Design: The Illusion of Drama

My new mantra for design is this: the sum of all parts must assume the appearance of drama, but each individual part must itself remain aloof from said drama. As I’ve discussed this with friends and other designers/artists, it seems to pass the must-align-with-other-rules-of-art law pretty respectably.

For the sake of your brain (while reading this rant), drama is anything overboard, trendy, saturated—or whatever else you’d like to call it.

Lone Rider

Earlier this year, I wrapped up a freelance job for local startup Lone Rider. I had a sit down with Veldon (the founder) where he expressed that he wanted a detailed motorcycle, some tough looking text, and the ability to scale it down onto a business card. My initial reaction was: tell him it can’t be done. But then I thought: good design is problem solving. Veldon had a problem, and he was asking me to fix it. So I decided to give it a try.

One of the first thumbnails that impressed me kinda looked like an eyeball. As I tried to recreate it as a vector I realized that I could pull off the illusion of those dramatic eyeball slopes without actually having such dramatic curves.

By the end of the project, I had still retained that curve (as you can see), but at a much more gentle slope. I didn’t need that kind of drama to be placed on the word “lone”. Enough emphasis (drama) was showing through size, proximity, and texture.

This is the primary difference between decorative typefaces like Buttermilk, and classic typefaces like Gotham. I’m not going to be so subjective as to say that one is better than the other, but that one represents drama in each letterform, and one represents drama within an entire body of text. Each has the capacity to work, beautifully, in the proper context. Alone, maybe “lone” would have needed some more curves. But in context even the most gentle changes can drive the whole piece overboard.

A Question of Emphasis

Sometimes the issue is simply lack of training. Simple design is not the product of a simple design process or a simple state of mind. Take emphasis, for example. Emphasis is a crucial principle in well constructed art, with many complex elements available to form it. Had I not been forced to memorize the eleven forms of emphasis in a 2-D Design class, I would probably still be using color or clarity as they are the most easily understood of the elements. This lack of education is illustrated well in amateur photography/post-processing.

Take, for example, these two (dissimilar) photos. The first one taken by a professional (Trevor Christensen), and the second one obtained by searching “blue eyes” on a Google image search.

What many of you would simply call bad photography, is actually a sound principle of emphasis used in the wrong place. Both photographers used emphasis, but chose varying techniques to accomplish it. The photographer/post-processor for “blue eyes” was trying (the best way he/she knew how) to draw emphasis on the model’s eyes. Color was the tool he/she used to get it done. He/she forced drama onto an item within the photo in order to produce drama as a whole. Trevor Christensen’s photo didn’t use this technique, but still managed to provide emphasis. He allowed for each item within his photo to remain aloof from drama, while still producing the appearance of drama.

More Than Just Art

This doesn’t just apply to work, but to all aspects of life. I often find myself staying up through the night, using those perishable, intermittent, creative juices that just decided to show up that will surely not be there in the morning. This type of dramatic thought is not as different as the kind we irresistibly and wrongfully put into our art.

Saying that a wild creative mind can’t be tamed sounds romantic, but romanticism will serve you better in your actual products than in your schedule.” Marli Mesibov

Or, in other words: quit wasting your time with all that dramatic scheduling, creative juice, not feeling creative right now, and waiting for inspiration type talk and get to work. Don’t waste your day away, waiting for something to hit you. Carve that drama out of your speech and lifestyle so that simplicity can abound. Treat your profession and your person the same way you should your art.

Conclusion

I’ll say again, simple design is not the product of a simple design process. It’s not easy to produce a piece that is striking, interesting, entertaining, or breathtaking and still remain free of producing a design that is trendy. This is true in all walks of life. Work takes work—and the reward for staying free of trends or drama is certainly worth it. So, get to work.

Part 3: The Typographic Law Paradigm

This post is part three of three in an attempt at explaining where our culture stands with type and where I think it yet has tremendous room for growth.

Friend and frequent collaborator, Trevor Christensen, recently asked me to help with his logo. I really wanted to compliment his taste for design (which can be summed up in three words: black, white, and serif) while still representing his personality (also three words: J.Crew, compassion, and commitment). As addressed in the last blog post, I always begin my typographic pursuits (in this case a logotype) by sketching characters that have the appropriate rhythm, then I digitize the characters and continue from there. In some of the early stages of the logo’s development, Trevor forwarded one of my drafts to a friend who gave this rather appropriate evaluation:

“Hmm. I like the st ligature and maybe the vo one. I’m not sold on the rest. Granted, the st ligature is the only traditional ligature in the group, so maybe I’m just conservative with regard to my ligatures. […] Plus, ligatures are rare enough in modern typography that I’d say even a standard ligature indicates a degree of thought and care. I just think there are so many of them it makes the logo look like weird half-cursive.”

This concern regarding standard or traditional ligatures echoes many of the sentiments I mentioned in The Revision Paradigm in regards to typographic creativity. Modern typographers do, certainly, look backward as they include glyphs in their typefaces but by no means limit the appearance or selection of them based on what has been done before them.

