Monday, June 22, 2009

Yves Peters - Rock & Roll Typographer

I'm writing this blog in Verdana, a serviceable font created in 1996 by Matthew Carter at the behest of Microsoft. It was designed to be legible in various sizes on a computer screen. Verdana is a coined word derived from 'verdant,' suggesting the lushness of the Pacific Northwest home of Gates and company, and 'Ana,' Matthew's daughter. I bet you knew that already though.

For the benefit of those of us in the communications world who might not be sufficiently s
chooled in typography, I recently interviewed Yves Peters "the most feared type critic of the Northern hemisphere," typographic designer extraordinaire and drummer in the band, Troubleman, on his views about type in a digital world and what communications directors and planners need to know about it. Because Yves is in Belgium I did the interview via email.

Here we go...

Hi Yves… I like the definition of typography as designing a communication using the printed word. Yet the typographic function is often handed to a graphic designer to work with or it is an obscure function within an agency that one contracts the work to. How distinct are these roles? How should a communications director evaluate the capacity of a design firm and its typographical team? Does it matter?

Although it pays off for communications directors to have a good basic knowledge of type, typography is a specialized area in graphic design, so it is best left up to professionals. Thanks to the omnipresence of the computer and the average users’ increased familiarity with fonts, people are now more aware of typography and often succeed in judging whether a specific typographic solution looks and feels right. This should help communication directors to decide whom to work with. However, once the job has been assigned to someone they are best served by trusting the graphic designer/typographer’s know-how and experience. It is the latter’s job to correctly analyze the content and give it the appropriate typographic treatment.

Given the tendency to default to something appalling and the prevailing view that content is the crucial element…
how important is type in a digital setting? Why does typography matter in an almost post-print world?

The choice of the typeface(s) and the typographically correct usage of the font(s) greatly influence how the text is perceived by the reader. People are much more visually oriented and design-savvy these days, so they definitely will notice if the type looks good and reads well or not. Poor setting of the type will result in the content simply not being read. In that regard type is extremely important if content is the crucial element. Further
more screens with their comparatively low resolution are notoriously poor at representing text matter, so it takes experienced graphic designers/typographers to get the most out of this difficult medium.

Online there seems to be a tyranny of Helvetica, Verdana and Times New Roman. And common self-publishing tools like blogs are driving conformity. How can we circumvent this given the default fonts of browsers and the need for functions like key-word searchability? Are we just taking the lazy person’s way out?

I think we are now at the threshold of a new era of more typographic refinement on the Internet, with embedded open type (EOT) and @fontface and so on ready to be implemented widely. There are still some hurdles left to clear, but I’m pretty confident things are going to work out for the best. Personally I have never had any real problems with the restrictions of online typography, because there are enough parameters that can be controlled to ensure maximum legibility. I’m a very pragmatic person, and as such accept that text is represented in a default font in online communication. Just like I took peace with the fact that the first photocopiers were only black and white, and that a logo has to work in one single flat colour. There are no restrictions, only challenges, and a good graphic designer can turn those so-called restrictions into assets. Give a poor designer an exquisite typeface and you’ll still get a mediocre end result. A good designer on the other hand is able to achieve a silky-smooth text setting with any plain default font.

Communications directors often come from non-arts backgrounds – business, marketing, journalism… and, if there are type components to the visual identities they have for their organizations, they are usually devised by external consultants and presented as a fait accompli (some even inherit identities). How should they school themselves in typography and develop sensitivity to, and appreciation for, it?

I wouldn’t go as far as to try and convince them to read The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst or Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy – although I highly recommend it – but a primer like Erik Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep or Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type are perfect introductions to the wonderful world of typography in graphic design. Plus nowadays there are countless online resources where one can read and learn about type and typography in short bursts, in a both relevant and entertaining way. “Best of” lists of recommended type and design websites are frequently posted online, and there usually is something for everyone in there.

Favourite font? Least favourite?

