The Gauche in the Machine


Newsletter, front pageRudibus ex machina: criticizing Collingwood’s latest newsletter feels a bit like punching a puppy. Or commenting on the sloppy grammar of local bloggers. Both are far too easy, like catching fish in a barrel, and I feel guilty when I even think of doing it.

But since your tax dollars are at work, it needs to be done. Someone needs to stand up and say this is not the standard  we expect from a $55 million-a-year corporation. This might be a good runner-up in a high school contest, but it is not a professional product appropriate for municipal communications.*

This piece, I’ve been told, was not produced by the town’s communications director, but rather by the clerk’s office. It was not seen – or approved by, let alone edited – by the mayor or council before it went out. Since the clerk’s office reports to the CAO, the ultimate responsibility for this piece of dreck lies with the CAO. That’s where the buck stops; that’s where we expect accountability. But where was it?

Let’s get the basics over first: it’s not a newsletter. There is nothing in it about the town’s finances, budget preparations, parks, facilities, economic development, library – nothing about ANY department. Nothing newsworthy at all. A full third of it is about the self-described “strategic plan” (which is neither) – information that’s already months old!

It has as much in common with news as a grocery store flyer. It’s an ad sheet. It does little more than regurgitate content from the town’s atrocious advertising in the EB.*

Who does it serve? What is the target audience? Is there a theme, or a focus? Where is the news?

In terms of design, content, layout, graphics, it’s awful. Bloody awful.

Not the sort of awful that King Charles used when he called Christopher Wren’s design for St. Paul’s cathedral “amusing, awful and artificial.” By awful, he meant awe-inspiring; something that inspired reverential wonder, or even fear. Which I certainly don’t mean, and refer readers to the more current definition: shite.

Newsletter, front pageIt’s not as drab as the previous newsletter, and certainly more colourful, but in terms of artistic design, it’s equally cringe-worthy. Awful, in its modern sense, will suffice. But like the last publication. it’s not a newsletter; just an ad sheet.

As far as I am aware, the Town of Collingwood won’t spring for real page layout software like InDesign or CorelDraw, so the newsletter is likely still created in Microsoft Publisher (or worse: Word). Which is to layout and design what a crayon sidewalk scrawl is to a Shakespeare play. You get what you pay for.

But even lumbered by the inefficiencies and inanities of Publisher, a reasonably good design could still be beaten out by a competent designer who adhered to some basic design rules and style. None of which were apparently considered when this was being cobbled together. ( I cannot say it was crafted…)

What rules, you ask? Well, the first one is white space. It has none. This thing is as dense as a brick. Even the margins and spaces between columns are so small that the text runs into itself horizontally. The eye has no idea where to go, what is important, where to look. It’s like reading street pavement. Ever notice the individual bricks on the main street sidewalks? Tightly fitted together so you see a pattern, but not the individual bricks.

They’re like the words in this publication.

Look at this closeup:

Newsletter closeup

The narrowness of the space between columns, coupled with the lax placement of the graphic makes it look like the sentence reads “The Collingwood Fire Department rooms that may be occupied by…” which makes no sense. The last line in the piece suffers equal confusion. It reads, “…has a smoke alarm, especially spare Departments at 705…”

Had anyone proofread this, they would have caught these problems. Proper use of white space would mitigate this and eliminate the confusion.

Plus, the body and headline are far too close to one another for comfort. It looks cramped. As do most pieces.  The leading in four of the articles is far too tight for legibility. There’s no breathing space.

The headline is in all-caps; this is a common gaffe among non-designers. You don’t emphasize a headline with BIG LETTERS. You do it by good design and crisp writing.

And why the exclamation mark in the headline? Is this war? Did a meteor strike the town? if not, eschew the exclamation marks when dealing with mundane topics. No, it’s a smoke alarm. Unnecessary exclamation marks come across like six-year-olds demanding attention in the playground: loud and annoying.

(There’s more: I’ve been told the information in this piece isn’t correct. All bedrooms don’t need smoke alarms – only new construction or renovations. Did anyone show this to the fire chief BEFORE it was published?)

As blogger Keith Robertson writes, “…white space can make or break the effective transmission of image and text.” And Paul Boag adds,

Whitespace is a fundamental building block of good design. Its one of the first thing any visual designer is taught…  Used well it can transform a design and provide many benefits… The most obvious benefit of whitespace is that it increases legibility… whitespace between paragraphs and around blocks of text actually helps people understand what they are reading better. According to research in 2004, this kind of whitespace increases comprehension by almost 20%… the use of whitespace can be a powerful way to communicate elegance, openness and freshness… Another common reason for whitespace being removed from a design is because there is a desire to communicate too much information at one time.

The second rule is about typefaces (which you probably think of as fonts, which isn’t correct). You need variation, as well as legibility. You need proper kerning in your headlines, and sufficient leading in your body text, too. And if you don’t know what kerning or leading are, then you have no business working on this stuff.

