Mo Haarhoff: Defeated by words

Mo Haarhoff when she’s not worrying about the size of labels…

From Mo Haarhoff, a member of the Biznews community

I fell in love with words when I was still quite young. At that stage, this passion obviously manifested itself in reading. Then I graduated to little homilies that were succinct but very true.

One of my favourite quotations from my teenage years are these few words from Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis:

“i do not think the prudent one

hastes to initiate

a sequence of events which he

lacks the power to terminate”

If you don’t know of it, I recommend it. You’ll find plenty by Archy and Don via Google.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that words have remained the centre of my working life, but in various ways.

I baulked at going to university, probably my first and biggest mistake. English sort of interested me, but I supposed a life with additional subjects like psychology and maths to be no life at all. Since my mother was dead keen on making a psychologist of me, my first challenge was to break her tiny heart.

I did it by getting myself into art school without parental knowledge. Once a fait accompli, it was simply a matter of wearing my parents down until the choice was between being a shop girl or doing at least some form of tertiary education.

In the late 60s, career choices for most girls were fairly limited: nursing, teaching or becoming private secretaries; and the latter was the most expensive training, in that potentials had to fork out for the courses, rather than pay back the subsidies by contracting for years with the departments of health or education.

Within my first week at art school, I was hooked by the rules for drawing and spacing lettering. Designing type to express visually what the words defined was about the most fun I’d ever had. Type, lettering and printing gave me the sort of thrills that graphic art, life drawing and history of art simply didn’t.

And so, thereafter, I naturally veered towards jobs at newspapers, magazines and later, in advertising.

During the 70s, the printer’s union still held sway and I absorbed dozens of rules during that decade, that although I sometimes questioned, I seldom chose to dismiss; keeping a job was always far more important than getting it and finding another would just be a drag.

Sometimes the rules were relatively limiting: to reverse type out of black, always use at least 10pt bold; never print one colour type upon another; the type for medicine packaging must always be at least 6pt and printed in black; always leave sufficient margin in the centrefold of a perfect bound publication…

Young people would often prefer to give their creativity free rein and do something a little more exciting. And since DTP replaced the truly amazing knowledge of correctly trained typesetters and proof readers, they’ve had their fling, limited only by house styles.

But here’s the thing: since reaching retirement age, all those rules have fallen neatly into place. I now know exactly why they were there and why they are so necessary.

For example:

Ø  Until your eyes have all but given up the ghost, you’ll have no idea why medical notes printed in 5pt grey on less than white stock are of no use to the average pensioner and it is exactly the average pensioner who buys the bulk of the medications sold today. Our eyes dance on the page as we struggle to keep them on the correct line of type and understand the dosage requirements.

Ø  Printing any colour on another immediately gives type the same oil base as its inked background. When clear stock, or paper, shines through, the words are so much easier to read. Why would I buy a magazine when deciphering the words is so difficult, especially in Eskom’s evening light?

Ø  Even more important is making absolutely sure that the hair shampoo and conditioner bottles are clearly defined. The shower is one place I cannot wear my glasses to check the order in which I use them and no, don’t ask me to remember which is which; I often have a hard time remembering to have my towel within reach. At my age, the less there is to remember, the better.

Telephone directories are pure murder. Instant sauces for food that come in powder form, impossible and today I was defeated by a few seed packets telling me how deeply to plant the seeds: even in broad daylight all single digits except ‘1’ look the same! Have you tried to read the ingredient labels on food packaging lately?

Investing in a magnifying glass hasn’t helped much either. If it cannot be enlarged on-screen, I tend to ignore it as too much effort to read.

So I wish there was a design heaven where the old rules still applied; where legibility was of importance and where brand managers actually cared whether their packaging served its purpose.

Do I really care what a rusk looks like? No, but I do care how much sugar, white flour and msg it contains.

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