Who are you “quoting”?

Earlier this year, city officials in Boulder, Colorado discovered an unusual form of vandalism. A graffiti artist had altered the entrance sign to The Boulder County Justice Center utilizing a tool in typographic communication that has become a trend in our digital world: the scare quote.


Scare quote graffiti, Boulder, CO, July 2010. (Boulder Daily Camera)

Typing with our thumbs has added to our text-based communication chatspeak, emoticons and a plethora of new abbreviations. But its most interesting contribution to contemporary typography might be bringing the scare quote into the mainstream.

You may not be familiar with the label for the Digital Age’s favorite typographic marks, but odds are you’ve seen them used to add playful emphasis to words and phrases in all corners of your everyday life.


Liquor store signage, Berkeley, CA, October 2010.


Ford Escort, New York City, NY, November 2010 (Tim McCoy)

Online, they’re collected in the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotations, viewable at the “Quotation Mark” Abuse Flickr pool, appear on PassiveAggressiveNotes.com and can even be seen in product reviews.


Amazon.com product review, January 2007. (Amazon.com)

They’ve gotten so popular, professional copywriters and journalists are using them for mainstream audiences. Design-conscious Target is using them for deals that are “Unbelievable!” and just downright “Surprising!”; The Washington Post Style section has used them to describe Jon Stewart; and global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi is using them in their new Toyota Highlander ad campaign.


Target in-store signage, September 2010.


The Washington Post, October 2010. (Washington Post)


Toyota Highlander wheatpasted ad, Berkeley, CA, December 2010.

Maybe you’ve even used scare quotes yourself. Perhaps to add sarcasm in chat:


Text messaging dramatization, webOS.

Or in their physical extension:

Scare quotes physically expressed on SNL, sometimes referred to as “finger” or “air” quotes. (Hulu)

Whether you love scare quotes or hate them so much you wrote an essay that they are the “enemy” on the Harvard University Press Blog, it’s undeniable: scare quotes are all around us, and seem to be gaining in popularity. What might be fueling the trend? Have we seen anything like scare quotes before? And if we choose to embrace them, how can we best use scare quotes?

Why do “idiots” keep using them?


Text messaging has allowed for an unprecedented level of communication to be text-based. According to The New York Times, American teenage girls send an average of “4,050 text messages a month, or eight each waking hour.” And in April, an NPR story that featured a girl who texted 300 times a day, found that “the number who say they text-message daily has shot up to 54 percent from 38 percent in just the past 18 months.”


Some teens text far more than they talk on cellphones. (See full infographic at Flowtown)

But unlike a basic word processor, cellphones use unformatted, plain text, text messaging. (Status updates on Facebook and Twitter are also exclusively plain text). That means lots of communication occurs without rich text options like bold and italics for emphasis. So when we need to tell our friends Justin Bieber is “so hot” in his latest video, scare quotes are not only useful, but might be the best typographic option.


The human voice is an incredible method of communication capable of a wide range of expression. Sadly, the more we communicate via text message and email, the more of that amazing ability we lose in conversation.

A SNL skit that might best be transcribed with scare quotes. (YouTube)

In walks scare quotes. Whether you’re quoting someone or not, seeing quotation marks makes the reader “think” someone is saying a particular word or phrase. And in a cold, digital world, vocal expressions like sarcasm might only be possible with a faux human voice, via scare quotes.


Students and professors frequently discuss complex and sensitive topics. Whether it’s class stratification, AIDS or gender roles, it would be easy to offend others by misusing particular words and phrases.

So, academia turns to scare quotes. The glyph allows them to express doubt and create distance from delicate subjects in collegiate essays.

A “kibbitzer” by Nieri Avanessian and John Swales attempted to determine the frequency of scare quotes in a body of collegiate writing. After hand-searching essays, they found that sociology papers used scare quotes most often, about four times for every 1,000 words written.


There are provocative blogs and intelligent comments, but read enough politically-slanted ones, and you might think we’re a nation of clueless “elites” or angry members of the “Party of No.” This “misinformation” is fueled by scare quotes.

Scare quotes let your gut do the talking. (Colbert Report)

Scare quotes can allow factual information to seem unfounded, and give ironic nicknames weight to the extreme base of a political party.

“FauxNews” is apparently “reporting” on “weapons of mass destruction.”
“ObamaCareLess” was not “born” in the United States.

