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October 21, 2005

Graphics [Fads]

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A halfway-decent rule about fads seems to be that the moment a fad crests is the exact moment when it also begins to run out of steam. Take baseball caps. Only a few years ago, they were so common that I was sure they were on their way to becoming an enduring everyday fashion item. Then -- overnight, as far as I could tell -- they vanished. Even balding guys stopped wearing them. The only people I see in baseball caps these days are people who are actually on their way to the ballpark.

Although I'm a broken-down old embarassment, I still enjoy tracking -- however half-consciously -- the fortunes of various contempo fads. One that has fascinated me for a while is a graphic-design trope: the use of what I think of as "nonsense brackets." Here's a typical example. As always, forgive the rotten scanning:

marie claire brackets01.jpg

Why are colored brackets surrounding this page's subhead? The meaning of brackets is generally taken by writers to be something like, "The editor has a comment here, and he doesn't want anyone to mistake it for a parenthetical remark. Pay attention to what I'm saying, but DO NOT include this passage in the final printed copy."

The brackets above, in other words, have no meaning in a traditional sense. Do they have any significance in any other sense? There's no question that they give the subhead more visual pop than it would otherwise have -- so a meaning-set is being expressed: Poppiness is good! Do they convey anything else? They certainly signify, "The art director of this magazine has been looking at what the art directors of other magazines are doing." At the moment, there's something about nonsense brackets that says, "I'm up-to-date." Which makes me wonder: What relationship does attitude-signifying have to "meaning"?

Here's a similar but slightly different use:

jewelry under 500 dollars.jpg

Why the pointy brackets, for one thing? Although I'm a semi-professional media-and-words guy myself, I don't have any idea what pointy brackets are doing on my computer's keyboard, and I have never made use of them.

And how odd that the pointy brackets are picking out the words that they're picking out. It would be just as plausible/unplausible for them to pick out all three words, or a different set of words. Perhaps we react to this arbitrariness by thinking: "Wow, how kookily arresting!" To my eye, one thing that highlighting the words "over $500" accomplishes is to make those words look like an item on a menu. Bracketed together, they look like something that you might move your cursor over. They invoke a computer screen, in other words -- something dancing and eager, and something more malleable and twitchy than a mere piece of paper.

When I first noticed nonsense brackets -- about a decade ago? -- I was annoyed by them. These days I'm tolerant, weary, semi-amused. Still ... Even as decorative ornaments they strike me as so much clutter. I also dislike the way they box text in. To my mind, brackets don't look lively or entertaining, no matter how colorful they are. Instead, they look like they're putting a clamp on language, on thought itself -- a ka-chunk effect that isn't something I crave.

But I'm an old fart. And it's clear that one purpose nonsense typographical symbols serve is to crank up the production-value richness of a page or a screen. They're used to make the visual space active, bizarre, intoxicating. We're living in an era of baroque electronic excess, after all -- an age when visual elements and visual effects are put to use for no reason other than to tickle and delight the nervous system. Whee! And Whoa!

What could be more solipsistically/narcissistically wonderful? We're easily-bored, cranky babies, getting our bottomless need for stimulation and distraction attended-to by anxious electronic nannies. BTW, has anyone else noticed how often movies for grownups now resemble kiddie movies? And how often books and magazines for adults now resemble illustrated children's literature? Not that I think this is always a bad thing ...

Another example:

The light-blue parenthesis marks give the page a little visual pop, of course. They're also being used functionally -- to set off the pullquote (the text that has been yanked out, blown up, and given prominence). Perhaps to a certain kind of taste this highlighting is attractive. To my mind, it's overstating the already-obvious -- a little more white space around the pullquote would be just as effective. And the big question: Do these parentheses have anything whatsoever to do with the way written English makes use of parentheses? Not that I can tell. In other words, the way these parentheses are being used undermines written English -- which is probably part of what makes the page radiate "Kicky!"

As a semaphore-like visual gesture, nonsense brackets remind me of that gesture hiphoppy kids make, the one where they point with a couple of their fingers, hold their arms out at you, frown cartoonishly, and pretend to be gesturing threateningly at a wide-angle video lens. It's studly, sullen, underwear-flaunting, prize-fighting pantomime -- a form of post-verbal gesticulating and symbol-making.

My musings about the next example are slightly more involved, I'm afraid:

The parentheses in this headline might be taken to mean something in a verbal-language sense. But what? On the other hand, are they jazzy enough to justify themselves in purely visual terms? I'm not sure they're that either. So here we have a not-quite-verbal but also not-quite-visual use of parentheses. What's going on?

My hunch is that these parentheses offer a graphical representation of a way many young people think, react, and talk. A bit of a setup is necessary. Picture a dumb TV show. Picture a sofa full of kids watching the show. On the one hand, there's the stupid TV show, saying and doing what stupid TV shows will say and do. Facing it are kids, sitting around together making fun, saying and doing the things that kids who feel contemptuous of what they're addicted to say and do.

(By the way, I have a small-t theory that the main creative activity of today's youth is making wisecracks about dumb TV.)

What I see going on in the headline above is this: The straightforwardly-presented words represent the big, dumb voice of the square media (ie., adulthood), while the parenthesized word represents a wry, distanced wisecrack (ie., eye-rolling kiddiehood).

People who love David Letterman's talk show tell me that they find Dave's media mockery disarming. It establishes that Dave's show is a smart dumb talk show, and not just another dumb dumb talk show. Dave and his team accomplish this feat by incorporating into their show the kinds of wisecracks and razzing that smartass viewers might volunteer. This strategy evidently enables some viewers to relax and enjoy what is, despite its attitudinizing, really just a dumb talk show.

My theory is that magazine designers and editors are using nonsense brackets and nonsense parentheses similarly. They're incorporating self-reflective self-mockery into what they're doing and peddling. In this case, we have a magazine headline that's a magazine headline in a traditional sense, but that's also a magazine headline that's cool enough to stand back and mock squaresville magazine headlines generally. It's bellowing-forth in the usual loudmouth-media way, but it's also undercutting itself with sideways snarkiness. It's a magazine headline that has gone all post-ironic and Dave Eggers on us. It's saying, "I'm not a dumb-dumb magazine headline; I'm a smart-dumb magazine headline."

I take it for granted that brackets and parentheses -- and symbols like them -- are elements of computer-age chic, by the way. Just as a computer geek puts angle-brackets around HTML code, a media geek might put brackets around a few words on a page. The brackets aren't to be understood as language; instead, they turn the text they're mixed in with into code. And code is understood to be cooler than mere English, because code is under-the-hood in a computer sense. While language is the deceptive way The Man puts shit over on us, code is what undercuts -- it's the direct and real thing.

I'm left suspecting that whatever meaning -- and how square a concept is meaning, anyway? -- is to be had can be found in the dance and the play of visuals and attitudes. It's a lot of gesturing and signifying, based on a conviction that impact and immediacy trump thought, savoring, and reflection. In any case, all the carrying-on is nothing any fuddy-duddy would be able to understand.

The key question for fuddy-duddy me, though, is pretty mundane: Does the fact that nonsense brackets are everywhere today mean that they'll be finito tomorrow? There are some indications around that this may be the case. Here's one:

Notice how the nonsense-parens have been 1) turned sideways and 2) stacked on top of each other. This suggests that the nonsense-bracket design-trope has reached such a stage of decadence that designers no longer feel any need to make their typographical symbols even look like traditional typography. Typography is now entirely free of its former obligation to serve language. It's now, unapologetically, visual stimulation and nothing but.

But the most absurd use of nonsense-brackets that I have ever seen comes from a couple of current ads. Apologies for the browser-window frames in the next two images. Screen shots ...

First up, the title of a movie that's now in theaters:

Next, an ad for an alcoholic beverage from Australia:

Pointy brackets as part of a movie title! Nonsense brackets as part of a product-name! Here's my daring prediction: Nonsense brackets are either on the verge of being totally yesterday, man -- or they're about to achieve perennial-classic status.

Hey, what do you say we go out tonight? Maybe we could take in {proof}. Then afterwards we could stop off for a [yellow tail].

Which contempo graphics tropes annoy you most?



UPDATE: Tatyana visits a paint-industry event and reports that the colors we'll be encountering in the near future are going to be all about ... skin.

posted by Michael at October 21, 2005


Michael--Aren't the parentheses there in the yoga ad to mirror the pose the man is striking, grabbing his feet--which looks like a human parenthesis?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 21, 2005 9:38 PM

Bracketing technique even applies to Google's adwords:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 21, 2005 9:50 PM

Bondage for the masses, my friend.

Just punctuation symbolizing D/s for the masses.

(I think.)


Posted by: chelsea girl on October 21, 2005 10:56 PM

There's an argument to be made, though, that the curly brackets used in the Proof design are used as a visual allusion to the movie's basis in mathematics. Curly brackets are used to denote a quantity or set.,,sid14_gci333100,00.html

Posted by: rethwyll on October 21, 2005 11:02 PM

My company just spent something like $1.5 million to completely redesign its corporate look, logo, typefaces, etc.

This week, I began to receive flyers and packages from a number of other corporations that have done likewise. And, guess what? Every one of them decided to do exactly the same thing... same color palette, similiar typefaces, even same design themes.

And, I recently purchased Adobe CS Suite, and they use exactly the same graphic theme, styles, etc.

How did this happen? It's as if every girl in the universe took a trip to the department store and bought the same dress.

I've already suggested that, the next time, the company should forget about paying $1.5 million to a hotshot design firm to redo their look. They can achieve the same result by giving me $100,000 and telling me: "Go find out what everybody else is doing and copy it."

I hope you understand how this relates to the post.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 22, 2005 8:48 AM

Winifer -- You've got a good eye -- time for you to do some design criticism.

Chelsea Girl -- No doubt I should learn to take it and like it. Thwack!

Rethwhyll -- Thanks for pointing out that pointy brackets are math symbols. (Math, math ... I've dimly heard of math. But it was like another lifetime ...) Still: odd to incorporate symbols of any kind into a movie's title, no? But I'm betting that in ten years we'll be seeing movies whose titles are nothing but visual symbols. Words and language are so 20th century, after all.

ST -- Funny how fashions rip through a population, isn't it? I wonder if there's any real explanation for why one color palette rather than another is the thing to do this year. Always fun to muse out loud about it (my specialty), but I wonder if anything approaching a real explanation can ever be reached. And it's funny too how the fashions that rip through a field like graphic design then affect the rest of us. I haven't seen any mass popular movement expressing a strong preference for nonsense-brackets, for instance. Yet here we are, surrounded by 'em.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2005 10:27 AM

Good observations. I remember looking in Psychology Today and seeing the "pull-quote contained inside catchy and useless parentheses and utilizing randomly sized text for the quote itself." Psychology Today is Squaresville, so I proclaim the fad officially over.

Actually, this is something that's going to stick around, just simmer in the background after its current bright star fades a bit. Do you remember X? X has been going on for a good ten years now, I'd venture. Unfortunately X won't ever go away. Just yesterday I was using a public computer and noticed some users who had usernames to the effect of xNamex. This is actually pretty common, and in fact serves a dual purpose -- Most fields in a computer don't accept parentheses, brackets, or braces. X is being used, but it's being used in the exact same way that the useless parentheses are used. I don't know if it will ever catch on in the mainstream print medium, but underscore delimiters are also reasonably popular (_Name_, simulating both underlining and parentheses).

The thing I find most perplexing is the way these trends work -- Very unusual, but I guess the mentality that goes for it is blinded by its own jazziness.

Posted by: . on October 22, 2005 10:44 AM

Another explanation, for brackets, that it might be simulated dictionary entry' look. I think that's the case with the Yellow Tail. Sort of - look here, we offer you something new for your wine-consuming vocabulary, forgive mixing metafors.

Or I could be wrong, of course; that's my reading.

MB, forgive the plug, but I had blogged about color trends (or how it presented, anyway), here, if you're interested in my $.02.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 22, 2005 3:06 PM

Brackets, braces, and parentheses are important parts of the syntax of computer programming languages. Their use in graphic arts evokes authority because it gives the ad message the status of the code that drives the Internet. People who've been trained in programming - and that would be a lot of people in the demographic that adverstising seeks to reach - will naturally find their eyes drawn to the message inside the brackets and braces because that's where programmers look for extra significance.

