Doctor Overanalyzes the World.

Doctor Overanalyzes Typography (II).

In my last quarter as a student at the Creative Circus, I was a teaching assistant for a section of Type II. In addition to my normal TA duties of critiquing work and filing paperwork, the instructor, Colleen Finn, let me have five to ten minutes of each class meeting to talk about whatever type-related thing I wanted to. I presented little capsule histories of certain typefaces, and used them to illustrate some typographic concepts I wanted the class to learn. All in all, I think I gave seven mini lectures, and I still have six of the handouts. I don’t know what happened to the seventh, but I think that week I might have talked about Helvetica versus Arial — or it’s possible I just didn’t preach that week.

These mini-lectures were not at all intended to represent a comprehensive typography curriculum. Instead I wanted my students to understand many different ways to look at typography, and to teach them some ideas I had picked up along the way in design school that I had not learned in a classroom.

I’m going to take you through each of the handouts, and expound briefly on the concepts they were meant to illustrate.

The first mini-lecture I gave was about Garamond.


This was the first one, so it was a big one. Garamond was one of the first text typefaces, from the 1500s, and is still one of the most-used typefaces today. I used this as an opportunity to explain that for hundreds of years, typography was printed using glyphs punched out of metal blocks, which then “stamped” the ink onto the page. What this meant was that each point size had its own cut, in which the letterforms were optimized for that size of printing. This was something we lost when we started using phototypesetting, and now digital typefaces. Many type designers get around this problem by creating separate weights for caption and display sizes, as illustrated on the left.

This also illustrates the difference between a typeface and a font. A font (which gets its name from the fact that type used to be forged at a metal foundry — places that make type are still called foundries today) is a delivery mechanism for a typeface, which is a broader idea of what letterforms look like. Although the fonts to the left have differing letterforms, they all still belong to the typeface Adobe Garamond Premier Pro.

Which raises another interesting point. None of the Garamonds that we use today are the “original” Garamond — they’re digital adaptations of the original typeface. Different foundries have their own versions of Garamond, as seen on the right. Could these different font families all be said to belong to the same typeface, since they’re based on the same idea? I’m not sure.

My second mini-lecture was about Futura.


At this point I started introducing examples of the typeface in use, to try to illustrate the varied personality that a single typeface can have, depending on the different ways it’s used.


I used Futura to introduce the idea of optical correction — the fact that subtle adjustments have to be made in order for your eye to think that things are the same size. Futura looks like it’s geometrically precise, but in fact several adjustments have been made to make your eye believe that. The vertical parts of a letterform have to support the “weight” of a letter, so in order to appear the same thickness as the horizontal parts, they actually have to be thicker. Additionally, round and pointed parts have to overshoot flat parts in order to appear optically aligned. The overshoot does not have to be as proportionally large when the forms are larger, however. This relates to the idea of caption and display sizes we had talked about the previous week. It’s an issue with most digital versions of Futura, which were based on the original 12-point font. When you use it at large sizes, the overshoots in Futura appear far too large, and the N and A call undue attention to themselves. This can be used to good effect, however, as Neil Kellerhouse did on his poster for The Social Network (as seen on the opposite side of the handout), where the pointy Ns feel kind of sinister.

My third mini-lecture was about Gotham and Avenir.


Gotham and Avenir appear very similar to each other, but there are subtle differences, mostly in the capital letters and in Gotham’s larger x-height (the height of the lower case letters).


I explained that Avenir was Adrian Frutiger’s attempt to “update” Futura. He wanted to take Futura’s geometric perfection and humanize it. You can see how Avenir to some extent exists between Futura and Frutiger’s earlier namesake typeface, in that it adds more open terminals and creates and alphabet that just seems to work more cohesively than Futura’s.

I grotesquely oversimplified the equation for Gotham, but it’s not totally invalid. Gotham was originally inspired by the vernacular capital lettering throughout New York City, particularly those on the Port Authority Bus terminal. These letters occupy a space similar to Avenir’s, between precision geometry and human imperfection, so it makes sense that Gotham’s lower case follows a similar model to Avenir’s.

However, Gotham was designed with the uppercase in mind first, and Avenir was designed for text, with a lower x-height, so the typefaces have different “optical centers”, as illustrated by the dotted lines. Many quality fonts come with separate punctuation and numbers for upper- and lower-case, to keep them aligned with that typeface’s optical center.

