Ten Ways to Tame a Long Name

By John McWade
Before & After Magazine

Dateline: June 14, 2004
Volume 1, Number 9
Earlier columns

Short, perky names are preferable to long, but what if you’re stuck with a whopper? A short name is a designer’s delight. Time. Life. Vogue. A short name has punch; it’s easy to read and easy to say. It’s easy to design, too; a short name can fit any space, any style, and wear any color.

A long name, on the other hand, is an octopus. It sprawls. It crowds the space, dominates the graphics, and controls the look of a page. A long name has no natural focal point. It swamps typographic detail. It is a many-tenacled challenge.

When Deena Perkins of the Texas Music Educators Association wrote telling us about her magazine, her first sentence was a single squeak: Help! That’s because her name isn’t just long, or even extra long; it’s a whopper!—the Southwestern Musician Combined with the Texas Music Educator.

Set in one Texas-length line, this name spanned its cover for forty years after the purchase of Southwestern Musician by the TMEA, who combined it with their own Texas Music Educator. Deena, who arrived in 1991, quickly saw that readers called the magazine simply Southwestern Musician, and split the name into two more-manageable parts. Here’s what else you can do:

Before: A name so long it comes in two parts

After Southwestern Musician Combined with the Texas Music Educator had spent forty years in a single, microscopic line (top), Deena’s split into two parts was a pretty bold change. Set in Bookman Light and slightly compressed, her new treatment elevates the magazine’s better-known name to prominence while retaining the title acquired in the old merger.

This is a very magazinelike improvement, but let’s do more. You want a name—especially of a music magazine—to have verve, style, presence. To design a long name your first task is to organize and control the space. There are many tools for this, but it begins by establishing a focal point, a place of central interest. In this case we’ll start by reuniting the halves as shown below.

To communicate most effectively, you want the reader’s attention focused in one place, not divided. It should be obvious at a glance that this is the name, that is the date, and this other is a headline. Mixing them forces the reader to figure out what each is.

After: United, compact and stylish

The less the reader’s eye must deal with, the more impact your images will have. Here the cover has been reduced to three visual elements—the compact nameplate, the artwork, and two horizontal headline bars at the very top. These bars require your printer to trim carefully, but they’re an extremely effective way to reduce cover clutter—and they peek over on a newsstand, too. The new nameplate is so distinctive it can rove around anywhere on the top third of the page, issue to issue, to complement the cover art.

The Challenge of a Long Name

A long name is many things, all of which require the designer’s attention. To illustrate, take the famous but fictional Montegue Rosseau, Duke of Ethelbald. The townspeople know him as Sir Montegue. His doting aunt calls him Monty. To his lacrosse buddies it’s “Hey, Rosseau!” And as a precocious kid he’d hear “Niccolo Montegue Proudham Rosseau, get in here this minute!” bellowed from the castle porch. He is each of these names, and all of them.

You—pretend here for a minute—have been summoned to paint the duke’s portrait. Which duke will it be? Rosseau? Sir Montegue? Niccolo Montegue Proudham Rosseau? Your portrait, of course, must capture them all. In the same way, your long name has many facets which must be expressed, carefully and in proportion.

Unlike a short name, a long name has many facets, so you can’t just blurt it out all at once. Set in one line, the name is much too small.

But a larger size doesn’t improve it; centered in three lines the name now has too much mass; the result is blocky, plain, uninviting.

Typographic embellishment doesn’t help, either; here shadows add a touch of character, but the result is only massive, suitable for a tabloid.

Nor does a decorative typeface work; it’s now hard to read and looks like a doily. The solution is more complex; create a typographic hierarchy.

Design 1: Split it in Two

Scale and style establish a hierarchy. To control a space, your operative word is hierarchy. Hierarchy means to rank elements in order of importance. Visually, a hierarchy can be established with scale (big object, small object), weight, (heavy object, light object) style (block, script), value (light, dark), balance, placement and so on. Southwestern Musician Combined with the Texas Music Educator is, of course, two names in one, connected by a conjunctive phrase. We’ll first reduce the conjunctive phrase to insignificance, then for this design treat the remaining names exactly the same, as if they were separate magazines, and stack them in a block. The contrasts of scale and style between the condensed, blocky nouns and the light, cursive adjectives (left) now create a second hierarchy. The stacking order itself is a third.

