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Cabinet of typographical monstrosities


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An exhibition at the Museum of Printing at NERAM of poor typographical design in which designers have tried too hard to be innovative and consequently have failed to communicate effectively. An …

An exhibition at the Museum of Printing at NERAM of poor typographical design in which designers have tried too hard to be innovative and consequently have failed to communicate effectively. An excellent demonstration of what not to do!

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  • 1. The Cabinet of Typographical Monstrosities an exhibition at the Museum of Printing at the New England Regional Art Museum curated by Benjamin Thorn
  • 2. A Dangerous Book The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Armidale NSW is one of those churches that puts up (sometimes) witty evangelical signs. More than ten years ago poor layout completely changed the meaning. What they intended to say was “Help prevent truth decay. Read the Bible.” It is a reasonable pun on tooth decay. What they put however was:
  • 3. Until I saw it I had no idea that the Bible was such a dangerous book.
  • 4. Poor typographical design and layout has the potential not only to obscure your message but also to radically change it. The Cabinet of Typographical Monstrosities is a collection of particularly egregious examples of poor design. To qualify for inclusion there must be a conscious design decision. Simple typographical errors, even if fun, such as advertising shirts without the R or clocks without the L, (and both of these have really occurred) don’t cut the mustard.
  • 5. Given the amount of poor design that infests the media it is sad to consider that principles of good design have been known and stated for many years. The following are a sample of advice given in textbooks and manuals from the 1920s to the 1960s. The compositor who has imagined that unusual form is the road to typographical distinction has failed to realize the basic and fundamental truth upon which composed and printed types must entirely depend, which is that “Type was made to be read.” Linotype-Faces, One-line Specimens, 1920, p.145
  • 6. More than two series of type in a job is only desirable under exceptional circumstances. Grade III Composing-Lecture No. 2. Printers Trade School, Adelaide (c. 1930s) Generally speaking, do not use more than one strongly contrasting type, and use that sparingly. John R Biggs, The Use of Type, Blandford Press: London, 1954 p.28. The choice of type depends on the purpose of the job. In a specific job only one body face and one display face should be used for the sake of overall appearance. Jan Tschichold, Asymmetric Typography, Reinhold: NY, 1967. P.56.
  • 7. When it comes to colour we have a more than thousand year tradition of heraldry which specified what colours were legible with each other. Heraldic ‘colours’ were red, blue, green, purple, black and in addition there were two ‘metals’ silver and gold often portrayed as white and yellow. The basic principle was never combine colour and colour or metal and metal. Metal on colour or colour on metal work fine. With this background let’s look at some of the items in the Cabinet.
  • 8. Arts Training Australia, National arts related design competency standards, 1995 They should have known better! Arts Training Australia was the Industry Training Advisory Body for design. Their 1995 Design Competency Standards were a bit of a worry from a typographical point of view, particularly given the subject of the standards. The italic ns, of a different font and weight to the rest of the text, and which give a slightly seasick feel to the cover, are the least of the problems.
  • 9. Of more concern is the Arts Training Australia logo, which manages to use three unrelated fonts in three words. A basic design principle has always been: keep things simple, which in practice was interpreted as no more than two fonts per page! detail: Arts Training Australia logo
  • 10. Donald Richardson, Art and Design in Australia, Longman: Melbourne 1995 It might be art, but… A typographically incoherent cover for Art and Design in Australia. The implication that Australian design and typography is crap was probably not intended. When designers (in this case Judith Summerfeldt) try too hard, clarity and simplicity and legibility go out the window. Sadly those should be the underlying principles of all typography. And you can use them without being boring.
  • 11. It’s a confusing place! It is not immediately clear what is being advertised here. The City of Stonington in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne is perhaps trying too hard to be funky and exciting. The success of this ad depends on the reader recognising at least one of suburbs or roads (and knowing what sort of shops are in it) before switching off due to the fontarhoea of the design where 13 different fonts ensure that the form overwhelms the content. Melbourne in Winter – Official Visitor Guide, Winter 2014, page 75
  • 12. Armidale Independent 21 March 2007 These men have nothing to do with porn! An appalling front page from the Armidale Independent where a shocking headline is juxtaposed with a photograph from quite another feel-good story (on page 3). A basic design rule is that if two things are close together they are probably related. But not in this case. Understandably the two doctors involved were upset, and the newspaper apologised. The Independent was lucky not to be sued.
  • 13. Several years later the Independent managed to confuse/combine two front page stories again, though without quite the same level of potential defamation. Armidale Independent, 7 March 2012
  • 14. Armidale Independent 2 July 2014 And yet again in 2014 when many people gained the impression that the local MP was running for mayor (no wonder he was a bloody idiot). Again the only saving grace this time was that the implication was not libellous.
  • 15. Canberra Times 2 March 2014 And also in Canberra! The problem isn’t limited to small regional papers, as this front page of the Canberra Times illustrates. The wife of the former prime minister has nothing to do with Canberra Hospital’s issues, but you’d never guess, given the juxtapositioning of big photo and big headline.