My next mini-lecture was about Bodoni and Didot.



I honestly don’t remember what I talked about that week, and the handout isn’t making it any clearer. I think maybe I talked about how to spot the subtle differences between very similar typefaces, and how they can change the personality tremendously. I think I also talked about modernism, and how by the time Bodoni and Didot were designed at the turn of the 19th century we had moved from a model of letterforms that were based on human handwriting, like Garamond, towards much more machined letterforms like those found in Bodoni and Didot. To me, the entire history of typography (and perhaps humanity) is about the give-and-take between humanism and modernism. I’m really interested in typefaces that occupy the in-between space, like Avenir and Gotham from last week.

I think I also talked about how the thin lines in these typefaces were meant to stay hairline-thin at any size, and how when really good typeface designers make modern serifs like these they create different cuts for different sizes to preserve this effect. I really wanted to drive home the point of different fonts for different sizes, I guess.

I’m missing the handout from the next week.

The next week, I talked about Trajan and Optima.


I messed up on this one; the logo for The Lion King was not actually in Trajan.


This was probably my favorite mini-lecture of the bunch, because it covered the thing that I really, really love about the Latin alphabet. Trajan is based on some of the earliest examples of Roman capitals, those found on Trajan’s Column in Rome. The shape of the letterforms was informed by the physical restrictions of having to carve them into stone. Optima’s capital letterforms are very similar to Trajan’s, because they’re based on the same inscriptional model. It’s one reason Optima was chosen as the typeface for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial — it just works really, really well carved into stone.

In addition to the give-and-take between humanism and modernism, one of the big stories of the history of typography is the give-and-take between carved and calligraphic letterforms. In fact, it could be said that calligraphic letterforms represent a humanist approach while carved letterforms represent a modernist approach — we’re just using a fine-point pen to carve our letterforms now instead of a chisel. In retrospect, I don’t think the lowercase a was the best example to demonstrate this difference.

But here’s where it really gets interesting. The Latin alphabet makes no sense. Our uppercase letters came out of inscriptional forms, while our lowercase letters came hundreds of years late from a script form called the Carolingian Minuscule. Meanwhile, our numbers came from Arabic. None of these things were meant to go together! When you really look at it, the Latin alphabet is awkward and clunky and hard to deal with, but that means that there are a lot of exciting things that you can do with it.

My last mini-lecture was about Georgia and Verdana.


I seem to have lost the front of this handout, but here’s the back. Georgia and Verdana were among the first typefaces designed specifically for the limitations of a computer screen. I talked about pixel hinting, and how some fonts that look great in print look awful on a computer screen and vice-versa.

I also used this as an opportunity to talk about web fonts. I don’t know why I thought this was an important topic to cover in Type II, especially since I had been dealing with much more theoretical things up until now, and this represented a sudden shift to the practical. I think my big point was that there always have been and always will be technological limits to the way we deliver letterforms to a page, print or web, but that we can overcome those technological limitations. A lot of the history of typography, in fact, is about adapting to technological limitations.


Looking back, there were probably better and more coherent ways I could have presented these ideas, and if I had planned these out ahead of time instead of doing them week by week I could have linked the ideas better. But ultimately I’m glad that I was able to share some ideas that excite me with some people who might get excited about them, too.

Doctor Overanalyzes a Buzzfeed Quiz.

I’ve seen a Buzzfeed quiz asking “How Much Of A New Yorker Are You?" popping up on a few friends’ facebook walls recently. It’s a series of 100 or so yes/no questions kind of similar to the Rice University Purity Test, asking whether you’ve been urinated on in the subway or whatever.

I clicked on the quiz (sorry), but I didn’t take it, because I scrolled through the questions and saw the usual Buzzfeed tripe that tries to use the experiences of a relatively small group of young, affluent, probably white people to define a very large thing, in this case a city of nine million people.

Here are some of the things that supposedly make you more of a New Yorker than everyone else:

You’ve been to John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street.

Why John’s? I mean, I’ve been there and it was delicious, but why this pizza joint out of all of them?

Spending $12 on a cocktail doesn’t seem like a lot of money.

Regardless of how rare it is to find a cocktail under $10 in Manhattan, spending $12 on a cocktail is a lot of money, and unless you’re a young, single, gainfully employed person it seems like a lot of money.

