A Menu Redesign

This is a menu I was recently asked to redesign for a restaurant here in Florida, the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, otherwise known locally by its initials, “SKOB”.

As soon as I laid eyes on the existing menu (whose pages are the three examples on top), I was instantly aware of two things: clutter—especially of unnecessary background items, and poor contrast between typography colors and background colors. Clutter creates many things, none of which add to clarity of organization no matter how you look at anything. Poor contrast between copy and background creates poor readability.

I mean, why on earth would you design a menu for a high profile place to eat and drink and make it hard for the customers to read it?

The existing menu, as I was later to find out, was created by a designer who works for one of the restaurant liquor distributors in the area. The menu didn’t cost the restaurant anything to have it produced. That was a courtesy of the distributor to secure business with the restaurant. Free is not always good.

In this particular case, SKOB is a high profile restaurant in the Sarasota area of Florida. Siesta Key is a tourist spot on the Gulf of Mexico, and the nearby beach is probably the largest white sand beach in Florida, one that’s used for several events during the year, such as the Siesta Key Classic Sand Castle Competition. Plus, the real estate values in that area are hard to beat along the gulf coast.

So you have to wonder why a good restaurant such as this would have their patrons look at and read a poorly designed menu. Not only is “free” not necessarily good, but the presence of money does not necessarily make good design of anything just happen by itself. Ignorance has no price.

The cover of the existing menu (top left) has everything in it but a beached whale. There’s too many things that vie for attention: the way the name of the restaurant at the top is treated reminds one of the old vacation postcards from the 1950s; then we have the red lifeguard shack; next is the logo at bottom left of the layout, needlessly repeating the name of the place; and then the extra clutter at the bottom caused by a flock of seagulls, giving us bad readability, against an otherwise clean span of beach.

My approach (bottom row of examples) uses fewer distracting elements in the background. I felt the cover should be the first example of simplicity in welcoming patrons to the restaurant. Since this is a cocktail menu, putting a simple tropical drink in a beach setting seemed to be the easiest way to convey relaxation and appetite near the beach.

The client called for a realignment of sections in the menu (hence the reason my first inside page does not have exact corresponding copy as in the existing menu). Their first inside page is full of copy describing each cocktail, with small type reversed out of a background of overlapping palm fronds. I can see people squinting just trying to read the menu at this point. I went with a fresh approach of non-clutter with easy readability of copy and just a few seashells on a simple sand texture, with tropical banana plant leaves calling attention to the different drink categories.

Their next page is not nearly as bad as the previous one, but repeating the background image here felt too easy. I opted for a change of pace with different beach sand and surf.

I always remember one of good design’s adages: simple is best. The fewer items, the better, when it comes to communications (print and web, menus included). You can add visual interest to any layout, but not to the point of clutter, and readability—one of good design’s staples—is always paramount.

 

Music As Sound Design

I like music in television, provided it doesn’t get in the way.

And it occurs to me that in putting together a TV show, the producers would know that the content—the subject matter of the show itself—would be the focus of it. In “reality” TV, what we’re supposed to be shown, I would assume, is an informative presentation.

But I think that depends on the “channel” you’re watching. And of course cable television has innumerable places to catch the kind of show you want to view, especially if it is reality based. But finding what you want to see may be tricky. In the relatively formative years of cable channel lineups, it was easier to find shows based on the format of the channel. For example, TLC used to be The Learning Channel, but these days that moniker does not actually encompass what is generally offered there. Historic shows aren’t necessarily found on The History Channel—they could be on The Smithsonian Network or even Discovery. So it goes.

My wife and I have been up and down the “dial” in finding shows we like, and like most people, we stick to what we find enjoyable. But I notice that even with a show whose content I might find interesting, the accompanying music can be annoying. And so today’s column is about that: music as sound design. (I won’t add a sound design category just for this.)

If design is everything (which I believe is and which I postulated back in 2017), then everything you see and feel (and even hear) watching TV is part of the show or commercial, and therefore part of the overall presentation—and planned. The producers want you to hear that music. And if that music is weaved into the fabric of the presentation, if it truly becomes incidental, you almost don’t consciously hear it. Unless of course it becomes intrusive.

