Some articles are like that

Some time back, our senior designer pitched me a story idea for setting callouts, those short blocks of oversize copy that you often see interrupting the text in print articles, particularly in magazines.

Because magazine design is my favorite topic, I said okay, which may not have been the right answer. I say that because we immediately got stuck, and it took us two months to get unstuck.

There are many ways to design callouts, from the prosaic to the spectacular. The idea was to present two dozen good-looking examples, giving you a cheery little buffet from which to pick and choose. But that’s before we’d had our coffee and started thinking. Which two dozen? Long ones or short ones? Big type or small? Wide or narrow? Center of the page? Top? Bottom? Which typefaces? Why? What will they say? How about color? How do they interact with other elements on the page?

It soon became evident that his innocent little idea had faked us out, as design often does. Fakeouts happen when what you think you see and what’s actually going on are different.

Take this example. Cute shape, hand lettering, it looks fine in the context of this page. I can tell you that its typeface is 34-pt Litterbox ICG, that the shape is hand-drawn in InDesign, and that the color is a 50% tint of Pantone 132, which displays onscreen as R202, G171, B123. That’s enough information to make one yourself. But there’s a problem. The problem is that you’re working on a heart-disease brochure or a hardware catalog or a water-conservation report, and, well, none of this applies to you.

You need something serious, and this little cartoon isn’t it.

So how to make the article? “Serious” isn’t something you pull out of a hat — as in, “use this typeface, that size, this color, that position.” It involves a whole cascade of attributes developed in response to the context in which it exists. “Serious” as in war casualties is different from “serious” as in getting your hair right for a date.

The part of design that fools you, that your eyes don’t see — the part that’s actually going on — is this context thing (which, by the way, is what clients know that designers often don’t). Design — at least commercial design — exists for a purpose. And without the purpose, the design is pointless — mere decoration, clip-art, filler.

You can spend hours, days, weeks trying to design something cool, but if the context is unclear or unknown, it never works. Cool looks are simply not enough. In our case, to connect callouts to context, we started the article over four times, literally, from scratch.

Context is the unseen, unheralded, unappreciated driver of design.

Talk to me.


0669 | Callout ideas | Before & After magazine

How did our callout story turn out? See for yourself in Before & After article 0669. Those of you with our Master Collection DVD will find it in issue 47.

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20 Responses to Some articles are like that

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    Just as writers need to have their audience firmly in mind, so do designers. Senior citizens and young readers may need larger type. Lawyers and Comic Sans don’t mix. A rectilinear design may benefit from some soft curves but, if not a significant part of the design, may just appear to clash with the rest.

    Context is king!

  2. Pamela Vozza says:

    I intentionally wanted to respond to this article before I even went to look at the callout piece, because I loved how you described the process of getting stuck and how the real problem revealed itself not as imperfect callouts, but discovering (or rediscovering?) that context is everything!

    Just this week I had to lead a team brainstorm with non-creative types who are working on a campaign/set of online tools that we are striving to brand. My job as the creative was to educate and guide them through the brainstorming process. It’s not about choosing the colors they like, but, as you said, they need to consider the context within which people will be using our materials. How do we want our members to think and feel about us when they see our materials? (Which led nicely into looking at the psychology of color and fonts!) I told them honestly that marketing is a subtle form of manipulation, and, just as I was guiding their discussion, they needed to think about how they are guiding the emotional and intellectual response of their reader/viewer.

    Love hearing about others’ creative process — thanks for sharing :-)

    • Pamela, it sounds like that brainstorming session went well. I’m starting a website redesign project right now and trying to convince folks that not everyone’s favorite color is the same as theirs. Always a challenge.

  3. Chris R says:

    I cannot tell you how many times I’m asked to design a web page or a brochure without any of the content having been developed, and getting a deer-in-the-headlights look when I explain that I don’t decorate the house before the walls have been framed.

    All too many folks think that design entails making “things” look pretty, but don’t grasp that “pretty” is specific to the context. What is your content strategy? Are the pages going to have large blocks of text or be focused on imagery? Etc.

  4. LOL! “I don’t decorate the house before the walls have been framed.” Perfect expression. Good one, Chris R.

    I try to explain context to clients who want me to design their ebook covers. The flavor of the story or book has to be part of the design.

    Thanks for the article, John. Brilliant as always. But please give us more videos. Love your video tutorials!

  5. Chris – I constantly run into the same thing! Not only do people think design is all about making things look pretty, but everyone thinks they’re a designer! Design is about problem solving, and context helps define the problem that we need to solve.

    • Sally Jelbert says:

      Well said, Ty. I come across this all the time and it’s so frustrating. Understanding why things work together, why certain colours look good and others don’t, knowing what typefaces go together and how to make a design work (balance, colour, fonts, etc.) all take experience and knowledge. Sadly, some people think that having access to design software makes them a designer. As I read somewhere (maybe here), I might drive a car, but it doesn’t make me a racing car driver.

  6. joan carey says:

    It all comes down to the “voice” of the design . . . each font, color and image all play a part in telling the story. As designers, we use these elements to evoke a mood, to draw the reader into the piece, so that they can better understand what is being communicated.

  7. margaret says:

    Another thought-provoking article and such interesting comments as well! I agree that people seem to regard design as a starting point instead of considering what it is that they want to convey. I have a similar problem at my workplace with technology. People discover a new tool and think that they should use it for every purpose under the sun, even when it is totally inappropriate. I am constantly trying to get people to think about what they’re trying to achieve as the place to start, rather than what looks cool.

