Why WordArt Must Die

It’s no good, I can’t take it any more, I can’t bear the sight of one more rainbow coloured 3D abomination sprawled across the top of an advert or email like the vomit of some hideous creature.  I can’t hold back the need to scream when someone says, full of pride “oh, you design adverts, have a look at my business card, what do you think of that?  I did it myself in Word, look it has 3D text!”

Please, for the love of all that is good and pure in graphic design, please Microsoft remove this feature, beloved of those who want to do their own ads or business cards on the cheap (or don’t know anyone who’ll knock up something on the side), from your otherwise excellent products.

It goes like this, someone buys a computer for their business, gets Office, plays around with it and sees this WordArt thing and, being inexperienced in design, goes overboard with the “special effects” and slap on some clip art for good measure.  They may think it looks bold and distinctive but tends to look cheap.  Good design should look good and be functional, there are guidelines that help publications stand out, look professional and be readable or informative.  Not using too many fonts is one, not using WordArt is another.

Yes it’s perhaps fun to use for a local fete or notice board item advertising your next company bowling night but on anything intended to make a business look professional it just looks unprofessional, customers can infer that little effort and expense was put into it.  In many ways WordArt is like many tools – a well-intentioned piece of software misued horribly.

Keep the wizards – they can guide people to a nice piece of artwork, hell even I’m using a template for this blog myself because I’m an old-fashioned paper layout designer and haven’t got to grips with coding websites – but ditch the WordArt – take it out back of the Campus, where you took old Clippy, and put it out of its misery.  Please.

Old is the New… New

Alfa Romeo Duetto

Alfa Romeo Duetto (Photo credit: lewong2000)

It seems that the more we step forward into the blinding light of our techno future the more people seem to be looking back.  Retro is still with us and is increasingly seen as a mainstream design choice.  As I see it the reasons are varied and often depend on the product.

For some the appeal of retro design comes from the feeling that designs from the fifties and sixties were crafted with more care and solidity, with metal rather than plastic, with levers and cranks that moved with a reassuring smoothness, clicked and whirred precisely giving a sense that they’d last forever and that you were getting what you paid for.  Such is the case with cameras such as Digital Leica rangefinders that remain true to their film predecessors’ styling and construction; Fujifilm’s X100, X1 and X-Pro1 cameras which are also built from metals and leather patterned plastic; and my favourite the Olympus OM-D E-M5 digital system camera which from most angles looks as solid, sleek and minimalist as the old OM series cameras – it’s only round the back that you see the array of buttons and the large screen that betray it’s 21st Century innards.  It is true that these cameras are relatively expensive and for many that will be the reason they’ll buy them but there is also another reason for products like these: to look longingly at what is often perceived as a better time in society as well as manufacturing.

Many retro products aim squarely at a time before bling when cool meant understated presence, celebrities and celebrity photographers used Leicas, drove E-type Jags and Alfa Duettos – the latter cars also currently being reborn with new century tech and tweaked, sharper lines to again bridge the gap between the past and the future.  There are hints of the rejection of overt showiness and loud celeb culture beginning to emerge.  In fashion and advertising the likes of TV shows such as Mad Men are having an effect for the same reason.  Stella Artois’ current campaigns have an obvious fifties-sixties style to associate the brand with what is seen as classic cool.

Instagram and Hipstamatic photos flood daily into Facebook and while the low-fi style of these is fun and interesting too many of the people taking the shots take the whole thing too seriously telling people that their pictures are more “authentic” because they look like old photos taken with film cameras, this kind of retro though is not strictly accurate though as film hasn’t had the kind of graininess and vignetting applied by these apps for most of the last fifty years, unless you had a really cheap camera, like the ones that you can now buy imitations of to deliberately get the poor quality – because it looks cool, of course.

So retro is either a desire to emulate a seemingly better time before our throwaway society and our transient carbon-copy celebrities, or it’s a fad to show how unconventional you are, or it’s a way to say how well off and tasteful you are, or it’s a case of designers taking cues from a time where form and function both mattered and subtlety had more impact than in-your-face showiness to create something truly stylish and often beautiful.

