Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The large print giveth, the small print taketh away

In my recent post about Tom Fishburne's cartoon I meant to say that he attributes the quote to the Tom Waits song 'Step right up'. Here it is:

I spy with my little eye... branded language!

'I spy with my little eye... something's missing!'

So starts a letter I've just had from First Direct about our application to open an account. We're changing our bank account, in reaction to poor service at our previous award-winning customer-oriented bank. What was missing was information they hadn't previously asked for, so to my ear the headline is not only infantilising but blaming. Perhaps I hadn't said 'please' when I asked for a bank account.

In the same post we also got two identical welcome packs, confirming the account is open... so perhaps they don't need the other information after all. Those letters are headed 'Welcome to first direct (you'll notice the difference in minutes)'. I don't think they are ironically intended.

Now I'm not against branded language (for that is what this is) and when in professional practice used to sell it and do it. But you can't do it in an unthinking way, and every brand doesn't have to sound as chirpy as Innocent smoothies. And you have to be realistic - First Direct's tone of voice would be fine if modulated to match my likely mood (for example, with my gender, age and expressed unhappiness with previous bank, I clearly fall into the grumpy old man demographic). But their systems don't match the aspirations of their brand.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My spell checker is trying to hold a seminar

My spell checker just queried the word 'semiological'. It suggested it should be semi-logical. Very profound, I thought.

It reminds me of a paper Henri Henrion wrote many years ago, entitled 'Semiotics or semi-idiotics'.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The grocers/grocer's/grocers' apostrophe

At my public lecture the other day, a questioner raised the matter of the grocer's apostrophe - that's the apostrophe's in potato's, apple's and carrot's.

I said I wasn't particularly bothered as long as I get my potato's.

I was pleased to see support for my position on the BBC programme QI last week, where Stephen Fry said: "People have been ridiculing what has become known as the grocer's apostrophe since the eighteenth century. The Oxford Companion to the English Language notes that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear cut, and known, understood and followed by most educated people - never."

Have a look at this nice 'apostrophes for Africa' sketch with Omid Djalili playing the part of Lynne Truss, and Marcus Brigstocke on the grammar bullies on Room 101.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Another Tom Fishburne cartoon

I've mentioned Tom Fishburne's wonderful Brand Camp cartoons before - here's one I used in a public lecture I was asked to deliver in Reading last week. The point I wanted to make was that it's actually OK for there to be some small print - that is, for information to be layered so some of it is more prominent than the rest, or structured so you read different bits of it at different points in your journey to a decision, to new knowledge or whatever your goal is. It's actually considerate to the reader to reflect their priorities, or to guide them through the big picture. But the bad stuff shouldn't only live in the small print. 

Instead, the large print structureth, and the small print filleth in the detail.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ryme Intrinsica eat your heart out

I'm sitting in Glasgow station. I had no idea there were such great place names here, so far from Dorset.

Whifflet, Shotts, Nitshill, Troon, Crossmyloof, Giffnock, Hairmyres, Bogston and Fort Matilda.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


I'm speaking at the Sign09 conference in Vienna next week, jointly organised by the International Institute for Information Design and the Sign Design Society. They've put together a terrific programme - unfortunately it is over 9 days, so I imagine few visitors will be able to go for the whole thing. I'm speaking about how wayfinding is taught on our MA course at Reading, and showing student work.

On just before me is Timothy Nissen, from Switzerland, who is speaking about 'Advanced Studies in Signaletics'. I'm intrigued by the term, which I haven't met before. Googling it gets you to a company doing intelligent signing, and also to this nice video.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Aleksandr from the car insurance ad is campaigning to have the word 'simples' added to the 'Dictionary of English Oxford'. 

With irony-sensors switched off, I could point out that it is already there, since 'simple' is a noun as well as an adjective, with the plural form 'simples'. It is used in herbal medicine to describe a remedy with just one ingredient (thanks to Judy Delin's encyclopedic mind for that).

Apparently Aleksandr's usage is catching on - someone used it in an email to me the other day, hence this geekish hunt for origins.

It turns out that as with so much, Shakespeare was there first. This is Jacques in As You Like It:
'I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician's, which is fantastical; nor the courtier's, which is proud; nor the soldier's, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer's, which is politic; nor the lady's, which is nice; nor the lover's, which is all these; but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and, indeed, the sundry contemplation of my travels; in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.'Act 4, Scene 1.
I'm quoting it to get in the wonderful "scholar's melancholy, which is emulation" They had the Research Excellence Framework in the old days too it seems.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Two notices

Two people gave me nice signs today for this blog.

James Mosley kindly sent me this photo he took sometime in the 70s – self-explanatory, I think, at least in more literate times. In case you can't read it, the top line says 'Artillery danger area'. I've been reading it aloud, trying out different accents. 