That’s a tough one – as I write about type and typography on The FontFeed and Unzipped, and occasionally review new typefaces in my Bald Condensed columns on I am constantly exposed to exciting new designs, so my preferences shift a lot. I prefer my type less obvious, not too slick, and it needs to have some bite to it. I want to be surprised by a new typeface, like Fred Smeijers’ Ludwig or Jack Usine’s Vidange. But if I had to pick one off the top of my head, let’s maybe take an outsider – the lesser known FF Hydra, for its slightly squarish, compact shapes, its tense outlines and its gutsy ink traps.
Talking about professional type design I used to say that there are no such things as bad typefaces, only bad typographers, but of course there are more than a few appalling designs out there. It would be unfair to single out certain designs that have aged poorly or which are being used inappropriately. If there’s one typeface that massively gets on my nerves – mine and countless others’ by the way – that would be Comic Sans. Some people try to rehabilitate it by saying it is overused or used for things it wasn’t intended for, but that’s plain rubbish. It has nothing to do with children’s writing nor comic book lettering; it just is a poorly designed train wreck of a script that is impossible to use well. And it’s everywhere [ed. there's a movement to ban this font, check out Ban Comic Sans] .

How quickly can you identify a specific font? Is it intuitive at this point like a connoisseur tasting a wine and being able to name the vintage and vineyard?

It does feel intuitive since a couple of years, and the overall “feel” of a word or sentence often is enough to set me on the right course. Yet I’m pretty sure I still identify typefaces by recognizing key characters. Let’s say that half of the typefaces I can identify almost immediately, and some more I can track down with a minimum of research. And if I can’t pinpoint it straight away sometimes I can deduct from the structure of the curves or the flavour of the typeface who designed it or what foundry it is from.

How does playing in a band shape your work as a typographer, if at all? Or are they two different worlds?

There are many parallels. Graphic design is mixing different elements like images, colours, shapes, type, and so on – arranging and balancing those elements, and making them work in harmony, just like the different instruments in a band. And being a drummer helped me appreciate rhythm is vital to typography. It’s in the baseline grid, and how you can subdivide and multiply the base unit to find new related grids. There is an internal rhythm in words and characters, and character spacing, kerning, and word spacing ensure it is not disturbed. And specifying different type sizes in a design works best when there is a logical relationship based on multiples.


Yves seems to be everywhere on the web. You can learn more about type and Yves Peters at Fontfeed, Unzipped, and a few other sites like Typophile. You can also follow him on Twitter as 'BaldCondensed.' And check out his band too.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Whither Widgets?

Widgets used to be for undergrad economics assignments and Warner Brothers cartoons… as in “Acme Widgets Inc.”

Depending on who you talk to, the idea of small chunks of code doing things autonomously (like running a clock or a stock ticker) owes its origins to Bill Gates (his Active Desktop for Windows had bits and pieces that drew information from the Internet) or Apple (their Desk Accessories bundle of programs for the Mac came out in 1981 but it didn’t connect to the Internet because there wasn’t much of one at that time) or the ominously-named Athena Project (not, as I thought, a scheme for world domination but a graphical user interface enterprise out of MIT). It really doesn’t matter because – like Zebra mussels, they’re here and they’re (almost) everywhere.

What is a widget? It’s a little portable application that runs autonomously and can do stuff. You can put it on a website (the most common environment for widgets), install it on a desktop (check out Facebooker, which allows you to access Facebook from your desktop without opening a browser) or a mobile device such as a Blackberry, iPhone or other smart phone. Think of a widget as a simple, micro-application.
You might also know it by the more dignified name of 'app' as in Google Apps or the App Store on your iPhone.

What is not a widget? While click-
through banner (and other) advertisements with animated GIFs may be considered the granddaddies of widgets, they are not in and of themselves, widgets. They’re prehistoric vestiges of a simpler time. More importantly, most folks dislike advertisements and making them more animated and more obtrusive just annoys them further. Widgets are different; they invite interaction. That ‘permission-based’ interactivity is a crucial distinction.