The technique, which is where scare quotes get their name, has even spread to the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal (see also: TNR).

Have there been similar “mistakes”?

Sign Painted Slogans

Scare quotists seem to have taken a cue from the rich history of hand-painted signage and advertisements. The beautiful art of sign painting once gave a handwritten, human quality to the billboards that are a part of city life.


New York City, 2010. (MorgueFile)


New York City, 1905. (Library of Congress)

As sign painting technique for slogans, quotation marks effortlessly added a human voice to advertisements.


Iowa, 1940. (Library of Congress)

Today, there are some artists that focus on incredible, expressive lettering like Jessica Hische, Seb Lester, John Downer and Jim Parkinson. For today’s masses, it might be said that there is an easier way to refer to the human quality of hand-painted signage in text messages and emails: scare quotes.

A retrospective of Jim Parkinson’s amazing career. (Vimeo)

Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

In the late 1950s, an interesting and alternative usage of the apostrophe appeared around Liverpool, England. At greengrocers — fruit and vegetable stands — a reportedly mostly foreign-born contingent of workers made an apostrophe mistake over possessives and plurals commonplace.

Instead of putting “Apples” on sale, for example, the shopkeepers over-corrected their grammar and put signs up for “Apple’s.” So there weren’t “oranges,” but rather “orange’s,” and the idea was further extended to change phrases like “please do not feed the birds” to “please do not feed the bird’s.”

Believe it or not, the greengrocer’s apostrophe continues to thrive today. There’s even an entire Flickr pool of collected images:

In England, the greengrocer’s apostrophe has now become so ubiquitous that BBC Radio 4 had a three-part comedy based on the “mistake”; The Daily Mail ran a greengrocer’s apostrophe “test” for its readers; and opinion pieces in both The Guardian and The Telegraph have called for an end to the apostrophe mark altogether.

The Original “Quotation Marks”

Those that originally drew what we call “quotation marks,” might be puzzled by the criticism surrounding the marks being used for emphasis. Afterall, that’s probably why the forms were drawn in the first place.

A diple is a historical punctuation mark that was used for emphasis. In the early 1500s, one style was drawn in the shape of what we call “quotation marks” today.


Printed work from 1521. “The diple (represented by double commas) has been placed in the margin to draw attention to the comments…it has not been used to indicate quotations from the King himself, not quotations from Scripture or patristic authorities.” (Pause and Effect, p. 221)

Punctuation historian Malcom Parkes writes that a diple “…like italic type, was employed for emphasis even where there was no quotation. In 1526, it was used by Nicolaus Hausmann of Zwickau in the margins of a letter to Stephen Roth, against lines that contained material he wishes to emphasize.” (Pause and Effect, p.59) According to Robert Bringhurst, the notion of quotation marks “did not come into routine typographic use until the late sixteenth century.” (Elements of Typographic Style, p.64)

Embracing “Scare Quotes”


Scare quote tattoo. (heyitsmejaya)


So, you’ve decided to forgo Robert Bringhurst’s wisdom that “many unprofessional writers overuse quotation marks,” and chosen to embrace scare quotes. Soon, you’ll simultaneously travel a down a path of great expression, humor and potential embarrassment. To guide you on your journey, here are a few, fun ways you might consider using scare quotes:

  1. Sarcasm.
    • Walking into incoming traffic is a “great” idea.
  2. Question the validity of a word or phrase.
    • She’s my “wife,” but we’re seeing other people.
  3. Academic curiosity.
    • What is “racism”?
  4. Importance.
    • Please “do not” pick your nose.

Be cautious: The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes that scare quotes can be used for emphasis, but since using scare quotes is a largely informal practice, different sources consider different kinds of usage to be correct. One lexicographer, for example, received dozens of hateful comments for proposing a form of scare quotes for emphasis should be recognized.

Alternate Glyphs

Since there is visual ambiguity between quotation marks and scare quotes typographically, other glyphs are sometimes used instead of scare quotes. Among the more popular options:

  1. Asterisk: surrounds a word or phrase for emphasis.
    • I’m *so* over him.
  2. Winky: follows a lighthearted sentence, can be interpreted as flirtatious.
    • You must be tired, ’cause you’ve been running through my mind all day. ;)
  3. Tilde: follows a sentence with sarcasm.
    • Another great season for the Royals~

There are also those that have tried to invent their own marks. Options include percentage signs, percontation point, sarcasm font and SarcMarc.