Scale to fit. To mimic this stylish design, first scale all condensed-style words until they touch both margins (below, right). Then scale only the longest cursive word to touch the margins, and set other cursive words to match its point size, centered (middle). Justify the tiny conjunctive phrase (note wide word- and letterspacing) between titles. To turn the bare type into a nameplate, embellish with justified rules (far right); you’ll have to experiment here, but in general the heaviest should be on the bottom.

This design needs a highly condensed typeface to define the visual block, an illusion the eye sees but isn’t literally there.

Condensed type: Marla, Cursive type: Inscription, Tiny type: Copperplate 33BC.

The designs below elevate just one word—in this case Musician—to prominence and rank all others well below it. This is a style favored by magazine designers, who must compete for newsstand attention; it turns a long name into a short one that’s easy to read at a glance and highly visible. Many typographic details lend sophistication; pay special attention to the effects of contrasts.

Design 2: Use a Placard

Here a majestic name is topped by a small placard that carries the descriptive adjective. This is fun to design because the placard is easy to embellish in many ways. The style below hints at a Southwestern look, yet was formed from only lines, an oval and a dingbat.

Note that southwestern is set in all caps and force justified to produce wide letterspacing. Using all caps avoids the disruptive, uppie-and-downie effect of lowercase ascenders and descenders.

Placards without dingbats are even easier to make, and can be as effective. To create the subtle edging (top, inset), copy the dark rectangle twice, color one white, the other black, offset each slightly right and down, and stack behind. Dark type on white is a way to lessen the presence of the adjective.

Panoramic letterspacing. Highly condensed type gives the name a towering presence; very wide letterspacing contributes a feeling of panorama. To set this, force justify the word within its text block (left), then simply expand or contract the block to suit your eye. Note the first letter is slightly larger. To add the dimension of an offset edge, copy the word twice, color one white (or light), the other black (or dark), offset each slightly right and down, and stack behind. Set the remainder of the name in tiny type beneath, all caps, in a contrasting value, justified to the ends of the main word (right).

Condensed type: Spire Expert All other type: Franklin Gothic Heavy.

Design 3: Stamp It

This variation elevates the perceived value of the second name by working it into an eye-catching graphic stamp, which adds an energetic punctuation point to the name. The stamp’s weight is counterbalanced by the vertically running Southwestern. Note the type on both objects is reversed from dark colors in all caps, and set in one typeface.

Monogram-style initials you set yourself (left) make fine centerpieces. Right, simple dingbats are expressive and cost almost nothing.

Condensed type: Runic Condensed Stamp type: Frutiger Ultra Black Headline type: Franklin Gothic Condensed.

Design 4: Box It

Here an ordinary box corrals a playful, medieval-style typeface—the Monty of this bunch— turning it literally into a nameplate. Boxes are especially good at defining space. A good time to use a box is if your typeface is of only average size and weight, or if its style is quite busy, or the cover is often cluttered.

Right, note lines of type within the box are scaled to justify side to side, then two larger boxes are stacked in back and offset downward. With a boxed name, keep your headlines low key or your page will break into competing chunks.

Bare type is stylish but more at home on a CD jacket or theater program; in a box it’s a name.

Nameplate: Frances Unical, Headline type: Poplar.

Design 5: Work the Corners

This handsome design takes advantage of our eye’s natural left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading motion by placing a key visual pivot in the upper-left corner. Here, bold bars, not the type, do the heavy work of drawing the reader’s eye, which allows the type to be lighter and smaller. Note the interesting contrasts (below): Southwestern Musician (1) is bold and muscular but very small, while Texas Music Educator (3) is delicate and airy but much larger. Similarly, the smaller bar is the bolder color. This interplay of weight and counterweight is how to keep your design balanced while creating visual variety. The conjunction (2) is tiny; spun into a circle it’s less to read than to look at. Right, headlines neatly occupy lower right corner, aligned right; note their colors reflect the name.

Small name: Futura Extra Bold, Big name: Racer Headline type: Helvetica Neue 85 Heavy.

The art of the focal point. Below, name, illustration and headline block are each a distinct, easy-to-see focal point, yet they don’t compete. Why? Harmonious light, medium and dark colors, for one thing. But note their layout; all three align in a column straight down the center of the page.

