Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Dept. of Maniacal Obsessiveness

I once heard of a book designer who created over 300 pieces of uniquely modified type for the running heads of a book. The way the story was told to me, this person had gone “too far” with putting so much work into such a tiny detail. At the time, I said to myself, ‘Damn, wish I’d thought of that.”

It’s the special curse of the designer to care about such details and to have the tools to perfect them. How far have you gone for a project? I’m talking about poring over the tinier, finer points that may go entirely unnoticed but that you just can’t help yourself and end up putting in eye-swelling hours of extra work to get done just right. For the sake of discussion, school projects count too.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Apr.30.2003 BY Sam
jonsel’s comment is:

school projects count too

I recall doing a CD project for a class, and I must have printed the fold-out booklet about 30 times on a large-format plotter just to get the color perfect. Thank goodness I used to work at the output house so I didn't pay a cent!

As for reality, I think ligatures could fall into the obsessive department. I always spend at least a day going over these before the files go to the printer. And believe me, no client cares about ligatures in a standards manual, even if they should. I scream everytime I see an 'f' and 'i' crammed into each other because the designer didn't ligature them. And my last name has 2 'f's, so you can bet I always take care of that in print.

On May.01.2003 at 08:56 AM
Jesse’s comment is:

Ligatures. I've spent way too many hours getting the ligatures right.

On May.01.2003 at 09:38 AM
Justin’s comment is:

Last night I couldn't sleep because all I wanted to do is go into the studio, sit at the computer, and stare at this one mockup more (a current piece I'm working on). When I'm working on a piece that I think is substantially great, I get obsessed. I find myself sitting and staring for ten minutes and moving something a pixel or two five-hundred times before being satisfied.

I guess, truthfully, I find myself "going overboard" on every project I touch. Hopefully I'm not saying everything I touch is substantially great. Am I alone on this one?

On May.01.2003 at 09:54 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

I had an obsessed client. I designed a financial report for her, and used old-style numbers within the text blocks. She didn't like the old-style zero (because it was monolinear) so she had me replace every one with a lower case 'o'. 0y.

On May.01.2003 at 10:03 AM
Sam’s comment is:

The question occurred to me because yesterday I agreed to create a font, both roman and italic, from a hand-drawn alphabet in an old book. I was up til 2:00a.m., eager to get started on smoothing all those curves. Now I realize I will have to make ligatures, of course. All in about a week.

The client is the author of the book the font is for, and he asked if this was too much work. I said, "Are you kidding? This is where I live. It's like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch."

On May.01.2003 at 10:27 AM
Brent’s comment is:

Most of the time it seems that the things designers obsess over get lost on the general audience. If you're designing for a group of designers that's one thing, but most of us aren't. It's easy to get all keyed-up in school because of the environment. Some may even be lucky enough to have a client list that appreciates such detail. The attention is definitely worth the personal satisfaction of seeing it in a final product, but on the average reader it gets lost in my experience.

I compare it to being nuts about pages that were hand set, where you can feel that slight texture on the page. People who aren't designers I know can't even tell the difference, but it's an obsession for me.

On May.01.2003 at 10:39 AM
JD’s comment is:

I don't use InDesign, but isn't that supposed to automate setting ligatures?

On May.01.2003 at 11:22 AM
Col’s comment is:

I design a fair amount of cookbooks at the publisher I work for, and I am always replacing the key code fractions with built fractions, kerned to my (fanatical) satisfaction!

On May.01.2003 at 11:48 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I have a few specific instances.

I once used Bembo on an annual report. The cap 'R' has an elegant, but unusually extended leg. So I spent hours rebuilding the kerning tables for the 'R' and a few other exaggerrated caps.

Another instance -- I was designing a logotype for a lumber company and couldn't decide on the proper line width for the type. So I created about 50 variations (p0.1, p0.12, p0.14, etc.) and sent out for a lino to check.

In general, I've always designed using strictly points and picas. My first art director insisted. None of the inches and fractions crap. Since then, I've always made sure that all of my x,y positioning, width, length, size, leading, absolutely everything in a file -- are whole values of points, are either divisible by 2 or 3, and are mathematically proportional to one another.

Yes, every project that leaves our office is this exact.

I'm sure many of you who typeset editorials and books know what I'm talking about.

I insist that all of our designers and e-pro designers do the same. They all bitch and call me insane at first, but then they eventually learn to love it, and can't work any other way.

We're all freaking nuts.

On May.01.2003 at 11:48 AM
Jesse’s comment is:

I don't use InDesign, but isn't that supposed to automate setting ligatures?

Yes, it does. My experience mentioned above was before I began using InDesign.

On May.01.2003 at 12:26 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Quark has had an automated ligature feature since version 2.0.