Type isn’t just the building blocks of words. It is a core design element. Type is not merely to inform, but to excite, to entertain, to interest, to draw attention to, to express emotion, to focus. To do that, you need to understand how type works; how type is classified; how type families work together or create tension. Smashing Magazine noted:

By far the most popular principle for creating typeface combinations is to pair a sans serif header typeface with a serif body typeface. This is a classic combination, and it’s almost impossible to get wrong… Typefaces of the same classification, but from different typeface families, can easily create discord when combined. Their distinct personalities don’t play well off of each other and create a kind of typographic mud if careful attention is not paid.

This publication has one typeface for body text throughout. It’s all the same in every article (Arial, I’m guessing, but possibly Helvetica or Swiss). Headline type is a modest variation on Arial (possibly Calibri). And to make it worse, they’re both similar sans-serif faces. The whole thing is in sans serif; proven in dozens of studies to be less readable than serif fonts for printed body text.

The sameness makes it hard to see anything: nothing stands out. Nothing catches the eye. It’s a drab monotone of type. It’s the Arctic gulag of newsletters.

Take a look at the image below:

Newsletter closeup

That’s a line of 12pt type that runs more than eight inches in width. That’s well beyond the comprehension level, as I previously explained. The same for the text on the bottom of the reverse side. For that width, the type should be at least 18pt, or even 24pt. Otherwise readability is lost. People’s eyes get tired halfway through and start to wander. No one reads a sentence that wide.

The golden number for body copy line lengths is a minimum of six words per line and an average of about 30-40 characters (including spaces) on each line. Any less and your sentences will be too choppy, any more and you risk your sentences becoming tedious and difficult for the eye to get through.

The circles above point out the inconsistencies and errors in capitalization: Refugees and refugees, and Funds. I never understood why government employees in all countries and at all levels felt the need to Capitalize Everything However Insignificant or put their HEADLINES IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Perhaps they have to inflate the importance of mundane objects to compensate for the dullness of their jobs.

To add to this is the justified type in every single piece. Full justification creates odd, ugly rivers and blocks of space that need mitigation through manual hyphenation, which clearly wasn’t done.

There’s nothing wrong with using full justification in some articles, but the eye needs variation otherwise it starts to skip content. Mixing it with left-justified articles would have made this visually more appealing. And, as I said, full justification requires the designed to carefully hyphenate the text manually to avoid the excess gaps.

It also requires the creator to NOT use a double space after a period or other punctuation – but this one has just that. Since layout programs all insert space after the punctuation when justifying text, this just exacerbates the ugliness with MORE unnecessary space. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate:

Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong… The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually… Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period.

Rule number three is: know the language. If you’re not an editor, not a writer, or if English isn’t your core strength, then find someone who can proofread your copy and tighten it up. There’s no shame in being edited. It will avoid such glaring grammatical gaffes as this:

Newsletter closeup

Of course my readers immediately recognized that it requires the objective: “…a guide to whom…” But the whole thing is clumsy and awkward, and ends in the puerile exclamation mark. It could simply say, “See the reverse if you have questions about the town.” Not “for the Town” as if you’re asking Kim Il Jong for answers. Not ‘when’ because that presupposes readers WILL have questions. And if that’s the case, then the town has failed in its responsibility to communicate effectively.

The writing style can be best categorized as atrocious. The document is peppered with the passive voice and clichéd writing: “…has been completed, approved by Council…”, “…which was developed…”, “residents are reminded…”, “…has been provided…”, ” work is expected…”. Passive voice – so beloved of bureaucracies – just waters down the writing to impotent flaccidity.

Modern word processors all have grammar checkers that can identify passive voice easily. Why didn’t anyone use the tools available to check and correct? The passive voice has a proper place, but in most instances here, the active should have been chosen. The passive dissociates the council and staff from the actions:

We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus “Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children” places the burden on the ads — as opposed to “We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,” in which “we” accepts responsibility.

Another rule is: use logical, accessible layout that makes entry and exit points obvious. The point of any publication is communication, not confusion. If it doesn’t communicate without confusion, it isn’t doing its job.Take a look at this monstrosity:

Newsletter closeup

A references the actual top of the article; the lead sentence, although there is nothing to so identify it. But there is no headline. Instead we get B: the ‘angry blue ant’ graphic, attached to C, the tagline. There’s nothing to indicate that A is the start, or that it is in any way related to the content below B and C. Where do you start reading?

And then there’s the embarrassing gaps in the first sentence caused by full justification without effective hyphenation. And the lack of the necessary hyphen between the third and fourth words. or the missing apostrophe in Citizens’. It’s enough to make an editor weep.


Newsletter closeup

But what are B and C? According to the author of this piece, they are, collectively, the “logo’. No, no, no. The ‘angry blue ant’ is the logo. The text is the tagline. The arrow points to the latter. Doesn’t anyone in town hall understand the difference? Why wasn’t the economic Development and Marketing department asked to comment on this?

It is not explained how seeing the ‘angry blue ant’ graphic will in any way identify the committee-based woo-hoo (CBSP) in “action.” What sort of “action? Line dancing on main street? A tax rebate in my mailbox? Not does it say where and when the ‘angry blue ant’ will appear. In the sky like the Batman signal? On a grilled cheese sandwich like the face of Jesus?