  8. Pingback: Some articles are like that | Before & After | Design Talk | Smart Websites and Graphic Design |

  9. On the bright side, John, look at the bright drop of wisdom you were able to distill from a very difficult project! And you’re right, context is everything in design.

    I’ve learned the hard way to instruct new small- and medium-business clients, who generally aren’t used to working with a professional design studio, that when I send them a design concept they must not try to be careful of my artistic sensitivities, because I don’t have any. It’s the client’s message I’m trying to communicate, not mine, and I need real feedback, because I don’t know their product or their audience (context!) nearly as well as they do.

    They also get used to my climbing inside their heads so I can get a better view of their needs. :-)

  10. Louise C says:

    Yes, context is the driver, and just when you think you know what a client wants and needs, you discover you don’t know at all.

    My latest context detour was a project for water management, where my concept of clean, clear, blue was ridiculous for a company solving contaminated land and groundwater problems.

    Sheesh . . . time wasted because I was already designing before I listened.

    P.S.: Just revisited article 0669 in Issue 47, and I’m glad you took the time to design and lay out great examples of timeless design and layout.

  11. Sally Jelbert says:

    I just want to say that every time I read an article on here, or go back through one of your books, I learn something. I love this website and forum; it’s fantastic to hear other designers’ opinions, challenge my own thinking, and look for new creative solutions. Thank you for making this so accessible — it’s my favourite design resource and a big influence on my work.

  12. Nikola says:

    Designer = artist for rent.

    So . . . :-) you/we need a client.

  13. You used heart disease as an example of a context where it’s obvious no one would want to use a humor. You also say that the client generally knows more than the designer about the context. Not so fast — I think your topic of “context” is even larger and more challenging than you may be thinking. While it’s true that the client knows more than the designer, it’s also true that the client invariably has false assumptions about the target audience and the context. That’s why I started my own design firm; so we could do ethnographic research on the target’s context before we do design.

    Back to your example: Researching people with heart disease, we found that they long for a little humor in their instructions. They know that heart disease gets us all in the end, so can’t we laugh a little at it? My firm designed a kit of materials that bring a sophisticated, adult lightheartedness to the situation in contrast to the “serious” handouts of body parts, danger, duty, and death. The kit has sold thousands every year for the last decade, reducing the rate of readmission by over 70% — even eliminating readmissions altogether in one hospital on the south side of Chicago that had an extra-high return rate of over 28% when they started using the kit.

    My point is not to leap on this one false assumption in your article, that a designer should avoid humor in heart disease, but rather I would like to cast my vote for the importance of doing context research before every design project.

    • John McWade says:

      @Sylvia: GREAT post! The topic you’ve raised goes so deep that it could be a study of its own (and maybe a book), which appears to be exactly what your firm does. I was reaching for an easy example, but fact is, as you pointed out, not only is the designer susceptible to false assumptions (“no humor about heart disease” — not quite my intent, but hey), so is the client. We should revisit this in more depth in a future post.

      • Maria says:

        This part of the article spoke to me. I do a lot of design for medical publishers. It is a very fine line that I walk as a designer — it’s a serious subject, but it also has to be informative and stand out in a crowd. (I tend to do a lot of clean, crisp type with as much white space as allowed by the volume of copy). I have found that while the patients may appreciate humor, the doctors do not! Even with medical marketing there can be more than one audience. I have to find out at the start of a project whether the piece is going to professionals, patients, or even medical librarians. Each one has a specific set of “rules” when choosing fonts or even stock photography (no needles on a book cover EVER!)

        What first grabbed my attention in this article was the thought bubble callout. I had a different client (non-medical) that wanted to use speech bubble callouts in a book that they had written on marketing. In fact, they had given me the clip-art (yikes!) bubbles to use. I did as I was told, but over the course of the approval of the sample pages, it was wisely decided to go for a more conservative, “grown-up” callout — 20pt Gill Sans Light with a 1 pt rule above in color to match the accent color used in the chapter. The authors thanked me for making their book less “cartoony” and more serious. That said, I am working on a children’s book right now and am hoping to use some callouts that are more whimsical this time around.

        Thanks for another fun topic!

  14. Fernando says:

    If it helps to communicate the idea, use it. If not, take it out.

    Let’s take this article for example. Even though the article’s theme in itself wasn’t “cute” or intended for kids, that “cute” shape helped in communicating the article’s main idea.

  15. Droolcup says:

    As ever, Yoda, good post and good comments. What I take from this is that it’s all about communication and whatever interferes must be removed. That said, there are often multiple ways to get an idea across, and depending upon the target audience, you may use humor in one setting and seriousness in another. That is why some ads are varied for different markets.

    Excellent that folks are moving their egos out of the way in these projects, but that’s expected from readers of this caliber. Our job is to serve. I once had a teacher who said “If you have to stand on your head and spit nickels to get them to understand, that’s what you do!” Regarding creativity, another instructor said that one should approach the problem like Michelangelo: He took a big hunk of marble and just kept removing (editing) everything that didn’t look like David. Editing down to the message is good.

    A two-time cancer survivor, I concur that humor can be a very good thing: my best cartooning came from the ludicrousness of some situations you find yourself in. We’re all human and we all suffer, but there’s no point in perennial gloom, and lots of things ARE funny. But know your audience first. Sometimes those in the audience take themselves too seriously to enjoy a little fun . . .

  16. HH says:

    Great point. Great message. I find that even though at times I may want to create the really great “wow” effect, it’s sometimes hard to achieve that when your purpose is really to communicate context and response. I think that’s where the real fun challenge of blending art and communication comes in, and your customer is happy.

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