One other pet peeve -- smart quotes. I swear, the apostrophe is dead. I see people incorrectly using the foot mark instead of an apostrophe everywhere -- on billboards, ads, annuals, even logos. Same with the inch mark instead of proper quotes. It's a damn crime.

In Attack of the Clones , the subtitles have incorrect foot marks throughout. There's just no excuse.

On May.01.2003 at 12:38 PM
Ian’s comment is:

I realize this is a little off the topic, but for myself, sometimes that obsessiveness leaks into the use of a particular application. i.e.: in Quark, aligning text/image boxes to a thousandth of a point, consistency from page to page regarding the coordinates of those text/image boxes, etc.

Sometimes I even double check that little space that isn't a space that quark puts in at the end of a paragraph to make sure it doesn't have a style applied to it.


On May.01.2003 at 12:47 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Bembo on an annual report. The cap 'R' has an elegant, but unusually extended leg.

You probably know this, but Bembo Expert has a cap �R’ without the extended leg. I find it very useful.

On May.01.2003 at 12:57 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Sounds like we drink the same Kool-aid, Ian.

And before Quark had a pen tool, remember how you had to make sure that drawn lines were adjusted mathematically so corner intersections were correct? You know, move a 0.3 point width rule by 0.15 point so it'd fit the other 0.3 point rule, etc.

On May.01.2003 at 12:57 PM
plain*clothes’s comment is:

Tan said...

all of my x,y positioning, [...] are whole values of points, are either divisible by 2 or 3, and are mathematically proportional to one another.

this is where my obsessive tendancies can become toublesome. depending on the complexity of the content, I can spend days perfecting a grid so that all elements are mathematically harmonious and fall within whole pica/point figures. lately, my employer's deadlines have caused me to fall short of my expectations and it's driving me NUTS!

Brent said...

The attention is definitely worth the personal satisfaction of seeing it in a final product, but on the average reader it gets lost in my experience.

it gets lost at the conscious level, but design doesn't need to be consciously perceived to be effective. the typographic and strutural intricacies of our work should effect a change in communication. this change will be noticeable on a subconscious level, but when an individual is asked to identify why they like one piece better than another they come up blank.

Jonsel said...

You probably know this, but Bembo Expert has a cap �R’ without the extended leg.

I believe this was the 'R' originally designed for the font, but it was altered during some change in technology (for the Monotype machine, IIRC). I'd like to see a variation with the extended leg dropped below the baseline to hug it's neighbor like a Renaissance 'Q' -- that may not work, but I'd like to see it.

On May.01.2003 at 02:25 PM
pnk’s comment is:

Not to be too much of a contrarian here, but I sometimes have a hard time believing the assertion that something "doesn't need to be consciously perceived to be effective". On some levels I believe this is true, but, for example, if elements in a grid appear to be aligned then isn't that truly sufficient? Doing anything beyond what is visually perceivable is technology intoxication, not graphic design.

On May.01.2003 at 03:30 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Doing anything beyond what is visually perceivable is technology intoxication, not graphic design.

I disagree. I think there's a difference between visual perception and visual awareness.

There are balances, proportions, and countless other intangible nuances in design that can be perceived, but not articulated. Typography and and grids definitely fall into that category.

An example is the Golden Mean. It's a proportional relationship that exists in nature, in objects, in all visual things. It's a scalable, but exact and "perfect" proportion. It's a balance that can be achieved mathematically, but is not obvious even to trained observers. Nevertheless, it's an intangible element of perception that can drive a design.

When a logo is right, it "glows" -- is that a result of it's mathematical perfection? Maybe. Does its beauty derive from viewers' awareness of its 0.00001 pt adherence to proportions? No.

As a designer, I seek a level of visual perfection -- I guess because I have faith that it's ultimately better than visual imperfection. And that has nothing to do with my intoxication with technology.

On May.01.2003 at 04:02 PM
pnk’s comment is:

Well argued, Tan. But is seeking visual perfection our role as designers? Or are you expressing more of a personal/subjective view of perfection? I like your use of the word faith in that context...

On May.01.2003 at 04:35 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Valid point, pnk -- maybe my search for perfection is more than just design. It's the artist versus the designer -- art vs. science -- debate. I think designers all plot somewhere in the middle of the continuum between both things.

As to the term "faith" -- it's an apt word for design isn't it?

In describing quantum mechanics, Einstein said "God doesn't play dice with the universe." What he meant by that is that all things in the universe have physical and mathematical relationships to one another. But those relationships are infinitely complex, and ultimately too vast to comprehend or controlled. Thus, the outcome of a simple action as a role of a dice can never be mathematically predicted. It's by faith that we must believe in the existence of those relationships and their consequences.

