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Offbeat – 07 September 2012

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Surgery is clever as all get out. Everyone knows that surgeons are highly trained folks, and they don’t do their own home surgery in case they make a hash of it, scream and bleed all over the house.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about design this week. It’s something I enjoy and I wish I was better at it, but I’m functional and I can get the job done, so for now I have to abide by that and wait for the next learning curve to come along.
What intrigues me about the field is the root of the word ‘design’, which, alongside the flamboyance should also entail a large amount of intent. In other words a design has the intent to convey something. I have watched one or two designers at work who took my breath away. At its best, it isn’t puffery, giggles and applause. It’s a cold blooded exercise with a lot of malice of forethought.
Malice of forethought? You have to put the knife in somewhere if you want to survive.
Take a mall for instance. You walk through that sucker and your eye is going to light on at least a couple of thousand things. If you think about it you are going to be looking mainly for the familiar, but the new wants to stop your eye to grab your attention and your wallet. Then there’s all the other old stuff that you aren’t looking for, but that still wants your attention anyway.
Design has to be about as competitive as a bunch of players at a Middle East peace conference. Knives are good and the sharper the better, but bring to the table whatever other weapons you can lay your hands on.
It’s the same for everything else, from art for the enjoyment of it to the manual for your latest gadget. The better it’s designed, the quicker it will achieve its intent and the better the idea will stick in your head. Really good design is like chewing gum in hair. It just won’t go, no matter how hard you try. The only ways to get rid of it is either to allow it to grow old, or to take a pair of scissors and deface yourself.
My favourite bit of design? Typography. It’s übercool stuff. I met a designer once, who summed it up: you can make a design work without anything except type. Gad! That’s true.
OK, admittedly, you get those leaflets in aeroplanes with the pictures that tell you how to evacuate the thing at about the same time as your insurance broker feels someone walking over his grave. They don’t have type. You can also find the occasionally witty rip-off of those things. But good illustrators aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, so typo is a good-looking baseline.
In the race to get information across, typo is the ultimate high definition stuff. There’s nothing quite as effective at getting a picture into someone’s head than words, and words need their fonts.
Now here’s the weekly rant, and one of my favourites.
If typo is so clever, how come everyone is doing it? Surgery is clever as all get out. Everyone knows that surgeons are highly trained folks, and they don’t do their own home surgery in case they make a hash of it, scream and bleed all over the house. If you accept that typo is clever (and you should, because you are literate enough to read this) then perhaps you should leave it to someone who knows what they are doing.
Squiggly type is not nice to read, except for kids who like that sort of stuff, and even they get finicky after a while. It’s especially not nice with a graded colour fill behind it and a couple of blobs that might be flowers or maybe bits of leftover chewing gum. It makes people like me walk away from a shop window in case the inside of the shop looks like that as well.
Here’s a cunning trick. Stick to the fonts from old computers, like Arial and Times. They were put there for a reason. You might also want to open a book and look at the type in that. That sort of type was used because you can read it line after line after line without developing a major psychosis that could lead to you cutting off your ear to validate your creativity.
If you need to know if type is good, show it to a designer. If he or she goes pale, retches and shudders, go back to the drawing board. Show it again. Sooner or later you will either get it right or the designer will offer you a cut price to put you out of his or her misery.

 

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