Fox News is obviously terrible. I don’t even mean ideologically – I can handle people I disagree with, and it’s okay by me that they have their own network. What I don’t understand is the capacity my conservative friends have for being yelled at by assholes. Even if they’re assholes you agree with, they’re still assholes, and I don’t get why you’d invite those giant yelling heads into your living room.
But, red or blue, one thing we can all agree on is how shitty this type salad of election results is:
Even the type here speaks of a kind of assholish disregard for the audience. Fox is a giant, profitable company, disseminating information to millions of people. You’d think they’d at least consider the look and feel, but I suspect they leave it to some junior designer who knows how to work the software, or something. I can’t believe any thought went into any of this.
Six typefaces, approximately 9 jillion fades and bevels and whatnot, the whole thing is the visual equivalent of Bobby Brady playing drums:
Whatcha gonna do?
(Apparently, put as many ugly stripes, fades, and swooshes on your car as possible, and see just how far they can stretch a cheesy font they downloaded for free. Because, you know: integrity and service).
Drink it in. Drink in the cheesy video game design aesthetics of these bastions of American law enforcement. Here are some more, before I get into what I think it all means:
Drink ‘em in and maybe weep for my burning eyes, having to look at all of these fades and swooshes and stripes and swoops and all the colors of resplendent of junior college mascots and Trapper Keepers from the ’80′s. And so you don’t think I’m cherry-picking the badness, feast your eyes on even more:
Are your eyes bleeding yet? Of course they are. Because that stuff is just terrible. But, here again, my point isn’t to carp about shitty graphic design. My point here is about the aesthetics of authority – can we communicate authority without authoritarianism? – and about the process of design approval – why are police departments commissioning and approving these graphics?
To take the second point first: I wonder if there’s too much emphasis on personal choice in America. It seems strange to me that part of the process of designing emergency vehicles is making something that some police department official or town councilman thinks is “cool.” All of the above graphics are (ham-fisted) attempts at making something “cool”: fast, aggressive, graphics that would be at home in a video game or a sports arena. Because, presumably, the people making the aesthetic choices, the clients, here, are at home in the worlds of sports and video games. This is where choice becomes untenable, in my opinion. Cops have a tremendous amount of power to arrest, detain, tase, shoot, kill citizens. The problem with police is not a lack of power or machismo or aggression. The problem is a surfeit of all of that. These graphics, I think, exacerbate that kind of aesthetic of aggression. And these graphics, moreover, are chosen for precisely that reason.
Now, as a graphic designer for a company that provides emergency vehicle graphic packages, you probably have very little leeway in steering the aesthetic conversation away from that aggression to perhaps embody values more appropriate to the police (values like responsibility, citizenship, respect (for the policed and for the law), and tradition). Chances are, you’re some junior designer getting yelled at by the asshole who bought the vinyl cutting machines and has a cousin who does the purchasing for the county and is your boss. So the boss is trying to please the cops (who have no training in graphic design) or the politicians (ditto) and who himself has no training in graphic design, and you the designer has probably very limited experience with design. So we end up with the above crap.
Why is that the process? Why is the process in place on that produces the so often shitty values we see emblazoned on the sides of police cars? It’s not good for the policed, and I can’t imagine it’s good for the police, either. Just look at these next three and imagine what you’d think would be going through your head as you walked toward these cars at the start of your shift:
Those three are all obviously terribly ugly. But more than that, they’re communicating what is, I think, a completely misplaced patriotism. The message is that the police are true Americans, and anyone who runs afoul of the police officer (whether ultimately guilty or not) is somehow unAmerican. That is adding a vector that is unnecessary and, I would say, dangerous. Police can take your freedom and your life – they shouldn’t be engaged in communicating this kind of aggressive jingoism. Especially a kind of aggression that is inherently prejudicial against those whom the police are policing. In other words, all of us. They should be working for us, and within our own communities; not working as some kind of agents for the true America (and that’s just those three up there – the other messages are, to my mind, even worse).
You might say that it’s just stickers on a car, but bear in mind that the cops asked for, and got, these graphics. They are communicating this needlessly aggressive binary because they want to. They shouldn’t do it. And more than that, they shouldn’t want to in the first place.