On May.01.2003 at 05:01 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

the artist versus the designer

Perhaps this can be chalked up to each individual's idea of craft? I know that if I don't build a logo in a certain way — removing ALL extraneous beziér points, for example — then I don't feel like it was crafted very well. Sometimes I spend hours working out a curve so there are no bumps or weird intersections — stuff that nobody sees on a business card. I don't really care that much if the client knows about this level of work, but I care a great deal, and to me, that's part of what defines our level of professionalism. Plus, I know that someone else — maybe another designer�— may look more closely at the file sometime down the road, and I don't want them to question the level of workmanship.

On May.01.2003 at 05:32 PM
Scott’s comment is:

I will only specify 4-color tints in multiples of 10: c40m100, c10y50k40, m20y100, etc. Also, I prefer using color combinations which relate mathematically, i.e. m50y100 orange with c50y100 green, etc. This is partly to speed up decisions by limiting the possibilities, partly to minimize trapping issues by making sure colors share tints, partly to insure the nice pretty bright color palette which results--and definitely obsessive-compulsive.

On May.01.2003 at 06:02 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Off the topic: while we're on the subject of CMYK tint values -- there's an awesome CMYK selector that was given out by Hennegan Printing out of Cincinnati at the last AIGA conference. I took a few sets back to the office, and it's been absolutely indispensible. It's been so accurate that we literally threw away our Pantone Process selector, which was junk by comparison.

It's free, so get your hands on a set if you can.

On May.01.2003 at 06:37 PM
plain*clothes’s comment is:

Tan said...

maybe my search for perfection is more than just design. It's the artist versus the designer -- art vs. science -- debate.

on the contrary, the search for perfection is what separates mediocre (or bad) and excellent design -- it is an intrinsic component. when successfully balanced, the convergence of art's passion and science's precision provides harmony and function in the conscious and subconscious realms. I have found that most passionate designers are obsessive/compulsive in one way or another -- some, like myself, possibly in too many ways for their own good.

On May.01.2003 at 07:17 PM
Sam’s comment is:

>>So I created about 50 variations (p0.1, p0.12, p0.14, etc.) and sent out for a lino to check.

I've done this too, though only about 25 versions. The total presentation for the project ended up being about 80 different logos. With many, many hours spent just printing out the company name in different typefaces before starting on the logo. But you gotta see iton paper before you know.

On May.01.2003 at 07:38 PM
joy olivia’s comment is:

When I'm doing something that requires lots of exactitude and overly anal attention to detail, there's a certain song that works wonders. If you find yourself in a similar situation, try throwing on Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." It's not like the lyrics are inspiring for this sort of work, but the beat and "wha-ah-a-ah" singing sure does keep me focused and helps me to find renegade paragraphs not locked to the baseline grid and misbehavin' quote marks that have dared not to be curly.

On May.02.2003 at 10:47 AM
corey’s comment is:

My wife is an architect and for one of her final projects she had to build a scale model of a fire tower she had designed- it was over 7 feet tall. We got half way through building it and she ran out of nails. Not a problem, we ran to the local hardware store to by some more, but they didn't have the EXACT nails we had been using. It would look very bad to change nails part way through the project so we called every store we could think of to find them, to no avail. So we couldn't start again as we had already poured the foundation and had invested so much into the project - so we took out a loan from her father and called the manufacturer and had them mill us a batch of the discontinued nails.

I had to do a project for a client that involved multiple collateral pieces that were about some personality disorders (monomaniacal, delusional, paranoid, etc.). On the obsessive/compulsive one I changed the color system we used, but just slightly (as a joke, but one that only an obsessive/compulsive person would get). Neither the client nor my Creative Director noticed, so it got printed and distributed. To date when I show the pieces I've had only a handful of designers look at it and say - hey, did the printer mess up on that one - it's so close, but just off.

Makes me smile. It's the little things.

On May.02.2003 at 12:28 PM
Bruce Campbell’s comment is:

If you go down under the Metropolitan Opera House, you'll find a shopping space called "The Center at Lincoln Center". The architect was Gwathmey Siegel. The signage was by Whitehouse & Katz, Senior designer: moi working with Peter Katz.

If I recall, the lettering is all about 18" high Century Bold, sandblasted in the back of mirrored panels, then backlit. The first set of blueprints from the fabricator were execrable. They started at one end and lost about 2" in the length for each sign. (My best guess is that they projected it on the wall and traced it, with a touch of parallax for entertainment.) Unacceptable, as these were the templates for the sandblaster.

I redrew all the signs (without benefit of a projector) on the blueprints, on the wall. They are virtually perfect (and if they aren't, I won't tell). I'm hoping if they ever destroy that shop, they let me have one of the panels for my legacy.

I have other stories from that project that related, having to do with the directional signage program, but I'll save it for another time.

On May.03.2003 at 11:06 PM