I was watching Tiny House, Big Living this morning on DIY Network, a show about building small, convertible mobile houses for people on modest budgets. They’ll build you a home that has less than 500 square feet of living space and make it livable for two people. They make the place with spaces that double as kitchen and laundry areas, living room/bedroom spaces, etc., and with nice appointments made from quality materials. Their work is actually impressive the way they can maximize space. But in watching the construction crew, the producers have you listening to guitar music that might’ve been played by the band who did the transition music from Friends. And it sounds much louder than it needs to be.

Another show we watch is Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel. This show, if you’ve never seen it, is about gold mining in Alaska. It follows three crews of miners using bulldozers, scoop loaders, and other earth moving machines along with standard gold sifters such as sluices to find gold. And they do a very good job of getting the gold, some better that others. Here, because of the continuing crews, you get attached to them and tend to root for your favorites because of the contentious yet friendly atmosphere. But once again, there’s music, for the most part when the crews suffer damages to equipment and then must rally to fix it, whereupon the producers will have you listening to heroic, almost Olympic style music so you can enjoy the comeback-from-disaster challenges along with the crew. It’s empathetic, I would guess. But the music tends to be repetitious, and it happens every week, and generally with all three crews.

Then we have another example for intrusive music with The Great British Baking Show on PBS. And here, like a lot of things British (or so it seems), the producers have you listening to what I’d call tedious music passages. The home-based bakers are all given time limits for baking anything from complicated breads and cakes to thematic monstrosities that would challenge any home cook. And during the competition, the camera crew is focusing on closeups of the process, the facial expressions of the contenders, and often the mistakes they may make, which then of course, like all other shows, is edited down to the quick cuts necessary to give maximum impact for anxious expectancy. And that anxiousness is accompanied by the tedious music, always recorded by a chamber orchestra with violins twittering their repetitious tinny notes, practically like Flight of the Bumblebee.

I will say, however, that if it weren’t for the music here on this baking show, you wouldn’t feel nearly as much in tune with the bakers’ nervousness.

So music does help you along in viewing and in empathy for the performers (or miners and carpenters) if two things don’t happen to make you tired of it: repetition of the same music, and if the music isn’t played at volume.

Design can encompass many senses: visual, tactile, and even aural. Good design uses them proportionately to achieve an end result that’s a harmonious, and pleasing experience. Bad design will use one or more of them to a disproportionate degree, with an annoying result.

 

A Package Design That Remains True

      

(This article appeared in September 2017. Dan is taking the week off.)

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.

 

Color is Relative

One of the many areas we covered in design school was color. We hit the ground running with a foundation year subject called Color Concept, where we not only studied color, but we learned how to move it around a composition, how to manipulate it and use it to bring a viewer’s eye around to focal points within the frame of reference—the boundaries of the composition—how to modulate it.

This was a big step for each of us. And in learning about any color, we found that one of its attributes is that it’s relative to other colors around it, meaning that its appearance can change. And that was something you could control only by altering those other colors.

The human eye adjusts for color comparisons. Here I’m talking about color’s main attributes: color has both value (lightness or darkness) and chroma (saturation).

The human eye can see color relativity only by comparison. For example, putting a gray square on a white background, then the same on a black background, you see just how the gray tends to change. It appears dark against that white background, but much lighter against the black. Our eyes adjust for that comparison automatically.

Our eyes are exactly like cameras. We squint in bright light conditions, and our pupils contract in size, letting in a small amount of light on the retina. Conversely, our pupils open up wider in dim light and thereby allow additional light to reach the retina so we can see greater detail. That’s just how a camera’s aperture works—if you use shutter priority for the camera’s basic shooting preference.

Color also changes with environment. Say you’re in Sherwin-Williams looking for a color to paint your bedroom. You see a soft blue tone that might match your bedspread and you pick out a few chips that’ll come close. So you head home, and when you arrive and put those chips on the wall, you discover that the color has changed. Either it’s too light or too dark, or even that it’s too drab. What changed?

The environment in your home is not at all the same as in that paint store. The lighting is not the same. And light has a tremendous amount of influence over color. As photographers know, fluorescent light, incandescent light, and daylight all have different wavelengths, tricking your eyes from seeing the true color of anything.

A color’s chroma works in a different way with regard to relativity. The chroma changes by way of the color’s placement among other colors. As an exercise, we’ll compare a color above to see how it can change before your eyes.

I’m borrowing two of Hans Hofman’s paintings for today’s examples. Look at the left-hand image above and focus in on the ochre color at the top, just right of center. Now in looking at the right-hand image, see if you can find the color that is the same ochre tone. There’s only one small portion that’s the same color. I adjusted the tones to match in Photoshop before placing them in today’s examples.