Jenny came back from India with this one – we're thinking of putting it on our fence and pointing it at the students across the road from us. 

Friday, November 06, 2009

Credit where it's due

After posting about the renaming of buildings at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, I remembered they were a client of our wayfinding team at Enterprise IG. Checking up I find it was indeed our trusty wayfinders, Colette Jeffrey and Alison Richings who were responsible. Uncommon sense, in fact.
Colette (under her former surname Miller) with David Lewis researched and wrote the standard work on wayfinding for healthcare sites for the NHS. She led wayfinding projects for around 25 hospitals, and is now to be found teaching at Birmingham City University.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Making names work for users

Wayfinding projects are not just about showing people the way – they are often about making the way easier to show. Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital last year renamed many of their buildings to provide a set of names that makes more sense for patients. For example, people used to have trouble finding New Guy's House, because it was not particularly new. This means that they've had to change not only signs and maps, but appointment letters too. They've also worked with the Royal Mail to ensure that their postal address is the street people enter from (it wasn't before).

Department names are also changing:
  • 'Paediatrics' = 'Children's services'
  • 'Ophthalmology' = 'Eye department'.
  • 'Renal unit' = 'Kidney unit'
  • 'Surgical appliances' = 'Patient appliances'.
 Hurray for common sense.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

RIP Robert Barnett

I was saddened to hear of the death of Rob Barnett at the weekend. His books on forms design are exceptionally thorough and authoritative, full of the insight that comes from long experience. I didn't know him except through correspondence – when I found his books weren't available in the UK, he just sent me one as a gift.

He was seriously ill for a while but maintained his blog until quite recently. Here's a recent posting from it – note the reference to 'work simplification':
'Take a look at the following book cover. It's typical of the technology when I first started to design forms.
'I've recently been archiving a lot of old books in my business library and it's been interesting to see how far we've come in my lifetime.

'What I found surprising is that while the technological emphasis was on the use of the typewriter, some of the design philosophy was sound and are still ignored by many systems and IT people. Take this quote for example;
"It will be observed that the forms designer must apply a wide knowledge of the many requirements which go into the functional design of a form. Furthermore, form design is usually one part of the total result of skillful application of the principles of work simplification to clerical operations. Only in the simplest applications may one safely disregard the services of the experienced designer."
'Elsewhere the book says:
"The techniques of designing efficient business records are of such breadth and complexity as to require several years of specialized training before they are mastered."
'Something which still applies today if the forms analyst is to be fully equipped for the task.'

Rob Barnett, April 2009
 Rob's key books are Managing Business Forms and Forms for People. They are both available digitally.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Builders in my life


I don't mean to complain, but one of these photos is the view from my office, and one is the view from my house.

A bit off-topic and personal for this blog, I know, but my excuse is to point out the continuous set of labels that are being buried on top of 11,000 volt cables outside my office. They tell a future digger operator he is about to fry.

Saying what it is on the tin

Which of these is actually a pink grapefruit?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld

Slate some years back collected together the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld. There is no point in reproducing the famous 'Known unknowns' – it is too well known. But I thought this ode to clarity would suit this blog very well.

I think what you'll find,
I think what you'll find is,
Whatever it is we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.

And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.

Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

Tube map latest

The London tube map has long been an information design icon, so it's not surprising that the latest version has attracted controversy - the river is missing. It's just one of a set of changes that are intended to declutter the map... which is a good thing. Except the river is a critical landmark in London, and now London mayor Boris Johnson has ordered it reinstated. 

I'm less worried about the river, and more concerned about the welfare of the famous animals on the underground

For example, the raven no longer works now the angle of the Kings Cross link has been changed. However, Euston Square now gets a big dot, and results in a decent canary to take the raven's place.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Little people run to the left

I think this sign (seen at the Eden Centre in Cornwall) means the nearest fire exit is to your right, but there is another one to your left. Unless the left hand exit is for the piskies.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Usability in action. Not one but two extra signs have been required here to persuade the ladies that this really is the way in. What's gone wrong? At a guess, the height of the signs, the collision of too many signs (the baby, the shower... or is it a jellyfish), but perhaps the icons for men and women are just too similar. The two word sign 'Ladies toilet' forces the type to a smaller size, too.

Another thought - where do dads go to change their babies?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monkey vs umbrella

What's going on here? Monkey (long arms + tail)?, umbrella?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More titles to choose from

While I'm twitting the Coventry Building Society (nice old-fashioned phrase, that - not the same as tweeting, although you could do both: you could tweet a twit on twitter) here's their choice of titles. They obviously do well with the RAF and the Royal Artillery, and not just the officers. But not as posh as Harrods etc, obviously.

Back to the next page

Filling in this form online, I wondered why I kept being sent to the previous page. Well, where would you click to move on?

