The devil is in the detail

When meeting new people in social situations, after they’ve established I know nothing about football, their next line of questioning is usually: ‘So, what do you do for a living?’

My response of: ‘I’m a graphic designer’ is often met with: ‘Ooh, what sort of things do you design?’ The truth is, of course, ‘whatever the client needs’, but people like a bit more detail than that, so I have to think what I’ve been up to that week and reel off stuff such as posters, brochures, leaflets… and sometimes this evokes the response: ‘Oh right… I didn’t realise that stuff actually had to be designed.’

Reading business

What? Did you think it all just came into existence by magic?! If I may quote Elvis Costello: ‘I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused’. A lot of graphic design (Oculus-created impactful, engaging and effective marketing campaigns notwithstanding) is simply out there quietly doing its job of informing people of stuff, making information more digestible and suchlike.

The designer’s skill is to grab all those words, numbers and pictures (or ‘content’ as it’s called nowadays) and present it in an attractive way that people are likely to want to read. It’s when it’s badly designed that it jars and stops people engaging with it.

An example of bad graphic design is evident in a new burger restaurant recently opened in Reading. I won’t name names, but they are part of a big chain from the US (although this is only their second branch in the UK), so you’d think they would have the sense – and funds – to have a decent corporate graphical style, but no. The logotype starts things off: Bold Helvetica Neue caps. Nothing groundbreaking there, but inoffensive enough. The kerning is a bit dodgy, though. Then things go downhill.

The strapline is set in a nasty felt-tip font, normally found languishing at the bottom of a PowerPoint-style menu. An eye-catching red and white colour scheme is OK too, I guess, including an abundance of checkered panels. These checks, though, are awkwardly applied to everything in sight. This includes all other signage, clumsily set in all manner of cheap-looking fonts, presumably the only ones available in CorelDRAW or whatever software they were created in.

It’s all quite distressing for a sensitive typographer such as myself, and almost put me off my double cheeseburger, which was otherwise delicious. I find it incredible that they could build a brand big enough to cross the Atlantic, but have branding that’s not even fit for a kebab van.

Design, of course, is always very subjective, but there are many basic ‘rules’ being broken.

Like most things, typography has its own set of rules and terminology, which help to get things looking ‘right’. One thing that is done very much by eye, though, is the ‘black art’ of kerning, which I mentioned earlier.

For those who don’t know, it’s the process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a word to achieve a visually pleasing result. Such attention to detail is usually only reserved for headings (and, of course, logos), but nothing makes a designer’s heart leap quite like a nice bit of kerned type.

Before I get carried away, though, why not have a go yourself with this fun game: