There's a fine line between clever and stupid design

“It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh... clever.” – David St. Hubbins, “This is Spinal Tap”

“It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh... clever.” – David St. Hubbins, “This is Spinal Tap”


I’ve noticed a trend recently: stacking letters.

No, it’s not the next bottle cap challenge. It’s a design trend that’s showing up in more and more places. Some designer will rearrange the letters of a headline or product name into a grid in order to be clever. But it ends up being a stupid design choice because it only confuses the viewer.

Examples of stacked type that work:


Why they work:

  • The brand is well-known and can afford to experiment with their design elements without worrying it’ll confuse their audience (McDonalds, Dunkin')

  • The design uses easily understandable acronyms, letterforms, or icons (LOVE, I [heart] NY)

  • The design is simple enough to be deciphered at a glance or the stacked letters reinforce the message of the design (It's Like a Jungle, The Commuter)

Examples of stacked type that DON’T work:


Why they don't work:

  • They're arranged counter to the western-style of reading left to right, top to bottom (a new day)

  • They break in odd places, not along the natural syllable breaks (Blockchain Explained)

  • They orphan odd letter combinations (Miscellaneous, Trends)

Bottom line: don’t make your audience work hard to understand the message of your design. It’s always better to be clear (designing for clarity is hard work).

Our lizard brains are designed to conserve energy, so most people won’t expend the effort to decipher your design if it's too complicated. And I believe the point of good design is to send a clear, consistent, and compelling message.

Justin KerrComment