SarcMark. (SarcMark)

These alternates can be fun, and might make for a good classroom exercise, but lack the effectiveness of scare quotes. Afterall, the power of scare quotes is largely ambiguity, so to reduce that fuzziness feels like the wrong typographic choice.


Given their heavy usage online, there has been some tongue in cheek interest in establishing a HTML tag for scare quotes. Quotation-marks.com suggests using the rarely implemented <q> tag to create distinction between scare quotes and regular ones. Some utilize the fictitious <sarcasm> tag for sarcasm in forums and comments. The W3C does not approve “<sarcasm>.”


Standardistas like their sarcasm without tags. (ImageShack, Reddit)

“Unnecessary” Quotations

Quotation marks are used beyond their standard purposes all around us. Known as “scare quotes,” they are fueled by the need for emphasis in plain text, sarcasm, sensitivity and talking from the gut. They can be fun, and we’ve seen similar “mistakes” before, but if you hop on the typographic trend of the Digital Age, beware: they’re not accepted by everyone.

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Creating immersive experiences with diegetic interfaces

I like to think of Interaction Design in its purest form as being about shaping the perception of an environment of any kind. Yes, today the discipline is so closely tied to visual displays and software that it almost seems to revolve around that medium alone, but that’s only because as of now, that’s pretty much the only part of our environment over which we have complete control.

The one field that has come closest to overcoming this limitation is the video game industry whose 3D games are the most vivid and complete alternate realities technology has been able to achieve. Game designers have control over more aspects of an environment, albeit a virtual one, than anyone else.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that interfaces can be more closely integrated with the environment in which they operate. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned from the universe of video games and how it might be applicable to other kinds of designed experiences.

In Designing for the Digital Age, Kim Goodwin criticizes the term “Experience design” as being too presumptuous because we don’t really have the power to determine exactly what kind of experience each person with their own beliefs and perceptions has. Even when we work across an entire event from start (e.g. booking a flight) to finish (arriving at the door), there are still countless factors outside our control that can significantly impact how a person will experience it.

Video game designers on the other hand can orchestrate a precise scenario since almost every detail in their virtual world is for them to determine. They can arrange exactly what kind of person sits next to you on a flight no matter who you are or how many times you take that flight.

That isn’t to say that videogames don’t have their limitations. Of course, it isn’t completely true that game designers can determine who sits next to you. They can only determine who your avatar sits next to. The most significant weakness of videogames is the inability to truly inhabit a designed environment or narrative. As much control as we may have over a virtual world, as long as we are confined to experiencing it through television screens and speakers, it won’t be anywhere near comparable to our real world.

Fortunately, there’s a growing effort to address this lack of immersion.

A key area of the problem lies in how we’re presented and interact with complex information diegetically, that is, interfaces that actually exist within the game world itself.

The 4 spaces in which information is presented in a virtual environment

Before continuing, it helps to be familiar with some basic concepts and terminology around diegesis in computer graphics, the different spaces of representation between the actual player and their avatar. The diagram above illustrates the four main types of information representation in games.


Non-diegetic representations remain the most common type of interface in games. In first person shooters, arguably the most immersive type of game since we usually see the scenery through our avatar’s view, the head-up display has remained an expected element since Wolfenstein 3D first created the genre. Read More

Diacritical character entry made simple (by stealing from the iPhone OS)

I’m going to call it. Apple won on this one.

The whole host of Latin-derived diacritical characters (such as ç, ?, & ?) are too large to fit into a standard keyboard. The methods by which various operating systems have provided access to them have, in all but one case, sucked.

This sucks. It’s hard to access and takes way too much visual hunting, not to mention having to “select” and “copy” the character to the clipboard. Read More

Demand a better ballot

Election Day is finally here, and as ballots are cast and counted, I’m hopeful that voters will declare victory for the candidates and measures that I care most about. But as I review my sample ballot in preparation for my visit to the voting booth, I am discouraged to find that it includes many of the design flaws that the AIGA’s Design for Democracy project has been working to expose and eliminate over the past 8 years. As AIGA reports on their website:

“In July 2007 the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) accepted AIGA Design for Democracy’s research and best practice recommendations for ballot and polling place information design. Guidelines and editable samples were distributed to 6,000 election officials across the country this January. As a result, local jurisdictions now have the tools to apply communication design principles and make voting easier and more comprehensible for all citizens.”

