Type Design: Dancing With The Stars

      

              

I guess this will serve as another of my type nits, but so be it. Type design is one of my pet subjects. Back in design school when I learned about typography and how, in a good type design, letterforms interact with one another, that fascination never left.

So, like in a recent column when I compared TV news programs’ mastheads, here I am again chewing up another.

I don’t know why a high profile television show can’t hire a decent type designer. They can hire a good host (Tom Bergeron) and co-host (Erin Andrews), and the top dancers in the world. But the producers of the show must be largely ignorant of type design. Either that or they had rushed this through at the last minute and just left it the way it was.

Let’s look at the main image, top left, followed by the graphic version. The designer used Helvetica LT Standard Black, a well-used font, but not really a premier font for any kind of distinguished design. It’s too mundane for a show like this. Maybe someone at the show stipulated a very readable font for this (I can think of twenty fonts just as readable and twice as elegant), but we’ll deal with it the way it is and still improve it.

In looking at the graphic, notice how much the designer tightened up the letterspacing. That’s OK in a super bold font such as this, but also notice the inconsistencies: the differences in “an” and “in” in the word “dancing”, and also the “ar” in “stars”. These should all have the same letterspacing, yet not so.

Then look at the two main words and how they work together. I’m looking for a coupling, a relationship starting point. But there is none. And with line spacing this tight—literally overlapping—this makes letterform relationships more obvious, or not. Notice also that “stars” is slightly larger in point-size than “dancing”, although I’m not certain just why that is. It does not help the design.

I have solutions in row 2, and a more embellished solution at the end.

Image Intensity and Anxiety

      

Design is all about organization. Priority in that organization is paramount, because the designer needs to set about where the attention lies in an orderly fashion. Almost like the way a movie unfolds before your eyes, that order is necessary to reveal which comes first in the story.

But in the case of some areas in our daily lives, we come across cacophony. Noise. And that noise can be seen quite readily at what they used to call the newsstand, or today, at the cash register of any retail food store. The magazines on sale here are like a carnival, where the barkers are all yelling for your attention to get into the ring toss and win your partner a stuffed animal.

The Us Magazine at left is typical of fan magazines’ throwing everything at you right on the front cover. Hurry, buy it now to get the lowdown on your favorite stars’ latest anguish. Or wedding. Or life lesson. But you have to buy it now. That’s what the publishers will hope you do.

For me, this poses a slight uptick in my blood pressure. From a design standpoint, this frantic assemblage of information can barely squeeze onto the 8″ x 10.5″ confines. It’s all yelling at you in yellow and pink headlines to convey the things you just have to have in your mental library, immediately. The casual observer will glance at it and not know what to make of all the fuss.

Back in 1974, People Magazine came out, a new kind of fan magazine. With Mia Farrow on its first issue, it was designed with one simple image relating to the featured article inside. All the other articles in the issue were listed on the cover, but without photos. The designers felt that simplicity was enough to carry the attention of the buyer. And they were right. Those designers could still see the art involved in making news.

People Magazine no longer looks as elegant as this. It looks more like Us Magazine.

And then we have the example at right. It’s not a fan magazine, but you get my drift. This is a relatively recent issue of Golf Digest, which of course feels like a comparative breath of fresh air.

With the explosion of the Internet, Facebook and Instagram, you wonder how these fan magazines can keep up with the constant barrage of attention-seeking news blasts on the ‘Net and television. Well, this is how they at least try.

The difference is that—with TV—you can turn it off. At the checkout line, it’s in your face.

How Does a Thought Become an Idea?

How does a thought become an idea? No, they’re not the same thing, not in design. A thought is just a few passing synapses in the brain, whereas an idea, a real process in which we apply a thought to a solution, now that’s something else.

Each of us has a mind and we all have thoughts running through our brains every day, all day long. And those thoughts are an amalgam, a mixture, of our experiences tinged with an imagination. The imagination here is what begins to separate one person with design capability from the rest of us, in various degrees. A designer can harness that imagination and channel it to see into the realm of design solutions. So the real difference between a designer and everyone else is that a designer can control that product of experience and imagination and make a thought come alive graphically.