A clue: that ochre color in the left-hand image looks much greener than it does in the right-hand image. And that’s because of the red around it. I suppose you could say that a color is judged by the company it keeps.

We’ll see the answer in next week’s column.

Playing Card Pips & the Heart Symbol—a History Lesson

Ever wonder where playing cards got their pips? Ever wonder how the heart symbol came to be?

Playing cards has been in my personal experience for as far back as I can remember. I learned playing War as a child, games such as Hearts and Canasta in high school, Euchre and Spades in college, Contract Bridge in the Army. My wife and I and our relatives play Bridge and Euchre all the time today.

For anyone learning to play card games, however, it becomes a curiosity to find just how those symbols came to denote the four basic suits. The answer is as clouded in history as any legend ever was, as it turns out. There are many sources of information on this topic, and depending on where you look, different stories.

Most sources believe that card playing itself started in China around the eighth or ninth century. The form was “paper tiles”, more like dominoes than actual cards, but as cultures across borders became mixed with trade routes, places like India and Arabia picked up the practice of card games and the form developed into a more durable substrate. Eventually the games made their way into Europe, but that practice wasn’t always considered just games.

As most everyone knows, the church was the most dominant of governance centuries ago, and the clergy saw devilish aspects in such practices, especially with regard to the Tarot practices in France and in eastern Europe. Plus other card games were an easy way for thieves to trick unsuspecting people. Bait and switch, sleight-of-hand, and “magic” made things “disappear”, and the law was right around the corner to prosecute the offenders. Shell games and two-headed coins and other forms of trickery were always being invented to try to gain the advantage, but cards made things a little easier because they were ready-made. Some governments plainly outlawed the playing of card games for many years. A Paris law from 1377 forbade the playing of card games on workdays because the pastime got out of control—everyone was playing cards.

And the pastime grew across all classes, whether they were noblemen, butchers, horse traders, or prisoners. Plus the various countries developed common symbols on the cards, further making it easy to play when traveling across borders. Some countries used bells as pips (Germany), while others like France started using things like diamonds. The Atlantic states in a recent article that historians believe the pips depict the four classes of Medieval society: hearts (for the clergy’s cups and chalices), spades (from the swords of nobility and the military), diamonds (from the merchants), and clubs (from the batons of the peasants or even the policean occupation long considered low class). These became the standard, based on a centuries-old French interpretation.

The heart, however, has its own strange history. While I was in design school, there was a rumor circulating that the heart symbol—which looks not at all like the internal organ—was a graphic depiction of sensual portions of the female anatomy. But it was only a rumor, and further investigation proved this to be false.

Heart-shaped leaves were used in artistic drawings from ancient times—from around the fourth century BCE—in what is now Pakistan. The heart shape was used to depict seeds from a long extinct plant known as Silphium, which grew in some Mid- and Far-Eastern countries, including what is now Libya. An ancient coin with that symbol is shown in the visual at bottom left.

The heart symbol itself is also classified as an ideograph, meaning it’s a glyph depicting a concept. A 1250s depiction of what some believe is a heart symbolizing romantic love is shown in an art miniature. That miniature is shown above at bottom right, where a man offers what appears to be his heart to a woman, professing undying love. There is some disagreement among scholars as to the exact shape being offered in that miniature and what it actually could be, however. The title of the manuscript that features that miniature is entitled “Novel of the Pear”, suggesting that the object could be a pear. I’ve seen some pears and even peaches that take on the shape very similar to that of a heart.

The “scalloped” shape of the heart was first used in a 14th century miniature, dented at the base (bottom), and used as a motif (repeating pattern). This was the first indication of the now familiar glyph, although upside down, which later, through different usage, became right-sided with the dent on top and its point now downward. That design has prevailed and been used on playing cards since the late 15th century.

As to the similarities in actual historic usage (Silphium plant seed on the ancient coin) and the stylized graphics supposedly drawn from features of the female body, these are merely speculative and hold no basis in fact.

 

The Scene is the Same, But Not the Message

I know, I know. How tired we all are with these commercials. Especially the big three of insurance commercials: Geico, Progressive, and Liberty Mutual. Nationwide and Allstate are not far behind in frequency.

I actually enjoy watching these ads for the most part (caveat coming). And apparently, so do enough viewers that Geico recently had a website by which you could vote among ten of their ads for your favorite (my fave was not among the ten listed candidates).

