Limit: One Gimmick Per Design.

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wade sans light

I took a really great class at Seattle Central Community College last year, called Typography for the Web, taught by Mike Sinkula. One of our first assignments was to design a monogram or logo for ourselves. I really thought that I was going to end up with something disappointing, having never designed a graphic thing that satisfied me in the past.

Our design process started with looking at tons of fonts for the letters we wanted to use. (Here are my typography class files if you want to see my youthful efforts. Be merciful.) I found a fantastic and ususually elegant font, Wade Sans Light, which I used to write my name. Then I thought about branding and constraining, like, if I put braces or brackets to contain the name, you know, like for coding, or a box, or something boxlike, or a shaded box background, and what if I put the letters on end or rotate them a little? Drop shadow. Everyone loves a drop shadow. I pretty much hated it all, except the letters themselves. 

So I showed a chaotic crapload of ideas on a page to Mike. He took a pencil and circled a few, then pointed to the one I liked and said something like “lose the brackets, lose the box,” “But,” I said in my best Homer Simpson, “that just leaves letters.” Fantastic letters, which was Mike’s point.

I also had one typographic amusement (or conceit) at my disposal: the letter ö in my last name. (We don’t use it typically, but if I were in Sweden this would be the correct spelling.) I noticed the R sloped down and the M sloped up and there was that surprised little ö living right between them. I put the ö aligned at the bottom where it looked rather terrified, and tried it with the ö high like a booted beach ball. That letter was taking on a life of its own. So I used this font, made the two lines take up the same space horizontally, and used one character as a “character.” That was it. I never get tired of it.

Which brings me to my One Step Design Principle (write this down, pin it to your wall, remind yourself of this every day): Every Design Gets Only One Gimmick.

Every Design Gets Only One Gimmick.

When I was in architecture school, we’d do our designs then have a critique where our favorite designs by our classmates would get savaged. We waited for the dreaded slam on something that in our opinions might have been at worst a little whimsical:


For a while a decided that I liked Gimmicky, perhaps a defensive viewpoint to counter what I thought was an excessive criticism of lightness. Later on it occurred to me that our student designs that were labeled “gimmicky” had more than one design feature to it. For example, take the Guggenheim museum. The “gimmick” is the form of the building. Paint it pink and this additional design feature is one too much, rendering the design tacky. A cube-shaped building painted white is featureless. Paint IT pink and color is the defining design feature which doesn’t have to compete with form.

So if you only get one design feature, make it a really good one. For my logo design, it’s the letters.  The logo can stand alone. I think it’s a good design.

About Leslie Strom

Stand out. Be bold. Prove you exist. I try to do this in web design, writing, publishing, and with my frequently bad ideas. Since I spend about 85% of my time collecting information and am willing to set myself out as a human cautionary tale, I think you might enjoy the enlightening (or not) tinkertoy workings of my mind. Welcome!
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