Well, yes. I'm a judge of the Plain Language Awards in New Zealand, and we're going through the Public Sector entries at the moment. I've been doing this since 2014, and really enjoy the process which is impressively thorough and open - you can see who the judges are, and what they look for.
Thursday, August 11, 2022
Tuesday, August 09, 2022
There are now several apps you can use to copy text from books – Microsoft Lens, or Adobe Scan, for example. They are pretty good. You take a photo and it scans it with an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) routine to turn it into editable text.
I've noticed that, much like people, these apps struggle with less legible typefaces. So it's possible to use them for informal legibility testing - a kind of app-based strudel test we might say.
Here's some text from a paper I'm writing which I scanned with Microsoft Lens in three typefaces. One is Baskerville which is a typical book typeface, the other is Caslon Italic which most of us would think a bit less legible than Baskerville, and lastly I've included Pixelated, which recalls the earlier for matrix printers of the 1970s and which I on the threshold of legibility.
Lens read Baskerville perfectly, but here's what it managed to read in the Pixelated font:
It's a lot happier with Caslon Italic, although it joined a lot of words together.
Strudel pastry is said to be thin enough when you can read a newspaper through it. This suggests a legibility test for typefaces – which ones are most legible in these extreme conditions? Can some keen pastry chef set up a test, please?
Rachel Roddy's recipe in the Guardian, from my brief google search, seems to be the only one that actually shows the principle.
Sunday, August 07, 2022
Personalised ads in online newspapers sound like a good thing, because you only see stuff you're interested in. Since my seventieth birthday, though, things have taken a depressing turn. Most want me to borrow money against my house using equity release, but today it was...
On a closer look, though, these are for pets. So the data must have come from an online cat food subscription service that I've mentioned here before, which knows my cat is now of pensionable age.
Monday, August 01, 2022
Our cat is getting old now, and increasingly fussy about its food. So I've tried a couple of the online subscription firms who claim their food is purer and healthier.
The cat seems to like it, but this post isn't about the food. It's about the continuous barrage of kitty puns and whimsy. So, note to cat food companies:
- I am not my cat's parent
- You asked me if I want to "change my purrefurences". But only one pun per word please. So I suppose you can ask me if I want to 'change my prefurences' (did you spot the word 'fur' there?). Or you can ask me if I want to 'change my purrferences'. But not both.
- My cat does not observe her birthday, and no one knows when it is.
- It's made of beef, not "Moo!".
I love coming across old graffiti – it's quite common in churches and cathedrals. Look behind the organ in a typical parish church and you'll find generations of bored kids have left their mark while waiting to start pumping again for the next hymn.
You find yourself muttering about thoughtless vandalism, and then realise that it's dated 1630 or 1842.
What's remarkable to me is that almost all old graffiti has serifs. It seems they are considered as essential a part of the letter as, say the cross bar of the A – not just minor decorative flourishes.
Here's an example from a recent newspaper piece about the discovery of old mine workings:
Wednesday, June 08, 2022
My last post brings to mind a piece in Punch magazine about an amazing new piece of technology that allowed instant access to information. You could go straight to the part you want, or start at the beginning and work through. It could be easily stored and the information was permanently recorded, etc, etc.
It was called the Body Of Organised Knowledge, or by its acronym BOOK.
Ironically (or perhaps not) I couldn't find reference to this on the internet, so forgive me if I have forgotten the title or the publication... but I don't think I've made it up.
Looking at old encyclopedias* in a bookshelf** it occurred to me that what with the internet an' all, they are a completely redundant genre. So we no longer get those poetic juxtapositions of headwords at the top of pages and on the spine. Amen to Artillery, Art Nouveau to Begin.
We just bought some headphones - tiny in-ear ones. Hat's off to Sony, who have packed them entirely in recyclable material.
But there's an awful lot to recycle, including four leaflets in 22 languages – both sides are printed in what appears to be 5pt type, possibly smaller.
It's pretty much illegible so why bother? In a recent book chapter* I wrote about consumer contracts in tiny type:
"...can we really say that these business terms have actually been stated in any meaningful way? They might as well have been engraved on a metal plate and fired into space – they would still exist in a theoretical sense, and be no less accessible to consumers."