But Geico has a somewhat unique position in this. They’ve had different series running for some time now, to include themes like the caveman and the gecko. The gecko has his own long-running gig going and that may run for much longer yet. But they’ve had one-offs with things like the camel and then the absurd series with the zen gardener and the karate wood chopper. Geico’s creative agency has limitless ideas.

Then there’s Progressive, with only two themes: Flo and Jimmy for one, and then the “box” for the other. No one seems to know what the box is (other than to represent the insurance policy), but his lounge lizard persona actually makes me laugh. And I’m glad for Progressive that they have that box, because—and here’s my caveat—Flo and Jimmy can’t go away fast enough for my tastes. And that’s what works for Geico: they change it up often enough that you don’t tire of any of their themes.

Liberty Mutual has had their ad series (“Liberty Stands with You”) of using the backdrop of the Hudson River/Statue of Liberty going now for around five years. The top two visuals are examples of the actors questioning the accepted standards of competing insurance companies (“What good is insurance if you get charged for using it?”). I liked that series, because each actor brought a different slant on how insurance is used or abused from the standpoint of the consumer.

But lately, Liberty Mutual has taken a different direction while still using the backdrop for their “Only Pay for What You Need” campaign. They’re writing humorous spots now, such as the cycler with “customized” calves and the guy who’s in the witness protection program. What changed? Did Liberty think they were missing out on something? Did one of the account execs decide that Liberty was taking itself too seriously?

The answer is yes and yes. Liberty Mutual decided that the old style in this series was too staid. The earlier versions were informative, but feedback was that family viewers were gliding right over the ads without really looking while they were fixing their evening meals. The ad execs were getting a little frustrated that Geico’s ads were watercooler gabfest material and their’s were not. A change had to be made.

Exit Havas Worldwide ad agency, enter Goodby Silverstein & Partners. According to GSP’s executive creative director David Suarez, “The evolution we made was just to give those customers a little more color and let it be more overtly funny versus the traditional testimonial style. The clients were hungry for the work to be more breakthrough.” Suarez’s team brought in the creative minds from Barton F. Graf (known for Little Caesar’s) to inject the absurd humor angles. And apparently, Liberty Mutual is happy with the results.

Personally, I would’ve changed up the backdrop to differentiate the new attitude. Liberty broke the sequence—the consistency—with the absurd humor angle. Sure, the Statue is their monogram. But “liberty” can be stated in so many different ways. Liberty doesn’t have to be so literal. Freedom can be a synonymous underlying theme, something that might be nice for insurance companies to examine.

And so, another thing to consider is this: does every commercial have to be funny? If too many ads on TV are of the humor variety, your funny commercial starts to get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes a serious series of commercials—depending on placement—can be way more effective.

Either way, the issue I have here is in the packaging: the series looks the same at first inspection, most probably because Liberty Mutual has fallen in love with the backdrop. And if you the viewer are not attuned to the new script angle, you’ll ignore the commercials because the scenery hasn’t changed.

My take from this is that Liberty Mutual has already missed several million new viewers.

I Hate Advertising

I’ve been in advertising, in one way or another, for a long time. Decades. I kind of fell into it, first as a direction to follow out of art and design school since I had majored in advertising design. I was a designer/illustrator out of the gate, doing one or the other all the time. Sometimes I did both, and later as a photographer and art director.

I got my feet wet in my first design studio job doing ads for Prell Concentrate shampoo. And I noticed right away, being in the real world, that the thing that you can slide right past—if you’re not really looking at what you’re doing—is that you’re not communicating reality to the consumer. You’re creating the best possible visual of whatever it is you’re presenting—be it a hair product, a car or even a cream pie—and saying to the prospective buyer of that product that this is what it really looks like all the time. And you’re lying.

Suppose you do an ad for a plant nursery, keying on rose bushes. You hire a photographer and head to the site of the grower (after finding and scheduling a day with good natural light) and set about shooting the best rose bushes from a few different angles. Naturally, after assembling the best images, you design the piece in question and it looks great.

Too great. 95% of the customers who order from that nursery will not be able to grow the bushes they get to look anywhere near the images you present in the ad. It’s hopeless. It’s like ordering that Big Mac from the sumptuous photo on the sign at the drive-thru and getting a slightly smashed version with sauce and lettuce running out the side.

