Monday, August 08, 2005

We take our job with pride

Avant Garde is almost never an appropriate choice of typeface. It's a 70s bastardization of clean geometric designs of the 20s and 30s, and gives off the relentlessly skeevy vibe of its era when used for anything but minimalist headlines. Yes, indeed, I know where Lileks is coming from to say "'Slightly irritated by a typeface.' Put that on my tombstone." I mention this because I've been spending a lot of time lately amending the work of another designer, a gentleman who - skilled as he may be at the art of large-scale murals - doesn't have a particularly good grasp of small-scale advertising layout. The pathological reliance upon Avant Garde in every single piece he's done was one thing; I know how tempting it can be to favour one particular font family to the exclusion of others, and, to be fair, even its creators regret releasing it: Lubalin’s assistants drew only 26 capital letters, because lowercase was not going to be used in the headlines. Tom Carnase, one of Lubalin’s partners, designed additional fitted character combinations (ligatures) as the work progressed. These cap character pairs made Avant Garde one of the most unique typefaces of the 20th century. The first time Avant Garde ligatures were used was perhaps the only time they were used correctly, and it may be the most abused typeface in the world. Type designer Ed Benguiat said, “The only place Avant Garde looks good is in the words ‘Avant Garde.’ Everybody ruins it. They lean the letters the wrong way.” He was so right: unless you have the same words Lubalin had in the same sentence, Avant Garde ligatures never look quite right. Ginzburg quoted Lubalin as saying that he was sorry he ever created the font because it was so universally misused. Now, that's one issue. There are between twelve and eighteen separate ads on each finished flyer the company puts out, and before I'd use Avant Garde twice on one side for sans serif body copy (let alone once), I'd make a more authentic (and legible) choice such as Gill Sans, Futura, Franklin Gothic, or Century Gothic - to say nothing of beautifully clean mid-century designs like Helvetica or Univers, or more skilled reinterpretations such as Avenir or Vectora. (Yes, I do worship the works of Adrian Frutiger; why do you ask?) But that's only half the problem, as far as text goes; the other is that he has no sense of font discipline whatsoever. In one ad for a denturist - 4" by 1.75" - I counted no less than five separate faces – Flareserif for the title, Agency FB for the name, a brush script for the slogan, a generic grotesque (perhaps Arial? I couldn't tell from the three letters) for part of an industry certification logo, and Avant Garde for the rest. That’s far too many, especially for such a small space; the eye is bound to be confused by the chaos. I like the choice of Flareserif; it’s a nice quirky Humanist take on gothic letterforms, and is admittedly better for a title than its lighter-weight inspiration of Albertus (best known from the titles of The Prisoner). But Agency FB is an entirely different direction to go within the broader gothic typeface family, and the contrast – between rounded, brush-like hybrid serifs, and a hard-edged quasi-serif – could only be more jarring if the name had been set in something like Bank Gothic. The visual language of Agency FB doesn’t mesh well with the graphic identity a denturist wants, i.e. professional, neat, and comfortable. The brush script is acceptable for a slogan, if hackneyed, but there's no need for two separate sans serif fonts when one could do. I ended up reducing the ad to using Flareserif, and several different weights of the delightfully clean Frutiger Condensed. I can appreciate the travails of being a self-taught designer, being just that, myself - but one can only get away with so many gaffes and so much half-assery. (Don't even get me started on this guy's misunderstanding of resolution, printable margins, bleeds, colour depth, or copyright.) Competence is not negotiable; at least, not in the free market. I explained all this to the regional manager, who'd handed the job of fixing and assembling her territory's ads off to me when this designer initially became flustered. She agreed; his work required too many corrections to be worthwhile, to the point where his last completed flyer so irritated our printers that they refused to ever accept again one of his solo efforts. Luckily, as it turns out, he's a better salesman than a designer, and is now working for the company in that capacity. I'm thankful for that, at least; I didn't relish the thought of getting him fired, not even for sheer bloody-minded incompetence. I'm not quite that heartless. (All the same, I'm glad that I didn't have to be the one to tell him that, in fact, his work required more than just fixing colour profiles, as he'd assumed. There's something distinctly unappealing about having to savagely criticize the work of a professional twice one's own age to his face.)

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