All of us have heard the expression, “I can’t draw a straight line.” Most designers can’t either, but what they can do is convey a graphic idea, a plan to map out a graphic solution. I’ve known many art directors who can’t draw, but what makes them valuable is that they see the possibilities in their mind and can speak to those who can draw, or otherwise make the solutions come to life.

And there are as many ideas out there as are designers, packed with the experiences of life—their environments, their passages in growing up, their friends and acquaintances, things they’ve done, places they’ve visited, personal interests, their education. Like painters, they each have a way of seeing the world through the lens of their experiences. There are countless paintings out there in the world done by countless painters, and each canvas is literally a depiction of what that painter sees. Sure, each exhibits a style, a technique in application of the paint, but it’s all flavored with that painter’s way of seeing.

And designers are no different. Here the differences among designers may be more subtle, but the differences are there nonetheless. The thing is, each designer is constrained only by the limits of his/her imagination. The more experience a designer can bring to the fore, the more imagination he/she can use to bring about successful designs.

The above examples show differences in design solutions. Each shows a container with a built-in handle to make the container easier to use. But other than the additional fact that both have a cap that doubles as a measuring device, the similarities really begin to fall away. The colors, bottle shape and contour, the label—all are different. Both are successful solutions: they convey the idea of cleaning and freshness, otherwise abstract concepts.

Note that in neither example does the label read that it’s laundry detergent, however. Maybe the designs themselves are good enough visually to say it.

 

 

Observations on Type Design

    

I love a good type design. What I don’t understand is why they don’t appear more frequently.

So this subject may be a recurring one.

Above are several type designs from national TV news programs. Most are run-of-the-mill designs, practically ignored by everyone in any walk of life. But to a designer, only one of them hits the mark of being an example of typographical thinking on the part of the one who designed it.

In doing type designs, one has to consider a few things about the type itself: 1) the font chosen for the design; 2) the shape of the letterforms; and 3), of course, the impact you want to impart with the overall design. Notice that I said “letterforms”.

In studying typography, any good school will teach just what is important in type design. We can go back and study the history of fonts, who designed them and for what purpose, the processes used to print them, etc. But what’s important more than anything is appreciating the shapes of those pieces of type: a lowercase “g” in Garamond Bold is not the same as a corresponding “g” in Universe Bold. They are the same letter, yes, but not the same letterform. The letters here are different shapes, something a good type designer cannot—or shouldn’t ever—ignore.

Another thing a good type designer should not ignore is that words themselves—groupings of those letterforms—are shapes themselves. And in design, the interplay of shapes is important. Their size, their placement and proximity to one another—all important considerations.

Let’s look at each of the above. “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”  is just an OK design. That black ABC circle is like a big punctuation mark preceding the rest of the design. The designer tried to make “this week” come together by fitting “this” between the left edge of the “w” and the stem of the “k” in “week”. The font chosen for “this week” is not refined enough for a high profile show such as this. It’s a stark design overall, and I suppose the red, white, and blue are somewhat rally points to say that this is an American political news show, which it is. It tries real hard. I’ll give it a C+.

Next is “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”. Pretty plain, when you look at the placement of the words. The words “Situation Room” are larger than the rest—which is good—but the design has nothing going for it, so the designer relies on embellishments to the design by adding a slight chrome look to the letterforms along with a little 3D depth, then adding stars, and setting it against a background of a flattened image of the earth. Of course, the actual situation room is in the White House, but this show likens itself to that, so the image shown here aligns to that global importance and perspective. That’s just branding. But the type design portion here falls short. The design does have a tightness of assembly, which is good. So this gets a B.

Then we have “Anderson Cooper 360°”. I saw this and winced. I’m thinking right away that the “360°” in the name should’ve afforded the designer a lot of design possibilities, but I looked at several iterations of this design among the ones shown on my Google search, and they all have nothing inventive going with that angle. There’s just three “words” here, and look what the designer did with them: “Cooper” aligns to the right on “Anderson”, but then “360°” is centered on “Cooper”. Really? That’s the extent of it, and it’s not well put together. This gets a C+.