In fact, the st ligature Trevor’s friend referred to is not standard, but discretionary. One of the only ligatures, widely, recognized as standard (today) is the ampersand (and even it comes with massive, sometimes on the side of ridiculous, variation). One of the most opportunistic characteristics of ligatures is that the standard ligature has almost lost its purpose. Standard ligatures were born out of a need to save time, and occasionally enhance readability. Nowadays, with letterpress becoming a fine art, it not only doesn’t save time but, more often than not, takes extra time.

Traditionally, If you were a typesetter, a ligature could drastically reduce your workload. Instead of reaching for two pieces of lead type, you only had to reach for one. Using a ligature now requires looking it up as a glyph or (when using a program that supports ligatures) allowing it to adjust automatically as you type the two letter-pairs in a word. The latter may require more work, in the end, if you wish to adjust the tracking.

The Uncanny Valley

So, as the logo developed, Trevor’s friend, who’s previous advice was certainly not wrong, offered another comment regarding the logo’s progression.

“Huh. I actually like it with even more ligatures. Maybe you just hit the ligature uncanny valley, before.”

This friend, without realizing it, was pointing out the chief, noticeable, difference between a traditional/standard ligature and a discretionary ligature. I’m a discretionary ligature kind of guy. I don’t typeset; I’m not trying to save time by using a single glyph instead of two; rather, I’m trying to develop a logo that has a self terminating rhythm. I’m the perfect candidate. I only use ligatures in an attempt to create a logotype that feels like it ends where it began.

Much like any artist I certainly look for inspiration as I try to find a good rhythm for an identity, but let no rules or standards impede on my ability to produce. As mentioned before, more important than following every rule or guide is ensuring that each design begins with a clean slate. Guides and grids will come in handy later (don’t get me wrong), but not until a good rhythm has been established.

Conclusion

Genres, revisions, and ligatures are just a few of many things that ensure the depth and future of typography. I hope these concepts can provoke a paradigm change from assuming type is stiff, done, or old into being excited for what type has yet been unseen, unread, and unappreciated. I’m not completely convinced these three articles exclusively apply to typographic art.

Part 2: The Revision Paradigm

This post is part two of three in an attempt at explaining where our culture stands with type and where I think it yet has tremendous room for growth.
Rarely do I find a singular font that comes custom suited to represent my client’s image.

Many of my friends, and designers who I admire, have found that the digitized typefaces available to them are not enough. Or rather: the library currently available is not sufficient for the demands of a growing economy of identities. This has provided room in the market for companies like the Lost Type Co-op and required that all designers have the skill-set to become amateur typographers.

As I mentioned in the last post, I feel that each designer has the opportunity and responsibility to go beyond a simple typeset and into the finer details. Brands, start ups, and identities are popping up at an unstoppable pace and designers are jumping at the opportunity to give each one its own fresh look.

A Few Good Fonts

As everyone seeks for freshness, the question is asked time and time again, “what is the best font?” Though, admittedly, I do have a few typefaces that I turn to more often than others, I’d like to propose that the better question is, “what is the best rhythm (look/aesthetic/whatever word skins your snake) for this branding?” Asking which font is best reminds me of the first text book I’d ever seen about type (http://www.thinkingwithtype.com/) which pitched A Few Good Fonts on the inside of the cover. I was immediately compeled to memorize the names of those fonts as if I would never be a successful graphic designer without them.

The few good fonts at right were my old standbys at the time. I truly believed they were timeless classics, and rarely (if ever) used anything else. As I began to branch out into less modernist/clean looking typefaces, I found that I longed for alternate letters/glyphs. I modified a few letters (turning them into unique ligatures) which eventually lead to sketching up a sans-serif typeface that I felt was truly my own. I remember looking down at my sketchbook and thinking: how did this happen?

Here I sit, many favorite fonts later, with two custom typefaces completed, wondering why it hasn’t been this way all along. I’m still rather naive to the complexities of typography, so I’m hesitant to suggest that there is a better or worse way to learn it all. I am, however, willing to suggest that if you want to be successful at understanding typography and at developing truly unique and specific identities you’ll need to eventually go beyond simply revising a typeface.

This is the revision paradigm: select a good looking typeface and modify it according to your needs. This paradigm, though great when you’re learning typography, will lead to repetitive looking identities and passionless work. I propose that, instead, letterforms be sketched out organically, and refined eventually, the same way any illustrator or fine artist will brainstorm. Begin with thumbnails or ideas, pursue specific thumbnails, ink them, digitize them, and hand adjust them in Illustrator. If you still end up with something looking like one of your favorite fonts: so be it! Perhaps that typeface really was the correct choice all along. The point is that you got to that conclusion with your head in the right place.

May Your Mind Always be the Creative Master

Don’t be surprised that this conclusion is a little anti-climactic. This paradigm is more about the scaffolding than it is about the structure.

When developing a website for my mom’s fourth grade class I sketched up a little logotype to put in the header. I thought it looked good on paper, but it lost a lot of value when I digitized it. I spent many hours trying to bring the life back into the letterforms (the product of which is the middle logo) but eventually concluded that Lobster had much of the hearty look I was trying to represent (logo furthest to the right).

