Information Design

The Playing Card

The other week Grain Edit posted some photos of these 1970s playing cards produced by El Al and beautifully illustrated by Jean David. They depict Kings, Queens and Heroes from Israel’s biblical past, and come as a boxed pair of sets with an illustrated cardboard sleeve. I had a look around for some clearer photos so I could get a better look, or even a good source of info on Jean David, but there’s not much out there at all. I did, however, find an eBay auction for a set of the cards, so I got my very own set - eventually, and they really are lovely:

El Al playing cards, Illustrated by Jean David

The cards are indeed beautiful and are also nice depictions of the biblical characters - wise Solomon with his scrolls, Jonathan with his arrows, Samson with his jawbone, etc., and reflect the tradition of representing the legendary or historical characters on cards. There is a nice nod to the Paris court tradition of playing card characters by keeping the depiction of David as the King of Spades. Of the other traditional biblical characters, Sheba replaces Rachel as Queen of Diamonds and (unsurprisingly) Judith is replaced with Esther as Queen of Hearts. Julius Caesar is an obvious one to leave off (far better to show Solomon), and instead of the sometimes-shown Judas Maccabeus as Jack of Clubs there’s another leader of a revolt, Bar Giora. I guess it’s hard to choose such a small number from all the people in Israeli history, but if you’re going to show Bar Kochba, you have to show Bar Giora too. Perhaps.

Beyond the history lesson, looking at them got me thinking about the type used to identify individual cards in general. The individual numbers and letters work very well on the card, and are pretty much standard for all cards, but put them together and you see that there’s not much consistency between them at all. As a set, they’re discordant, drawn on a whole different scale to each other, the curve of the J appears exaggerated and incredibly wide compared to the Q, and the K’s slab serifs are enormous, but individually, they each work just fine. I’ve seen playing cards motifs and designs implemented as branding and packaging (such as this rather nicely branded wine), and I notice now that they never used the actual type style from the cards themselves - obviously, designing characters to sit alone is a different art to designing them to sit together.

While I’m on the topic of characters sitting together, it’s a shame (and surprising) that the type for the names isn’t kerned, and more so that it’s the King David card where this is most obvious. Fortunately, apart from Bathsheba, the names of the others are pretty forgiving and the lack of kerning isn’t very noticeable. Still, it’s surprising that that was allowed through, given the overall quality of the cards.

Modern standard card designs. These are from a House of Lords deck.

I dug out my standard set when I got the El Al ones so I could compare them. There’s something quite comforting about how they’re familiar they are, but I was wondering how standardised they really are. Looking at the set above, which is a fancy-schmancy House of Lords set and comparing them to a cheap £1 set from a newsagents, there is a fair bit of difference in the quality and the detail of the drawing, although many of the design elements are consistent; for comparison, I’ve put a queen card from each next to each other here. I had imagined there would be a bunch of royalty free EPS files that you could buy or download and slap on your cards, but perhaps not. One thing that seems to be important for standard cards is that all the characters have to look really, really tired and unhappy, a convention I’m glad to say wasn’t followed with the El Al cards.


Coudal (I think) linked to this the other day. It’s a collection of designs for dazzle camouflage applied to ships during the First and Second World War to confuse the silhouette of the ship and make it less likely to be targetted by enemy subs. I got a few silhouette images (from this rather odd and boastful page) and put them next to some of the designs, and you can see why the technique gained a lot of support. The designs would at least make it hard to identify what kind of ship it is, which might help if everyone did it…


So yes, that raises the question of effectiveness. I imagine in full sun it would be quite good - literally dazzling the eye, but in an overcast, at dawn or dusk, the ship would still be silhouetted quite clearly against the sky. So what were the results? From the site:

Did it work? Dazzle and the convoy system were implemented about the same time, so it is hard to say. However, crews on dazzle ships were very proud of the bedazzled camouflage. It was definitely a morale booster. The British and the Americans fully adopted dazzle because at the time they found it to be effective and inexpensive.RISD

Tests should be done! Still, however well they worked, they’re pretty fabulous. More ships should be painted like this, just, you know, because.