Next up is “Face the Nation”, and this one, despite having only three words again, has a certain alignment among its three parts that works only slightly better than the previous one. The font is OK—it’s plain and very readable—and the type spacing is OK, but it’s that the word “the” is stacked that drives me nuts. Words are meant to be read from left to right (in the vast majority of the world, and certainly in English-speaking countries), and not from top to bottom. You see it every now and then, but at least here it’s only three letters, so it’s not a mortal sin. But the designer didn’t lock it up very well by making those stacked letters fall short of the height of the letter “E” right next to it. This gets a B.

“Meet the Press” is nice in that it does lock up well among its parts. The shapes come together well, marrying the NBC peacock into that otherwise negative space upper-right. The rest is just OK. A-.

The last one takes the top prize among these type designs, and it does it without any frills. It has a tiny embellishment that it doesn’t really need, but that curvilinear contour that shows up in the “11th” is picked up from the background. The main image has everything a good, solid type design should have. And it locks up together well: the shapes of those words fit together like building blocks. And the emphasis is where it needs to be: “11th” is the largest assembled part, with one extra variable—its red color. It doesn’t even need that, but it does make it more noticeable on TV. A+.

You can always tell a good type design right away, because it works all by itself without any outside help from flashy backgrounds, shiny stars, or even motion.

Where Has the Art Gone?

   

Look at the images above. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?

These images are all fruit crate labels, all made during the golden age of illustration, between 100 and 140 years ago. So this will serve as a history lesson of sorts.

During the last twenty years of the 19th century, America was beginning to perfect the marketing of fruits and vegetables, especially to areas of the country where they were hard to get. Small canneries and growers in California and Florida began to merge into associations and getting agreements with the transcontinental railways to ship their goods across the country.

All the crates holding the veggies and fruits had labels like these. And they were printed using color lithography, still in its relatively primitive stages. Color labels were expensive and because of that, they were used over and over again. A crate in good condition with a label was nothing to be discarded.

By the end of the Great War, printing technology became much more advanced and mechanized, allowing the printers to gang the images and save the associations a lot of money per label cost.

As the systems of getting the crates to the markets evolved, so did the businesses grow. Associations became corporations. For example, the California Fruit Canners Association eventually became Del Monte.

Then during the Great Depression, consumers began to want more information about what they were buying and had more health concerns about the food. With the government stepping in with regulations and listing nutritional values, the art suffered, producing a somewhat less artistic image.

Adding to that, offset printing came of age in the 40s and label manufacturers were now using photography, replacing the illustrator.

The rest is history (I hate saying that) because all that stuff you just read also applied to every other area of printed advertising and package artwork.

Art will always be art. But will it ever have the use like what we see here? No. Not on this planet.

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like back then? A century ago, those illustrators did the entire images you see here, lettering included. He was also the art director.

Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities

What makes a design—of anything—more enticing than others among a given group? Ever think of that?

The reasons behind a decision to buy something over another, at least at first, is subliminal on the part of the individual. That buyer reacts to something about the appearance—the design—because it reflects certain associative memories in that person’s brain. If that image evokes a bad memory, he/she will be turned off at the sight of the design. If it evokes a good memory, he/she will like it.

We all have that associative circumstance, ever becoming a pre-condition with life and experience going forward, as we encounter the sight of new things, new designs. And the more we experience the influential stimuli around us, the more we judge objects by their appearance. It’s very personal. That’s why we have so many different designs in any one arena. And it explains how non-objective we all become over time.

In fact, with the media blasts of TV and movies—especially action movies—we actually become biased without thinking about it.

The designers themselves all have the same influences as they go about drawing up new products. And automobiles are certainly at the forefront of exhibiting that influence. I continually pick automotive design for examples in this column because cars and SUVs are so omnipresent. Everybody sees them whether they want to or not. I also think that automobiles reflect futuristic design thinking because auto manufacturers want their designs to consistently be on the cutting edge of design.

