"I just want a photo and the word lost and the telephone number and when and where she was lost and her name. Not like a movie poster or anything stupid." So rang the immortally frustrated words of Shannon, the secretary or assistant or generic office peon with the gall to approach graphic designer David Thorne -- also known as internet humorist 27bslash6 -- with the request to help her make a poster for her missing cat.
Their email chain, which tracked her fruitless battles against his mockery of both her distress and the accepted form of the Missing Pet Poster, lit up computer screens around the world last year, led to a book deal for him, and put a point on an aesthetic question for us: what is and isn't acceptable in the design of a missing pet poster?
And then we happened to walk by the above, a razzle dazzle affair ostensibly concerned with the recovery of East Angelean pooch Conchinta, but which much more obviously showcased the opportunity it afforded its designer to break out some new fonts and revisit the line art tutorial on Lynda.com. Something felt untoward about the poster, even as it's grab-you design work encouraged a long look, some cogitating and a mobile phone snapshot.
Is it "wrong" to lavish such detail on a poster when you're "supposed" to be shining a flashlight into trees and under cars? Are the hallmarks enumerated by Shannon -- photo, LOST, phone, location, name -- aesthetic conventions meant to assure us there's a blubbery owner at a Kinko's somewhere nearby, barely able to see the "copy" key through their tears, subsisting on vending machine M&Ms and 7-11 coffee? Is bad design the bargain meant to enlist our sympathy, or have lost pet posters been one of the underappreciated categories of outsider art, now threatened in a time of widespread Photoshop familiarity?
"I think people are so upset when a pet goes missing that it's hard to focus and they just put something up as quickly as possible without thinking about legibility and whether or not their pet can be identified," said Toronto-based illustrator Ian Phillips, whose career includes work for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Nickelodeon, as well as the 2002 book Lost: Lost and Found Pet Posters from Around the World.
Phillips gives Case Study Conchita a solid A minus: "Those typefaces are so ugly! They couldn't have spent too much time choosing them. But the portrait is great -- bold, and despite being distorted, you get a good sense of what the dog looks like."
"I don't know if the owner is less sad -- maybe more determined?" Phillips continued, transforming the imagined owner from a horn-rimmed fontwonk into an enthusiastic newbie -- maybe even a teenager! -- rolling up their digital sleeves while the rest of the family keeps up the hunt on foot.
The internet has plenty of tips to offer on this folky form, half of which naturally contradicts the other half. An outfit called The Missing Pet Partnership promotes the "5+5+55 Rule" in a succinct eHow post, placing efficacy squarely in your ability to choose only 5 words to print 5 inches high. The folks at 24petwatch.com fly in the face of conventional wisdom, recommending against including a pet's name, behavior or collar color, and even going so far as to suggest that a line drawing photocopied from a book is more useful than an actual picture of the animal, which may have become distraught and cracked-out beyond recognition.
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And while most poster-makers opt for a succinct prose paragraph describing their wayward pet, someone on the Flickr Lost Pet photostream has captured an exaggerated example of the relatively rare list format, in what seems to be the factoid-strewn lament of a robot who has lost its Chihuahua.
"The lost pet project I did started before everyone had home computers, or at least access to simple design software and I kind of miss the more elaborately hand drawn type and drawings of animals," Phillips reflected on the sea change that started with Print Shop and now rests on the Adobe doorstep. "Those are rare now, but probably not as effective as what people are doing now. We live in a very information and image dominated world right now -- and people do have better design sensibilities, so I think it's important to keep things simple and easy to look at."
Phillips had one last high mark for Conchita's vermillion flyer: "This one will get a lot of attention. It's fire-engine red, like a stop sign." And then he signed off with the curse that hovers over all design, from Madison Avenue to Figueroa Street, no matter how arresting: "Whether that helps get the dog back is anyone's guess. Hopefully!"
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