Advertising is all about expectation and design perception. And we as designers have already sidestepped past the point of consciously viewing this process as consumers. We are inured to it automatically, like a doctor is to blood. We don’t see or even feel the expectant want of that consumer, because—from the moment we start to conceive the ad in our minds—all we feel is the art of selling. We become automatons to it. And we own it.

The car in that commercial you love to watch onscreen is not how you’ll see it on the road where you live. The car in the TV ad is the only one on the highway with mountains in the distance or a winding country lane. That imagery is what sticks in your consumer’s mind, the romance of it. But putting on your designer’s hat, you know better: that’s an illusion sold to you by the advertiser.

Later on in my career I found myself immersed in package design for a well-known food conglomerate. And one of the things that’s always done in food photography is food styling. (Styling is always a part of commercial photography, but here we’ll concentrate on styling food.)

A food stylist is brought in ahead of the final product shot to prepare the food to look the best way it can possibly be using underlying and out-of-sight artificial things to make the food look fuller, glycerin or clear glazing to make it look wet, and adding more of the included ingredients here and there to make it look more appealing, all the while using tools like tweezers and paint brushes to make things look perfect.

Is this a depiction of reality? Hell, no. Is it even possible to open a box of the food, prepare and heat it according to the package instructions, and have it look even close to that photo on the front of the carton? Sure, maybe in one chance out of a million. But probably never.

Let’s examine the packages above. The lasagna on that plate at left is probably very carefully cooked in pieces, noodles apart from the sauce, then assembled spooning the mozzarella on top, all the while leaving not a speck of food around it. Note the small size of the plate enhancing the portion of the serving.

In the center we have chocolate satin pie, which according to the box is “made from scratch”. Sure it is—by a machine. Chances are the pie shown is a composite of several dozen supplied by the food company to the photographer’s studio, which when cut open, will reveal different consistencies in the texture of the chiffon-like filling. (Design-wise, that strong vertical left by the slicing barely sidesteps lining up with the green panels, but that’s a subject for another column.)

In the package at right, the wrapping of the fork is the styling here, more than likely pinned together beneath and shot from above separately. The sauce near the bottom left on the fork was also probably assembled and enhanced “post-op” in Photoshop. That and almost assuredly they toned up the greens and reds in both shots while they were at it.

I can remember one shoot I was on once where the photographer had a few of us on set ready to drop in Alka-Seltzer tablets into a glass along with another who was pouring Coca-Cola. The idea was to have a prolonged fizz take place while getting in as many shots as possible. And it worked very well, because with all the ice in the glass, the tablets were indistinguishable.

All for appearance, all for the sell. As much as I hate it, I still love it.

 

 

Design & Readability

One of the things I see in contemporary design is a departure from the norm of having a pleasing layout (placement of design elements) combined with readability. I’m speaking of print design specifically.

It’s normal—I suppose—in looking at cooking instructions on an 8-ounce can of sauce, and having difficulty reading that in what appears to be 4-point condensed type. Food companies feel like they have to cram information like that onto labels to be explicit in detail. Problem for them is that government institutions and consumer protection agencies have encroached on the labels’ real estate to where only about 15% of the label is available these days for the information you really need to prepare the food in question.

But in other areas of print, we don’t have that kind of restriction. Printed magazines—if they’re perfect-bound (single pages tipped into a center binding with glue)—have the least restriction with regard to fitting ads and article copy within the confines of the publication. Unlike saddle-stitched binding, there are no multiples of signatures to adhere to, and if the need is to add an additional page to complete the run, all the better for paragraph and type spacing. Readability won’t have to suffer.

Above are two pages from Wired Magazine, a publication to which I’ve recently subscribed. The magazine is a normal size for most that you might see among those sold in newsstands or bookstores at around 8″ x 11″. One of the reasons I decided to subscribe is the kind of articles they have in the mag, most notably dealing with science and technology, computers and communications, and maybe some environmental and political concerns. Very up-to-date articles for anyone who may want to be made aware of the world in which we now live.

Sounds cool, right? And the mag excels in those areas. But it is not—I repeat not—designed well. It suffers from what I might call timid or regressive layout, almost as though the designer has put down rules by which he or she has to squeeze the copy into tiny areas left over after dicing up the space for no apparent reason. The above examples are from the current issue, but what I’ve noticed is that the type used in the articles changes in point size from issue to issue, apparently due to some kind of self-imposed space restrictions, forced by graphic elements such as the black panel at the top of these pages. And those space restrictions are not about the number of pages, but instead about the so-called grid system they use—and even that changes with each issue.

