My Two Favorite Nits on Type


Most people (non-designers) have no real appreciation for good type design. And it’s not their fault. After all, unless someone (a good designer) points it out to them, they wouldn’t know the difference.

Like, for example, my son enjoys fishing. I’m a novice at best when it comes to fishing, and I didn’t know how to cast with a certain type of reel until he showed me how. Now I know. The same can be said of type design, and the following two things are no exception. So for non-designers, this is a definite learning experience.

Typography is a first-year course in the design school I went to. And in that class, I learned about letter-spacing. The course also teaches the basics of font design, its stems and kerns, ascenders and descenders, counters, serifs, etc.

Wow. Getting complex. But I’m not going to teach you about all that today. Today I’m going to say something about letter-spacing and one other thing. Because as a designer, it kills me to see these two things misused.

The visual at left is from a TV show I watch on the DIY network. The letter-spacing you see in the visual is bad because there’s too much space between the W and the a and the t in the name Waterman. A good designer would not allow this to happen. The thing is (like the following instance) you see this kind of mistake everywhere. It’s on signs, on the back of trucks, in store windows, even on the Internet and—holy cow, on TV.

I know, I know. Some of you (designers) are saying something like, “Well, that’s the font. That particular font has letter-spacing like that.” Too bad. Correct it. I come across a ton of fonts that have bad letter-spacing. Usually they’re fonts found on many of the free download websites. The problem here is that these font designers don’t pay enough attention to the way some letterforms interact with one another. In this particular case, however, it looks as though the designer intended this letter-spacing. Wow. Ouch. Or he’s blind.

Also, some type designers try to emulate old fonts. And of course, there’s a trend right now toward retro design—‘20s and ‘30s styles— using old fonts. This does not make for good design. That’s right: retro design is seldom good design, if ever. Some advertisers will sacrifice good design for retro styles, anyway, trying to be in.

That’s one nit. Now for the other. The visual at right is a classic example of misuse of quotation marks. People that do this kind of thing probably did not make it past the ninth grade or maybe schools don’t teach English and punctuation anymore.

You see this common mistake in the same areas cited above. The person who did this was trying to place emphasis on that particular word.

Good designers know there are variables in type design that are used for proper emphasis of a word or phrase. Italics and boldface are two of them. Color is another. But not quotation marks.


Whatever Happened to Men’s Shaving Kits?


I’d been thinking about this for a while, and then thought about the term ”system.” Because the two thoughts came together while I was also thinking about what a “system” actually is.

The word “system” is merely a marketing term to cosmetics manufacturers. My wife uses a shampoo made by L’Oreal called Everpure Sulfate Free Color Care System. But it’s really just a shampoo. Of course, the cosmetics industry likes to set its own rules.

One thing they love to do is spend millions upon millions of dollars on beautiful expensive packaging. Not sure just how we arrived at this, but we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and buying the most elaborate printing and box designs surrounding ordinary cosmetics.

Getting back to men’s shaving kits—a real “system”—I was thinking just how they’ve all but disappeared. I go to buy razor blades at the drug store and almost always look at the latest razors on display. But I don’t see the total package, the system.

Whatever happened to that? Why is there not a box with the razor, the blades, and the shave cream? Maybe even an optional handle for that razor. You know—a kit. Because when you buy that razor inside the blister pack and you slit your knuckles trying to open it, all you have is the razor with a blade in it.

And I have not yet seen an optional handle for that razor. Why not? Men like custom things. That fishing rod he’s got probably has a cool new expensive reel on it. And that new TaylorMade driver has an adjustable head in it.

But apparently Schick and Gillette haven’t thought about this. Harry’s has a system that at least includes almost everything. But that’s only one manufacturer. Bevel comes close, but there’s no box.

Would men buy it? Would they spend the extra dollars on a superb shaving kit? I think they would. Two reasons: 1) the kit is all inclusive and travels better—it’s all in the box; 2) the guy doesn’t have to grope around in his usual zippered case and possibly nick his fingers on the loose razor.

Plus, it makes a great gift.

In the Commercial World, Color is Identity


What is color? A tool of design. Color is as important in design as shape. Color is the element that makes an item among similar shapes noticeable.

Color is what makes anything pop. In the 1950s, the color of lipstick was red. There were several reds available, but red it was. Red gave dressed up women pop. Find reprints of ’50s magazine ads, and there it is (or go to Google.)

And as any designer knows, red is the most chromatic color. It shows up as the most noticeable color. It’s the color of stop lights and stop signs and brake lights. A red car is the most noticeable of all the cars in a parking lot.

But not everything can be red. In the world of advertising and merchandising, marketers have staked out their own share of any given category with certain colors.

