Take your marks!

The recent launch of the new BBC3 brand got me thinking about exclamation marks, in my mind one of the most overused of all punctuation devices.

It’s easy to be snobbish about the humble exclamation mark, the favourite tool of the cut-price retailer. They lack credibility and tend to cheapen a message! They can make you sound really desperate! They’re often used in lazy attempts to dress up lame offers!!!!! (Tip: this never works).

I can’t imagine The Economist ever giving its clever copy lines the surgical enhancement of a Shift-1. Famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald once sneered that ‘using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,’ a line repeated by many a copywriter I’ve worked with (several of whom did indeed laugh at their own jokes).

However, like everything in this light-speed world we live in, the way we use exclamation marks is evolving. Texts, comments, tweets and emails are our go-to means of communication these days, so naturally we want to make them sound like us. Writing a quick text, we simply don’t have time to take care over the phrasing to make sure the tone sounds right. And why should we, when an exclamation mark does the job for us? Take a look:

OMG. That’s awesome. – sounds sarcastic.
OMG! That’s awesome! – sounds, well, really awesome.

We use exclamation marks to make things sound more exciting or friendly, to add enthusiasm or emphasis, or simply to show that we mean something in a light-hearted way.

During our recent rebrand of Haringey, one of the many elements of the new look and feel was a short-form marque, to be used on badges and other applications as a substitute for the full logo. Our original designs all featured the ‘H’ of the logo with an exclamation point after it: ‘H!’

We felt that the simple use of the exclamation mark in this case conveyed our brand’s new vibrant and positive attitude. After all, ‘Haringey is an attitude, not a place’ was our new mantra. Our typeface was energetic enough to support its use. The marque also resembled the word ‘Hi’, giving it a friendly feel.

Our client, however, had understandable concerns about the exclamation mark’s association with danger. It perhaps also made it a little quirky. Whilst we were rebranding the borough, it was still the council at the core of this. After lengthy debate, the marque was vetoed and a simple full-stop after the ‘H’ was used instead.

While I felt an exclamation mark worked for Haringey, when I look at the new BBC3 logo, I feel the opposite. Here it seems muted, almost apologetic. Expressed in a very regimented manner, it gets lost in the mix and loses its impact. The channel is already attitudinal enough. It didn’t need a screamer shoehorned into an otherwise straight-forward logo. It’s also a bit visually confusing. Is this a logo for BBC3, or a really, really excited BBC2?

When we’re thinking about punctuation, we need to think about the context, the medium, the message and the audience. We shouldn’t slavishly follow anachronistic grammar rules if they compromise our message or tone. And we shouldn’t limit our arsenal of communication devices simply because they’re perceived as unfashionable or weak. Everything is up for grabs. Used authentically and in the right context, even the most hackneyed punctuation device can become fresh again.

Written by Mark Smith

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