So, what should we do? In my fantasy world that’s not filled wall-to-wall with ideological idiots, design would be a part of government, not farmed out to the lowest bidder (i.e., the least experienced). But that ain’t gonna happen. Maybe we could have civilian or voluntary design review committees to offer other values to consider beyond shit like this. Because, when you have design choices made by video game-playing sports fans, you get design that looks like a cross between a terrible sports team logo and a video game cop car (as shown below, in images from the manufacturers of cop graphics):
The graphics actually make sense, if you are a cop in a fake, CGI hellscape of razor wire, dramatic lighting, and low-poly shrubs – you know, Crimeville, where we all actually live. Am I the only one outraged that this is how they sell cop cars to police departments? I probably am, but still – holy fuck.
One last point (if the above can be said to constitute a “point,” which, the jury is probably still out on that one): Another major problem – at least to the naive citizen such as your correspondent – is that there is very little difference, graphically, between real police and private security departments. We should not fear or even really heed private security – businesses should not be in the business of policing, in my opinion. And we certainly shouldn’t be confusing rent-a-cops with actual police. But they both get their graphics from the same place, and that is a problem. When cops look as cheesy and ridiculous as the doofus patrolling a K-Mart lot, we are in danger of losing respect for them, as they are in danger of losing respect for themselves. Similarly, when a security guard patrol car looks more respectable than a real cop, we’re in danger of subconsciously conferring on a private company the respect that should rightfully belong to government (meaning, to us). When those lines are blurred – which they obviously are – it makes me think that we’re already living in a dystopian future.
Which, of course, we are.
I know I’m usually complaining here (am I? it seems like I am), but here’s something great, about which I will be doing the opposite of complaining: the Bryson Apartments sign in Los Angeles.
The lettering here is not simply one of the most perfect pieces of lettering* I’ve seen in a long time, but it gets more intriguingly, inventively perfect the closer you look at it.
Okay, so here’s a drawing I created of the lettering, based on a (more or less) straight on photo of the sign.
And here’s some trenchant** analysis: First, it just feels right. That is hard enough to achieve on its own, and so I was then wondering if there’s a way to discover why it hangs together so elegantly. I have an answer, if not exactly the answer. But in digging into it, I just ended up with more and more respect for the inventiveness of the work, of the experience of the letterer, and just how much subtlety you can insert into what is, on its face, just a simple sans-serif logotype. But there is a lot more going on here than just a simple sans serif.
Off center centers:
I know that if I was doing it, I’d probably line up the centers of the B, R, Y, and S (in other words, making the S symmetrical). And that would be okay, but this is way better because f you lowered the crotch of the Y to match the intersection of the two bowls of the B, then arms of the Y end up being way too wide compared to the N, B, R, and S. Of course, you could then make the N wider (which would make sense in that it would closely match the width of the O). But if you did that, you’d want to make the B and R wider, and at that point you’d lose the overall character (this was a luxury hotel, and big fat letters wouldn’t have communicated the kind of elegance that was all over everything else).
The point of the above is that, especially when you’re doing a single word of lettering, everything affects everything else. You can’t change one letter at a time, because the letters don’t exist as discrete elements: they are parts of an integrated whole (this is what makes lettering such an intriguing puzzle to type dorks like me).
So, it’s not just the center lines (although, one last point about that – to my eye, the lower center line on the B, now slightly higher on the R, and higher still on the Y and S adds a very subtle lyrical element that is then finished by the diagonal of the N. This may or may not be intentional, but that’s the way I see it).
Harmony without uniformity:
The above image shows how the proportions of the double-decker round letters relate. A: by themselves; B: overlapping; C: with the B and R flipped to show that the proportions all relate.
This is a kind of harmony that helps pull the overall piece together – each letter contains the same proportions, though deployed in different ways (in service to the requirements of keeping the within consistent widths, as we talked about before with the Y thing). What I’ve learned from considering this aspect of the letters is that harmony can be achieved without uniformity. Bryson here shows that you can make the viewer’s eye read a consistency that is created by a much more complicated relationships than simple things like aligning the centers or making the bowls the same size†.