So the branding departments at major manufacturers have given their prized products colors to differentiate them from their competitors. Coca-Cola is red. Sprint is yellow. T-Mobile is hot pink. These are examples of branding, a term that has many connotations. But as pertains to color, a marketer can’t choose a more identifiable tool.

Some examples are less obvious. DiscoverCard has run a series of ads that feature a sales associate in one frame talking to a customer in another. Look at the visuals above: everything in frame 1 is color coordinated with frame 2. This isn’t coincidental. It’s a subtle version of branding, using the color from the DiscoverCard logo (orange) along with a complementary toned-down blue. Coordinated and cohesive.

Within all these companies, they have a built-in rule referred to as “brand awareness”, meaning that they keep their brand colors in the forefront when it comes to advertising.



First Impressions Mean More

Design is all about perception.

It all starts with a germ of an idea. A concept. But once a designer puts that idea to paper, sketching out his/her idea, it’s already changed. It’s evolved from a smidgeon of thought to a graphic entity. And that’s a translation the designer has now to grapple with.

But once that idea gets fleshed out, the designer has to make that idea have the kind of perception that denotes quality.

How do we perceive? By our senses, of course: seeing, hearing, feeling. We judge the value—the projected worth—of something by its appearance. We’ve often heard the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But that no longer carries much weight.

Reason? Actually, here’s a few: 1) in the marketplace, we tend to associate worth with brand; Consumer Reports aside, brands carry a lot of equity with the buying public; 2) we live in a society where commercial reaction has been reduced to soundbites; regardless of the 15-second TV spot, repetition of an ad becomes rote; 3) Internet sales have eliminated the tactile sensation of handling an item before purchasing it: the silk tie, the wool sweater, the grip and feel of that new golf club.

Why do we buy item A instead of item B? In food packaging, marketers have come to appreciate the value of appetite appeal on the box, knowing that mom will be swayed more easily with a great photograph of that food.Other buyers may be tempted to try that boutique package instead, with hand-drawn type and a white, “pure’” background, thinking the item in that package is more organic or specialized.

But one thing is clear. Packaging a product is all about perceived value. Marketers will use terms like “upscale” to denote that the item has an affluent-based value.

When Steve Jobs was putting together his Apple Computer Company back some 35 years ago, one of his partners taught him the value of perceived quality. Mike Markkula instilled in Jobs that the total package was important, but essentially taught him that the package itself was at least as intrinsic to the perception of it as anything else. He never forgot it.

Tenets of Good Design—a Primer, Part 3


Design is impact.

Impact is getting noticed. Anything that sets a design apart from the rest of the pack is impact. Even bad design has a certain impact, but impact of a negative kind is what any good designer has to avoid.

For a product to get noticed, it first has to be promoted. That promotion could be in several places all at the same time: TV advertising, magazine/newspaper ads, and the internet.

Once we see the product, we can see just how much impact it has. Any new product in the marketplace should look different than any that’s come previously in that category. If it does not look sufficiently unique, its impact will be diminished and the product will lose traction—sales—very soon afterward.

Unless something—possibly its performance—is shown to outstrip its otherwise bland appearance. Say, a new laundry detergent: it may have a rather ordinary bottle shape and label design, but it may also contain an ingredient (or an amalgam of ingredients) that removes stains far better and faster than any others available. That kind of differentiation would move this product faster than grocers could stock it.

Visual impact shows up in two primary areas: shape and color. Either could be branded. The shape of a Porsche automobile is distinctive; likewise, the orange color of a Tide bottle makes it very noticeable in the laundry aisle. Each has brand equity this way. Having that kind of equity for many years works toward recognizability and sales that the items practically promote themselves without advertising.

But companies can undermine their equity by making something that has little or no impact.

I’ve removed the branding—logos—from the above images to illustrate my point. The two cars shown are from the same manufacturer. In fact, they’re the same model. Can you tell me what brand of car this is? Toyota? Nissan? Honda?

It’s hard to tell. This car is among many, mostly from the Japanese market, that has lost its branding, and therefore, its impact. The market has become flooded with automobiles that look so much alike in size, features and materials. Even performance. Standard. Unintelligible. Things here have become blurred among brands, even models within those brands.

I can remember in 1976, Honda brought out its first edition of the Accord. It was a great seller. It was different in its shape and function from anything else. It had great impact.

Now look at it.