Posted by: Richard Bennett on October 22, 2005 3:20 PM

I've been practicing design for over 25 years, so I've used and abused just about every typographic device in the world. Michael is really talking about two different kinds of ways to exploit paratheses.

One way, as he points out, is meant to be ironic. The first use of this mode, as far as I know, was in 1989, when Tibor Kalman and Emily Oberman at M&Co. did this logo for a film production company:


In this case, the parentheses were meant to deflate the pomposity of the name. Later, Emily and her partner Bonnie Siegler at Number Seventeen did this for a hotel in Manhattan's Soho district:


Here the message was supposed to be discretion, as if the name was whispered.

I think I only did it this way once, for a to-the-media-trade dot-com start up:


Note that I used brackets instead of parentheses, at least. The trend was already over the hill at that point, to tell you the truth.

The use that Michael documents more fully is the use of parentheses, brackets, and whatnot as layout devices. Here, I think, the purpose is simpler. Designers need to separate things in layouts (like pull quotes or side bars) but we kind of hate boxes. Too obvious! So brackets, used straight or curvy, upside down or backwards, serve the same purpose without being so...well, boxy.

I'm not sure this trend will ever go away, so you may as well get used to it.

Posted by: Michael Bierut on October 22, 2005 4:46 PM

I must confess I'm intrigued by the use of braces in the movie title for 'Proof'. I don't remember them being used in any reference to the title of the play from which the movie is derived. So clearly some kind of visual point is being made. My guess is that the makers of the movie's ad campaign are invoking the symbol because of its emotional and visual connotations. One of the few places people encounter braces used regularly and meaningfully, is in math class, where they are often used to delimit sets. This means they are often first encountered when mathematics is introduced in the curriculum, i.e., when arithmetic is no longer the dominant activity in math class. And it is at that point that the notion of 'proof' first makes its appearance as well. I wonder if the creators of this campaign for the movie are trying to take advantage of an association in viewers' memories of an unusual, rarely experienced symbol - the brace - with the appearance in their lives of the magical, mystical or just plain traumatizing notion of mathematical {proof}?

Posted by: PatrickH on October 22, 2005 6:53 PM

What I see going on in the headline above is this: The straightforwardly-presented words represent the big, dumb voice of the square media (ie., adulthood), while the parenthesized word represents a wry, distanced wisecrack (ie., eye-rolling kiddiehood).

Rather than consider this topic at the micro-level, which pretty much comes down to guessing how much oomph this typographical convention retains, is it possible to consider what such a trend might signify about society at large?

Although I can't offer anything of a remotely definitive nature, it strikes me offhand as a political-economic phenomenon. To wit, that the power centers of society--government, big business, the professions--no longer appear to be calling the shots, but instead are all obviously surfing on the waves of capitalist creative destruction. If we live in a time where the power centers propose, but the anonymous market disposes, perhaps irony is a natural mode of discourse.

Anybody got any better ideas?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 22, 2005 7:09 PM

Actually, I think what I'm getting at is the lack of any moral center-of-gravity discernible in the activities of society's power centers.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 22, 2005 7:12 PM

Another example of what M. Blowhard is talking about is the use of graphics in the Playbill for "Wit," the play about an English professor dying of cancer. It was written W-semicolon-T, and you can see it here:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 22, 2005 10:04 PM

The semicolon in "W;t" was signficant. The use of a text in which a Very Famous Literary Guy whose name is escaping me right now (do not ask for whom the bell tolls---that guy)had a semicolon,as opposed to the original text, which used a period. The fact that the main character used an inferior interpretation (with the semicolon) caused her to ENTIRELY misinterpret Famous Guy's Famous Poem, which got her into trouble with a professor in college, and helped turn her into a Very Demanding Professor in her own right later in life...which was significant in the play.

Anyway, the semicolon had great meaning once you actually saw the play, so its an insider's wink. Just like the brackets around "Proof"---they are mathmatical, and the "Proof" referred to is mathmatical. Clever, clever.