Wednesday, March 23, 2022
I do like a pun in a business name. Hairdressers do it best of course (Scissor's Palace, Curl Up and Dye, Hairport, Headmasters, etc).
But this church in King's Heath, Birmingham, is having a go, and I recently saw Triniteas on offer at another one...
It was so sad to hear of the untimely and sudden death of Martin Thomas on 18 January this year. Martin was a lovely guy and one of those rare linguists who studied the relationship of language and layout. He joined our Simplification Centre team at the University of Reading to work on a multimodal corpus.
Martin's doctoral thesis studied a genre in which graphics and text have to work together in a confined space for a very particular set of purposes: multilingual toothpaste packaging (Chinese/English). He built up quite a collection.
Long sentence which is convoluted and therefore hard to understand because it has too many nested clauses is found
Occasionally I run plain language training and it's good to teach with examples. Often I have to make them up because I can't find a real life example, so it's nice when a journalist does the job for me.
Thanks, Birmingham Mail:
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
The problem is that all communication requires a contribution by the reader. On your day off, driving your car, this sign does not address you. But if you forget that you're driving a double decker bus, it doesn't matter how big the sign is. It's all about relevance.
Thursday, August 12, 2021
In a taxi in Istanbul a year or two back I was impressed by the driver’s light (and more or less constant) touch on the horn. He was able to produce a light toot as a gentle prod, or a savage blast when necessary.
I’ve long wanted a set of horn buttons - a gentle toot to say hi to a friend I’ve spotted, or ‘I’m outside your house’. A klaxon to say ‘Oi, you just cut me up’, a loud but cheery one to say ‘watch out I’m coming round the corner’.
Now Ineos have done exactly this on their new off-roader, the Grenadier. Brilliant.
But I still want some drum pads on the steering wheel to play along with the radio.
Monday, August 02, 2021
Monday, May 31, 2021
Ken Garland has died at the age of 92. I had this copy of his Graphics Handbook while still at school and was delighted to find him as a tutor when I went to study typography at Reading. According to Jonathan Bell's obituary just published in Wallpaper, this would have been his first year there, in 1971. I think it was Ken's concern for communication, not ornament, that sent me in the direction of information design, and I took his 1964 First Things First manifesto seriously: "We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders, and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes."
Flicking through his collection of articles and lecture notes, A word in your eye, I recall how good a writer he was. There are subtle and appreciative obituaries there of Henry Beck, Alfred Wainwright, Anthony Froshaug and Ernest Hoch, beautifully observed, and I hope someone more capable than me will write one as good for him. Ken was hugely supportive during some difficult times following the launch of Information Design Journal, and I feel very lucky to have known him and to have been taught by him, and that my career took its direction from his ideals.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
This sign outside a church in Bath shows good design thinking.
It's on a busy road but drivers might glance across.
We know it's a church. We know they meet on Sundays. The only thing that's worth saying legibly enough to be read at a glance is '10.30am'. And the sheer size of it gives a strong affordance of 'you're invited'.
After an awful customer service experience, you want to vent by writing it up on Trustpilot. But no one wants to read your fifty line rant.
So how about a simple scoring system, so you can say, for example:
"Cooperative Bank (to pick a brand at random... not really)120 minutes time on phone10 days to resolve my problem225 Marks of Shame."
This way people would get a measure of the severity of distress caused but don’t have to relive it. The Marks of Shame would accumulate rather like the way they mark Olympic ice dancing, with each move given points for technical merit and artistic impression. For example,
- Each hour waiting on phone: 25 points
- Each time The Four Seasons starts again: 10 points
- etc... I'm sure you'll have your own favourites.
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
I've just discovered the American poet Wendell Berry, who writes beautiful reflections on life, the countryside, the seasons, belonging.
Throwing away the mail
not even simplification.
Thus, throwing away
the mail, I exchange
the complexity of duty
for the simplicity of guilt.
Friday, December 11, 2020
An oxymoron is when two contradictory terms are used together, usually for rhetorical effect – 'deafening silence', for example.
How about this instruction from Made.com about how to return a chair that just collapsed after 2 years:
No, Made, that's not as easy as possible. It's as difficult as possible. Who keeps the packing for furniture?
