Thursday, December 21, 2006

The soft snow of latin words

A nice quote, passed on to me by Abi Searle-Jones, who got it from A Word A Day (

A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the
outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language
is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared
aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted
idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such
thing as "keeping out of politics". All issues are political issues, and
politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and
schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
George Orwell, writer (1903-1950)

Reversed type for headings

Usability research sometimes shows that people are ignoring reversed headings. When reading aloud, they will often just skip the heading as if they haven't noticed it. This is probably an example of the figure-ground illusion (often illustrated using the famous candlestick-faces diagram). You can see this at work in typography when lists are printed this way. I remembering seeing the football league table printed this way – it was very hard to read both the white and black type together. 

Look at the table to see what order Everton, Bolton, Reading and Newcastle are in. But rather than dismiss reversed type as unusable, we should instead see this as a phenomenon we can use wisely to good effect. In fact it is most often used for navigation, where we are designing for a two stage reading process (find it, then read it). 

Here, we don't actually want everyone to read everything, so the figure-ground phenomenon actually supports the ignoring of irrelevant detail until the right section is found. But just in case people do fail to read the headings, it's wise to repeat the content in the text that follows.

Friday, December 15, 2006

If lifts were invented now

I pressed the wrong button in the lift this morning, and realised that there was no undo button. That would be unthinkable in any interface designed today, but lift controls are virtually unchanged since the 30s or whenever they dispensed with lift attendants operating levers.
If lifts were designed now they would have:
• a cancel button
• executive prioritise button (takes boss to boardroom penthouse, then goes back down for the rest)
• themed chat suggestion display (weather, cricket score, office gossip)
• personal login with preprogrammable functions (go to my floor, visit boss, go to staff restaurant)
• replay function (enjoyed that trip to floor 7 - let's go back down and try it again)
• slow speed function (for when that elevator pitch is taking too long)
• wireless network so you don't lose a moment of precious work time
• personalised follow-me musak
• mood lighting for those brief encounters
• virus checker.

    Open University ends broadcasting

    It was announced on the Today programme this morning that the Open University is to stop broadcasting programmes through the BBC. This was attributed to the growth of new channels such as podcasting and the web. That's true but, actually, broadcasting at the OU was always a lot more prominent in the public eye than it was in students' lives. It may seem incredible now (in fact it was slightly odd then) but in the early years it was decided that a telly was a luxury that not everyone would have. Because students who could not afford a telly were not to be disadvantaged, no exam question could address material that had only been covered in a broadcast. That spelled doom for the TV and radio programmes, as astute students soon realised that to pass the exams, you need not listen or watch, but just read the correspondence material. The heart of an OU education is still reasoned argument presented in book form on paper.

    When I first joined the OU there was a committee to look into the replacement of paper by microfiche. Looking back, it was obviously ridiculous to think people would be happy studying sitting at desks staring at machines with small backlit screens.

    Thursday, December 14, 2006

    Stick persons

    It's not that often that information design gets into the papers, but you might have seen coverage of the Spanish town of Fuenlabrada that is legislating against sexism in various areas of civic life - including the stick people on pedestrian crossings. Debate has centred on: • whether stick 'men' are actually genderless anyway, and represent both sexes • whether, even if this is the case, it's still sexist, just as using the word 'man' to represent humankind betrays an underlying sexism in the English language (in the sense that 'woman' is a marked form of 'man'). • whether women have to be represented as wearing skirts and pony tails.

    This sign outside a gay bar seems to take the view that stick men are in fact men... unless, of course, it is not a gay bar and the stick people are gender neutral.

    Monday, December 04, 2006


    Some perfectly good words go wrong when unintended graphemes leap out at you. For example when TV trailers promise that a programme will repeat 'weeknights at 7', I just can't stop myself reading it as 'wee knights'. It's quite common to hear the word 'biopic' (as in biographical picture) pronounced to rhyme with 'myopic' (as in short sighted, or in practical terms unable to see wee knights in the distance). And the other day I actually heard someone on the radio say 'mizzled' (misled).

    So when I saw the expression 'brand-led' broken over two lines:
    I reassembled it as 'brandled' (rhymes with 'handled'). A great word - somewhere between branding and footling.

    Monday, November 27, 2006

    Hi! We're here for your furniture.

