DAVID LANCE GOINES
THE designer is, in effect, setting tasks for other people. If the designs are good, the tasks will be performed correctly. If the tasks are presented improperly, they will be performed poorly, not at all, or quite differently from what may have been the original intent.
People are rather lazy and tend to do things in the simplest way, rather than the most complicated or difficult. This quality should not always be catered to, but it is necessary to accept its influence on action and thought. The eye is lazy, doing the least amount of work necessary to attain a given end, and if the work is too difficult, it might not get done at all. The designer should, so far from placing stumbling blocks in the path of the eye, make its task as easy and pleasant as possible, so that his work will be effective. What is easier to look at will be looked at in preference to something that is harder to look at.
Images are perceived at boundaries and vertexes (vertexes are where boundaries meet). Boundaries and vertexes are where the chromatic data change, and the ratios of reflectance are measured by the receptors in the eye. If you stare fixedly at a regular image, such as a piece of graph paper, you will notice that some of the lines begin to disappear. This is an example of the phenomenon of stabilized images on the retina. If an image is held steady on the retina, it vanishes, to be replaced by a peculiar feeling of blindness called the "empty field." The vanishing is due mainly to the fact that each cone in the eye adjusts itself to the light on it. Receptors are designed to signal to the brain only change, not a steady state.1
Vision is good as long as the eye or the image moves about. When the eye rests, vision deteriorates. You have no doubt observed that motion makes things that are otherwise invisible highly noticeable, especially out of the corners of your eyes, or in poor light. This demonstrates that boundary and vertex information is crucial for seeing. The eye or image must move so that individual receptors can experience boundary crossings. Obviously, if the number of boundaries and vertexes is increased, the visibility of an image increases proportionately.
Consider two pieces of string laid out to span a given distance. One is nearly straight and the other wiggly. Neither is a straight line, but each implies a delineation or series of boundaries. In string number one, the minimum clean line is represented, and in number two, a rough line. It is plain that in line number two there is more string; more to look at. Given a choice between a rough line and a clean one, the former is to be preferred. Since there is more of it, it is easier to see.
A hard, sharp line is also a hard, sharp contrast; a sort of visual barrier where the eye might be inclined to stop, rather than continue. A rough line eases the transition from one area to another. People are more likely to climb stairs than to scale walls.
Some typefaces are easier to read than others. The concept of rough and clean lines can be useful in evaluating legibility. Serif type is easier to read than sans-serif. Extra information is provided by the serif, and its horizontal thrust improves legibility. Caslon can be read quickly, with high comprehension, for long periods of time. The vertical emphasis of a sans-serif face impedes legibility. Helvetica gives you a headache. Things set in Caslon get read, things set in Helvetica get looked at.
The blackletter of Gutenberg's 42-line Bible set a precedent for German type design which persisted well into the twentieth century. Fraktur and Schwabacher types are gratuitously hard to read. They have a pronounced vertical emphasis, and hordes of little spiky doo-dads poking out of every nook and cranny. A page set in blackletter is a formidable barrier to legibility. The signal to noise ratio is just too low. These faces persisted in Germany, the birthplace of the Bauhaus, for so long after they had been rejected everywhere else, that one is inclined to become suspicious. Reading is made so difficult that, although people certainly can read, they might choose not to do so. It could be said that German type design created a literate but non-reading public. German typography encouraged the populace to let scholars do the reading and politicians do the thinking. People who can read but don't, and in consequence can think but don't, might find themselves kindly disposed toward the kind of state that calls itself a National Socialist Republic, but isn't.
The avant-garde of German design rejected the old-fashioned bramble thicket of blackletter and set out to create new typefaces. The faces designed in the 1920s by the Bauhaus and related schools are the sans-serifs that we have come to associate with modernity and progress. They are plain and severe, of apparent uniform weight, and without extraneous details such as serifs. It might be thought that these new designs are as far from the dark medieval types of Gutenberg as one could possibly get, but, as far as the appearance of the page and levels of legibility and comprehension go, they are exactly the same, if not worse. Instead of spikes and curlicues, they have hard sharp corners. The vertical emphasis is even greater than that of blackletter. The horizontal emphasis provided by the serif, which improves legibility, is missing. There is less differentiation between letters than in a serif face, and within the letters themselves, there is less differentiation of the top half from the bottom half. These letters are not called "Gothic" for nothing, you know. It appears that the thornbush of blackletter has been exchanged for the much more modern barbed-wire entanglement of sans-serif.
In mitigation of these criticisms, it may be true that a reader, born and raised with a given range of typefaces, will find them comfortably legible. That another reader, unfamiliar with those faces, might find them bizarre and illegible, is not necessarily a valid complaint. It would be difficult to put this to a test, as blackletter has completely gone out of fashion and there are likely few or no readers nurtured entirely on sans-serif. Despite this possibility, it remains true that, all things being equal, legibility and comprehension are greater in text set in conservative old-style or transitional faces, than in text set in the most handsome sans-serif. Even the modern calligraphic faces of Herman Zapf err in the same directions as their equally calligraphic blackletter grandparents, and are neither as legible nor as suitable for extended reading as the Italianate Romans.