Monday, September 07, 2009

A typographic pedantry test

Careful, dancers

See my other post on this...

Doing without signs

I mentioned before that architects don't seem to like signs. I was in a brand new office block last week, looking for the loos. There were labels on the doors themselves to distinguish the ladies from the gents, but nothing you could see side on or from more than a couple of metres. But I had no trouble finding them by instinct, or perhaps through deduction (they are often near the lifts as they both need the central service shaft). Of course the clincher was the cleaning trolley.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Not only do signs fade – so do words. If you pass this sign in Highgate, and wonder why all the beans, let me save you the trouble. I looked it up, and a beanfeast is "an annual dinner or party given by an employer for employees". The bean bit may not be connected with beans, apparently, coming instead from the Latin bene.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Visual Voltage

Visual Voltage is an inspiring exhibition by a group of Swedish designers and engineers, of technology that helps people visualise their energy use in the home. We've just installed a meter that tells us how much energy we're using - you can switch the washing machine on and see the hourly cost shoot up. But it's not very compelling, and you forget about it quite quickly. These devices are more visceral - some of them actually work on an emotional level (such as the energy flower than blooms when you use less electricity). The powercord (below) looks like it's wasting energy, and you can't wait to switch it off. The energy clock maps your households usage, and shows you the times when you might need to change your habits.

The exhibition is touring at the moment, but there don't seem to be any UK dates.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Making Policy Public

Have a look at, where the Centre for Urban Pedagogy publishes a regular series of foldout posters that explain public policy. They act as go-between to introduce campaigners to designers and the results are impressive. Here's one on predatory equity (businesses who buy up rent controlled buildings, then harrass tenants until they leave).

Top: folded out as a poster
Below: information spread

Friday, August 28, 2009

The hotel I didn't choose

Just back from a few days trying out my new boat on Ullswater. We stayed at a nice hotel, but not at the one in the picture. In reality, it is perfectly fine, and right next door to a place I could keep the boat. But I couldn't bring myself to book it. Great art, poor ad.

Top: The hotel
Below: The Munsters' house

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Grumpy old man's thoughts on channel strategy

Companies who deal with the public have something called a channel strategy. One effect is that you can go online very easily to add stuff to your Sky TV package but not to cut it back. To do that you have to join a phone queue, press buttons, listen to the Four Seasons and finally talk to a specially trained crack salesperson who knows all your weaknesses and trains their finely honed neurolinguistic programming weapons on you until you relent.

I 'joined' Experian to get a copy of the file they had on me, but it seems I have to call them to cancel. They have a machine that read my email and spotted the word 'cancel'. So now I have written again, mis-spelling it - the automatic reply now says a human being will deal with it in a day or two. We'll see.

When we moved house recently I wrote to BT, but they ignored my letter and carried on charging me. I thought writing things down was the safest way, but apparently not. I called BT and was told 'der, we are a phone company you know'.

By the way, 'der' isn't a mis-spelling of 'dear' but my attempt at spelling that word teenagers say: derrh? de-ergh? Any suggestions?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ghost signs

Hats off to the History of Advertising Trust (HAT) who are calling for contributions to a ghost signs archive. Ghost signs are those fading ads painted on old buildings. If you see any, they'd like them for their collection.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Two ideas for typefaces

Cooper Black Peeling: I'm sure the food is fine, but this sign isn't very fresh.

Stickynote Sans: Beth Shepherd sent me this - from a conversation by post-it notes with the office across the road.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Still transforming after all these years

Robin Kinross recently published The Transformer, an essay by Marie Neurath supplemented by his own writings on the subject. It is a beautifully produced and timely contribution - timely given the growing interest in the work of the Isotype Institute. But make sure you ask for 'The Transformer: principles of making Isotype charts', and not 'Transformers - all hail Megatron' or 'Transformers - revenge of the fallen'.

Many years ago when I worked for the Open University, we took the Isotype concept of the transformer role, and applied it in the new community education courses being developed. They were on topics such as parenting, health, and retirement. To help the specialist academics write in an accessible way, we set up processes that encouraged them to write in page units - each topic had to be a single page or a double-page spread. They had to write a series of linked stories, which had to be within a recommended word limit, and accompanied by a sketched layout of how they anticipated them appearing on the page. The idea was to stop academics from simply expounding on their topic, and to help them imagine a reader with a busy life who needed to support from the visible structure of text to help them read strategically and actively. So the transformer role was partly accomplished by people, and partly by processes.

Pam Shakespeare (now Professor of Practice Based Open Learning) gave her inaugural lecture at the OU last week, and I went over to hear her. I hadn't previously realised that the transformer idea had made any kind of lasting impact, but it seems to have. A video of her lecture is online at (it starts about 6 minutes into the video).

