Bad Designs


Bad designI’m not a graphic designer. I was not formally educated in that art. However, over the years, my jobs in editing and writing for books, newspapers, magazines and publishers have required me to learn the rudiments of layout, typography and design.

I am the first to admit my design talent is merely adequate. Despite that, I did absorb enough to be able to recognize egregiously bad design.

And this week, I found what may be the best example of the most egregiously bad design and layout I’ve ever encountered: the Town of Collingwood’s advertising section on pages D6-D8 of the Enterprise Bulletin, April 24, 2015.

Whoever assembled these ads has – incredibly, it seems – even less talent than I have in layout and design.

First, the size: the ads sprawl across two-and-three quarters pages when they could easily have fit in a page-and-a-half.  Since we taxpayers pay for those ads, this wasteful layout is costing us money. There is no excuse for this.

Second, the type: about 99 percent of the text is set in the same sans-serif typeface – Arial or Helvetica – body and headlines, making it incredibly boring and dull to look at. Couldn’t someone had clicked the font menu and selected a serif typeface just once?

Serif fonts  improve ease of reading; they have been used since Roman times. The serifs help guide the eye along the line – and the longer the line, the more they prove useful. But even if you use sans-serif for the body, it is good design to use a different typeface for the headlines. This wasn’t done: instead the pages have a monolithic sameness.

As the Creative Market site notes,

Perhaps the single most important part of graphic and web design is typography. Like color, texture, and shapes, the fonts you use tell readers you’re a serious online news magazine, a playful food blog or a vintage tea tins shop. Words are important, but the style of the words is equally essential.

So what do the fonts of the town’s ad pages tell readers? Boring, dull, unimaginative, stiff, stodgy, amateurish? All of these?

The type size, too, is unnecessarily large for body type – 12 or perhaps even 14 point. At the most, it should be 10-11 point and probably could be smaller. This oversized text is the major cause of the sprawl, too.

But the headline size has not been scaled to match the large body size, so the headlines look grotesquely small. And to compound it, the small headlines are all centred, looking orphaned amidst all that extra space.

And why are some headlines in black, some in blue, and others a mix of blue and black?

All of the body copy is justified – again adding to the boring similarity of every ad. Fully justified text like this has been proven harder to read in large blocks than ragged right text. And the full justification creates awkward gaps between words in the longer lines.

Then there’s the excess leading (the space between lines) and the embarrassingly wide distance between paragraphs (did someone hit return twice? That’s a bad habit from the typewriter era). Thick horizontal lines of whitespace mar the appearance and force the reader’s eyes to drift too far to find the next paragraph.

I won’t even begin with the issue of kerning in the headlines, except to note that there doesn’t seem to have been any effort made in that department.

Third, the width: look at how wide the lines of text are. About half of the copy has lines 11.25″ (28.5 cm) wide. That’s more than double the optimum reading width for type of that size. While there is no exact law – it depends on several factors, like typeface, contrast, sentence length, justification, word size, sentence length, etc. – in general, type that size should be no wider than about six inches (15 cm).

The reason most paperback books share similar type sizes and line widths is because the combination is easy to read. Why? because of the ergonomics of reading. According to several studies, the optimal width of a printed line of type is between 50 and 75 characters . As the Baymard Institute notes:

The optimal line length for your body text is considered to be 50-60 characters per line, including spaces (“Typographie”, E. Ruder). Other sources suggest that up to 75 characters is acceptable.

The downside of too wide text, it adds, is:

…the reader’s eyes will have a hard time focusing on the text. This is because the line length makes it difficult to gauge where the line starts and ends. Furthermore it can be difficult to continue onto the correct line in large blocks of text.

A rough count of the wide lines in the ads shows 140-150 characters each!

The human eye doesn’t read every character in a line; instead it makes jumps (saccades, or saccadic jumps) of an average 7-9 characters each. And we only see four or five characters accurately – our brains fill in the rest through contextual information.

When you get to the end of the line, your eyes have to return to the left side and start again. If the timing is too long, your brain loses the context and it becomes easier to misread or even forget what you just read. This forces you to go back and re-read the end characters or words.

Much of this design mess could have been avoided had the layout person used a simple grid-based system that narrowed the widths of the text. Since no experienced newspaper layout person would have allowed this to happen, I suspect instead it was someone’s first time doing it. Maybe one of the carriers pitched in to help.

To be fair, the ad for the skateboard/BMX park workshop actually looks like a real ad, not just an awkward text layout. However, the type is too thin and small for reverse type (white-on-black) using the paper’s low-res printing. Generally, reverse type should not be used for long body copy, and when it is, the weight should be increased and tracking widened for more clarity.