The calligraphic influence on modern type design shows the desire of calligraphers for rhythm and uniformity, sacrificing legibility in the process of seeking over much uniformity. The letters of Caslon are irregular: comparing the ascenders, descenders and finals of letters one sees that they are all different. In Stone, Lutecia or any of Zapf's faces, these elements are uniform. Legibility suffers, but the page looks nice.
In designs dependent on hard, sharp contrasts, the slightest imperfection is annoying and obvious. With rough lines, imperfection, wear and dirt are less noticeable, often not bothersome, and occasionally enhancing. Helvetica is continually struggling toward self-sabotage, and is occasionally thwarted by expert craftsmen. Usually, however, it gracelessly succeeds.
The handcut Caslon of Benjamin Franklin's time received so much hard wear that it would have been sent to the hell box with pleasure by the printers who used it, but they had nothing else. These pages retain a charm and legibility, nonetheless, that has an undeniable appeal. By contrast, improperly printed Helvetica, particularly in the smaller sizes, is simply unreadable.
Those same elements that make a typeface pleasant to look at and easy to read, apply as well to architecture. The heavy, intricate detail of carpenter Gothic and Victorian buildings is a rough line. The mass of detail resolves at a slight distance into an interesting, soft transition from one element to the next.
One difference between a nice neighborhood and a depressing row of dwelling units, is street trees. Trees soften and break up the otherwise sterile line of roads and buildings. The straight line of artifact is modified by the rough line of nature.
A feeling of warmth and intimacy is created by a rough texture or line. A hard, perfect surface or line feels cold and remote. The more intimate with, or closer one is to the manufacture (either theoretically, as in buying a handmade item, or psychologically, if one knows who made it and how), the better one likes it. The more distant, either in sensation or in reality, the less one is inclined to like it.
The smooth, featureless, white wall does not appear to change as it is approached. No new detail is resolved, and a sense of scale is hard to get. A brick wall, wood shingle house or carpenter gothic house resolves into intricate detail as it is approached, giving the viewer a sense of scale. The sense of proportion is distorted by uniformity. The uniformity provided by corporate structures, faceless gigantic buildings, and the anonymity of Helvetica, can also remove a sense of scale from the viewer.
Dirt, wear and imperfection add more information to both the smooth, white wall and the rough, intricate wall. These forces of time and humanity, disregarded by the Bauhaus, must be considered in the real world. Things that don't have to be perfect to look good, look good longer. Things that are dependent upon perfection are offensive when imperfect. People stand in awe of smooth, featureless perfection, but it worries them and makes them feel inferior, as if it is throwing their humanity at them like a sneer, and demanding that they wash their hands before approaching (which indeed they must, if the perfection is to remain untarnished). Sometimes a smooth white wall gets humanized anyway, and then it looks tacky. In a rough line, such as a brick wall, there is more information, it shows the dirt less, and it is prettier.
A modern typeface or building, committed to being unlike anything old-fashioned, bears an uneasy relation to the future. It cannot afford to grow old at all, let alone grow old gracefully. Its very newness is its trump card, and often this precludes design which foresees aging well.
Thus we see typefaces, furniture, buildings and clothing fashions which have no chance to wear out or show the dirt, as their design is so extreme that they become ludicrous and dated in months or a few years.
Extreme clothing fashions change frequently and at small expense (and large pleasure) to the wearer. An unfashionable "yesterday's newspaper" building or typeface cannot be so casually discarded.
Intense contrasts are harder on the eye than soft transitions. Type printed by photo-offset lithography is completely flat on the page, whereas type printed by letterpress is indented, with a little ridge of ink squeezed out around it, making a slight shadow around the letter. An offset page looks flat and dull in comparison to a letterpress page, and the harsher contrast between paper and type is more tiring to the eye. The pleasant, slightly sculptured feeling of a letterpress page also enhances the pleasure of reading.
Bright primary colors are immediately captivating, but as they lack complexity or subtlety, they soon grow wearisome and irritating. A bright color is like a loud automobile horn or an explosion. It quickly captures the interest, but if sustained is unbearable. To imagine that a huge wall or corridor painted in a primary color is modern or in the spirit of the twentieth century because it is simple and plain and pares away inessentials, is to live in the fevered dreams of a lunatic. Tertiary colors are like complex chords, rather than the pure note of the primary or the simple harmony of the secondary. The complex harmonics have a lesser immediate impact, but can be pleasing for long intervals. Small children are allegedly unable to distinguish subtle shades of color. As they learn and mature, greater complexity becomes intelligible and attractive. The use of harsh primaries and secondaries is calculated to appeal to the childlike aspect, rather than to the adult, or to the primitive, rather than the sophisticated and civilized.2
Whenever reasonable, complementary colors should be employed, as they satisfy the eye. The eye demands the complement. When you see a red square, and look fixedly at it and then away, you will see a square, green afterimage. This goes on within the eye continually; everything has an afterimage. Providing the complement satisfies a sub-visual demand and makes things more pleasant, that is, easier to look at.