Whichever way they decide to dice up the layout, they have what appears to be an 8-point condensed text font for most of the magazine. In the example at left, the “features” page near the front of the issue (common among many magazines instead of just the contents page) exhibits the worst kind of non-readability: a thin sans-serif font at about 7- or 8-point, reversed out of a number 3 warm grey background. I couldn’t read this without a magnifying glass while wearing a pair of readers. There is no reason to design anything like this. Plus, placing the subject of the photo dead center leaves a minimal amount of space for copy—if you don’t want the type to touch the subject—but notice that the copy does so anyway and overlaps it slightly near the bottom. Notice the position of the small word “features” at the top, the way it butts up against the edge of the black. There’s no consistency, almost as if there are no rules no matter where you look.

Then in the example at right, the designer has pushed the larger shot left and puts the shots of contributing writers into circles, which is OK, but then squeezes the info about each into narrow columns, forcing the copy down to what appears to be 5-point type. Notice the white gutter running down the near middle of the page, the small title of the page (Do-It-Yourself) floundering in a relatively large space, and the ultra-condensed serif drop-cap “F”: each item living in its own space with no relation to each other.

I could show you many more pages from the previous issue that exhibit further irrational design curiosities, one spread of which has an entire full-length sidebar using 4-point type.

I like the articles, which are very informative. Good writing all around. I’m just glad I get the digital version of these articles on my iPad, where I don’t have to use a magnifying glass to read them. And I’m also glad that whoever they’ve hired to design the digital articles is not the same idiot who does the print version of the magazine.

 

Design & Readability

One of the things I see in contemporary design is a departure from the norm of having a pleasing layout (placement of design elements) combined with readability. I’m speaking of print design specifically.

It’s normal—I suppose—in looking at cooking instructions on an 8-ounce can of sauce, and having difficulty reading that in what appears to be 4-point condensed type. Food companies feel like they have to cram information like that onto labels to be explicit in detail. Problem for them is that government institutions and consumer protection agencies have encroached on the labels’ real estate to where only about 15% of the label is available these days for the information you really need to prepare the food in question.

But in other areas of print, we don’t have that kind of restriction. Printed magazines—if they’re perfect-bound (single pages tipped into a center binding with glue)—have the least restriction with regard to fitting ads and article copy within the confines of the publication. Unlike saddle-stitched binding, there are no multiples of signatures to adhere to, and if the need is to add an additional page to complete the run, all the better for paragraph and type spacing. Readability won’t have to suffer.

Above are two pages from Wired Magazine, a publication to which I’ve recently subscribed. The magazine is a normal size for most that you might see among those sold in newsstands or bookstores at around 8″ x 11″. One of the reasons I decided to subscribe is the kind of articles they have in the mag, most notably dealing with science and technology, computers and communications, and timely issues such as environmental and political concerns. Very up-to-date articles for anyone who may want to be made aware of the world in which we now live.

Sounds cool, right? And the mag excels in those areas. But it is not—I repeat not—designed well. It suffers from what I might call timid or regressive layout, almost as though the designer has put down rules by which he or she has to squeeze the copy into tiny areas left over after dicing up the space for no apparent reason. The above examples are from the current issue, but what I’ve noticed is that the type used in the articles changes in point size from issue to issue, apparently due to some kind of self-imposed space restrictions, forced by graphic elements such as the black panel at the top of these pages. And those space restrictions are not about the number of pages, but instead about the so-called grid system they use—and even that changes with each issue.

Whatever which way they decide to dice up the layout, they have what appears to be an 8-point condensed text font for most of the magazine. In the example at left, the “features” page near the front of the issue (common among many magazines instead of just the contents page) exhibits the worst kind of non-readability: a thin sans-serif font at about 7- or 8-point, reversed out of a number 3 warm grey background. I couldn’t read this without a magnifying glass while wearing a pair of readers. There is no reason to design anything like this. Placing the subject of the photo dead center leaves a minimal amount of space for copy—if you don’t want the type to touch the subject, but notice that the copy does so anyway and overlaps it slightly near the bottom. Notice the position of the small word “features” at the top, the way it butts up against the edge of the black. There’s no consistency, almost as if there are no rules no matter where you look.

