Dialog by committee

April 13th, 2010  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

After seeing the following dialog box from emacs (a program I love and have been using in some form or another since 1988), I can no longer maintain quite as much moral superiority over the committee of maniacs responsible for the Windows Vista “shut down” dialog with its myriad options:


Wordmark watch

March 16th, 2010  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment


I often pass a Savers department store on Madison’s west side. The Savers wordmark has always bothered me, but I haven’t thought carefully about why it has bothered me, because I’m usually driving and thus keeping my eyes on the road. I don’t really care for the aesthetic behind this kind of wordmark, but this weekend I realized what really bothers me is the execution. Specifically, it looks like this wordmark is based on a typeface designed to appear at much smaller sizes. Little details, like the tall “s” and “e” glyphs, could imperceptibly improve color in 9 pt body text but are unsubtle in a 500-pixel-wide logo (as above) and approach caricature in an 8-foot-high sign on the side of a store.


The two settings of “mixer” above are an example of the misused optical size phenomenon; both are set in Chaparral Pro at 168 pt, but the one on top is set in the version of Chaparral designed for captions and the one on bottom is set in the version of Chaparral designed for display use. At the same size, the caption version is almost a parody of the display version. These exaggerations wouldn’t be obvious in a footnote, but they are glaring at more than an inch and juxtaposed against the version designed for display sizes.

The problems with the Savers wordmark go beyond its execution, but it would be interesting to see how much it could be improved simply by starting from a more appropriate typeface.

Abuses corrected

January 13th, 2010  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  2 Comments

(This is merely one of those “briefly-noted” remaindered link posts I have from time to time, but given the common leitmotif I couldn’t resist the urge to allude to the Confessio Augustana in the title.)

Logo abuse

Armin Vit discusses the new Peugeot logo, which represents a dramatic step backwards in execution and looks rather like it was created by the “3D Text” feature in Microsoft Office 97. (True story: at one point in my graduate-school career, I worked on a student project with someone who insisted not only on using Word for scholarly writing, but also on making a “3D” title page for our paper. That was a particularly awful semester.) As an interested layman, I can only speculate that AIGA and other professional societies are requiring identity designers to meet an “awkward gradients and misplaced highlights” quota these days. Either that, or branding agencies are delegating work to enthusiastic toddlers with Office licenses.

Naming abuse

Thomas and I were shopping for a TV antenna a few days ago, and we came across this product, which is billed as a “Quantum Antenna.” This made a lot of sense: in my experience, over-the-air TV reception is definitely a problem domain in which observing an apparatus can change its state. I didn’t buy it, though, since it was expensive and our reception is bad enough as it is without introducing any additional uncertainty.

Tautology abuse

D and B recently brought us a battery of amazings gastronomic delights including some truly excellent blackberry ice cream. I ate some of the latter last night and noticed the following truly excellent copy on the carton:


Yes, with a sentence that recalls Jon Gruden’s booth work on Monday Night Football (“THAT GUY is a FOOTBALL PLAYMAKER, making FOOTBALL PLAYS for this FOOTBALL PROGRAM.”), this carton of ice cream assures me that it is “certified organic by organic certifiers.” My initial reaction was “of course! Who else could do so?” But perhaps I’ve construed the second “organic” too narrowly, and the sentence simply means to indicate that organic certification was performed by a carbon-based certifier. In any case, the ice cream is great.

By the way, if you’re keeping track of Myriad creep, be sure to make a note here.

An iPhone usability nit

October 22nd, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  3 Comments

I’ve had an iPhone for about 16 months now, and I’m pretty happy with every aspect of it that has nothing to do with the wireless carrier. However, some minor complaints are inevitable even in such a well-designed device. Consider, for example, the user interface displayed upon receiving a call. When the phone is asleep, the incoming-call UI looks like this:


To answer the call, you drag the green box from the left side of the phone to the right, just as you would do ordinarily to activate the phone’s screen. However, if your phone is awake — maybe you’re using it when someone called, or you recently put it in your pocket without explicitly putting it to sleep — the interface is different:


Now, years of computer use have conditioned most people to expect the affirmative option on the right in graphical interfaces. But even a few days of iPhone use are sufficient to condition one to drag from left-to-right in order to wake the phone or answer a call. I wonder how often one has send one’s wife straight to voicemail before one develops the necessary reflexes for the more-complex behavior demanded by this pair of interfaces.