Important information should shout. Information that is not so immediate, nor of interest to everyone, should be more calmly presented. Most design should be rather quiet, if only out of consideration for others. The designer should be a good neighbor. She should not throw wild parties on week nights, he should not play his stereo too loudly or too late in the evening. He should mow his lawn, and she should design things that enhance the community, rather than diminish it. He should not design crummy things that everybody else gets stuck with. A design that is easier to look at than others, will be more successful than its competition. A loud, harsh design will get attention first, but the design that is easiest to live with will be looked at more often and for a longer time.
Posters, signs, and billboards are usually designed up close, and viewed from a distance. If they are designed full size or larger, design decisions will be made on the basis of head motions rather than small eye movements. When the image is seen at viewing distance, as opposed to working distance, it may look imbalanced or clumsy. If the design is done at working distance, but at viewing size, this problem will not arise. The work will be more harmonious and intelligible, having neither excessive detail that turns into mud nor lines that are weak.
Here is a rule of thumb. One and one half inches sketch height at a working distance of eighteen inches, equals two feet of finished poster height at a viewing distance of 25 feet. Thus a design sketch of one and one half inches height will lead to a clear, easily understood poster or sign, two feet tall at 25 feet distance, four feet tall at 50 feet distance, eight feet tall at 100 feet, and so on. Billboards are not only viewed at a distance, but at speeds of 25 to 60 miles an hour. Therefore, they must be even simpler and clearer. Eye motion must be kept to an absolute minimum, not only to make the design work, but to prevent the motorist from looking too long at the billboard and not looking at the road. It's a good way to lose customers-permanently. If an element cannot be incorporated into the small sketch, then it shouldn't go in, as it will turn to mud at thirty feet. Obviously, designs should never be reduced, as that weakens the line and destroys the ratio of figure to ground. Although reduction sharpens things up and hides irregularities, sharpness and regularity are not intrinsically good or desirable, whereas balance and intelligibility are.
People like intricacy, complexity, and variety. The completely-finished, perfect thing has no room in it for the "me." It is a flat statement admitting no further discussion; it is rude; it makes people angry. There are three participants in every event, no one of which is more important than the others, and all of which must have equal weight for that thing to be endurable: the designer, the thing itself, and the audience.
Designs meant to be looked at for prolonged stretches should be strong, to capture the eye; have subtle colors and soft contrasts to prevent the eye from tiring; and have interesting elements to look at and think about. Leave room in the design for the user, viewer, or listener. The audience is as important as the performer.
(1)Brou, Philippe, Thomas R. Sciascia, Lynette Linden & Jerome Y. Lettvin. "The Colors of Things." Scientific American. Volume 255, Number 3, September 1986, pp. 84-91.
(2) Jorge Frascara in his article "The ABC's of Teaching Aids," discusses his intrigue with children's preferences for illustration styles. He organized a test that involved the preparation of four pairs of illustrations. The subject was a giraffe and a calf in front of a tree. Pair #1 showed one version with natural colors and the other with intensified colors. Pair #2 showed one version with natural forms and the other with simplified and schematic contours. Pair #3 presented the object in the same color and shape, but one of the scenes included additional elements such as trees, clouds and two more animals. Pair #4 showed one illustration having lights and shades and soft edges while the other had flat surfaces and hard edges. Over 400 children, aged seven to eleven were used as subjects. Upon the presentation of each pair, they were asked to indicate which of the two illustrations they liked better.
Children across elementary school levels prefer complex illustrations (83%) over simple ones. They also prefer intense colors (69% overall, 76% excluding eleven-year-old boys, who showed a preference rate of only 31%) over natural ones; natural forms (86%) over geometrical simplifications; and shaded drawings with soft edges and atmospheric effects (66%) over flat surfaces and hard edges. Only 11 year-old boys preferred natural colors (69%) and sharp edges (56%). The youngest boys were the least inclined to prefer natural shapes (64% as opposed to 91% for the rest of the group), while the oldest girls were most decidedly in favor of them (100%).
Many of the illustrators in the 1950s and 1960s made abstract and simplified illustrations for children's books since small children tend to paint that way. But children do not necessarily like what they themselves do and are quite able to recognize and enjoy different levels of skill in the representation of reality. Complex, realistic illustrations not only attract children, but they also develop their curiosity and perceptual skills.
It is also the case that simple illustrations require less skill and thus are cheaper for the publisher, who is always interested in saving money.
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