To create the future it is often useful to reference the past, both for its mistakes and its triumphs.

Edits – A Beautiful Online Magazine

Edits Magazine Front Page

Gizmodo UK reported a few months back about an online magazine about photography that is unlike any other and I’ve been meaning to post about it on here as it is very much a pointer to how digital magazines should embrace the possibilities of the technology.

Edits Quarterly, by Ian Coyle, doesn’t try to recreate the look and feel of a paper magazine, you simply scroll down it, or rather the images and pages smoothly, seamlessly slide upwards revealing the next article.  The use of typography is wonderful, the imagery striking and the articles are superbly written.

It is a truly innovative and beautiful publication.

[Edits via Gizmodo UK]

Keeping it Less Real

Windows 3.0, released in 1990

Windows 3.0, released in 1990 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re old enough to remember the Windows 3.0 era then you’ll remember the heady excitement we felt of having real on-screen 3D buttons that moved in and out when clicked, giving a real sense of interaction.

This inevitably grew as hardware and software improved and soon we were greeted with music players that looked like real life stacking audio centres, photo tweakers designed for home use that sprouted all kinds of curves and colours, buttons and switches designed to make them look like the kind of futuristic handheld device we’d all be using to edit our digital photos in the 21st century.

Today this kind of effect is a doddle for modern computers but is it really necessary any more?  This is the current argument in interface design, or rather user experience (UX) design as it’s known now.

Back then computer interfaces were grey, cold, businesslike and the “realistic” apps were generally for more leisure based activities like editing photos at home, listening to music, watching movies and so developers made them more familiar and more friendly looking for the home users by emulating the physical interfaces people were generally used to, even if some of the designs could be, erm, bright, colour-scheme wise, looking like the result of a focus-group based on a primary school art class.  Even Windows XP went all technicolour in an attempt to escape the greyness.

However as computers have become more a part of our lives and more people are becoming accustomed to using web pages and modern shiny system like Windows 7 and OSX these imitations of the physical world on the 2D screen have, in places, started to look gimmicky.  Do users interact more easily with an iPad notebook app if it has a fake leather cover and bindings down the side?  Some people think so while others feel that the future is a “digitally pure” interface which presents information in a clear, at a glance manner without the need to emulate something real, after all you can see that you’re holding a little computer in your hand why does screen space need to be used up with decoration?

Fans of skeuomorphic apps (as these imitations of physical objects are called) say that the visual cues like Apple’s leather binding on the edge of its contact book app or the faux paintbrushes at the edges of many photo editors help to differentiate different apps for novice users and make the phone or computer easier to navigate.  Opponents point out that it’s the content that people will look at and recognise, knowing that a list that contains Aunt Mable is likely to be either Contacts or Facebook but they’re unlikely to think “I don’t know anyone called Amy Winehouse.”  Therefore clear, accessible and usable content is the thing.

As mainstream interface design moves away from the skeuomorphic we’re starting to see more emphasis on usability – toolbars containing elements other than buttons and sliders now that they’re not pretending to be the control panel of a 747 – on-screen dialogs in programs that adapt and flow, presenting a page of dynamic information and choices rather than a panel of switches.  3D effects are toned down to simply hint at the boundaries of the bit you’re meant to click on.

Pure digital has it’s advantages that skeuomorphism can’t compete with, after all if you pretend to be a notepad you have to live with a notepad’s physical limitations.  Perhaps there’s an element of the current trend for minimal, clean lines in design rather than bling but as long as it’s not taken too far this can help to improve usability.

Imitating the real still occasionally has a place, like the satisfying animated page turn when using an ebook reader but the tide is turning and designers are realising that modern purely digital interfaces don’t have to be boring and grey, that by utilising typography, colours, shapes and icons they can be vibrant, interesting, and have a life, and identity, of their own.