Friday, July 31, 2009

Good Type Matters, Part 2: Leading

The most important graphic element on any page (printed, web, or other) is type. It sends subtle but important signals to readers.
  • Done well, it sends positive signals and reinforces your message.
  • Done poorly, it sends negative signals and confuses your message.
Businesses often use MS Word and Powerpoint to design countless communication pieces where type is often the only thing on the page (or screen). Applying some very basic typographic know-how can increase the legibility and effectiveness of those pieces.

In this post:

Line spacing (leading).

Leading is the space in between lines (so called because in the very old days, typographers would need to add thin strips of lead in between lines of type).

Here is the basic rule for most non-designers in ordinary business:

Err on the side of greater line spacing.

Bad line spacing is a giveaway that no one has paid attention to legibility, and it usually makes your type more difficult for people to read. So why would anyone do it?

The correct leading gives readers little channels for their eye to follow to the next line – the closer lines are together, the harder it is to get to the next line (and so legibility decreases). Typical leading is at least 120% of the type size for a normal width paragraph (such as that set in a newspaper or book), so 10-point type might have 12-point leading* (spacing). But, as lines get longer (the width of the paragraph), the space in-between needs to increase to give readers a clear route back across the page (or screen), so the same 10-point type might need 14- or even 20-point leading to make sure the paragraph is comfortable for the reader. Negative leading (i.e., 10-point type with 8-point leading) is never a good idea for regular text. Never, never, never. So, if your paragraph (or even as few as two lines) look squished, you are slowing your readers down and making them work harder. Don’t do it.

If adding more space makes the report or presentation longer and you want to limit the length or amount of pages, editing is the answer, not making more type more difficult to read.

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* Technically, this would be 2 points of leading (10-point type + 2-points leading = 12-point spacing from line to line). I use the term spacing hear because office applications refer to inter-line spacing that way, not as leading.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Good Type Matters, Part 1

(First in a series.)

The most important graphic element on any page (printed, web, or other) is type. It sends subtle but important signals to readers.
  • Done well, it sends positive signals and reinforces your message.
  • Done poorly, it sends negative signals and confuses your message.
Businesses often use MS Word and Powerpoint to design countless communication pieces where type is often the only thing on the page (or screen). Applying some very basic typographic know-how can increase the legibility and effectiveness of those pieces. Today’s topic:

Use the same font.

I know it sounds obvious, but when you copy-and-paste from lots of different sources, it’s easy to end up with three or four similar typefaces in the same letter, or slide, or paragraph, or sentence (I’ve seen each). Though subtle, people pick up on this and it leaves an unflattering impression. It’s sort of like mismatched socks or wearing two different browns that just don’t go together – people notice, even if they can’t readily identify it. For example, Palatino (aka Book Antiqua) and Times New Roman look similar, but not alike:

Hamburgerfons Hamburgerfons

Add a line of Helvetica (or worse, Arial) and a callout in Verdana, and you have the makings of a really moshed-together slide (or letter, or report, or email).

Hamburgerfons Hamburgerfons

Does it change what you are saying? Well, yes it does. In the same way that an ill-fitting suit or bad manners detracts from your message, bad typography like this says “I really don’t care about the details”, or worse, “I didn’t notice them.” Is that what you want to say to current and future clients? (I didn’t think so.)

One way to avoid this is to always use Paste > Special > Plain Text, but that’s not practical, so you’ll just need to remember to pay extra attention to fonts as you copy-and-paste (and reapply the style or font to the text in question to be sure).

Next time: line spacing (leading).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty Years Later

Today is the 40th anniversary of mankind’s first step onto another world. A tremendous achievement both for the family of man and for real science and engineering (compared to the junk science that seems prevalent in Idiot America today). Two differences between now and then to consider:
  • The population of the planet today is double what is was in 1969.
  • If Moore’s law is true, than computers today have 134 billion times more processing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer.
Forty years from now, what will we tell the next generation about what we did today with the information and resources we had?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Peak-end rule and presentations

Noble prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman coined a phrase: the “peak/end rule” to describe how we remember things (I’m sure I am drastically over-simplifying it.):
  • What we remember about the pleasurable quality of our past experience is largely determined by: (1) How the experience felt at their peak, (2) How the experience felt when they ended
  • We use this to summarize the experience.
  • Then rely on that summary later to remind ourselves how we felt.
  • These summaries, in turn, influence our future decisions.
This suggests some ideas for avoiding dull presentations (or at least presentations that people will remember as not being dull):
  • Include interactive elements in your presentation – places where information passes both ways (not just from the presenter to the audience).
  • Tell interesting stories. People remember stories more than facts, so it might be worth it to polish a few good (and relevant to the topic) ones.
  • Start strong. Studies suggest a speaker has 30-90 seconds to get the audience’s attention, so don't waste it by ramping up – get right into it.
  • Finish strong. Save something for the end. If Q&A is at the end, consider a 2-minute prepared closing that leaves the energy high, instead of fizzling out when no one has any more questions.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cost problem, or market advantage?

