs. Seriously? Couldn’t possibly have been written by a designer. Designers don’t call a circle a “globe” and they don’t refer to gradients, highlighting and a 3-D “treatment” as special effects. Garbage. Imagine a corporation putting out a message like that. OMG.

All that points to two things: one, if that logo took two years in the making, then there were too many meetings with too many people in the decision making; and two, the above explanation was written by either a marketing person or somebody’s wife or partner who thought writing might be possible career. Any designer who’s read that explanation probably sent a text to another designer saying, “LMAO.”

But enough about the goofy explanation. The logos are too generic. Anyone can slap together two letterforms and call them a logo. Criticisms have appeared on the Internet saying it’s too much of a departure from the traditional “crowned” version. There’s a lot to be said for keeping the feel of a decades-old logo going forward.

In this case, even though Best Western was never a premium hotel chain, the new logo cheapens it. Now it feels like Motel 6.

 

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Sometimes It’s Meat and Potatoes

All packaging becomes functional at the store shelf. Before that stage, however, it’s merely a product of a designer’s vision on putting what’s inside that package on a solid footing toward a sale.

Packaging is one particular area of design I’ve always loved: as a designer, you can encompass all the necessary things you need and put them on display in one neat enclosure. A photo of the product, type design, copy to give the product a thorough description, whatever necessary legal and boilerplate copy, and all that on top of a background you want to achieve impact and tie it all together.

Some packaging is more fun than others. Food packaging, because the entire family is consuming the food, is more descriptive in several ways. It’s more colorful in all directions, has bombastic and sometimes wacky type designs, can and does employ digitally enhanced photography and/or illustration, and often uses cartoon characters when aimed at children or adults who never grew up.

But that’s what makes designing food packaging so much fun. It has boundless possibilities.

Other packaging is just plain functional. Take auto parts packaging, whose examples are shown above. With usually just one person in a household buying auto parts, the focus for a designer is toward the utilitarian. Most auto parts—once purchased and installed on the vehicle—are no longer seen. They’re not exactly something to behold.

Plus it helps if you have a little technical knowledge of the auto part. What its use is, how to describe that use, and how best to depict it on the box: what angle(s) to photograph it to show the best detail. Other than some retouching to pretty it up, not a whole lot else.

Not difficult to put all this together, having all the aforementioned pieces. In looking at the above examples, notice a few things, though.

The predominant colors chosen for backgrounds are red, blue, black, and yellow. Pretty much a primary color selection. There’s no pink, mauve, taupe, lavender, or lilac. Those colors do not reflect a mostly masculine sense of being, of one who might own a Ford F-150 or a tricked-out Honda Prelude.

That bunch of consumers are more meat and potatoes, similar to buyers of tools at Home Depot.

Also notice that the typography on these packages is also plain and simple. No fancy script fonts here. Lesson—know your consumer.

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