Advertising: less is more

July 16th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Consider the current crop1 of motor vehicle ads: a smug Howie Long emasculating average men for their inadequate SUVs; a shrill Brooke Shields asserting that particular unborn children were conceived as an excuse to acquire an overpriced, rebranded Chrysler minivan; or a pickup truck sent through a gauntlet that may have first appeared in Super Mario Bros. 3. Now examine a truly great ad, which Doyle Dane Bernbach developed for Volkswagen after the Apollo moon landing. It’s minimalist, clever, self-deprecating without being obnoxious, and effortlessly aligns a German vehicle with a prominent American engineering achievement.

In only slightly related news, our copy of the second season of Mad Men arrived yesterday, just in time for people to start spoiling the third season for me.

1 Note: the crop of ads mentioned may not be “current,” since I more-or-less only watch actual television during football season.

The Wu-Note Project

July 9th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Wu-Note Project 01
Wu-Note Project 01, originally uploaded by advantagelogan.

The Wu-Note Project is Logan Walters’ extremely clever reworking of Wu-Tang Clan album covers in the style of vintage Blue Note artwork. My favorites include “Enter the Wu-Tang,” above, Tical, and Beneath the Surface, but there really aren’t any weak links in the set.

(Via Alan Jacobs.)

  • This logo for Philadelphia Union (Philadelphia’s expansion MLS team) is great. It’s a thoughtful combination of elements that are all explicitly meaningful, but it’s not overdone or unsubtle. And — as Vit says in the linked article — it works really well as a soccer crest.


The misinterpretations of freedom

January 6th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  3 Comments

I was delighted to read this passage in Massimo Vignelli’s The Vignelli Canon (pdf link):

The international Standard paper sizes, called the A series, is based on a golden rectangle, the divine proportion. It is extremely handsome and practical as well. It is adopted by many countries around the world and is based on the German DIN metric Standards. The United States uses a basic letter size (8 1/2 x 11”) of ugly proportions, and results in complete chaos with an endless amount of paper sizes. It is a by-product of the culture of free enterprise, competition and waste. Just another example of the misinterpretations of freedom.

Branding notes

November 7th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  1 Comment

Below is the lower part of a poster-sized advertisement in a local parking garage. Similar advertisements are on billboards, etc., throughout Madison.


I suspect it is impossible for others, as it is for me, to read the URL without immediately locking on to “,” which is probably not what these folks want unless there are some Secret Branding Techniques that cover such subtle reverse psychology. (It could be worse.)

Rebranding Pepsi

October 29th, 2008  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

pepsi re-brand (via Brand New)

I’ve been meaning to post about the Pepsi re-brand since I saw it on Brand New. I’m no marketing expert, but this looks terrible and generic to me.

Look at the logo marks for the three Pepsi drinks, which are different, but probably not different enough to be readily distinguishable outside of context. (Is Diet Pepsi supposed to be “thin,” or “strained and horrible?”) One certainly couldn’t argue that these are iconic — instead, they have the feel of that ubiquitous “gently upturned arch” logo element of the mid-90s, which was tired even before it was part of absolutely every corporate logo everywhere. (Hey, some people are still using that one. Retro!)

Speaking of “retro,” let’s consider that cloying, noxious typeface. Instead of getting “hip” or “timeless,” this font looks like an amateurish, postmodern riff on art deco faces (or perhaps ITC Avant Garde, depending on the extent of the riffing) to my eye. Several decades ago, there were a lot of all-lowercase wordmarks that looked sort of like this if you don’t really pay attention. This face features some similar proportions to those used in the older marks, but has enough bizarre tweaks to avoid the “dated but classic” look. Instead, it merely appears dated.

True story: one of my favorite kid-friendly restaurants in Madison has good-to-excellent food and typically offers great value, but the presentation is often a little off and the staff sometimes seem flaky. I once became convinced that the soda fountain was contaminated with cleaning fluid, because the Diet Pepsi I had ordered on several consecutive meals featured an overwhelming “industrial solvent” flavor. I was pretty worried about this until an understocked vending machine gave me occasion to drink a bottled Diet Pepsi. As it turns out, Diet Pepsi from the bottle sort of tastes like cleaning fluid, too.