An O that is pure genius:
In the above illustration, the blue is the width of the letters, the green is the width of the letter spacing, and the dark green is the counter space of the O (these are not, and are not meant to be, perfectly aligned with any part of a letter, since they are meant to indicate how things are seen, not how they aremeasured, because lettering is experienced via looking at it, not measuring it).
So anyway, we’ve settled on the widths of the letters BRSN owing to the constraints of the Y. But now we’ve got that O to deal with. Basically, you’ve got two options here – make it an oblong shape the same width as the other letters, or forget about all the complicated harmonies and just make a donut†† and hope for the best. But our designer did something way better – first, the O isn’t a donut, which helps it relate better with the B, R, and S, which aren’t geometric either. But here’s the genius: he created an O with a counter space that roughly equals the letter spacing of the other letters†. He’s showing us that the negative space, the counters, can be just as useful as the positive strokes of the lettering (something we all learn in Design 101, but that few of us use so masterfully) in creating the overall harmony of the word. So in other words, this is definitely something I’m going to steal in the future.
One more comparison:
You can see here how the BR and S relate, how the non-geometric O works with the BRS, and how the Y and N hang together. And you can also see how lettering a word is not the same as creating a typeface. Jumbled like this, and without their correct letter spacing, the letters look weird and wrong. But when you put it all together, you get a masterpiece.
* even more impressive when you consider it’s been rendered in steel by a sign company, most of which are notorious for ignoring the subtleties of letterforms.
** trenchant, I say!
† it may not seem like it, but this kind of thing totally blew my mind.
†† donut = geometric circle shaped O.
If you’ve ever wondered just exactly how nerdly I sound in person, now you can find out. Yesterday I was interviewed by a very cool young woman for a very cool radio show in Kansas City. And was just tremendously honored to share the airwaves with Mr. Sull, too. Check it out on the KCUR site here. And here’s the direct link to the audio mp3.
If you like Spencerian script, and are a fan of artwork printed on smooshed up trees, have I got just the thing for you! I’m trying out the Kickstarter thing – check it out. I’ll have more updates as things progress.
Yes. It’s shit. Dogshit, if you will. But it’s more distressing than the usual dogshit because it, to me, is a harbinger of a burgeoning movement that could possibly eradicate notions of any non-dogshit design from the design conversation entirely.
What’s the concept? It’s possibly a result of academic notions of post-structuralism, deconstructionism, and semiotics*. Possibly it’s a winking (and, to my mind, snide) appropriation of unschooled design (it’s also a failure at that, since it looks like nothing more than a Yale MFA attempting raw design). Possibly it’s a publicity stunt mocking/copying the fallout from the Gap.
So, to recap, at best, it is:
- High Concept
- A Crappy Joke
- A Crappy Stunt
What it is not:
This post is not about it being a shitty logo, or shittily executed. It’s obviously both of those, and I think that’s the intent**. It’s about, in some sense, the future of design. I mentioned Yale on purpose, not just they’ve got their heads so far up their asses, aesthetically and conceptually, but because they’re such a prominent design program, that I think we’re seeing the fallout of the ass-headedness, starting with Urban Outfitters. That UO is a bad logo is kind of whatever; that it’s the first shot in a school of anti-design is more worrying.
(A side note on the snideness: theres something off-putting about a joke at the expense of “bad” designers that’s so inside that only a small clique would truly get it. This is maybe apropos for an indie band or fashion house, but it feels weirdly cruel and inappropriate for something like Urban Outfitters).
“There are too many [graphic designers], the [graphic design is] terrible, and it’s because you have been taught to have self-esteem.” – My Hero.
The Yale website is a case in point. There’s so much that’s so wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Bear in mind that this the public face of an MFA program that costs $50 grand a year. I think the primary problem is that it’s a wiki: anyone can edit it. Conceptually, that’s fine. It’s an idea. I get it. Practically, what you end up with is design-by-committee, which is never good. Good work comes from dedicated designers working with thoughtful decision-makers. When everyone has a voice (to protect their self-esteem and the idea of inclusion (versus the tyranny of ability or dedication)), you wind up with stuff that looks like this:
My problem is not necessarily with the idea. The idea could work for some clients, unschooled design can work, especially for fashion, where twee or obscure aesthetic choices can communicate subtler shit than a flyer for a used car auction. All of that is cool. And I also support school as a period of experimentation where you’re free from commercial pressures.