Design 6: Meld It

A rustic, condensed typeface melds with the bar beneath it to create a single visual object and lend prominence to the second title. The primary words Southwestern Musician appear in highly expanded and condensed versions of the same typeface, which is why they work well together. As a rule, different serif or sans-serif typefaces should not appear together in the same name, for the same reason you wouldn’t combine white and off-white paint in one room. You’ll have the most success by staying in one type family, or by mixing styles that are obviously different.

Eyeball, don’t measure, alignment. When stacking serif type our eyes normally perceive the edge to be not the serifs but the vertical stems. But here unusually large type overpowers the small, which must be nudged outward to appear aligned.

A well-balanced page. A simple, pleasing page is often built upon attributes invisible to the reader. Note below the biggest object has the least color contrast, the smallest type the most. Headlines in the lower right are tied to the name by an imaginary centerline near the end of the name. And while the illustration bleeds to the edge, all type stays inside an invisible margin (left).

Design 7: Bump the Baselines

Can both titles be set the same size in one bold typeface—in all caps, no less—and look good? They can if you set them this way! Handsome and easy to read, too, this two-line nameplate works from the center out. Smooth capital letters avoid the raggedness of lowercase type, while larger initial caps provide the visual texture. Note subtle shadows behind the initials add a touch of emphasis. The trick here is in the way the initials are bumped—top line up, bottom line down—to leave a clean space between the two lines. The titles are aligned right, then fastened by a decorative conjunction:

Decorative conjunction. This two-line placard is easy to make right in PageMaker simply with straight lines, ovals and mirrored dingbats. Type is centered; note looser-than-normal letterspacing.

Radiating capitals. Long names set as large as this virtually demand a highly condensed typeface. To avoid looking unattractively dense, however, loosen the letterspacing somewhat; here it’s about ten percent. Scale the initial caps up about twenty percent.

Nameplate type: Miehle Condensed Placard and headline type: Copperplate 33BC

Design 8: Teeter-totter the Capitals

This variation sets a single title in one line that has both up and down initials which balance each other attractively. The conjunction and second title are set beneath a thin rule in the open, descender-free space. Note both titles are aligned to the right; the rule then bleeds in from the edge and ends at the beginning of the second title. Similarly, headlines in the lower right corner are centered in a block whose right edge aligns with the nameplate.
Sharp-edged style wraps around corner. While many designs rely on differences, or contrasts, in shapes, colors and so forth, others thrive on similarities. Here the nameplate’s rectangular form is echoed in around-the-corner headlines, which must be carefully fit.

Design 9: Hang Wallpaper

This stylish design overlays the name atop “wallpaper” of musical icons to create a nameplate that can stand all by itself. It works only against a solid background, and shines on stationery, brochures and other ancillary items. Key are its contrasts. Against dark wallpaper the icons should be dark, the words light; small words should be lightest. On light wallpaper the opposite is true. In black & white use shades of gray.

This is a great use for dingbats (just make sure your choices relate to your name). Below, push the icons away from the center.

Self-blocking type. The crisp effect of the rectangular “wallpaper” is reinforced by the rectangular block of type atop it. To set, first type the name line by line in one size, then scale each line (you’ll have to jimmy the leading) until the words form a rectangle. If this leaves a line too prominent, reduce as shown, then add rules to fill out the block .

Type: Futura Bold and Extra Bold.

Design 10: Focus on Art

No rule says a long name itself must carry the entire visual load! The technique shown here often works when nothing else will. An artistic icon—in this case a musical clef—becomes the focal point that anchors the name to a visual block. It’s attractive and eye-catching, but what’s really nice is that no matter how long or unruly the name, it cannot dominate the design.

This means you can try beautiful, more complex typestyles you’d ordinarily avoid. Note, right, the clef breaks across both top and bottom edges, which keeps it from feeling hemmed in and small. A variation, left, breaks only the top edge; note the horizontal bars align with edges of the text.

Type: Futura Bold and Extra Bold.

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This article is excerpted from Before & After, How to design cool stuff, Issue 24, Vol. 4, No. 6. and is reprinted here by permission. Copyright ©2004, Before & After magazine, all rights reserved. Design more cool stuff! Visit Before & After magazine online at http://www.bamagazine.com/ to buy the current issue, subscribe, or order back issues, including the one containing this article. Get a free bonus issue when you subscribe in the Graphics.com Member Area.