Logo Designs That Don’t Work

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why there are so many bad logos out there, but one or more of the following has to be true of any badly designed logo:

1. It was conceived by the marketing department

2. It was designed by “committee”, meaning a consensus of several corporate members

3. It was designed by the CEO

4. It was designed by a non-pro, possibly a relative of the CEO

In my career, I’ve worked at or closely with over a dozen ad agencies and several design firms. In all cases, I’ve seen concepts dreamed up by people at corporations and small businesses alike. I’ve sat in conference rooms where these concepts were discussed, presented, and revamped countless times.

In all cases, the client had the last word. And that’s completely understandable, given that it’s their money spent on the design. And in almost all cases, the client felt they had the first—and best—word. Not understandable.

I have many stories about dealing with clients’ logos and other designs. One of my first experiences had the client insisting his logo be green because it was his wife’s favorite color. All professional designers have war stories like this.

99.999% of clients are not designers. People who have an ability to design go to design school to become good designers, learning what works in a good design and what does not work in a bad one. One is inventive, the other hokey. One makes you think, the other tries too hard to explain.

A good logo is a simple design. It says what needs to be said eloquently, without the frills added to explain it to a second-grader.

In the example above left, the design is playful. I get that, but it isn’t elite. And if that’s supposed to be a bow and arrow (ref. Cupid), the arrow is pointing the wrong way. It’s cute at best. The example at right has an image of a glove in it that’s completely unnecessary. Somebody thought it was cute.

The amount of money spent on logo design is not the issue. I’ve seen thousands of dollars thrown at already bad designs only to have them look worse. The latitude given to professional designers and design studios to conceive first and foremost is the issue.

I’ll have more installments about logo design in the near future.

New H&R Block Ads Miss Core Audience with Jon Hamm

Design is cohesion. We’ve talked about that. And advertising design on TV needs cohesive thought—a continuity—that keeps viewers tuned in.

H&R Block has been doing TV ads ever since the early ‘70s. Henry Bloch (spelling correct) started the firm with his brothers not long after World War II, when it was merely an accounting firm. But in 1955, they started doing tax preparation, and by 1972 they decided to do their first TV ads, with Henry himself appearing in them.

In 2013, H&R Block put an everyman [see my last post, “Rise of the Everyman”] on the screen touting their new bold messages. One of their own tax professionals, Richard Gartland, wearing what was to become a signature (and color-coordinated with the Block logo) green bow tie, yelling, “It’s refund season!” and later, “Get your billions, America!”

Apart from the rather avant-garde delivery from a tax man, his image tied in perfectly with the buttoned down H&R tradition. It was a brilliant move.

But according to Fallon, H&R’s ad agency, 2016 was a tough year for their client. Other tax services were making inroads, including TurboTax, the software anyone can use from the confines of his/her own home. So they decided to change course.

And that course, according to, is a bold directional change. New direction, new writing, new tagline: “Get your taxes won.” And they picked Jon Hamm to deliver it.

Thing is, Hamm had never done TV commercials. Not on camera, anyway. He’d done some voiceovers for Mercedes-Benz. You hear his words, soft and direct, and he’s OK there.

But in the Block ads, he’s lacking. He practically mumbles his lines, moving the entire time, following his blocking. But he’s quick to move and too quick to speak. We lose his delivery, and therefore the message.

It’s almost like the director was told they had to do these ads all on the first take.

And that’s too bad. We’ve lost the core H&R feel here. It’s too slick—he’s too slick—and the viewers will see it that way as well.

Rise of the Everyman

Decades ago—the ‘50s and ‘60s—television advertising was a proud institution where announcers came from radio. They’d been groomed to have excellent speaking voices, and when mainstream television came to everyone’s living room, these announcers were groomed with hair stylists and makeup to look as good as they sounded. And magazine ads selling the same products echoed this mannered style with photo insets of those same announcers.

Advertisers wanted to come off as authoritative. That aspect gave their product more credibility, more weight in the public eye. If Ed Reimers sold Allstate Insurance on TV, you were “in good hands.” If Harry von Zell sold something on TV, you bought it. If Art Gilmore touted it, it must be the best.

But by the time the ‘70s rolled around, the advertisers’ collective mind had changed. More and more TV advertisers were using a different personality: actors gleaned from the movies and TV shows. Orson Welles sold Paul Masson wines. Rodney Dangerfield appeared in Miller Lite ads. Mel Blank (the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig) hawked the American Express card by saying, “Don’t leave home without it.”

Gradually, these high-profile celebs were replaced by younger, no-name actors. They were cheaper for one, and two, they could grow on the audience by being hip—almost one of us. David Naughton promoted Dr. Pepper. Lindsay Lohan did Jell-O. John Travolta for Safeguard soap.

Other advertisers called on lesser known performers who came from comedy. Jan Miner was the Palmolive dish soap lady. David Leisure appeared as Joe Isuzu.