What’s disturbing to me is that, what if you wanted to learn how to actually design something? You go to Yale, you plunk down your dough, and you basically spend your time being encouraged to codify what you already think (not much – cats parachuting! How delightfully outré) into academic theory. Then your book is filled with ugly, stupid theory and nothing else. Because you never learned anything else.
More and more (and because of stuff like the above), I’m preferring to think of myself as a commercial artist. There are things, as a commercial artist, that I must do: speak in the client’s voice; maintain a level of professional craftsmanship; constantly improve; be self-critical. When I look at Yale’s homepage or their MFA shows† I don’t see design as I know it to be – as commercial art, as visual communication, as part of a tradition of craft. I see privilege combined with fear.
Privilege in that you’d have to be fully sponsored by your parents and therefore unconcerned with ever having to earn a living to believe that this kind of navel-gazing means something outside your Yale MFA class (and no, “green” doesn’t count††). It’s the kind of privilege that’s been so privileged, and so drenched in self-esteem, for so long that it has no idea that it’s even privileged. This may seem to be out of left field, but the kids organizing a giant pillow fight in NYC is much the same. Cute? Twee? Sure, fine. But we’re in the middle of two wars and a recession. Yet this is what we organize? This is what we communicate? Our own cuteness? Isn’t there something more substantial that we could put our minds and our efforts into? In short: Yale design is the flash mob pillow fight of graphic design.
And fear because it seems to me that these kids want to be conceptual or abstract fine artists but are afraid they can’t hack the art world. Yale MFA design seems to be a back door to that world. Which is fine as far as it goes. But it ain’t design.
And so we’ve got Urban Outfitters, as junky as a license plate, but rather than low-grade bureaucratic shit, it’s now got a conceptual imprimatur as the house style of an expensive elite institution of higher learning. We’re gaining shit design from both ends of the spectrum (high and low design), and we’re losing craft, ability, and beauty in the bargain. Welcome to shitsville, everybody.
* For a quick tour of all this junk, read some Roger Scruton. You’ll disagree with his conclusions but you’ll be enlightened by his alacrity.
** Conceptually, there’s something to that “screw the rules” idea; something to the idea of ugliness and subversion. But “I’m gonna compress the letters and apply a stupid Illustrator warp” doesn’t come up to the standard of knowing and obliterating the rules, mostly because the end result looks more like self-satisfaction than any kind of thought process.
† Take a look at these theses. I’m all for exploration, but I can’t tell what any of these projects are supposed to be without reading the explanations. Purposefully obtuse work is okay, but it just is not graphic design.
†† Green is the Medici of the new millennium – a quasi-religious aesthetic based on notions of purity and good and ideology rather than beauty (so sue me).
Watching the Series, I was struck by the resurgence of what I’d thought were Dookie ropes*, inexplicably now brightly colored and popular for some reason with baseball players.
But no. These aren’t just garish Dookies (and it’s pretty hard to garish up a Dookie**). They’re pseudoscientific claptrap, too.
From the product page:
This necklace features Phiten’s Phild processed Aqua-Titanium, which has the ability to regulate the body’s natural electric currents through cell ionization
Promotes muscle relaxation, pain and stress relief, fatigue reduction, blood circulation improvement thus helping prevent injury.
And we know this because they told us.
There’s otherwise zero scientific research to support it. Wired has a good article on it, but come on – Wired? The sports blogs I admittedly didn’t delve too deeply into seem to take it at face value, which is a bummer. Even worse is the Washington Post taking no stance whatsoever, doing no research, and generally skipping the whole journalism thing.***
It’s not just that they’re selling a nickel’s worth of whatever for 50 bucks. These things are flacked all over MLB.com, and after all the steroid outcry we immediately get this stupid shit. We’re practically begging kids to believe snake oil pitches, or at least accept them uncritically in the name of fashion. I know there’s a limit to what we can expect sports to do, especially when it comes to kids, but they do emulate the guys in the bigs, even if they don’t canonize them like they used to. But does MLB have to promote bad science? I wish they’d just have taken the claptrap off of the product descriptions. If kids want to wear ugly necklaces, fine. Ugly necklaces that actively promote stupidity is kind of enraging.
