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If CAPS are so bad, why do we see them everywhere?

We must determine brand design language for inclusivity, not aesthetics.

While BLOCK CAPS are common practice, they’re not best practice. These choices are often made by people with a background in graphic design. However, visual, content, and brand designers can be the first line of defense against poor practices seeping into a brand’s design language.

I believe block caps are symptomatic of a tipping point in the inclusive design conversation.

What are BLOCK CAPS?

What I’m talking about here is words and sentences rendered in all uppercase letters.

Why are block caps bad?

I’ve covered this topic in my article 5 reasons brands should stop using BLOCK CAPS. Here’s a quick list of reasons we need to stop this ugly practice.

  • We are screaming at people.
  • We are not considering our audience.
  • They take longer to read.
  • They cause audiences to abandon content.
  • If everything is big, nothing is.

In short, there are reasons to discontinue this practice that range from UX to inclusion to evidence-based design.

If the biggest brands use block caps, why shouldn’t you?

I’m frustrated at the sight of all caps typography from the biggest brands who should know better. And these practices set a poor example for smaller brands, new ones, and up-and-coming designers. Many large companies have interns and grads because they’re cheap. They may outsource the really big stuff to agencies with the right designers, but day-too-day in below-the-line collateral you may see a lot of design sins.

Every (and I mean every) time I’ve ever challenged block caps with a customer, they say the same thing “then why do other brands do it?” They do it because they think “everyone does it”.

While block caps are common practice, they’re not best practice

I observed something interesting recently. I sat side-by-side with someone looking for a movie to watch on Prime. I noticed that, as we scrolled, he only read the movie titles out loud which were in sentence case typeface. He skipped the cover art with all caps titles. As I said above, block caps cause audiences to subconsciously abandon content. Why? Because it takes your brain longer to read them.

If this is so bad, why do we see it so much?

The reason we see so much error in design is that we have graphic designers in charge of stuff when visual and content designers should be higher up the chain of approval. We have art directors with a graphic design background who treat type like a design element and not like the English language it is. Block caps are pleasing in terms of symmetry and they’re easier to work with.

Creatives can mistakenly believe that we are the gateway to the audience. That we get to make choices about what they want to see and how they should be communicated with. We are not the gateway. The customer is. We have to rely on what we know about how people see, read, and engage. Science. Studies are done into this field and there are laws in UX. Through experience research and testing, the customer can show us what they respond to and we should follow their lead.

What you’re reading right now is a language. These letters are not design elements. The written version of our highly evolved language is for clarity, not for balancing the aesthetic of a design that can’t stand on its own two feet.

What’s the difference between graphic designers and visual designers?

Both roles are valuable and important. If you search “graphic versus visual designer” you’ll get a variety of definitions. For the purpose of this topic, let me put it this way:

Principally, graphic designers design for emotion. Visual designers design for motivation.

Graphic designers make a statement. Visual designers start a conversation.

Graphic designers speak to a demographic. Visual designers speak to a user.

A demographic is a faceless group. A user is someone you have a relationship with who interacts with what you’re building. A demographic is set. A user provides feedback. We can measure how a user interacts and that informs the choices of the design team.

It’s important that user research is based on actual interaction and not user opinion. Surveys are flawed because people are unconscious to their motivations. Whether it looks pleasing is pointless if it causes users to divert away from your brand rather than be magnetized to it.

People don’t lie to their computers.

Case in point, my study into whether changing one brand’s typeface would increase sales conversion for a digital ad selling cookies. Spoiler: the audience abandoned the block caps version early and watched the sentence case version to the very end. They also converted (made people buy) 600% more as a result of the change.

A visual designer should be expected to have her finger on the pulse of, not just what a design looks like, but how the user will access it. She is focused on more than aesthetics. She could also be called a visual communicator. This is why I think visual designers should have sway to determine how the English language is utilized as a tool for communication and not as a design element.

A third designer in this conversation is content designers.

Content designers create a tone of voice, research into how to speak to an audience, visuals that should be used to reach that audience. They do the research visual designers use to inform their choices. A content designer would be the one who tells you something like, “don’t use block caps in this brand because you’re trying to reach millennials and culturally, they consider that to be screaming.” Or, “don’t use block caps because they have poor shape contract and take longer to read and the audience will abandon content.”

How can brand people help us win the fight against block caps?

Commonly, the birthplace of the design language a brand uses to connect with its audience is an agency that sets in place all of the elements a business will use. These include things like colors, graphics, tone of voice, and typeface. These will be delivered in a brand book that the business references to keep anyone who uses these elements aligned and “on brand”.

Therefore, the most important people in this battle are brand designers.

After the brand guidelines have been delivered, a well-informed brand champion inside the business can help everyone remember the guidelines and stick to best practices. When a business lacks a brand champion, guidelines from a brand agency are often delivered to a marketing director who may or may not be formally trained or design-literate.

When questioning choices in a brand’s design language, I will often hear “this was based on research”. When I kick the tires on this statement, the “research” usually consists of looking at what other brands are doing. And when the world’s biggest brands are designing for demographics, not users, you get problems like these.

We must base our research on how users actually interact with content, not on surveys or common practice.

So we can produce brands that connect and collateral that drives results.

I hold up a mirror for my
customers to see their own
brand.

I guess you could say I’m like
a therapist for businesses.
No smoke.
Just mirrors.

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