Don’t deny it! (See?!) At all times, somewhere, someone is
sending you overt and covert messages, often through media
designed to control your behavior (and now there’s more media
than ever). In the ﬁlm version of George Orwell’s 1984 (with
Richard Burton in his last role), the ubiquitous “Big Brother is
Watching You” poster makes clear that on- and off-screen, Big
Brother is always present.
This infamous saying was not a benign greeting from a
benevolent “brother,” but an ofﬁcial command to obey—or face
the consequences. It was like all those posters we saw in school,
telling us to do this and not do that—even the ones about staying
healthy were rendered in a threatening tone and ominous style.
Of course, Orwell’s novel was about a ﬁctional totalitarian nation,
Oceania, and a faux omniscient leader, but too many real
governments—past and present—have Big Brothers, or shall we
call them demagogues. This gives credence to the fact that we are
routinely told when, where, and how to behave—for reason-
able and irrational reasons. We accept these dicta virtually
Now, read on! Or else!
Many of our daily commands are communicated in the forms of
graphic, environmental, and product design. We are conditioned
to respond to the controlling missives we receive, and not
inconsequentially, by the illustrative and typographic appearance
of those missives.
Take the everyday act of crossing the street: It is dictated
by terse commands—stop, go, cross, don’t cross. Alt! Whatever
the language, the orders are always comprehensible in print. If
not the speciﬁc words (berhenti means “stop” in Malaysia)—or
the alphabet (Cyrillic or Chinese)—then the colors (e.g., red for
stop, yellow for wait, green for go), symbols (e.g., outstretched
hands for stop), and sign shapes are often unmistakable
HERE’S A FACT OF LIFE:
YOU ARE CONSTANTLY
BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO.
indicators. There is a wide range of forbidden (verbotten),
beware, and scores of iterations of never ever or never again
messages presented to us in picture and word—some of them
are ofﬁcial, others are ad hoc—found everywhere.
Street signs are not the only graphic interventions that
impact our behavioral consciousness and subconsciousness.
Our lives are filled with typographic and pictorial decrees
and warnings designed to either regiment, protect, or otherwise
condition the everyday. So common (even inconsequential)
are some, we often take them for granted—and might even
ignore them entirely (who knows what post no bills actually
means, or employees must wash hands doesn’t apply to me).
Other times they are so jarring (like the unambiguous word
quarantine) we cannot skirt the implication, even if we tried.
Short and lengthily worded commands, proclamations, testi-
monies, and directions have been essential to our hardwired
behavior since signs and symbols were ﬁrst scratched onto
the Lascaux caves. “Watch Out for Wooly Mammoths!”
Designing commands is not, however, the exclusive province
of graphic designers. In fact, when words are used to inﬂuence
behavior, the niceties of typographic design are often sacriﬁced
for the brutish immediacy of pure, untutored expression.
Of course, typography is essential in getting most messages
across, and designers are responsible, at the very least, for
designing the typefaces, if not also how they are used. It is
unlikely that the word stop would be typeset in a curlicue script
—it just doesn’t have the authority—but anyone, designer
or not, can select a slab serif or bold gothic face to make the
word (or statement) “scream.”
The term scream (or screamer) is, in fact, a jargonistic de-
scription referring to extra-large headlines usually on tabloid
newspapers. It further refers to those words—and images—
that demonstratively influence the receiver or audience.
Designers are well equipped to make the right typographic
decisions to achieve this primal scream. But nondesigners,
and this includes graphic arts and non–graphic arts profes-
sionals, also possess a naive capacity to make fundamental
selections that achieve their goal.