Annoyingly, the RISD only has these tiny images, and I can’t find anywhere to buy prints either. There is, however, a poster from Transport for London advertising the Imperial War Museum that shows an illustration of a freshly bedazzled warship, here.

Symbol Signs

You can get a wall decal of this from the site - in the ‘Urban’ section. Linked from the image.

I see (via Chris Glass) that AIGA have put the complete set of passenger and pedestrian symbols online, free of charge, apparently for the first time. They can be downloaded from their site here, though beware of the ‘complete set’ zip file, as rather unhelpfully they don’t have file extensions. The story of how the symbols were developed is interesting:

To develop such a system, AIGA and D.O.T. compiled an inventory of symbol systems that had been used in various locations worldwide, from airports and train stations to the Olympic Games. AIGA appointed a committee of five leading designers of environmental graphics, who evaluated the symbols and made recommendations for adapting or redesigning them. Based on their conclusions, a team of AIGA member designers produced the symbols.

The fact we still see (most of) these symbols everywhere speaks of the quality of the design process they employed. The only sign that has changed significantly is the one for ‘shops’ - even without the change in attitudes to smoking, the pipe would appear dated these days anyway. The symbol was also impossibly dense and cluttered. You don’t see the ‘smoking’ sign anywhere these days either (well, not in the UK at least), it’s just that grammatical horror, “It is against the law to smoke in [sic] these premises” on every building, everywhere. It makes me want to vandalise in the name of good English.

Airport, escalator, smoking, shops and restaurant.
Café, heliport, baggage claim and check-in, exit and left luggage.

Hang on a moment. Exit? I truly have never seen that symbol before. I can see the thinking behind it, but clearly it never caught on, and for good reason - it’s far too similar to the ‘no entry’ sign. In an emergency situation you can’t guarantee that either sign would remain perfectly level, just at the time you’d really want people to be able to tell the difference! The Wikipedia page on exit signs (yes, of course there’s one) makes no mention of it either.

Most of the rest of the icons. The one for baby facilities always strikes me as a bit horrid, like the poor child has been dismembered.

Tape Cassette Inlays


I was mailed a link to these scans of tape cassette inlays the other day. It’s fascinating seeing some of the designs again - most of them look like they’re late 70s and early 80s, but I’m sure I had a few of these in my late-80s “taping things” phase.

I have of course traced a few of my favourites, though there’s plenty more than these four worth looking at. The EMITAPE one is lovely - I recall friends of mine with flashy computers had a few of these. The AGFA one is interesting - I naturally assumed the type would be Helvetica or Univers, but closer inspection (the reason why I trace) reveals a rather different balance to the letterforms. The ‘6’ is rather odd - it looks like it’s about to topple over backwards. The positively psychedelic Happy Sound one was incredibly pleasurable to trace; I think only four points in the whole of that funky set of curves is not at extrema - it’s lovely when that happens. I’ve put a closeup of the patterns on the right (or above, if you’re reading this on RSS).


Grid Systems

Antonio Carusone mailed me to announce his new project, The Grid System, a site (obviously enough) about grid systems. Now, I don’t normally post about things from mailouts or press releases, but since I’m particularly partial to a good grid and I’ve already found a couple of useful things on this site that I’ve found interesting and even bookmarked, I reckon I’d end up writing about this anyway. So, go and have a look.

What did I bookmark though? Well, Syncotype for one. It’s a bookmarklet, i.e. a bit of javascript you can bookmark and then run on any page you’re viewing, that overlays a baseline grid on your page. I have an 18px baseline grid on this site, which often ends up being broken by images I post not having a multiple of that as their height. It’s certainly something I could solve with a bit of extra javascript of my own (or even something server side) to ensure the height of a containing element of an image is indeed a multiple of 18px or a round number of ems, but I’ve not got around to it yet.