$1,000 of your money goes to rent every month.

$1,200 of your money goes to rent every month.

$1,400 of your money goes to rent every month.

Spending more money on rent makes you more of a New Yorker? Why do we cut it off at $1400? Why not $2000? Why not $5000? Shit, you’re not a real New Yorker unless you’re spending enough to feed a family of four on rent, or if you’re only spending $400 for a place in the West Village because your family’s lived there for five decades.

You take cabs every day.

A lot of these questions seem to be about making poor financial decisions.

You’ve been offered drugs by random strangers in the street.

I was offered drugs three times in one week. All in the few square blocks from 4th to 14th between 6th & 8th.

You’ve paid $5 for a cronut.

Cronuts have been around for less than a year.

You’ve taken a ferry to the Statue of Liberty.

You’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building.

Really? These are things that people who don’t live here do.

You know the real Little Italy in New York City’s (sic) is actually on Arthur Avenue.

Well, you know now either way. Apparently being a real New Yorker involves knowledge that is very easily obtained on the internet.


Regardless of the validity of the questions presented, the real insidious thing about this quiz is that it promotes a monoculture that’s pretty unexciting. This is the M.O. of Buzzfeed — to create things that make as many people as possible say “yes, this is so me!” so that they share it with their friends. Articles like “20 Smells Every Child of the ’90s Remembers” make people who identify with them believe that everybody has a relatively similar life experience to them and reduce the spectrum of human experience to a very small worldview.

Being a real New Yorker isn’t about experiencing everything this city has to offer, because you can never do that, and your experiences are going to be incredibly shallow. If this quiz is to be believed, you can be a real New Yorker in a month if you try really really hard and check all these things off. The New York in this quiz is a New York-themed amusement park.

Being a New Yorker is about carving out your own little corner of the city, like my neighborhood coffeeshop I go to on weekends where a cup of coffee is only two dollars, thank you very much. It’s about wandering down a street you’ve never wandered down before and walking into a random Indian restaurant and having the best damn Indian food you’ve ever had. Mostly, it’s about figuring out how to be yourself in a city that seems so often to want to tell you that you don’t belong to it if you don’t dress in black and stay out ’til 4 am every night and spend money recklessly and have a general sense of cynicism towards everything.

New York City has 9 million people living in it, with wildly different backgrounds and wildly different daily experiences. That’s what’s remarkable about this city. This quiz should really have only had one question, which to its credit did appear near the end:

You have a New York City zip code.

Doctor Overanalyzes New York City Bagels.

New York City has the best bagels.

There may be a singular better bagel somewhere else, but collectively there’s nobody who does bagels better. Besides, I don’t like playing the What’s The Best [foodstuff] In [city/country/world/vending machine] Game — at a certain point, they’re all good, and it takes a certain amount of arrogance and self-delusion to believe that your palette is developed enough to distinguish between the world’s best and second-best.

There are a lot of theories as to why New York City seems to be better at making bagels than everyone else. The first, most obvious, and probably true answer is that New York has the most Jews anywhere outside of Israel.

A second popular theory says that it has something to with New York City tap water, maybe its freshness, or the minerals in it, perhaps even the tiny crustaceans living in it that — ironically, given the first theory — make it technically not Kosher.

My theory? Bagels (along with most breadstuffs) have a pretty short half-life. A bagel that was baked two hours ago is a pretty great bagel, while a bagel that’s fresh from the oven is a religious experience. (A couple of weeks ago I took my dad to Murray’s, and he literally said “oh my God” after taking a bite.) There are a lot of people in New York, which means there are a lot of people eating bagels in New York, which means that product moves off the shelves fast enough for there to be a fresh batch every hour or so. A lot of bagel places here are so confident in their bagels’ freshness that they refuse to toast bagels. I respect the hell out of them for it.

Side note: I get a little sad every time someone orders “cinnamon raisin, toasted, with butter,” because let’s be honest, you really just wanted a cinnamon roll.

I don’t think I could ever choose my favorite food, but if you held a gun to my head, there’s a good chance I’d say bagels and lox. Bagels are part of my heritage. One of my distant cousins moved to Atlanta from Chicago forty years ago and brought bagels with him.

I have two favorite New York bagel places so far, and each serves a different purpose.

