Shorthand Settings and Rainbow Abuse

Today my beloved pointed something out that got me thinking about graphic design (more on that later). It seems like an exacting craft, requiring a combination of artistic flair and great precision and like any other craft, I’m pretty sure making it look effortless takes a lot of hard work. It also got me thinking about the use of visual language.

Styles of visual language, just like the written, land on the page freighted with context. We’ve all been absorbing it all our lives.Writers use styles of language to help set time and place for readers, according to the rule of “show, don’t tell”.

It’s particularly handy for flash fiction, where you don’t have the word count to lovingly describe the setting. So, I could write:
“What ho, old bean,” said Freddie, making somewhat free with the brandy and s.
and you could guess I’m setting my story in 20-30s Wannabe Wodehouse Way, Clichéville.

Similarly, a graphic designer can do this:


Choosing a typeface and a drawing style appropriate to the book’s period is a bit like writing your narrative in the voice of the viewpoint character, complete with idiom and vocabulary appropriate to the time and place.

I *love* the kawaii Yo! Sushi menus to an unreasonable degree. They are beautifully clear and easy to read, they take the potential intimidation factor out of the vast array of Japanese food on offer, and they manage to be friendly and fun without belting you over the head with it in a way that makes you want to throttle the waiters (I’m looking at you, TGIF).  You can get a sense of it here, but the online menu isn’t a patch on the real thing.

I like the visual language they use, walking in cute on the right side of cliché. Similarly, in writing, we’re told to go easy on the “pushbutton words“, to be sparing with the obviously manipulative.

Another (kind-of related) tool designers have at their disposal is pattern recognition. The human brain is so good at it that you can put two dots and a line on a page in the right way and we see a face. This gives a vast potential for elegant, stylised and stripped-down designs.  So what, in the name of ink and pixels, were the designers for the London 2012 Olympics thinking? The whole thing seems to be a world of wrong in so many ways.

Let’s explore this together. Are you ready for a Rorschach test? Let’s begin.


This is the Olympic logo. What do you see here?
a) The number 2012.
b) A private recreational act of the type “insert tab a into slot b”.
c) Er – *ominous pause* – a pretty butterfly.
d) I have no idea, but it’s ugly and jagged and it’s making my eyes hurt.

What is this?
a) Awww. It’s Wenlock, a cute little one-eyed monster and mascot of the Olympics.
b) Um. Does it come from Ann Summers?
c)Er – *ominous pause* – a pretty butterfly.
d) It’s looking at me. IT’S LOOKING AT ME!

The designers of the Olypmic website have come up with a story to explain the existence and appearance of Wenlock and its co-mascot. If you didn’t answer a) to both questions above, you might want to have a bucket handy. Prepare yourself for extensive rainbow abuse.


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