For a global company, it’s appealing to try to standardize marketing across the world. It makes business sense, right? Streamline everything, be super-efficient, leverage scale, etc. It reduces costs to do something once and use it everywhere. But does it really?

It’s tempting to see local variation as a cost problem, but it is usually a market advantage. Consider McDonald’s. Mickey-D’s sells both:
  • Similar things differently in different markets. (How many ways can you market a 4-ounce beef patty that resembles a Whopper? Well, a lot actually.)
  • Totally different things in different markets. (Ever hear of the McLobster, or the Teriyaki McBurger?)
I assume that back in Oak Brook (McD’s HQ) they don’t consider all these specialties as costs that need to be reduced or eliminated. I don’t know, but I imagine that there are good reasons that they don’t sell Big Macs with beef in India (duh), or the McShawarma in the U.S.

I wonder why we see some businesses now, presumably trying to better manage costs, that appear to see these types of variations as costly deviations instead of market advantages?

It is sometimes hard to distinguish message from form, and it is almost always easier to focus on the form, but that doesn’t mean centrally-managed form is going to get the best results. Make sure the message is on-target centrally (maybe), but then trust people closer to the market to reflect that message in ways that are appropriate and resonate best with the local market. It works for McDonald’s.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The subway, Helvetica, and graphic standards

I recently read a fairly long, very-well researched article on how Helvetica became the typeface of the New York subway.

While the article may only be of interest to typographers and designers, those that would suggest that brute force application of simple templates or clever computer trickery will address an organization’s graphic consistency might invest the time to read it. The article is an excellent review of the real-world challenges of implementing even modest graphic standards, and goes into the complex subtleties of applying uniform ideas to fluid and localized conditions.

As a distantly-related side note, the typographer in me reminds the reader that Arial ≠ Helvetica (more on that elsewhere).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Impact of a strong personality

I had a professor, Robert Nelson, who had a very strong personality and very clear views on what was important for art students. The combination of his strong personality and his almost single-minded emphasis on figure drawing as the root of all visual art had an interesting effect. Most of his students, myself included, went through a phase of imitating his unique style. Of course, we were all bad versions of the master, but I’ve been thinking about this recently: how a strong personality impacts those around them, particularly when that person is in a leadership role.

Can a strong personality lead without necessarily imprinting their own style on their team? And how does a leader encourage people to develop their individual style and strengths, especially when they are different (or very different) from that of their leaders?

To be fair, Dr. Nelson (who was also my advisor) always encouraged students to follow their own muse, find their own style, but his style’s influence was never far away. In retrospect, his real influence on me was his absolute devotion to the craft of drawing – the draftsmanship required to do good art, regardless of the form. But it took time for me to separate that from his own stuff.

Dr. Nelson has since retired and moved to Oregon (you can see more about him in this short video by Oregon Public Broadcasting). I hope he knows how much positive influence he has had over the years.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting it right versus getting it perfect

I’m a big fan of iterative design – getting something out there quickly and refining it along the way. I also recognize the limitations and dangers of this approach:

Too little planning. Rushing to get something out doesn’t release you from thinking about what you’re really doing. Lots of bad presentations happen this way – in a rush to get it done, no one seems to remember why or what they’re actually doing (audience, messages, etc).

No additional iterations. Just because you’ve hit the first milestone doesn’t mean the product is good or even halfway evolved. You can’t stop at the first draft, you have to actually keep developing to take advantage of the value if the approach. Usually fairly quickly (sometimes hours, not days or weeks).

Ego. To take advantage of a group’s collective insight (no matter how small the group), one must set one’s ego aside and really listen to comments and suggestions, adopting the ones that best serve the projects’ objectives. Not so easy.

But maybe the biggest challenge of iterative design is getting started – just doing it. There seems to be a basic human apprehension (at least among some of us) to put something out there if it’s not absolutely perfect. Of course, sometimes this is a good thing – I don’t want to use a bridge that was built off a napkin sketch – but often (especially within small teams) getting the first cut out quickly for some live feedback has real advantages. And if (or when) things change, then they change. No big deal. (As long as everyone knows that they may be looking at a work-in-progress.) Feedback from real users (the audience, customers, clients, etc.) has a great way of quickly focusing attention on what really matters.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lewis Black and clutter

Saw Lewis Black last night, reminding me of this great bit at the 2007 Emmys.

Clutter, whether on a TV screen or a Powerpoint slide, is an enemy of good communication. More stuff only gets in the way. And it gets in the way of the very reason you’re (hopefully) using Powerpoint in the first place: to communicate an idea or two.

So what can we learn from TV-screen clutter and Lewis Black’s rant?
  • More visual stuff competes with each other and (more importantly) with you speaking.
  • Your slides should complement what you’re saying, not compete with it.
  • People tune out (at least part of their brain) when they encounter all that clutter. Why make your job harder?
  • Don’t read bullet points (or is it: don’t use bullet points?).
  • Network executives have short attention spans.