The first is Murray’s. I came to New York for the Art Director’s Club portfolio review last April, when I was still in design school, and the morning of the review, my two design brothers Christo and Fairchild and I went to Murray’s for bagels, then made a micro-pilgramage to Stefan Sagmeister's office, then went to the review. It was a beautiful moment that I feel encapsulates why I moved to this city.

The Murray’s in Greenwich Village is (more or less) on my way to work. Sometimes I won’t go grocery shopping for days after running out of milk, just so I have a reason to have a bagel for breakfast instead of a bowl of Granola. Their bagels are big and fluffy and chewy, and the crust is just perfectly crisp. They have more than a dozen varieties of bagels and a vast array of spreads and smoked fish, and pretty good coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. They run like a goddamn machine – but they have to, given their location (13th St. and 6th Ave., near Union Square and within walking distance of at least six or seven subway stops). They have tables that somehow miraculously always have one seat open when you get out of the line.

Bagel Hole in Park Slope is not that. It’s a hole in the wall with no seating and a cooler of beverages and an ATM because the place is cash-only. They have one kind of smoked fish, one kind of cream cheese, and a handful of other toppings that they keep in a minifridge behind the counter. Their bagels are perfect. They’re smaller and denser than Murray’s bagels, perfectly hand-formed with a shiny crust. It’s brutally efficient and simplistic, contrasted with the spectacle and endless choice of Murray’s. If I were a more reductive person, I would say that the differences between Murray’s and Bagel Hole tell you everything you need to know about Manhattan versus Brooklyn, but I’m not.

Bagel Hole’s my weekend bagel place. Going there’s not terribly convenient if I’m gong somewhere else, but it’s a half-hour walk through Prospect Park from my apartment, which makes it an ideal hangover journey. The salty restorative powers of bagels and lox have helped me kickstart a few Saturdays. I think that whenifever I move out of my current apartment I’m going to try to live in Park Slope, just so I can be closer to Bagel Hole. 

There are undoubtedly other good bagel places out there — and people are always eager to tell you which ones are their favorites and why they’re better than yours — but those two are mine. And in a gigantic city like New York, it’s nice to have something of your own.

Doctor Overanalyzes the Mad Men Heinz Pitches.

I thoroughly enjoyed this past week’s Mad Men, as I do almost every week. As a designer, there’s an extra bit of thrill that comes with episodes that include creative pitches, like this one. In the earlier seasons, it was exciting to watch the tactics that Don used to sell kind-of-okay work to clients, but as we’ve moved forward through advertising’s creative revolution the work itself has become more and more something to look forward to.

Stan’s strategy for clearing the cobwebs seems to have worked, because the campaign SCDP pitched for Heinz was arguably the best work we’ve seen on the show so far. Don clearly believed in this work, presenting it with the least bravado he’s given to a pitch, aside from when he pitched Life Cereal while blackout drunk.


Don presents three beautiful closeups of food on a white background. “It’s clean, it’s simple, and it’s tantalizingly incomplete,” he says. “What’s missing?”

Obviously, ketchup is. You’re already beginning to think of these foods covered in ketchup. But when Don and Stan flip over the acetate, it’s not ketchup that comes with it, but a three-word headline in black Helvetica Condensed Bold.


Ketchup, as a condiment, isn’t all that appetizing by itself. Fries, or steak, or a burger is what’s appetizing, but fries and ketchup, or steak and ketchup, or a burger and ketchup is even more so. It’s the tension in these ads that makes them successful — it’s a print ad, but it’s not motionless because you’re already imagining the viscous red sauce being slowly poured over these foods. As Don says, the audience’s imagination has no budget or time limit.

In fact, not even the word “ketchup” is in the ad. The client’s first reaction, of course, is “You mean Heinz *ketchup*.” But by assuming the audience will make the connection in their heads (which they will), the campaign creates an indelible connection. Heinz is ketchup. Fries need ketchup. Fries need Heinz. It’s a shrewd bit of branding.

The layout of the ad also supports the tension of incompleteness. Although the ad is dominated by the oversized food photography, the focal point of the ad is the tiny black headline in the vast sea of white. Your eye lands there because of the point force from the fries and the swelling force from the white field, making it the ad’s punchline.

