The original incarnation of the Design Police Visual Enforcement Kit I confess, I am one to cringe at the sight of a double space in an otherwise impeccably produced art book. And it does make my stomach churn when in the tracklisting on a CD packaging the first letter of a song title is mistakenly set in the same style as the number. So you can imagine that when I discovered the Design Police website last week it really had me cracking up.
Bring bad design to justice The Design Police originated as a university project Stephen Woowat created while studying at Staffordshire University, UK. It aimed to establish a collective of designers who identify and correct bad design. Stephen devised a Visual Enforcement Kit, a mailing consisting of a range of stickers and a heavy duty red pen for performing on-site corrections. Said red pen was integrated into an emergency flashing light for the Design Police logo.
Stephen – Roses award winner and now working at Elmwood – posted a visual of the kit on his online portfolio (check the rest of his work while you’re at it; quite impressive and very imaginative stuff). The visual of the kit attracted an e-mail or so every few months from people asking if they could get their hands on it. This made Stephen contact a friend of his, Karl Goldstraw who also studied at Staffordshire University, and they eventually decided to develop a website dedicated to the stickers. As Stephen and Karl are both practising graphic designers but working a good 200 miles apart – Karl now works at Octoberfive – it has been a lot of remote collaboration.
A new and improved Visual Enforcement Kit The Design Police website features a new incarnation of the Visual Enforcement Kit that has now taken the guise of a downloadable five-page PDF. This PDF is meant to be printed on adhesive paper, so the user can cut out the stickers and apply them on whatever typographical and other design mistakes he or she might encounter. The stickers feature an expanded and very diverse selection of cautionary messages, ranging from the straightforward Kern this! over Microsoft Word™ is not a design tool to the obligatory Comic Sans is illegal.
In my opinion the best sticker reads Helvetica was an unimaginative choice. Because the minimalist design of the stickers is white Helvetica on a simple red background, this particular sticker becomes self-aware to the nth degree. Once it has been applied somewhere, you can stick a second sticker next to the first one, and then a third sticker next to the second one, and so on indefinitely. This immediately brought back memories of the changing rooms in my grandmother’s clothes shop, which had mirrors on opposite walls. I was utterly fascinated with the endless repetition of the mirror image.
Like a wildfire through the blogosphere Since the Design Police was mentioned on Notcot.com last week the story spread like a wildfire through the blogosphere. Failing to find any useful leads on the background and motives behind this project I decided to track down the perpetrators and subject them to an interrogation. About the sudden surge in interest Stephen Woowat had this to say.
“In all honesty, we never expected the site to get as much attention as it did. We submitted it to Notcot and were lucky enough to get it posted. We don’t know the exact paper trail, but we think it was picked up by QBN from there. That’s when it started cropping up on a variety of other blogs, and traffic started coming from the likes of Digg and Stumbleupon.”
Policing the Design Police I first asked Stephen if he wasn’t worried about exposing himself to serious scrutiny and criticism. After all the stickers are designed for the designer community but at the same time criticize that very community.
“Creating design to be consumed by designers was always going to be a tricky thing – and while we hoped the Design Police Kit would be seen in a light hearted way, it was perhaps inevitable that it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. We certainly wanted the project to just be about the design, and not about us, so we tried to distance ourselves from it. While it’s not a giant secret if people know who’s behind it, it’s just not important.”
As was to be expected not only the content but also the design of the kit was thoroughly dissected. Even the littlest mistake could then be used against them.
“We did everything we could to make sure we’d got our facts right, and proofed it over and over. We’ve been picked up a few times on the ‘hypocrisy’ of the sticker Helvetica was an unimaginative choice, given the typesetting of the stickers themselves. The logo has also come under some scrutiny, and has been compared to lipstick and a candle. Personally, while I can see how someone might arrive at the foremost conclusion, I think when it’s taken in context of design, it’s an unfair comment.”
