I’m currently working on some iOS apps, thinking about user experience, and at the same time reading stuff on an iPad and I’ve come to a conclusion: scrolling text is totally stupid. It has no analog to any previous human experience. And here’s the thing: that human experience even includes scrolls.
Even when paper scrolled, the text was organized in columns. Columns (and pages) make sense because you know where to continue reading when you’ve gotten to the end of a segment.
Device scrolling, though, is tedious because you never know how much distance has been scrolled by your finger flick. Instead of going back to the top left, you have to scan up and down to find out where you’re supposed to be:
This is another example of design for novelty rather than use. “It’s new so we gotta use it,” as opposed to “maybe what’s already working actually works.” This is, I think, a real minefield for designers – if we view ourselves as designers, we feel like we have to design something, but if we view ourselves as consultants, maybe we can advise against novelty for its own sake.
This is novelty design in that it feels like it was meant to take advantage of touch screen devices – design for the gadget’s capabilities, not design for the user’s um, use.
The good news is, everybody totally reads this blog and does what I say, so we can for sure look forward to at least having the option of paging through documents and magazines on the iPad from now on. World, you’re welcome.
Ever since I was just a little baby elitist with pretensions to cultural literacy, I’ve revered the The New Yorker’s stable of visual artists; their illustrators and photographers have always been the best of the best. So it was hard for me to criticize the new design. Until I saw this.
Apparently, the typical New Yorker level of visual quality does not reach the typography department. Assuming there is one, which, of course, there isn’t. But just look at this nightmare: the S’s are tipping over – why? And doubly why considering you know that they will appear to the right of a cap A and be impossible to letterspace correctly. Why the fully round C next to an A (if you can call being two area codes over “next to”)? Why the underlines? Why the angled A crossbars? Why anything that we’re seeing here? Quirks can be great, if they work together for a cohesive whole. These are quirks from the fourth dimension of terribleness, unconnected to anything.
I could go on (and on) about the failures of this face, but I think we can encapsulate it with that goddamn ampersand. They didn’t even bother to design one. It’s Caslon for god‘s sake. Look, guys, if you’re going to design a typeface, no matter how badly conceived, and you know that it’s going to need an ampersand, pro tip: make an ampersand. That Caslon & doesn’t match the weight or feel or character of the rest of the letters. Possibly because Adobe Caslon is nicely designed and the other is some weird jumble of half thoughts and regret (at least I hope there’s some regret here).
I hesitate to even show the following, because I disagree so heartily with the whole debacular typeface, but here. Here’s an ampersand. I was tempted to offer it up for free, but screw that – Condé Nast is a giant company, they can buy it if they want. So here you go. If you’re reading this, Condé and/or Nast, and want to make a deal, let me know.
It matches the angles of the cap A, and it’s not italic, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s not Caslon italic.
I generally try to avoid knee jerk reactions to redesigns. They tend to fall into an easy nostalgia for the way things were, or a crotchety “what’s-the-world-coming-to” version of, well I guess that’s nostalgia, too. So I’m not predisposed to dislike a redesign just because it’s new. I’m not even disposed to dislike a design just because it’s ugly – I really do like to hold out hope that some kinds of ugliness are just new kinds of beauty that we don’t know how to process yet. But this isn’t one of those situations. This is plain bad design.
At right is a detail and below that the whole thing.
1. Type salad number one: carrot shreds. This is a badly-designed typeface trying too hard to echo the logotype but differentiate itself from it, without understanding either of those two things. Here, the serifs are too wimpy, the attempt at a compressed version too little thought out (a nearly circular ‘g’ is a bad punt), and I won’t even get into how it’s been letterspaced here.
2. Type salad number two: giant chunks of something. Bureau Eagle or something like it. With the header face above it and the italics and drop cap below it, this overly black choice is too big and intrusive. What is the hierarchy of what we’re supposed to be looking at – the illustration, border tape, clip art, and this fat ass type choice are all competing. And in this contest, everyone loses (although everyone gets a garish “Participant” ribbon).
3. Type salad number three: endives. I know that technically the italic and the face below it are the same, but italics differ so greatly in form that for my purposes it can be considered as discrete. Given the choice to small cap the intro to the paragraph below, this is just distracting. Too light to read as a subhead, too busy (as italics are) to be integral.
4. Type salad number four: croutons (okay, the salad analogy is getting creaky, I know). This is fine on its own, but the small cap intro is, along with the upper and lower case italics just above it, the all-caps Eagle above that, and the weird failure of the headline above that (and above the illustration and to the side of the clip art) is too much. In a way it’s kind of amazing: each element, even taken on its own, is just too much. It’s like a hall of mirrors. Irritating, legibility-destroying mirrors.
5. This gigantic Chartpak-era border tape. This is perhaps the most offensive thing on these pages. It doesn’t serve to define space or guide the reader or just be pleasing. All it does is shout at me.
6. Clip art. Clip art, for god’s sake. Okay, I know it’s not clip art, but compared to most of the cuts in the The New Yorker, it really looks a lot like clip art, especially just floating there, à propos of nothing.
7. I know there’s no number 7 down there, but I have an otherwise fairly full and interesting life, so sometimes things fall through the cracks, okay? But this giant rectangle illustration, cutting off the headline and clip art from the junk drawer of typography below. It’s just a mess.
8. Four columns here. Three elsewhere (the most comfortable for reading, IMO). Two else-elsewhere. To continue with the texting-level of discourse here, WTF?
The The New Yorker redesign isn’t just ugly or just new. What bothers me about it is that it’s screaming at me. Life is annoying enough without your magazine screaming at you, too. As if its screaming weren’t bad enough, it’s screaming something completely uninspired: “Look at me! I’ve been DESIGNED!”
This is a stupid thing for design to say because everything on a page has been designed. We all know it has been designed. The designer can, and in this case, should, get out of the way of the function of the design (I feel like I’ve written “design” and “screamed” a million times, but then again I ain’t no writersman). The older design was just that: function. It looked like how it worked, and that made it not just subtle or pleasing, but relaxing and comfortable. The design was invisible, subsumed by what it was supposed to do. This new thing inverts that, and does so to its detriment.
So here’s what we do: we send the Condé Nast intern who was very very excited to apply all of his or her first year design techniques ALL AT THE SAME TIME back to some publication that needs screaming design to distract its viewers from bad writing or idiotic subject matter; and we bring back the more anonymous, more rigorous, more respectful design that the magazine had until now.
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.
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.