The client, reluctant to have an ad without the actual product in it, says, “I think I still want to see our bottle.” When Stan (in a mustard-colored blazer, which I think is funny) starts to defend leaving it out, Pete cuts him off with, “We’ll test it both ways.” Some may interpret this as Pete appeasing the client, but I think this is Pete being much more shrewd, knowing that “We’ll test it both ways” really means “We’re going to leave it out anyway.” No client wants to think that you think you’re smarter than he is.


Peggy’s ad is philosophically almost the exact opposite of Don’s. It shows the product, the headline takes up the entire thing, and the art and copy don’t really inform each other. In fact, the inverse of Peggy’s headline is the reasoning that Don uses to justify the omission of the word “ketchup” — “It’s Heinz. It only means one thing.” Peggy’s is still a good ad, but it doesn’t operate on the same level of subtlety as Don and Stan’s.

Peggy’s headline is a strategy statement. That alone doesn’t make it a bad headline, but where Don’s ad succeeds is in allowing consumers to come to that conclusion themselves, rather than outright telling them. This strategy does work, however, because it tells a pre-existing truth instead of trying to implant a new idea. Heinz today has a 60 percent market share in ketchup — the next-highest is Hunt’s, with 16. I can’t find numbers for 1968, but if it’s even anywhere close to that it’s not outrageous to say that Heinz is the only ketchup.

The Warhol-esque art direction, with the type in cheeky Futura (kudos to the art department for using an optically corrected cut of Futura, too) also pushes Heinz Ketchup and its bottle as a pop cultural icon.

Of course, the client picks neither of these ads, instead opting to go with the giant agency J. Walter Thompson.

I hope we get to see more pitches as the season goes on — if these first four episodes are any indication, then it seems as though Don and Peggy’s newfound professional rivalry is going to be a dominant theme in season six.

The First Man

He says he made me, which he did.

I also made him.

Everyone else did, too.

Doctor Overanalyzes American Airlines, Redux.

There were a few ideas I wanted to expand upon in my American Airlines post the other day but which would have taken up too many column-inches, so I’m going to talk about them here.

A lot of the criticism I’ve heard of the new logo is that it depends too much on gradients and shadows, and that a logo is only truly successful if it can be used in one color. There are many advantages to be gained from being able to use a logo in one color. One is that printing a logo in one color is much cheaper than printing it in four. This is still true today, but slightly less relevant because of the increasing proliferation of digital printing (which still doesn’t look as good as offset, but it gets the job done for small runs) and on-screen applications of the identity. It used to be that a letterhead was your most important piece of corporate identity — now it’s rare that business correspondence is sent through the mail.

The bigger argument for a one-color logo, to me, is that it reduces the logo to the base point at which it is still recognizable as that company’s logo, and thus gives the logo more versatility — it can be “corrupted” into 3D, multicolor, warped, patterned executions and still be recognizable as that company’s logo. That doesn’t mean, though, that a one-color execution is always better than a four-color one. What’s important is having the best execution for the concept. This is especially clear when we look at something like Coopervision, which uses multicolored paint daubs to suggest the clarity and depth of vision that their contact lenses give you:


That doesn’t mean that American Airlines’ logo doesn’t work better in a one-color solution, though. Here’s my quick take on what a one-color version and a flat version look like:


I actually do think that this is a stronger logo than the final result. But as Michael Bierut reminded us just a week-and-a-half ago in his essay “Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport,” those of us saying “I could have done better” didn’t have to sell anything to the client.

I think one reason that big companies so often wind up with 3-D gradient shadow beveled embossed lensflared logos is because of that fear of hearing “I could have done better.” When a client spends half a million dollars on a logo, they want it to look like it cost half a million dollars, and while the graphic designers who say “I could have done better” know what goes into creating a half-million-dollar logo, the general public doesn’t. Our profession has been demystified in the past few decades, and big companies don’t want to spend half a million dollars on something that “I could have made in PowerPoint.” Most people know how to draw a few flat shapes; most people don’t know how to draw something with complex gradient mapping.

Another argument I’ve heard against this new identity is that the old one was better. I agree. However, whether this identity is aesthetically better than the old one is entirely irrelevant, because American Airlines, the company, decided that it would be a good strategy for their business to update their identity. And I’m inclined to agree with them. Paul Rand, arguably the greatest logo designer of all-time, once wrote: “A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around. A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it represents is more important than what it looks like.”