I interviewed Tom Sprows, a widget pioneer and IT consultant, for this article. He provided a taxonomy of widgets. It goes like this:
  • Informational like Next Episode, which lets you know when your favourite show is scheduled
  • Games whether classic arcade or simplified sports
  • Utility useful stuff like FedEx shipment tracker or Second Life Search
  • Silly most of the stuff you see on Facebook
  • Interactive chat-based, message ability, user content, sliders, puzzles and so on
I would add ‘entertainment’ like’s greatest moments in basketball history widget.

For many of us the most obvious widgets are those we bump into on Facebook or these seemingly ubiquitous ones deployed on affiliate websites.

But it's not just a tool for private sector marketers. Not-for-profit folks and governments can use widgets to build profile. Just ask the Pew Foundation. You can put their widget on your site if you want to show off social and demographic trends your users could find useful. Purveyors of all sorts of data can use this approach - from health researchers to pollsters.

So what's good about widgets? Well, functionally they have several selling points. They put you, your brand and your message into a setting (the host website) that gives them a context, an association. They move... and are (or should be) interactive enough to gain and hold attention. And they're sticky. If you've built it right it will be visually arresting with enough utility or entertainment factor to keep your audience for a while.

Strategically, widgets are also good (if made right). They can create engagement opportunities with your audiences. They can make your brand and messaging portable across a variety of settings outside of your own hosted environments (pointing back to them too). And they generate opportunities to build your brands by appropriate positioning that creates an association between the attributes of the website that your widget is on and your brand.

Hold up for a second though. Folks who know my opinion on social media will know what's coming. You don't need a 'widget strategy.' You need a plan to use widgets as part of your cohesive web strategy, one that supports the widget tactics with other online elements. Widgets are tools, not a strategy unto themselves.

There are things to keep in mind when using these tools. For one, where to place them? This comes back to (you guessed it) - understanding your audience. It's like deja vu all over again. You'll need a sense of where online your audiences gather and what they do there. Is it a social club like Facebook? Or a shopping expedition? You need to know. From that you're going to think long and hard about widget placement (I'm leaving aside the viral possibilities for now). Then you need to construct a widget that does something, one thing, and does it very well (creatively and/or functionally). Simple is best.

There's a great wide world of widgetry opening up. One in which widgets may connect to other widgets to offer greater and more complex functionality ('widget mashing'). And the potential for greater user modification and content generation too. That's the good news.

Now let me rain a little on the parade. There are, of course, bad widgets out there, ones with malware and such. But there are bigger issues.The most basic one is what people are doing when they're online and encounter your widget. Two scenarios - if I'm looking at a website about Vienna and there's an Amazon affiliate widget showing me some cool travel books about Austria; I might just click on it. But if I'm updating my status on Facebook (because my friends are just aching to know what I've been up to) then chances are I'll tune out any widgets on the periphery... unless they connect with my sense of fun and my image of myself and my circle of friends. My point is that widgets that are tangential to an audience's purpose online will be ignored. You need to know why your audience is in a particular web environment in the first place and design your tool from there.

I remain sceptical of any tool that presents itself as a 'solution' or a 'strategy.' That goes for tactics too. Whether it's a widget or word of mouth marketing - what we're talking about is a potential opportunity to form a connection. Blindly launching a foray without understanding the nature of your audience and the way in which they want to connect is not going to get you very far.

Having said all that, I'm not totally negative on widgets. They're not pointless as some have argued. But they're not the complete future of online marketing. Widgets are one of the ways in which the static website is slowly being bled to death or at least hamstrung. It seems to me that such sites will shortly be simply launch platforms for more fluid and dynamic interactions. Will there be a place for static websites? Yes, just as there's a place for old-fashioned billboards. Will we want to interact with them? No, not very much. Will widgets empower this more fluid interaction? I think so.