* If I were a different person, in a different life, I would wear a Dookie rope, and wear it unironically.
** Why yes, I do love saying Dookie. Dookie dookie dookie!
*** If newspapers are dying it’s because they’ve stopped doing their jobs. Seriously, if this is the Washington Post, would it matter if it was gone?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, aka brain degeneration from repeated concussions. All that and it’s boring too!
“Most CTE sufferers die from either suicides or accidental overdoses,” he says. “CTE is responsible for most, if not all, of the absurd behavior these players show.”
Most people have got to go out of their way to find truly bad examples of their particular industries. But bad graphic design is everywhere. It’s a constant and inescapable assault of horribleness, as though a nuclear bomb filled not with nuclear junk but Microsoft Word clip art exploded and now everything is covered with radioactively shitty graphics.
License Plate Design is Total Bullshit
Case in point: License plates. This collage of specialty plate graphics will make your eyes vomit, then the vomit coming out of your eyes will itself cry tears of rage. Seriously.
The kids come in for special abuse. For some reason, the only possible way to represent childhood or resilience or the future or anything relating to children is with bad computery crayon drawings done by adults that aren’t fooling anybody into thinking kids drew any of it. I’ve seen kid drawings and they don’t suck that bad.
Also handprints for some reason.
Or, of course, with a photo of a white baby. Choose life for the white babies.
But wait. There’s more. Unfortunately.
The worst offender, state-wise, however, has got to be Florida. Congratulations, Florida – you’re the worst at yet another thing. Look at that shitty lighthouse. Look at that shitty cyclist. Try not to think too hard about what the blue frowny-face means on the anti-abortion license plate (no good can come of such ruminations, trust me). And just marvel at the abyss that is that fucking NASCAR car.
The point is not just to make fun of this stuff.
The question for me is not just why we don’t hire designers and illustrators to do design and illustration work at the state level (though that is a gigantic-ass question); it’s also, why we not just put up with, but embrace, this shit. And I say shit, not because it’s cheesy or representative or kitschy (although it is all of those). But shit because it’s so badly done. We had awesomely cheesy and kitschy and figurative illustrations in the ’50′s, and they’re treasured now. This junk is just junk and will never be anything but junk.
The irony of this last image is just too rich for me. “The Arts?” Do we even know what that is anymore, when a receptionist at the DMV with some time on her hands and the Microsoft Clip Art palette open can cobble together something acceptable enough to get through whatever committees approve these clip art abominations? I’m guessing we don’t.
A better question to ask is why the professional organizations aren’t doing more to get good designers into these jobs. One can only hope that no one was paid for this shit, but even if that’s the case, we’re not getting our money’s worth. This is just visual pollution. And it’s worse than nothing at all because of its cumulative effect. Our environment is, largely, designed stuff (billboards, license plates, cars, architecture). When our environment is one of clip art junk, we’re living in junk.
How about this crazy suggestion: hire some graphic designers – because contrary to the rumors of our Champagne-soaked lifestyles of ease, some of us were hit pretty hard by the recession that hit every single other person in the country pretty hard. Designers could use the jobs, and everyone could use a break from this clip art onslaught.
When our poor, helpless billion-dollar media conglomerates such as Viacom are made to cower under the jackboots of a completely unknown fringe extremist person or two or three wielding the ultimate power of having a website, a keyboard, and fingers enough to type up empty threats on that keyboard, it’s up to the stronger among us Americans to come to the aid of our weaker fellow citizens.
If a poorly drawn U-Haul is now considered too outrageously offensive* for I don’t even know who because this is still America isn’t it, we can only wonder what might be considered safe. I’ve been a proud infidel my whole life, so I will happily step into the breach. I’d like to propose “World Draw Mohammed Day”. And to get the ball rolling, here’s my first entry:
Matt and Trey I ain’t, but what’re you gonna do.
* Leaving aside the ontological weirdness involved in considering that a poorly drawn image of a rental truck somehow “contains” an un-drawn “image” of a religious leader and therefore is somehow considered a “representation” of said religious leader, because that whole can of worms just makes my head spin. There aren’t irony quotes enough in the whole Internet for me to even begin making sense of all that shit.