Unfortunately, Massimo Vignelli’s American Airlines identity had come to signify delayed flights, bad customer service, and cramped seats. Perhaps American could have turned themselves around without changing their identity and restored their image. But ti’s difficult to fight perception, and although an identity update is just a symbolic gesture, it can be enough to convince customers that maybe, just maybe, the change in identity signifies bigger, more real changes.

An identity refresh is an especially tricky thing. The challenge is to shed the negative perceptions associated with the old identity, while not losing any of the equity associated with it. This is wholly impossible with a new logo, because the primary purpose of a logo is to create something ownable and recognizable for a company — a flag, to use Paul Rand’s words once again — and it takes time to build recognition. One thing I think could have been done with the new identity — and I’m actually very surprised wasn’t — was to keep “AmericanAirlines” smashed together in red and blue. Much more than the eagle mark, the “AmericanAirlines” wordmark was the most recognizable thing about their identity. Keeping the color dichotomy and changing the typeface to Frutiger — which, as I explained in the previous post, is wholly appropriate — would have retained much more equity while still giving the identity a refresh.


I could have done it better.

Doctor Overanalyzes American Airlines.

On my more idealistic days, I tend to think that the ultimate goal of identity design is to make something that never has to be changed. Unfortunately, the very nature of identity design means even the greatest pieces of corporate branding are tied to the fates of the companies they identify. Saul Bass’ United Airlines tulip, for example, was dumped in the name of equitable co-branding during the merger with Continental. As a designer it’s tempting to think that Apple and Nike are successful companies at least in part because they have good logos, but in reality it’s probably more that the logos are good because their companies are successful.

American Airline’s identity, designed in 1968 by Massimo Vignelli, felt like one of those that would never have to change. The exposed aluminum body of the planes, adorned in red and blue Helvetica, was straightforward and indestructible. It was a product of the time in which it was created, but it transcended periods, always looking as contemporary as any other airline.

Unfortunately, American Airlines hasn’t been doing so well lately, and they decided that it would be a good business strategy to update their public image, and they enlisted FutureBrand to redesign their corporate identity.


First, to get something out of the way: that’s a damn good logo for an airline. It looks like a wing, and like a tailfin, and like an eagle, and like a star, and like the letter A, and none of it looks forced. It appears, looking at some of the other materials, that they have a flat execution of it that works just as well. This is important, because even in an age when spot-color printing is increasingly rare, simplicity is still a virtue in logo design. The Nike swoosh still looks like the Nike swoosh when a seven-year-old basketball fan draws it crooked and backwards. Several years from now, when gradients and peelbacks aren’t in style anymore, I imagine American will switch to the flat logo, and it will become an even stronger identity.


I’m fairly certain the type they use for the logo is Frutiger, which almost makes too much sense. Frutiger was originally designed for the signage at Charles DeGaulle airport and has become the defacto “airport signage” typeface. The Helvetica in the previous logo had a straightforward, authoritative voice, and American is contemporizing that authority by putting their in the same typeface as the rest of the airport. It makes it feel as though American Airlines is just as much a part of the airport as the restrooms. Frutiger is essentially Airport Helvetica.


I don’t like the livery very much — the american flag imagery is a bit too slick, and the logo feels like it was made to go on the tail — but it might grow on me.

While I’m sad to see another iconic piece of graphic design die, overall this is a very strong redesign. None of that matters, though, if American doesn’t match the redesign with actual changes in service.

Mr. Vignelli’s design carried a lot of baggage with it. It was indicative of a bygone age of air travel, when American was the standard-bearer, but it also made American feel like a dinosaur unable to restore itself to its former glory. I maybe would have liked to see a redesign more similar to what Lippincott did for Delta — keeping the same basic elements while altering their application — but it’s also possible to keep the core ideas of your company intact while changing their visual representation, as this redesign did.

Whether this is a good redesign will be determined by what American does in the next few years. If they manage to turn themselves around and improve their customer experience, then this redesign will be the foundation of American’s identity for the next four decades. If they continue on the same path, however, then it will become another icon of design as a substitute for actual sound business strategy.

The best that identity designers can do is make something that says, “trust us,” and then hope that the companies they design for don’t abuse that trust.

Doctor Overanalyzes Disney Imagineering.

This is from week 7 of the public speaking class I took during my last quarter at the Circus. The topic was “a company you would like to work for.”


There’s only one reason I would ever live in Anaheim, California, and that’s to work for Disney Imagineering.