We’ve made our returns as easy as possible. All you'll need to do is:
1)Re-package your item (they’ll need to be in the original packaging or a suitable alternative)...
Sunday, November 15, 2020
On a church door in Italy.
I know that's supposed to be a tourist guide in the top icon, but having just emerged from the Uffizi I'd seen a lot of images with a larger central figure with raised hand and a halo...
Incidentally, that's a man's hat in the icon - women are fine with hats, and in fact St Paul insisted on them.
Thursday, October 22, 2020
The comic book character Dan Dare is 70 this year. If you don't know of him, ask a sixty-something year old Brit who read Eagle comic as a child.
Here's my Dan Dare pop-up book:
'...Einstein may have crafted this aphorism, but there is no direct evidence in his writings. He did express a similar idea in a lecture but not concisely. [Composer] Roger Sessions was a key figure in the propagation of the saying. In fact, he may have crafted it when he attempted to paraphrase an idea imparted by Einstein.'
"An interesting item and the story is indeed Bestall's and the date noted above it is in the hand of Ian Robertson who was the Rupert Editor at the time this was reprinted in the Express.The story is Rupert and Raggety and the reprinted story used 27 of the original 40 panels.It would appear that the Express have used a b/w copy of Bestall's original artwork and someone has coloured it for reproduction in the newspaper. Who the colourist is I do not know but they were using Gina Hart as a colourist at the time so it could be she.How this escaped from their archives I cannot speculate but it is an interesting and unique item."
Simplification often involves pruning information that has grown too long. It's often grown too long because of ill discipline in the writing process – we forget what and why we're trying to communicate, and each thought sparks off another.
The wonderful Eric Blore shows how it's done in this clip from the Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance?
Monday, October 19, 2020
When banks warn you about fraudulent emails, they always advise you to look out for spelling mistakes. But why is it that the fraudsters can't spell or recruit a reasonably literate criminal to proofread for them. I think there's an opportunity here.
Here's one I got today:
Yep, definitely dodgy I'd say.
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Visiting the Uffizi in Florence, it was refreshing to see graphic prohibitions that don't try to be traffic signs. I don't think I've seen this way of showing a negative on a public sign before (rather than a smartphone app).
We thought it pretty odd to find a You Are Here map just outside the gents at Pisa airport. But then we noticed the tactile path leading to it. It's a 3D map for people with sight impairment. So pretty good.
Double negatives are controversial. Pedants may think that 'I didn't do nothing' means 'I did it', but we all know the second negative is an intensifier.
So hopefully this doesn't come across as 'Don't use the litter bin'. But risky.
The great journalist and editor Harold Evans died on 23 September this year. Simon Schama wrote in Time magazine's obituary that Evan's career was 'a supreme reminder of the indispensability of fearless journalism to a democracy grounded in truth', and that he 'showed time and again that the hard work of uncompromising investigative reporting could defeat cowardly cover-ups, corruption and conspiracies of lies. He wrote and he edited with a fistful of facts.' Timely remarks for today.
He played a significant part in our smaller world of information design. As the obituary in his old paper The Times put it:
'Evans believed good newspaper design, rich in striking photographs and explanatory graphics, was essential to good storytelling and his interest in appearance extended to the choice of typeface in headings and text. This visual preoccupation led him to write the book series Editing and Design and, with the help of his inspirational head of design Edwin Taylor, Pictures on a Page, which elevated newspaper design to a fine art.'
As you would expect from a journalist, he was a prolific writer and his books on newspaper design and photojournalism were hugely helpful for the work we did on graphic formats at the Open University. Under his leadership, The Sunday Times was a pioneer of what we now call infographics, and his co-author of Pictures on a page, Edwin Taylor, spoke at the first Information Design Conference.
Journalists explain complex issues to their readers, and information designers have a lot to learn from them. I was proud that Harold Evans agreed to be on the editorial board of Information Design Journal when we launched in 1979.
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Too Much Information Did Not Read
Way Too Much Information Did Not Read
Public signs should include a comments section, or in this case some FAQs to explain why this road is closed but no work is happening (Margate again).