(Did the town obtain the copyright permission to use the photos?  I don’t know, but I certainly hope so. Someone should ask.)

If a design amateur like me can spot all these flaws, imagine how professional graphic designers and layout artists see it – probably as an amateur effort that stains our town’s image. Editors and writers, too, must cringe when they read the copy.*

Design and typography should work together to improve clarity, readability and comprehension. Which these pages do not do. Of course, they cannot be entirely effective if the copy itself has not been proofread nor edited. Which this clearly was not.

I certainly hope that the town will take the paper to task for this substandard effort. I suggest the town should demand it not be charged, and warn that repetition of this will result in a cancellation of the contract with the paper.

* We cannot avoid looking at the actual wording of the copy. No one expects these ads – or any bureaucratic text – to be examples of fine literature. However, they should at the very least be stylistically consistent and error-free. I suspect that the town’s communication officer was not asked to proofread the copy before it was submitted, because she surely would have caught the numerous mistakes and inconsistencies.

Some examples of the many style and grammar problems and mistakes therein:

  • Numbers: 6 Themes (generally numbers under ten should be written out: six) and themes should not be capitalized.
  • Capitalization: Economic Development Strategy, Themes, Collingwood Municipal Office, Bid Package, Landscape Contractor, Zoning By-law Amendment, Request For Proposals, Contract Administrator, Rural (RU) zone, Action Items and many others: bureaucrats tend to Capitalize Words Unnecessarily, as if by putting a cap on them they make themselves more important, It is completely unnecessary and pompous. And why is TORONTO in all-caps but Collingwood never is?
  • Spaces: …appointments.    In addition, …2016.    Normal, etc. Double spaces after a period or other punctuation are an archaic hangover from typewriter days. Modern layout and word processing programs don’t require it, and in fact use the post-punctuation space for justification, often adding even more space. The result of double spacing like this is ugly white gaps in the already unattractive copy.
  • Run-on sentences: I counted many sentences with 50 or more words each (with the line about the poundkeeper services reaching almost 80!). Research has shown that comprehension drops rapidly with sentence length. One study showed that by 43 words, comprehension had dropped to less than 10 percent. Long sentences combined with the excessive line width are a potent recipe for losing readers’ attention.
  • Missing hyphens and commas: terms like Collingwood based, internationally recognized and highly anticipated  require a hyphen. Dates like September 2015 and February 2016 should written with commas. The grant program ad needs a comma or semicolon after 2015 in the second paragraph. The measurement of 2800 m should be 2,800; only dates or telephone extension numbers can dispense with commas in numbers above 999. In the ad re the Pan Am Games, it needs a comma after June 11 (better yet: a period and make two shorter sentences out of the 31-word run-on opening). There are far too many other missing commas to document them all here.
  • Inconsistency: Why does one time say 3:00 p.m. local time and the next line say 3:00 p.m. EST?
  • Incorrect verb: The Council Grant Program approves funds… aside from the unnecessary capitalization, programs do not approve anything. Only humans have that ability.
  • Ordinal numbers and inconsistency: Dates should never be written with ordinal numbers like 1st, 15th or 20th. They should be cardinal numbers, only (1, 15 and 20, respectively). The ads also show inconsistency by using both at random.
  • Passive voice: The questionnaire can be accessed, Collingwood residents are invited, Sealed bids will be received, No fee applies when using,… these and other examples are just weak writing. Use the active voice for dynamic and crisp copy.
  • Verbosity: Interested parties are asked to, interested in engaging, please be advised, interested qualified applicants are invited to forward …  adding unnecessary verbiage doesn’t improve clarity: it detracts from it. However in the land sale ad, a verb (is) is required: if no… internet access is available.
  • Non-sentences: The ad for the receptionist at the bottom of D8 has two non-sentences in the first paragraph (second and last) and one in the second.  The last lines in the grant program ad are non-sentences. Sentences need subject nouns and verbs.
  • Redundancy: The first paragraph in the above ad uses the verb ‘provide’ four times.
  • Misspelling: thru is not a word ( Highway 26 West reconstruction ad). The word is spelled through.
  • Ampersands: It is proper to use the word ‘and’ in body text, not an ampersand.
  • Exclamation marks: Totally unnecessary every place they are used (three times in the Pan Am Game ad alone).
  • Personal voice: Why do some ads use the third person plural (We’re looking for, we’re planning to showcase… )? This is inconsistent with the other ads: who is the ‘we’ that is not present in the other ads?
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