Then in the example at right, the designer has pushed the larger shot left and put the insets of contributing writers into circles, which is OK, but then squeezes the copy about each into narrow columns, forcing the copy down to what appears to be 5-point type. Notice the white gutter running down the near middle of the page, the small title of the page (Do-It-Yourself) floundering in a relatively large space, and the ultra-condensed serif drop-cap “F”: each item living in its own space with no relation to each other.

I could show you many more pages from the previous issue that exhibit further irrational design curiosities, one spread of which has an entire full-length sidebar using 4-point type.

I like the articles, which are very informative. Good writing all around. I’m just glad I get the digital version of these articles on my iPad, where I don’t have to use a magnifying glass to read them. And I’m also glad that whoever they’ve hired to design the digital articles is not the same idiot who does the print version of the magazine.

Quirky Type Design on Labels

Ever since I became aware of type design in art school, I couldn’t remain unaware of it. We were taught to look for it wherever we could, and sometimes we could find mistakes in those examples, if not just oddities. We could find them in magazines or book covers, or as in this lesson, on packages.

It still rankles when I walk through a Walmart or Walgreens or any store for that matter, as to why these happen. Sometimes the oddities are coupled with strange design elements.

I came across a hand soap my wife had purchased some weeks ago, a Klar & Danver product. Klar & Danver is a label distributed by Greenbrier International, out of Chesapeake, Virginia, but actually manufactured by a firm in Mexico known as 4E. 4E is a family concern that has developed a large market for beauty and anti-bacterial items in our southern neighbor and is a major contributor to sales in Walmart Mexico. I don’t know exactly where the name “Klar & Danver” comes from, but that’s not my issue with their label designs.

Type justification, as most designers know, is flushing type both left and right. The type design in this particular label comes close to that standard and misses it by a few degrees on both ends, but in looking at it, why would they try it? With only four characters—K L A R &—on the top line, the spacing as a result looks and feels awkward when stacked atop DANVER. The rest of the label works well in clarity and readability, even graphically with the water swoosh framing the bottom two-thirds of it, which makes the quirky brand name layout all the more obvious. All of the Klar & Danver labels have the same type design.

The next label is on a bottle of shampoo, that of the L’Oréal line. This label has both good and strange things happening on it, but among the strange is the way a couple lines of type line up: Extraordinary and OIL. Aside from a center-on-center overall layout, the designer decided to line up the uppercase I in the bottom line with the lowercase i in the top line, offsetting those two lines. I’ve even taught classes on this kind of type design (using type forms as shapes), but seldom with just two lines and never combining upper- and lowercase that has emphasis on just one of the words. Here the oddity of it makes it look like a design flaw. The singularity of it points up an idiosyncratic mindset on the part of the designer, possibly a sophomoric effort to be different for the sake of being different.

Also on this label is a graphic element that is strange. The metallic filigree in the center of the label is an element that is used on all L’Oréal shampoo labels, but what’s strange here is the rectangular arm coming off it toward the left and then down, ending in two bullet points citing two features of the shampoo inside. The coupling of that thick rectilinear element with the fine curvilinear shapes of the filigree does not work here (framing the larger rectangle with a thinner line and using two smaller squares for the bullet points does). This also comes off as an endeavor by a young designer trying to do different things without knowing what works well.

Aside from those flaws, the rest of the label looks and feels what most marketing departments call “premium”. The cosmetic industry relies on this appearance to drive customers into thinking they’re purchasing higher-end products merely because they have metallic and lenticular printing on the labels and outer packaging. That’s what keeps most of the prices for these products higher at the cash register.

Last, we have another liquid hand soap, that of a Bath & Body Works product. This particular SKU is “Peach Bellini”, named after a cocktail drink. This line of hand soaps has a tight design based on a grid. A grid (sometimes referred to as a “Swiss grid”) is used primarily in magazine layout to unify page-after-page sequencing and overall continuity. The pattern became popular in the early 1960s. Here, the package designer uses that graphic thinking to allow for placement of type and pictorial elements that will align each and every time throughout the product line, no matter what the flavor (or scent) SKU is. This is a very good method for a line of any product by a manufacturer, especially on labels of a smaller size that need to maximize the typography and graphics to be descriptive and informative.

This same exact grid—on a label, bottle or box—could easily be used for a soft drink, a line of men’s slacks, or even disposal trash bags. Good thinking by the designer.

You don’t have to use a grid to have a good design on a label or package. But organization of type and/or graphic elements (a basic tenet of any good design) is paramount.