Posted by: annette on October 23, 2005 9:18 AM

Right. John Donne. I remember.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 23, 2005 1:22 PM

Just to clarify, baseball caps {Texas Toupees} are worn daily by my (aging)favorite bald guy , who has become [quite] best friends with his dermatologist {armed robber}.

Are we clear?

*smiles* (grins) and [giggles]

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 23, 2005 4:30 PM

Now that Pattie is gently tugging us off-topic, allow me to pile on by mentioning that the baseball cap still thrives here on the Left Coast. And I saw some in northeastern Europe recently too.

Plus (dibs on the topic for a future post!) out here lots of baseball cap wearin' guys wear the things indoors, something my mama said was a nono.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 23, 2005 5:53 PM

Donald, I just realised where my irrational dislike of Spielberg is coming from.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 23, 2005 6:03 PM

I suspect the demise of the baseball cap is a New York City fad, likely not transferrable.

Three (?) years ago, everyone in NYC was wearing blue jeans with the ass rubbed white. That never crossed the Hudson, thank God, and neither will this.

I can't imagine frat guys without baseball hats. I just can't!

Posted by: Brian on October 23, 2005 7:56 PM

For every designer inappropriately using braces, brackets or parens, there are ten clients askingto bold even more of the of the copyand perhapes to even italicize it, thinking it will be more impactful because they clearly don't understand the physical manifestations of empahsis.

Posted by: miss representation on October 23, 2005 8:30 PM

That was a really fascinating post and made me think about how frequently I use brackets nowadays (like the way I'm using it here) as a way to be modern and self-referential.

Posted by: Neil on October 24, 2005 3:55 AM

Remember when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol?

Posted by: o on October 24, 2005 1:38 PM

"Blue jeans with thier asses rubbed white" are alive and well here in Wisconsin. But then we get the fashions from New York at least 4 to 5 years after they are hot there, which means whenever I happen to glance at a fashion magazine, I can see the future.

And baseball caps are cool worn both with the bill forward or the bill backward, especially if they say Green Bay, Packers or are in Green and Gold.

Posted by: Deb on October 24, 2005 3:59 PM

Yeah, I thought the brackets for proof were to make the title seem 'mathy' for the non-mathy set.

I used to use brackets all the time on my blog until a commenter left a comment saying a real writer would never use brackets. Huh (but, I'm not a real writer, so, again, huh?).

Posted by: MD on October 24, 2005 4:40 PM

The Yellow Tail wine business must have got something right, as it really is a remarkable success story. The brand was created around 2000 by a winery in the Australian town of Griffith, and was aimed specifically at the $7-$8 price point in the US market, based on the thought that there was an absence of reliably drinkable, well known products at that point. They are now selling about 100 million bottles a year.

Posted by: Michael Jennings on October 25, 2005 6:01 AM

For a woman, a baseball cap worn backward used to be code for "I'm gay." Like the earrings in guys' left ears.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 25, 2005 12:52 PM

Brackets are good in advertising. They make it easier to see things.

It is hard work for the eyes to distinguish a pull quote by "a little extra white space around it." All those words running together, man! (I am being serious.) Not to mention how hard it is to consider the content of the pull quote itself, if visually you're working to keep those words separated.

A bracket is a border. And I like borders. With so much visual slush sloshing around, it is nice (calming, really) to see a hard but not completely exclusionary border around something, for effective emphasis.

It doesn't work in discursive writing, only as a design element in visual media. [So] this is {not} really //working]]. Yet, we must acknowledge (like it or not) that punctuation often serves the same purpose: emphasis, identity, *borders*.

Cheers to you,

Posted by: David R. on November 1, 2005 9:23 PM

Curly brackets are on your keyboard because they're an absolute necessity to programmers. Try and write a Java applet without them!

Then of course there's the emoticon trend. I think it's reasonable to imagine the nonsense bracket users may be targetting the computer-savvy emoticon-rich audience, or perhaps those who wish they were plugged in enough to know what the emoticons the kids are using these days mean.

Posted by: Nanani on November 3, 2005 11:24 PM

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