There should be a comma after “…Collingwood offers…”? Missing commas are, like missing hyphens (as in “community-based” and “short-term”) just one other annoyance; one more stumbling block on the way to readability, one more signpost on the journey to unprofessionalism.

If you took the time to read this claptrap, you might have asked yourself, “when will any of this happen?” or “what measurables are provided?” or even “what did this cost and what will it cost in future?” Good luck: you can only guess as to answers, because none are offered. That would presuppose some sort of accountability (the active voice). The whole thing was little more than smoke-and-mirrors from the start.

Under Culture and the Arts, it notes, “This goal will cultivate educational opportunities…” How does a goal cultivate anything? Is it animate? Is the goal actually the educational opportunities? And how does one”cultivate” them?  How does a goal “facilitate the growth of the local labour market”?

This lead piece is a master work of obfuscation. Stalinesque in its disinformation. Gobbledygook and bafflegab aren’t writing. Last term, council was accused of producing propaganda at the taxpayers’ expense; is this piece, produced by the same people who made that claim, any less so? Where is the public outrage now? Where is the media castigation?

Then there’s the graphic on the reverse side, a full quarter of the publication:

Newsletter closeup

This might be effective, had it be made large enough to be clear what was going on. And had the text not been jammed against it so tightly as to reduce its effectiveness as a graphic. It’s too small and dark: difficult to identify what is being illustrated. Where’s my magnifying glass?  Why wasn’t a photograph of our actual downtown used?

Nowhere does this graphic explain what it means or is meant to accomplish; nor does it give actual contact information. Saying 3. Graffiti/vandalism: Collingwood OPP  or Traffic signals not functioning: Public Works alone is meaningless without providing some contact information like a phone number. Will readers want to work through the byzantine structure of the town’s telephone system, seeking a contact for Public Works?

Who will cut this out (as the cutesy scissors clip-art suggests) if it lacks such elementary, useful information?

Why does it say “please contact” for some departments, and “please visit” for some websites, but not all? Aside from the inconsistency, you don’t need to say please for any contact information.

The numbering is scattered across the diagram. Number 23 is between 9 and 10; 20 between 19 and 24;  16 between 15 and 18. It should have been arranged sequentially so a viewer could easily find a reference.

Look at how the text above it wraps around the image. I doubt there’s a worse way to present it in the same space. See what happens to the formatting in 14,19, 26 and 27? Brutal displacements. Why didn’t the creator address these?

And again with the exclamation mark in the headline.

Speaking of headlines, why are most written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS like they are angrily shouting at you, and that over the graphic in mixed upper- and lowercase?

There is no justification for putting print headlines in all uppercase short of a national emergency. SHORT TERM ACCOMODATIONS is simply overkill.  Plus it’s a spelling error. The proper word is “accommodations.” Double-m.

Why is the headline plural, but the body has singular? They represent different meanings. ‘Accommodations’ means “lodgings,” while ‘accommodation’ means “something that meets a need.”

Why are links underlined in some places, but not others? It’s far more effective and visually appealling to make them bold or italic. But if you must underline, be consistent.

Why is the second paragraph of “Run. Jump. Play. Every Day” a 47-word run-on sentence? Shouldn’t Healthy Kids Community Challenge have an apostrophe to indicate the possessive: Healthy Kids’ Community Challenge?

Peter Bilak, world-renowned graphic designer, famously wrote,

Right and wrong do not exist in graphic design. There is only effective and non-effective communication.

However, if your design is so bad that people only see that, then they don’t get to the content. You fail to communicate entirely, not just poorly. Design is meant to accomplish a purpose, to fulfill a function. Steve Jobs said, “Design is how it works.” This piece neither accomplishes nor works.

The bottom line is: if you have never even read a book on design and layout, if you have never read a book on grammar, never read a book on typography, never read a book on writing for newspapers or magazines – much less attended school for same – then you have NO BUSINESS attempting to cobble together a “newsletter” like this.

Collingwood deserves better. Maybe the CAO isn’t the right person to oversee a project that requires such finesse, requires design and language skills. We have other staff who can do it better; we have the talent, we have the experience in house to give residents the professional, edited, output we expect from our tax dollars.

Don’t give a writing task to anyone not intimate with Strunk and White, who doesn’t have a copy of Fowler or CP Style on their desk. Don’t give a design task to anyone who can’t tell the difference between ascenders and descenders.

Simply using writing or design software doesn’t make a person a good writer or designer. You don’t assign brain surgery to the guy who trims trees in the parks just because he has a sharp instrument.

Design and writing are serious, professional skills, not to be treated casually, or ignored. If you don’t have them in house, contract them from outsiders. The product should make us proud, not wince.

*I previously wrote about the appallingly bad town newspaper ads put together for the local paper. This ‘newsletter’ shares similarities of ugliness with those embarrassments.

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  2. I’ve been made privy to some recent email correspondence between a resident and our CAO.

    The resident wrote to the CAO to complain about the quality and content of this ‘newsletter.’ The response from our CAO is disturbing. It was described to me by the resident as condescending and patronizing. Others who have seen it agree.

    I will post some it shortly. It is not the quality of response to a resident I would have expected from the head administrator of the corporation, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

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