  • Graphic Design Goes to the Games: a very nice overview of Olympic branding from Khoi Vinh; scroll down to see some beautiful Swiss-influenced materials from the 1972 Munich Games.


Design and “looking good”

July 25th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

According to Gina Trapani, writing for Lifehacker, Ubuntu honcho Mark Shuttleworth is interested in improving the Linux desktop experience:

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth (who we interviewed last year) announced that he’s out to make Linux a better-looking operating system than Mac OS X—within two years.

Trapani then asks whether or not a “better-looking” Linux would motivate switchers:

Everyone loves eye candy on their desktop — Apple’s record-setting Mac sales can attest to that — but is looks is the main hurdle for Linux adoption amongst Normals?

This is notable, since it exemplifies a pervasive way to completely miss the point. People don’t use Apple’s computers because they’re pretty or feature “eye candy.” People use Apple’s computers because they work well. Design is not about how something looks; design is about how something works.

Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t be too clever

July 18th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  3 Comments

We have been quite happy with our most recent car, a Pontiac Vibe (aka “Toyota Matrix”). It gets reasonable mileage; comfortably seats two adults, a dog, and a toddler (along with all of the attendant stuff); and has been painless to maintain. One of the best things about the Vibe, though, is that it is a remarkably well-designed car. Here I refer not only to the main user interface—which places necessary functionality within reach of the driver, labeled unambiguously—but also to the layout of the car’s interior.

The only design complaint I have with the Vibe relates to the headlights, which turn on automatically at dusk. (They can also be turned on manually.) This seems to me to be a worse design choice than either obvious alternative: namely, all-manual headlamp adjustment or always-on headlamps (perhaps with a “manual off” option).1 I think this is the case because it tries to be too clever and fails.

The situations that demand headlamp use are fairly common, including darkness, overcast weather, and precipitation. By contrast, situations that contraindicate headlamp use are rarer: very dense fog comes to mind, but I can’t think of many others.2 In a car with always-on headlamps, one only has to worry about the rare case: how to disable the headlamps when their use makes the situation worse. In a car with fully-manual headlamps, one only has to worry about the common case. (In practice, I’ve found quickly develop a reflex to turn the lamps on and off with ignition when regularly operating such a vehicle, like our older car.3)

In a car with dusk-activated headlamps, one has to worry about both cases. The low-light sensor doesn’t trigger in most rain or snow (and the lamps don’t turn on with the windshield wipers, which might also be sensible), so the headlamps are effectively manual in this case. (This also holds more generally; conditions outside might well be dim enough so that one would prefer headlamps, but not dim enough to activate the automatic lamps.) Because the times when manual intervention is necessary crop up arbitrarily, what should be a reflex instead becomes an attention-demanding, multi-step process.

Worse still, it isn’t possible to turn off the Vibe’s headlamps if the car believes that they should be on. Instead of providing an intuitive, manual solution that inspires habit and reflex or an automatic solution that requires zero effort at all in the overwhelmingly common case, the Vibe headlamp design assumes that it knows better than you do when the headlamps should be on and offers no provision for overriding its advice. At least it isn’t also controlling my pod bay doors. By being too clever, this design is actually more user-hostile than two substantially “dumber” alternatives.

Of course, the don’t be too clever principle isn’t merely confined to automatic headlamps. Countless designs fail spectacularly because the designer has incorrectly assumed that there is only one reasonable way to expect the product to behave or to interact with it. (Note that correctly assuming that there is only one reasonable way to interact with something is one of the hallmarks of excellent design — and perhaps the hardest to get right!) At least in the case of the Vibe, I can put a small card over the light sensor (which is on the dash) and get my always-on headlamps. There’s no such luck when some web application capriciously disables my “Back” button.

POSTSCRIPT: Apparently, the 2008 Vibe features always-on headlamps. I guess you can’t please everyone, since the internets are full of people complaining about this feature and asking how to disable it.

1 I’m not alone in this concern; it seems that many people are interested in disabling the automatic lamp functionality.

2 Perhaps some situations that might arise in the commission of practical jokes, espionage, or crimes—in which stealthy vehicle operation is at a premium—count, but I imagine that these aren’t on the radar in the design meeting.

3 I discovered that I’d lost this reflex—unfortunately, only the “turn the lamp off” part—when going back to the older car after a few months with the Vibe. Thank goodness for AAA.