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.