I’ve wanted to work at Disney Imagineering in some capacity since I was thirteen or fourteen. If you’ve ever been to a Disney Park, then you probably understand why. There are lots of theme parks with better rides than Disney, but there’s still something about Disney World that sets it apart, and that’s the attention to the little things. They’re focused not on giving you the best individual experiences while you’re at their theme park, but on giving you the best overall theme park experience.

One time my family was at Universal Studios, waiting in line for a Shrek 4-D movie. After an hour of waiting in line, my entire family had memorized the five-minute pre-show video that had been constantly looping. That doesn’t happen at Disney. Pre-show entertainment is created to play exactly one full time during the time that you’re in line. In fact, the entire queueing area for the ride is just as delicately crafted as the ride itself, giving you something new to look at each time the line moves forward. The Imagineers understand that the majority of your time in the park is going to be spent in line, so that time should be used to build anticipation for the ride that’s to come.

Which is not to mention the rides themselves. Where Six Flags just keeps building taller, better, faster — and there is virtue in that — Disney is more concerned with how the ride’s concept enhances the ride itself. The first time I remember fully appreciating this was when I was seven years old and at Disney World for the fist time, and I rode Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is a log flume ride just like any other, but the fact that the ride was twelve minutes long stuck with me. Splash Mountain is better than any other log flume ride because it tells you a story on the way up and lets you forget that you’re about to be dropped down a steep hill, while simultaneously not letting you forget at all. It makes the drop both much less important to the ride, and much more important than in any other log flume ride.

Tower of Terror is not the tallest or fastest freefall ride in the world, not even close, but it’s one of the most exciting because the Twilight Zone storyline that’s built so neatly around it enhances the experience. You’re not just falling nine stories, you’re doing it in an immersive environment that lets you suspend disbelief as much as possible.

And that’s really what Disney World is — the most immersive branded experience in existence. So as a designer, it’s a playland. The Magic Kingdom might be the most designed place ever made. Every surface has been considered, every traffic pattern, every placement of every restroom. Even the music is designed — as you walk from one ‘land’ to another, the music gradually transitions from one theme music to another, without any overlap.

I want to work for a company that turns out a quality product, and it’s pretty indisputable that Disney Imagineering turns out a quality product. Companies that turn out quality products are the best to work for because every single employee ends up invested in the end result. They know they’re making something great, and they commit to it. Quality product is also a sign of quality process. While all that I know about Imagineering’s process comes from Wikipedia and a book about Imagineering I bought when I was thirteen, it is clear that the level of product they produce is facilitated only by a creative process that allows for pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The word Imagineering is obviously a portmanteau of “imagination” and “engineering,” but I think putting those two words together suggests that Disney believes that imagination and engineering aren’t separate things. Imagineers are people who engineer imagination — who dream up whatever they can dream up, and then figure out how to do it. That’s what every designer ought to strive for.

Doctor Overanalyzes Graduation.

On Friday I graduated from the Creative Circus. Every graduate gives a 3-minute speech and shows some of their work. Here’s mine:


(introductory slide)

Since I started at the Circus, I’ve liked to think of this place as a sort of Island of Misfit Toys. Very few, if any of us, were supposed to wind up here, but something happened at some point or another to set the ship off-course.

Here’s my misfit story.

A couple of years ago, I was going to a very respectable university called Rice, where I took classes from professors among the top in their fields, on topics like the history of the US conservation movement, comparative domestic policy, and 20th century American fiction. The most important class I took at Rice, though was an elective I wandered into my sophomore year called Introduction to Type and Design.

In that class, we learned the fundamentals of typography and design, and after that I was hooked. I designed flyers and t-shirts for school events, and sketched typefaces instead of taking notes during lectures. During my senior year, I applied to a handful of  MFA design programs, and I was turned down from all of them.

I spent the summer sending fifty-five cover letters and receiving only two responses — of any kind, and after a while decided I had to go back to school. I more-or-less stumbled backwards into the Circus.

They tell us at this school to let the work speak for itself, so here’s what I did two years ago…

[I gestured to the introductory slide, which I’ll show you again]

…and here’s what I’m doing now.

[I gave a quick explanation of each of the projects, which you can see in full on my website]

So, I have some people to thank.

First, my family, and especially my parents. I’m so fortunate to have grown up in a family that values the arts and education, and chasing impossible dreams.