Also, there’s the problem of whether such automatic measures are even appropriate. For a while I cropped and trimmed all images to a set of heights to match the baseline, but sometimes it just doesn’t fit the image and I found adding extra padding to the container (a paragraph tag in this case) actually spoiled the vertical rhythm of the page. I decided that as this site is a single column that it would be the apparent vertical rhythm that was important, rather than the real one. I wonder how other people solve the problem? Or even if they do…


Funny how coincidences arise. I found both Mario Feese’s Air Lines and Chris Harrison’s Internet Maps at about the same time and was struck by how recognisable the continents are, and, as I’m fond of maps I thought I’d compare the two images. On the Air Lines map, most of the continents are rendered as a ghostly but fairly accurate outlines, with South America rendered as a beautiful abstraction, right to its tip. The Internet Map is obviously somewhat different, with almost all the connections between cities in rich countries; Africa barely exists and the tip of South America is shown with a single faint line, whereas North America and Europe are smothered in a riot of lines. I overlaid the two maps onto each other and I noticed an interesting thing about the Internet Map, which I describe below.


So, to align the maps I needed to use various groups of cities that appeared in both maps; using the southern hemisphere to get the horizontal scale right - there are sharp points for cities in South America, southern Africa and Australia, and in the northern hemisphere I used San Francisco, LA and Tokyo to get the vertical scale. Thankfully, both maps are using the same projection.

Everything pretty much lines up nicely, except there’s that node in the Gulf of Guinea which I originally thought might be some satellite uplink affair at Sao Tomé, maybe a huge data haven I’d never heard about. However, after lining up a map of Africa with both maps it turns out to be nowhere near any land at all. In fact, when I was trying to mark the point on Google Maps, I realise this big data interchange point (the biggest in Africa!) is at 0.0°N, 0.0°W, which is a suspiciously default sounding location. Maybe in the data that Chris Harrison used there are a few unknowns, with their locations set to null, and these connections should be shown elsewhere? If they were removed, Africa would be even more ghostly.

Portsmouth By Its Slang

Found this on the CR Blog: “Do you speak Pompey?” - a map of Portsmouth with the streets relabelled with examples of apparently local slang. I wouldn’t say very much of this slang is unique to Portsmouth - I hear much of the same phrases and accents in Brighton, and around Sussex and Surrey too - but the map is pretty interesting nonetheless. As CR Blog points out, it’s similar in execution to the NB Studio map of London. It’d be interesting to do a map of a larger region (or country!) showing accents in a similar fashion. It’d be of aesthetic interest more than scientific, but I’d be tempted to buy one.


The Comma

This pair of videos by the Brazilian Press Association is pretty interesting to watch. I’ve had the link bookmarked for a while as I like the animation style. In Portuguese and English, the animation demonstrates how the placement of a single comma can alter or reverse the meaning of a sentence, and makes the point that no one should be allowed to make any changes to what’s written in the press, no matter how ‘small’ the edit:


With the animation style for this piece being rather good, I can’t help but think that while there’s a lot of ‘typographic animation’ around, most of it is pretty samey and unoriginal, repeating over and over the idea of attaching each new word to the previous one, rotating the viewpoint, zooming in or out and then attaching the next word. The style can work wonderfully, but a lot of animations leave a lot to be desired - using typefaces that simply don’t work at such a range of scales and angles, are badly kerned, use too tight or too loose leading, and sometimes look just plain rushed. Sometimes they come so close to a great result, but a lack of polish (and checking for typos) limits the effect.


The style demands a great deal of attention to detail, which is why the really good ones are so impressive. The Pulp Fiction one is, to me, the acme of this style - being made up almost entirely of text, but I think that the animation on The Project for the New American Century deserves a lot of credit for using it with more traditional 2D and 3D animation to convey a powerful and provocative message.