If I had started with Lobster, the appearance that Pablo Impallari had so delicately fine tuned would have dominated my own creative needs. Therein is the flaw of the revision paradigm. Starting with a few good fonts is not starting with a blank canvas. Revising my awful looking digitized logo with characters from Impallari’s Lobster was the right move, but not until sufficient time had been given for me to develop the rhythm that I knew best represented my mom’s teaching style.

These are the questions you must ask yourself:

  1. What rhythm is best for my client?
  2. Am I starting with a blank canvas?

The correct answer to these questions will help bring the passion and creativity back into your work, and help demonstrate the large opportunity for growth in our outlook on type.

Typography: The Best is Yet to Come

My wife, Claire, and I just recently moved. A neighbor came over to meet us and we began discussing career paths, schooling, and hobbies. Eventually we got on the topic of typography. This new neighbor was shocked that I have a passion for typography because he was under the impression that the best of the art had already passed us. I tried to explain why I disagreed, but fell short of my goal and the conversation ended unsatisfactorily. This post is part one of three in an attempt at explaining where our culture stands with type and where I think it yet has tremendous room for growth.

“…the ongoing proliferation of type shows no sign of abatement; if anything, the complexity of the modern world encourages continued growth.” – Karen Cheng, Designing Type

I recently read a quote about web design that I feel like very appropriately applies to digital typefaces.

“It’s time to throw out the rituals of the printed page, and to engage the medium of the web and its own nature.” – John Allsopp

There are three typographic paradigms that I’ve found people have because of improper education or a poor introduction to the nature of digital typefaces. In an attempt to minimize the frequency of these encounters, I’ll present each paradigm, attempt to dispell it, and replace it with the hope and optimism that I see for the future of this beautiful art. Along the way, we can “throw out a few rituals” remaining from the days of letterpress, and engage in an entirely new view of such an aged art.

Part 1: The Genre Paradigm

Most of my work (lately) has been for a company in Springville, Utah, where I was hired for a rebrand but have stuck around as their art director with a team of designers and photographers. One of owners of the company recently asked that I send a “logo file” to a print shop down the street. She hurriedly explained, “I tried to tell him (the print shop employee) to just use the big tall font, but he insisted that I email him a .PDF or .AI file.” Rather than wanting to precisely portray the identity, my manager expected any font within the genre would suffice.

Just a few months prior, while rebranding the company, I had spent many weeks developing a custom titling font for this company. Not to sound like the girlfriend who isn’t getting the attention she deserves for recently getting her hair cut, but I was surprised by this owner’s inability to recognize the significance of something specifically unique. Lately this kind of font genre misunderstanding, where any “big tall font” will suffice, is becoming more and more common. Much like my new neighbor, this manager thought that all of typography’s mysteries have long since been unraveled. The big tall font was made long ago, and there’s nothing I can do to improve upon it.

“Custom typography is an excellent way of ensuring the visual identity you’re creating will be unique to your client.” – Jon Stapp

An Old Fight: Helvetica Vs Arial

If I may, I’d like to use that interaction to illustrate some of the dangers of this paradigm. A typeface is not its height, nor its curves, nor its width, but rather the sum of many small parts. This was the mistake Monotype made in the development of Arial. Arial certainly matches Helvetica in genre, but will never stand the test of time that Helvetica has.

You might ask, “What don’t designers like about the diagonal terminal strokes and legs, rounded bowls, and fuller counters in Arial?” They’d love for you to believe that they’re actually that attentive.

As a designer there really is no time to individually examine each feature on every font bought. All they have time to know is that when the type is laid down, Helvetica always looks better than Arial. How many designers could tell the differences between Rockwell and Museo Slab, in quick passing? Very few. This Genre Paradigm is certainly at the forefront in misunderstanding the breadth and depth of typography. Typography becomes enormously oversimplified when each typeface can be summed up as a genre.

Let me try to further push the issue using three similar identities: Pinterest, Path, and The Phillies. Each has an icon of a singular script (genre alert!) P, a white and red color scheme, and more specifically an overlapping back terminal on the P counter.

Somehow, each logo is distinguished and each P is unique. They are not interchangeable even to the most uninformed viewer.

Herein is the beauty that typography claims as her own. Each character carries more than the burden of speech, the character of genre, and the form of handwriting. These days, each character becomes a part of the identity. The subtle curves of the P for Pinterest carries the weight of an entire identity based on pins. The curvy, yet consistent and precise, appearance of the P for Path is responsible for reminding its users of life, and activity, and drawing them back and be faithful to the app. Finally, the P for Phillies stands a little bolder, with terminals that hint on the side of blackletter and remind its fans of America’s long history with baseball.

No longer are we bound by the plates available at the local printing shop. Each designer has the opportunity and responsibility to go beyond a simple typeset and into the finer details. This alone speaks for a nearly infinite opportunity for growth in our outlook on type.

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