Why, then, am I holding a ballot that violates at least three of the Top 10 election design guidelines, including the use of all caps, center-alignment, and tiny fonts?


As Marcia Lausen notes in Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design, typographic specifications are often dictated in well-intentioned but misguided election law. So while the valuable work of Design for Democracy is to be commended, it alone is not enough to bring about the change we need in the design of ballots and other voter information and materials.

So as you head to the polls, review your ballot carefully — not only for its content, but for its design. Make note of the ballot’s flaws, and contact your state and county registrar and representatives to press them to implement the AIGA guidelines. In addition, consider participating in the Polling Place Photo Project, which seeks to document what is politely described as the “richness and complexity” of the voting experience in America.

Most of all, don’t forget to vote!
Read More

Finding inspiration from photos via Flickr groups

I often find design inspiration from photographs. One of my favorite sources for this is Flickr groups. Lately, I’ve been really distracted by the list of my groups on the newly designed homepage. Here are some of the best that I find directly relevant to the work we do.

Visual language and interface inspiration

Possibly my favorite group of the entire collection is Inspiration Boards. This set is a compilation of people’s stuff. It might be postcards, magazine cutouts, interior design samples, shells, or a mish-mash of other objects. I find this group particularly interesting because it approaches design the same way we approach early explorations in visual interface design. When designing a product we’ll do research, define the visual strategy, and then design visual language studies that are an emotional, immediate representation of the visual strategy. The studies are arranged similar to inspiration boards in a way that separates them from any specific behavior so that our design team and our project stakeholders can have a more focused conversation about the visual design without being distracted by the interaction design.

Designing affordances using reference material

The dials, knobs, buttons etc… and Push Buttons groups are great for exploring user interface control languages. These groups cover examples from everyday life that are sometimes new, sometimes old and worn. Designing realistic controls can be difficult so it’s helpful to reference photographic material when designing your own creations. Texture is a similar group of photos with… you guessed it… texture! Of course, this shouldn’t be a sole substitute for getting out there with your own camera.

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Travel and the experience of being a beginner

Museum typographyMuseum typographyMetro map designMetro mapBikes in Paris
Hotel light switchToiletsDoorLondon EyeCustom lettering
Les JacassesVersailles map designMichael JacksonThe butchersFrench 2.0

On a recent vacation to Europe I promised myself that I’d put my new camera to good use by documenting as many examples of typefaces as possible. With only a week of travel time I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to accumulate the desired collection of new and modern trends that I’d hoped for given that I was dedicating my travel to the olde parts of York, London and Paris.

I captured some old and new typefaces but came to a more profound realization that traveling is like being a beginning user. As designers, we try to put ourselves into the minds of beginners through observation in research but this can be only partly successful. Research doesn’t beat the real thing and there’s no better way to do that than throwing yourself into another country. I should disclaim that I spent 18 years of my childhood in England so it’s not a completely new experience, and I’ve been to France many times also. Being away for so long is a good way to completely forget old experiences and see new design innovations for the first time.

The photos

I’ve included a collection of photos from the week, and I’ve also summarized some of the highlights below.

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Startle wayfinding

Axel Peemoeller’s wayfinding system for the Melbourne Eureka Tower Carpark has been making the internet rounds. Props to him, it’s a novel and eyecatching design. (See below for one example from his site.) But something about it makes me think it’s disorienting (and possibly dangerous) for drivers. Let me try and articulate my amateur cognitive science/interaction design theory to explain.

Peemoeller’s OUT

While driving, your brain’s 3D systems are in high gear. (Pardon the pun.) Your mind is tuned to look for positioning cues such as occlusion, parallax, and especially size changes. This last is most important, as your visual system is on the lookout for anything that suddenly grows larger than the things around it, which would be a clear sign that you’re about to hit something. It’s called the startle response, and it happens within about 80 milliseconds, far too fast for any rational processing to counteract it.

So now, think of yourself in the Eureka Tower Carpark. Turning a corner, you’re a little confounded by the strange and lovely colored shapes on the wall. What’s going on here? All of a sudden, your visual system puts all these shapes together in a way that could only make sense if there was something (in this case, typography) jumping out right in front of you. Your gut reaction should be to slam on the brakes, even if your logical brain can decipher the thing a few milliseconds later. Hopefully the driver behind you left enough room.

So I haven’t been there, and I don’t know if this conjecture bears out in fact, but the pictures certainly set off my startle reaction. Read More