    We've been helping a bank rewrite their debt collection letters. Like many modern brands, this bank has a tone of voice that's conversational and everyday. Much more so, actually, than most brands - in fact if we were to sincerely apply their brand tone of voice to the debt collection letters, we'd say 'cough up or we'll send the boys round'.

    This project had a different approach from previous projects of this kind. Often, marketing departments like to keep the letters friendly at first and turn up the volume later, if the debt is still unpaid. But this can put people in danger of drifting into worse difficulties. Instead, if they are jolted into taking early action, they won't leave it until the debt is out of hand. That's the idea, anyway...

    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    Reading a room

    An architect came to our house, and kept using the word 'read' about architectural features – as in "when I came in this room I immediately read its height", or "there are too many beams – they prevent you reading the shape of the roof".

    We need a similar way to talk about reading a page. Not reading what the words say, but the fact there are three equal columns, that it's divided into two sections, that a diagram relates to a panel with a caption on it.

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    Nigel Holmes's wordless diagrams

    At some point when I wasn't looking, people starting wearing their scarves a different way. I always wound mine round my head, or perhaps tied a half hitch. But now people do it differently, and luckily I don't have to describe how because I've just found this diagram in Nigel Holmes's brilliant book of Wordless Diagrams. This one is entitled 'How to wear a scarf European-style'. 

    It also contains masterpieces such as 'How to conduct an orchestra', 'How to wave like a royal', 'How to make sure your coq au vin does not come out rubbery' and many others. Wordless Diagrams is published by Duckworth, in 2005, and the ISBN is 0 7156 3395 3. Here's a link so you can buy it from Amazon: Wordless Diagrams 

    Diagram reproduced with Nigel's permission.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2006

    Moore's law for razors


    I expect this one is much blogged, but I can't resist this diagram from The Economist on the occasion of Gillette launching a five-blade razor, the Fusion. 

    The story is at Thanks to Mike Williams for pointing me to this.

    A new excuse for not taking enough exercise

    Try this:

    "Start by lying face down on the floor with your hands by your shoulders, the palm of your hands flat on the floor. Your feet should be about a foot (30cm) apart and when you push up to the top of the position you should keep your head in line with your body; it's easier to maintain this position by looking down. As you execute the push-up, pull your tummy button towards your back and squeeze your bottom muscles. Then lower down, about two inches (5cm) off the floor. This is the basic push-up. If, however, you are coming at this with no experience, you should do the push-up resting on your knees instead of your feet. Apply the same technique and keep your head in line with your back. To increase the difficulty of the exercise change the position of your hands. By moving your hands closer together, you'll feel the effort in the back of your arms as well as your chest. Or turn the palms of your hands on the floor so your fingers are facing each other; this will place greater emphasis on your chest muscles. Alternatively, if you really want to increase the intensity ask someone to apply a light pressure on your back. The added resistance will make the move harder and will develop the toning even quicker."

    It's from a recent article in The Times by Gabby Logan (10.06.06).

    A long time ago, spelling and punctuation were unstandardised. Now we're regarded as uneducated if we can't get it right. It would be nice to think that one day people will be writing to The Times about pieces like this one:

    "Sir: I was dismayed to read the article on push-ups in yesterday's Times. As every schoolboy knows, procedural instructions should always be presented in numbered steps, with informative headings and a diagram."

    Friday, August 25, 2006

    Completeness vs clarity

    [image gone missing... cartoon of door knob with ridiculously verbose instruction about how to turn it...]

    We're working for a government department which is frequently lobbied to include extra information in guidance they give the public about their eligibility for money. It seems that every time advisers are asked by a member of the public about a situation that isn't in the guidance, they insist that it be added. As a result, the guidance is now overlong, hugely complex, and virtually unread by the people it's intended for. So it's no longer usable by the people it's for, who end up asking for advice... A few years ago I copied this cartoon from somewhere - possibly Private Eye. Makes the point very well, I think. (apologies if reproducing it here breaks a copyright rule - if the owner asks, I'll take it off).

    Sunday, July 30, 2006

    Off we go then

    When I used to edit Information Design Journal, many years ago, we would only publish an issue when we had enough good stuff, and the time to put it all together. That's what I imagine this blog will be. I imagine it'll be much like our photo album - a roll of film for day one of our son's life, another roll for week one, then month one, then the next six months... now he's 15, it's a photo a year if he's lucky.