So futuristic design thinking has to come from science fiction. And that’s been going on probably since before Dick Tracy was using his two-way wrist radio. Star Trek picked that thinking up in the phasers, and the iPhone picked that up in several steps further.

So it follows that automotive designers use what they see in that science fiction (action movies being the driving force here) to redraw their designs. It’s art imitating art: comic book artwork defining what we actually use here and now in our daily lives. Look at the above examples to see what I mean.

The advent of transformers, predators, and alien imagery culled from the likes of apocalyptic movies like the Road Warrior series and alien creature features make for an interesting, if not encouraging, design future in this area.

Automobiles never looked like this decades ago, because we never had these futuristic action movies decades go.

Tenets of Good Design, Part 4

   

Design is harmony. In this article, my final lesson in the design tenets series, I’m using food packaging for the examples.

Food packaging is ideal for his exercise because food packaging, across the board, offers up the best parameters for the use of design elements in almost every category: a photograph of the product (as the consumer will use it), the brand name of who made it (or is distributing it), and the shape of the package itself.

In the print industry, what you see is pretty much what you get. All the elements on the page or, in this case, package, is static. There are no moving parts to navigate to like on the web. Easy to design to and with.

It should be easy, this assemblage of parts. All the designer has to do is tie it all up into a neat design, something easy to read (good type design), easy to see what the product is (image large enough for appetite appeal), and easy on the eyes (having harmony among the elements). But it’s important, in the grocery aisle, to have the product readability—the type explaining what it is—apparent enough that the consumer knows what he/she is buying.

Nothing to it, right? I mean, you have a designer with good design skills, so why is it that there’s so much bad design out there?

Let’s take a look at some examples. We really don’t have to look far among the six I’ve chosen to find the ones with the harmony we’re looking for. But let’s go ahead and have fun picking ’em apart anyway.

The Birds Eye Steamfresh package isn’t the worst in this bunch, but it’s close. This is a bad design because the consumer cannot see what he/she is buying. Oh sure, there’s a big plate of food there, but everything telling us what actually is there on the plate is scrunched into that small green block on the right. Here, the marketing people feel their product line, Steamfresh, is way more important than what’s in the package. Grade: D.

Next is the Push Pops. Still not the worst, but it’s still terrible. What’s in the box? The Push Pops brand name is too large and imposing, literally pushing all the other elements to the sides of the package front. The product is large enough to see, okay (and why do we have a goat at right?), but look at the flavor panel, a tiny orange thing at center bottom: with the type being white, you can hardly read it. Grade: D–.

Now we have two really bad examples. I’ve never been a fan of Healthy Choice’s design. The older designs have this exclamation point as a design element, badly chosen because the size of the parts inhibits the usage and readability of anything you put inside. Another example of the marketing people being so in love with the product line that the readability of what’s inside the box suffers. The newer designs aren’t much better (“Orange Zest Chicken”). This design is so crowded, reading the box is a chore. Grade on both: F.

Now we come to the winners. The McCain package is a classic example of simplicity and harmony: logo on top and not too large; “Sweet Potato Wedges” large and easy to read (although not certain just why “Wedges” is slightly smaller); and finally, a good clean photo of the food. Grade: A.

In the Stahlbush package, the blue ribbon (it doesn’t have a photo of the food and doesn’t really need it). A refreshing design here: logo at top left (and not too large), followed by a unitary element that encompasses an image of the food inside with an explanation of what it is and all its attributes. A photo isn’t needed because everyone knows what blueberries look like. But even if the marketers decided to use a photo instead, the design would still be as good. This design has a lot going for it. It has readability in all its parts and it has good harmony. Nothing overpowers anything else. It’s easy on the eyes and still informative for the consumer. Grade: exceptional.

Design fundamentals say that there should be a dominant portion in any good design, followed by the subordinate partners in that design, to have a good working flow of attention and overall design feel. But in the real world of practical design—where readability and product recognition are paramount, you can’t have the consumer search the package for what he/she is actually buying. You can’t stuff that information into a small panel with thin or non-contrasting type explaining what it is.