Soon, advertisers realized two things: they didn’t need to spend money on celebs, and also they could reach the same audience with a new kind of spokesperson—the everyman.

So came the new millennium, and with that prominent advertisers are still using actors, but somehow the pitchmen (and women) are less glamorous, more like us average people. Less intimidating. People like Paul Marcarelli (pictured at left, above, the former Verizon pitchman) selling Sprint, and Adam Lisagor (right) selling TrueCar.

Which is good. We tend to believe the everyman. Not so much a person like Tom Selleck (who was himself a former male model in cigarette ads) pitching reverse mortgages.

Which makes the advertiser and the product—more accessible. More reachable. More attainable. The actors are more…normal.

More like us.

Tenets of Good Design, a Primer—Part 2

From time to time, I’ll post entries for understanding the aims and foundations of this blog. Because design encompasses many things, I’ll break down this discussion into four parts. This entry will serve as the second in a series that explains what design is and what it isn’t.


Design is function. Function is a word that has some different connotations, but as applies to a designer, the term refers more to ease of usage.

Industrial design sounds like a term people might first associate with heavy machinery. But the term applies to anything we commonly use in everyday living, be it in a factory, your home or in a car, even a toy or cell phone. A television remote is an example: it has buttons that when pushed send signals to your TV set. And that’s a basic case of human usage of a relatively simple device.

Industrial designers look to make items that perform a function. Beyond that, they make those things happen more easily with each new model of the same item, ergonomically. If you use an item in your kitchen such as a food processor, you’re using something that took careful planning on the part of that designer.

He had to regard things as simple as the size and shape of shredded food items before looking at how he might design the blades; how they rotate and how fast they move; the size of the chamber for how much it will hold; the shape of the chute for pouring in liquid; what materials it would be made of for durability; and, perhaps any additional things like safety measures. Then he had to encompass all that into an attractive outer case that looks appealing and will sell.

Sound complicated? It is. But these are all considerations for the designer/design team.

Some things have the same function but are designed differently. Take the Norelco shaver, the first to use rotary blades instead of unidirectional ones. Or that Dyson vacuum cleaner, with its cyclonic action. Engineers designed these to perform the same functions as their predecessors, but doing them better or faster.

Automotive designers make cars and trucks, and here the stage is more familiar (and glamorous) to us as consumers because we tend to appreciate these things design-wise more than that vacuum cleaner. Maybe it’s because we regard an automobile as a work of art, something to behold merely sitting in our driveway rather than a means of transport. Of course, that new car has things on it that go outside the sphere of people moving.

Which brings us to this: that car has a system on it (Bluetooth) that allows it to communicate with your cell phone, an extension of your computer. And that brings the consumer to the interconnectivity of your daily living with the Internet of Things (such as your doorbell, your security camera(s), your heater and air conditioner, your door locks), items you use together because they literally talk to each other over the Internet.

And through all that, we have things that are designed to work together. They operate and communicate for safety and convenience. Function, expanded.

Which leads us then to harmony, but that’s another discussion.

Doesn’t That Design Look Familiar?

What makes a design yours? How about a logo? A symbol, an emblem…a trademark? Not sure here, but last time I looked, a trademark (if it has a “®” accompanying it) is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If the design or logo is not registered with that office, it can be accompanied by a “TM” (meaning trademark) or an “SM” (meaning service mark.) It’s confusing.

The deal is this: “TM” and “SM” have no legal standing. They merely suffice to make the public think that a particular logo looks legally legit. Only the “®” signifies a legally registered trademarked logo.

One thing keeps coming to my attention: what is intellectual property [IP]? Can it be infringed upon? And does anyone care? There are many facets of “design” that can be considered IP. Any design, or aspect of it, can be considered IP. A logo, certainly, but also trade dress, a term meaning the visual appearance of an entire image or package, such as a publication or edifice. That is also considered IP.

Further, if a design is registered (“®”), it’s protected as intellectual property and can be defended as such by law. Ever heard of copyright infringement? Then again, I read somewhere that an idea cannot be copyrighted; only an expression of an idea can be. And that’s sometimes for the courts to decide.

But I wonder if anyone really cares about designs being protected. It’s no secret that companies copy each other’s designs. Automotive manufacturers, packaging companies, even golfball manufacturers, all reflect each others’ editions. That’s one reason—the chief reason—we have design trends.

But it sometimes shows up in the oddest of circumstances, as in the above images. I’m not saying these are direct copies of each other, but in doing design for the marketplace, shouldn’t companies and their design firms be more aware of who they might unintentionally be copying?

What do you think?