All of the Circus faculty, and three in particular:

Colleen, my first teacher at the Circus. Thanks for always having faith in me and always pushing me that extra bit. Your classes all taught me that I can do things that I can’t do.

Ron, you’re more than a department head, you’re a spirit guide. It was never clear whether you knew any better than I did where you were taking me, but following you only led to good things.

And Sylvia. I’ve attended some excellent educational institutions, and you are by far the greatest educator I’ve had the pleasure of learning from. A quarter with you is like driving through a mountain tunnel with no headlights; you have no choice but to keep hurtling blindly forward, not sure if you’ll emerge from the other end alive, but when you do the world looks entirely different than when you came in.

Jessy, thanks for being my co-conspirator, co-adventurer, confidante, colleague, best friend, and the biggest bonus I could get out the last two years.

Jason Reece, my admissions rep — He told me that he would try to talk me out of coming here, and if I still wanted to then I should. So thanks for sucking at your job.

Thanks to all of y’all. Getting to share these two years with you was a privilege and an honor, and a whole lot of fun.

And finally, the Circus itself. You saw potential in me where other schools didn’t. So thanks for believing in this misfit.

Doctor Overanalyzes Doctor.

This week in speech class, the assignment was to talk about yourself as a brand (sorry, Tim). Here’s mine.


I’m a nerd. A really really big nerd. And I’m damn proud of it.

I’ve been wearing glasses since I was three years old, so I’ve been more-or-less destined for nerddom since the beginning. In sixth grade, I tried out for the school musical, and I got cast as the nerd. Not just any nerd, but the head nerd. His name was Melvin. I saw my first late-night-TV-movie-titty in Revenge of the Nerds. One time in high school, one of my friends and I stayed in the newspaper office during a school dance so that we could keep working on the upcoming issue.

The key to being a proud nerd is making your nerddom work for you. My sophomore year of college, I was starting to become a type nerd. I started identifying the fonts on flyers at the cafeteria tables, and reading i love typography, and posting on typophile, and sketching my own typefaces. I would spout off random type knowledge to friends, which was even more annoying than it is now because back then I was just an English major with yet another unmarketable skill.

I did manage to find a productive use for it the summer after my junior year, when I worked as a risk center specialist at Chexar, a check verification company. In less than a month, I detected over one hundred thousand dollars worth of fraudulent checks, largely by recognizing incorrect type. 

After I came home from college jobless, i love typography released a font identification game for iPhone. The day it came out, I played for hours straight, trying to stay at the top of the worldwide high scores. My crowning moment of achievement came when I beat Martin Majoor, who designed the typefaces Scala and Scala Sans, essentially inventing the idea of a type superfamily. I had beaten this master type designer at type identification. But although this game said that I was marginally better at recognizing typefaces than Martin Majoor, Martin Majoor had still designed Scala and Scala Sans, and I was still an unemployed recent college graduate.

I figured I ought to put this skill to real use, which is why I became a designer.

And being a nerd is totally important to being a designer. Because the essence of nerddom isn’t really knowing more about something than everyone else, it’s about being more excited and more passionate about something than everyone else. Being a nerd is about obsession. And so is being a designer. Because making great design involves obsessing over every detail, and making it better than any sane person would expect it to be.

You also need to be a real nerd for your clients, because the more excited you can get about them, the more excited your audience will get about them, too. Being a computer nerd helps, too, since you more or less live in front of it.

Here are some other things I am or have been a nerd towards at some point in my life: beer, bicycles, Harry Potter, physics, healthcare policy, Thomas Jefferson, shaving, musical theater, fountain pens, fantasy football, and Iron Chef. The Japanese version, not the bullshit American one.

My relationship with my nerdiness is perhaps best explained through my history with corrective eyewear. As I said before, I’ve had glasses since I was three. In seventh grade I tried to run away from my nerdiness and started wearing contact lenses. In college, getting a little more comfortable with myself, I went back to glasses full-time, and right before I came to the Circus, I got these, which are more or less shouting, “Look at me! I’m a pair of glasses!” Design has helped me embrace my nerdiness and view it as something to be proudly declared, rather than sheepishly hidden away.

In the musical I mentioned at the beginning, the nerds had a song that we all performed together; I’m going to leave you with the lyrics from its chorus: We don’t care what you say / we don’t care what you’ve heard / we all know it’s cool / to be a nerd.