It’s a matter of balance. Show everything you need to show, just don’t have any parts shout their importance while crowding out everything else. Try to look at it with consumer’s eyes. After all, you are one.

 

Observations on Perception, Part 1

 

This entry will be the first in a secondary series about perception in advertising and how it plays an important part in what makes things sell.

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You know, the fashion and cosmetic industries have something going for them that only a few other realms in the ad world are recognizing. But not all of those areas can actually use that something and have it come off nearly as well. It’s that British accent they use to promote their products.

Why is that? What is it that advertisers are trying to do, having their voiceovers done by a Brit? Look at this:

  • The Geico gecko is voiced by actor Jake Wood, a Brit
  • Cottonelle toilet paper is voiced by English actress Cherry Healy
  • Orbit gum is voiced by English-born Vanessa Branch
  • Victoria’s Secret ads voiced by Elizabeth Sastre, also a Brit

According to Brian Wheeler, writing for BBC News in Washington, D.C., fantasy and science fiction on television is best enjoyed by viewers when the predominant accent in those shows is British. He points out that the accent is “sufficiently exotic” to put the mind of the viewer in a different reality.

But if that transports the viewer—at least temporarily (remember, we’re discussing perception here)—to a different reality, how does that thinking translate to TV commercials?

Somehow, in this country anyway, we’ve come to the point of making subliminal judgments about social status, based not so much on what is said, but who says it and just how it is said—what accent is used. British accents, according to polls, are judged to reflect intelligence. That same commercial for Victoria’s Secret just wouldn’t be the same if delivered in either a Mississippi or Boston accent.

French is too provincial and Spanish not high-brow enough. None of this is based on statistics. It just is. Apparently, the fashion and cosmetics industries decided this was the way to go. It works for them. And for them, it translates to viewers that they are getting the best for their money. And that perception translates then to dollars, because that’s all part of the packaging aspect. And they can charge more.

And so Jaguar and Land Rover use British voiceovers. Of course, those are British products. It only makes sense here. But now Lexus is doing it, and that looks and sounds foolish, because Lexus is made by Toyota, a Japanese manufacturer.

Who are they kidding?

 

It’s Time to Change it Up

   

One of the things you learn in design school is not to fall in love with your designs. Complacency is not an attribute you want in the design world, anyway. You don’t want your designs to look the same all the time. You want to keep it fresh.

Unless, of course, you’re running a series of ads within a mode of thought. The famous series of ads for the Volkswagen Beetle, running in magazines in the 1960s, was the brainchild of Bill Bernbach’s team at DDB Advertising in New York. But that ad campaign stands alone in the pantheon of series advertising. There hasn’t been another like that in almost 60 years.

It was named the number 1 ad campaign of all time in Advertising Age’s 1999 The Century of Advertising.

What made that campaign so special was—

1) it didn’t take itself seriously

2) it didn’t make a glamour puss of its product

3) it was simple

One of the things I mention in my Tenets of Good Design series is simplicity. If you make an ad simple, your message gets pared down. And the simpler you make it, your message gets closer to bare bones. Stark. Plain. And—easy to read, understand, and best of all, easy to remember.

That’s what DDB knew in the late 1950s leading up to a new decade, that tumultuous time in America, the 1960s. That time saw a complete change in everything we experienced in this country: movies and music came of age, along with staggering political, racial, and global issues that altered the way news was reported.

And amid that backdrop, DDB played it backwards. With all the complexity and turmoil in that era, DDB played it simple and steady. That’s what made those VW ads stand apart.

But those ads didn’t run forever. Not the way some TV ads run these days. Repetition breeds boredom, and that leads to annoyance to the viewers. The advertisers whose ads are shown above have become complacent leaving these ads running far beyond their value.

They need to come up with something new. Because they’re not at all memorable. Maybe what they need to do is to stop trying so hard to be memorable.

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.

Please.