Getting the message Even if there had been any doubt in my mind whether the Visual Enforcement Kit is very tongue in cheek, it is precisely the aforementioned Helvetica was an unimaginative choice that brings the message home loud and clear. The Design Police are quite serious about what they do, yet they don’t take themselves too seriously. Unfortunately not everyone shares my opinion, and some pretty snide remarks were posted in the various blogs that reported on the Design Police story. One reaction reads: “Overly negative, and ultimately pretentious. A lot of it is just a matter of taste anyway. (read: No, it’s not)”,another: “(…) if I had the time to put one big sticker over the whole thing, it’d read: “snot-nosed, typographically-tight-sphinctered, subjectivity-riddled, goose-stepping nags get nowhere on these issues with the people they are trying to help.”
“It has been taken a little too literately in places, but I’m not sure we could really have helped that. The whole concept of The Design Police was ultimately a bit of a joke. If people want to find a use for the templates – great, but whether they do or don’t isn’t important. In fact, the idea isn’t about policing design at all – or even correcting people. It’s more about an in-joke between designers, and letting them know that they are not alone in wincing when they walk past that poster with a widow every day.”
“At the same time it does serve a more helpful purpose of providing designers with a quick flash of a rulebook. While there is ultimately no definitive right or wrong, the ‘crimes’ we highlighted are a kind of general best practice, and you should be aware of them whether you abide by them or not. I’m not sure who said it, and I apologise for the slight cliché, but you could argue you have to know the rules before you can really break them. It’s been encouraging to read some e-mails from people asking what some of the labels are referring to, and trying to find out more.”
“To respond to those who have said “Who are you to police design, say what’s good or bad and stifle creativity.”, I’d say that we are not actually policing anything. This isn’t about a war against expressive typography or new ways of playing with design. In fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with breaking a lot of the Design Police rules, when and where they are appropriate, intended and constructive. When these rules should come into force however, is with the unintended errors, sloppy mistakes, disregard for legibility, and general lack of engaging and effective communication. It’s about highlighting the issue of corner cutting and laziness that can exist in graphic design.”
Personally I think this Visual Enforcement Kit is a refreshing and frankly hilarious comment on the state of much design work, even by professional graphic designers. It also serves as a wake-up call, pointing out that indeed typography is an often neglected and/or underestimated, complex craft. It entails much more than simply selecting a ‘cool’ typeface and assigning a point size.
Judging from the numerous online comments it seems that thankfully a majority get the message and concur that this is a facetious project. When I printed out the kit and hung it on our kitchen Wall Of Shame my colleagues all went: “This is genius, where did you find this?” This is pure, unadultered fun, plain and simple. What’s even more valuable is that the kit got people thinking and initiated quite a few online discussions about graphic design and typography.
I think that the negative reactions are symptomatic for our repressed times. Some people are so spasmodic in their efforts to be politically correct that the pendulum swings the completely opposite way, effectively leaving no room for irony nor any other healthy expression of humour. To the person writing “Are they going to paste these on mini mom&pop stores or indie amateur works who aren’t so concerned with design but just with running their business/hobby?” I say no, this is absolutely not the case. You simply don’t understand it. Please take one step back and read between the lines. And what does this so-called positive alternative mean? “I’d rather see a set of stickers that reinforce positivity. “This is a great design!” “This picture made me smile.” “Thank you for a positive portrayal of women.” Encourage, not discourage. How are you going to get ‘good’ design if no one knows what the hell good design is meant to be?” Seriously, we’re not in kindergarten anymore. Patronizing people is not getting them anywhere. (How’s that for irony? ;)
And “Overly negative, and ultimately pretentious.”? Stop navel-gazing and lighten up, silly bastich. You badly need a sense of humour. :D
Just for the record -- I printed out the Visual Enforcement Kit, passed it around in the studio and we all had a good laugh. I didn't apply any sticker on anybody else's work and prolly never will. The thought never even crossed my mind. I think -- no, I'm convinced -- that's what most people will do, and that's how it should be. Peace. ;)
25.01.2008 - 22.25.03
Posted by Yves Peters a.k.a. Unzipper
I love these, I think they are more an inside joke to design nerds who look at everything in the world and see those small things. People who take these too seriously need to loosen up.
23.09.2008 - 15.48.28
Posted by Trevor
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