  • 16. What does that brochure say? The Biennale of Sydney in 2002 produced an extraordinarily illegible brochure. The combination of purple and red (which blend into each other) and an overly clever mix of reverse and positive type is awful, even for a contemporary art event. Biennale of Sydney brochure, 2002.
  • 17. The design principles of which colours work with which have been known and codified for a thousand years (in the rules of heraldry) but are still occasionally forgotten. The suspicion that the Biennale probably spent a lot of money on a design that fails the basic principle of legibility and hence effective communication is depressing.
  • 18. Coupon from InTune 27 February 2008 What colour pen do you use on this form? It looks okay, and quite striking, until you realise that you have to fill in an all black coupon. Do you own a white pen? A failure to relate design to intended use from InTune Magazine, which was published by the Armidale Express.
  • 19. What? Where? Who? Another case of someone trying too hard to be arty. How to read this double page spread from ArtReach is not immediately obvious. ArtReach, March 2002, pp.24-25.
  • 20. The shaded block that goes across both pages could be a separate story, but isn’t (though shading is used for that purpose earlier in the magazine). Ignore it and you’ll be fine. It is also a bit too intense, so that when it includes an illustration on the right hand page the text is difficult to read.
  • 21. Inconsistency is a problem. The names of the authors are in different places on each page. On the left hand page the large tinted “ArtStart” is the name of the general program, and has appeared like that on the previous three pages; on the right the same design for “Shear” is part of the title of the article.
  • 22. The interlined quotations in two different fonts on the top left are just too horrible for words. You need to read the larger magenta text and then go back to the black text to find out what it’s actually about. detail from page 24 of ArtReach, March 2002
  • 23. Black on Brown’s Fine Isn’t It? An extremely unfortunate choice of background for black type: unforgivable given that the book was written and designed by a senior lecturer in graphic design. Geoff Hocking, The Australian Flag: the first 100 years, Five Mile Press: Noble Park 2002. pp.32-33
  • 24. The principles of what colours are legible on each other have been known for more than a millennium and were formulated in the principles of heraldry. The book has other unfortunate colour choices (black on dark blue for instance) as well as mislabelled pictures of the NSW and Tasmanian flags and a reference to Nelson’s victory at Waterloo. detail from page 32 of The Australian Flag
  • 25. Greg Egan, Schild’s Ladder, London: Gollancz 2007 What is the name of that book? A book cover design has several functions. It should attract potential readers and buyers and let you know what the book is about or at least what it is called. Omitting any textual information at all, as in this science fiction novel, would seem to be a little pointless. Someone is trying too hard to be different and forgetting about communication. This is not however unique. A second example is only slightly less blameworthy in that it was not the work of a commercial publisher.
  • 26. Jim Banfield, An Introduction to Mathematical Organic Chemistry, Gereng: Armidale 1972 In 1972, Jim Banfield, a senior lecturer in Organic Chemistry at UNE, printed and published his own textbook. Unfortunately the dust jacket omits the title (An Introduction to Mathematical Organic Chemistry), and author’s name from the front cover, though they do appear on the spine. Perhaps it was never meant to be taken from the bookshelf.
  • 27. Kerning Catastrophe Kerning is the process of creating small overlaps between letters to make the typographic design more balanced and aesthetic. It is usually done horizontally. In this case it has been taken to extremes in a vertical direction and produced a basically illegible hodge- podge. The linking of ascenders in different lines is horrible. It might be art but it doesn’t communicate. In terms of colour, the silver text on orange is a bit dodgy too. Melbourne Art Fair 2010 brochure
  • 28. The associated poster is equally horrible. It also manages to omit vital information such as the location. Even the city is hard to discern because Melbourne is unnecessarily hyphenated. Melbourne Art Fair 2010, poster
  • 29. Too clever by half (an hour). Sometimes designers get carried away by a clever concept. This new font based on the hands of a clock is a lovely idea but basically illegible. Perhaps we should be grateful that it wasn’t based on a digital watch. Chin Chee Fui (Mey), “Rotation” in typotastic, volume 1, issue 1, sept. 2005 pp.14-15
  • 30. Wrong font. Some display fonts should only be used in large sizes and for headlines. The Red Hill Primary School Art Exhibition Catalogue of 2006 uses the same display font throughout and is therefore virtually illegible. The ready availability of desktop publishing has greatly reduced the quality of typography as untrained amateurs do it themselves. Red Hill Art Exhibition 2006 Catalogue
  • 31. Neucleus, July 1973 What is the name of that magazine? A wonderfully exciting cover design, involving a collage of typographic elements, is only marred by omitting the name of the magazine (even though we know the edition number!) Actually, the name is there, implicitly in the list of contents up the left hand side, but you’d never notice it. The July 1973 issue of the UNE Student Association publication Neucleus is admittedly an amateur production but still fails the communication test.
  • 32. What's the missing letter? And finally a little puzzle for you. There is a letter missing in the alphabet of this art deco inspired wooden type font. It’s hard to spot what it is, since the designer seems to have tried to make each letter as like all the others as possible. Definitely a case of style over substance. Font of wooden type c. 1930
  • 33. The Museum of Printing at the New England Regional Art Museum is keen to expand the Cabinet of Typographical Monstrosities. Seeing examples of things that have gone wrong can be very informative and the Cabinet is highly appreciated by local graphic design teachers. Please contact us if you come across further examples. Contact us at