Sunday, July 05, 2009

No fun

More notices

I suppose 'deep' is a relative term.

I think if there really are quicksands here, we need a greater sense of alarm in this notice. Both signs seen along the Thames Path in Gloucestershire last week.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Banksy versus Bristol Museum

I haven't had so much fun in an art show for years (well, ever...). There is a lot to pick out, but in the interest of relevance to this blog, here's a nice reference to small print.

Our MA students

Our MA students have finished the practical part of their course (dissertation still to come) and their work has been on display this week. They have been a delight to work with, and their work is terrific. Here they are having their photo taken, and striking suitably creative poses.

Our forms design portfolio

Well, now the MPs' exes have been published and you can see our work in its full glory - the blacked out bits spoil it a little, but still...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

MPs' expenses: our small part in their downfall

I remembered the other day that we (Information Design Unit, my former company) once had the job of designing the House of Commons expenses forms. The job went on for a long long time, as different wordings were tried and rejected. Obviously I would be sent to the tower for showing them (and I don't know which version, if any, was finally used), but it seems OK to mention that the declaration closely reflects the HMRC rules on taxation of expenses: "I confirm that I incurred these costs wholly, exclusively and necessarily... for the purpose of performing my duties as a Member of Parliament". I would say that is pretty clear.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Words in the street

Thanks to the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre for this link.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Branding oxymoron

The new kettle in our department is all wrong. A Frigidaire is a fridge. It has to be cold.

Oddly enough, I kept trying to turn it on by pressing the switch down (I think every other kettle works that way), but you had to pull it up. I thought it was because Frigidaire is an American brand and their light switches work the opposite way to ours (up is on). Paul Luna had a more ingenious idea - if Frigidaires normally get cold when you switch them on (ie, push the switch down), to get them to be hot you had to do the opposite (ie, pull the switch up).

Waiting for...

Perhaps I’ve seen it a million times before, but I’ve only recently noticed this sign at Liskeard station. I love the icon. You could set a short story contest around it.

"Waiting for the one o'clock train, now approaching Saltash, St Germans next, Jim wonders (proudly sitting in his union jack flares, head curiously detached) how he will lift his heavy well-strapped case, armless as he is. "

Easy Read not easyRead

A quick quiz. What is Easy Read?

1. Easy-Read is an ergonomic book holder that makes it easy to hold a book and turn the pages.

2. EasyRead is an application that lets you enlarge web pages to make them easier to read.

3. Easyread is a system for teaching dyslexic children

4. Easy Read is a way to write simply for people with learning difficulties, using pictures in support of clear language.

Hint - it’s all in the capitalisation. And it’s nothing to do with Stelios. That would be easyRead.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Two pictures of the ground

No information design in this post - just a couple of photos of the ground. After burying a new sewer pipe, the contractors have carefully restored the double-yellow no parking lines in our car park, in spite of the fact the rest of the line is completely worn away. After building this new ramp, someone walked through the wet cement leaving big boot marks. I love they way they have been carefully filled using cement of a different colour. Now there’s no missing them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cranks and idiots

Since I am on a religious theme, these two books found themselves juxtaposed on my bookshelf. One is now in the kitchen where it belongs.

Making reading digestible

Still on a scriptural theme... the Reader's Digest Bible cuts out the ‘boring bits’ – the genealogies or details of the Old Testament law – in an effort to make it less of a weariness of the flesh. But quite often when you look at other translations, the boring bits are actually graphically signalled, helping people read strategically (ie, helping them skip those parts).

In this page from Numbers, I've highlighted the section of the Reader's Digest Bible that is the equivalent of a spread from an edition of the New International Version (I designed the one shown some years ago for Hodder & Stoughton). 

The sections shaded pink are the ones left out of the RD version – I hope the image is clear enough to see that the list of tribes is spaced and indented in a way that makes it easy for the reader to simply skip over, noting the authenticity of the historical record (the main function of that passage for the modern reader). The spacing was not introduced by me but by the scholars and theologians responsible for the translation.

On another occasion I tried to take an even more explicit information design approach to Bible design. The Contemporary English Version is translated to be easier for people without a religious background to understand – it avoids theological terms, for example. I tried to make it look less bibly and to use genre cues to help readers approach it in a more strategic way. I could not avoid double columns (for space reasons) but I was able to use single column for poetry, so the line endings would be clearer. I used a three column ‘fine print’ approach for the boring bits, and bold headings.

Thought for the day

Paul Luna twitters on a scriptural theme:

“God as usability guru? ‘We have never sent a messenger who did not use his own people’s language to make things clear for them’ Qur’an 14:4

I counter with Ecclesiastes 12:12: ‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’

Oddly worded no smoking sign

My compulsion to whip out my iPhone in toilets continues - this one from a National Express train.

I suppose it is entirely reasonable that if I watch someone smoking in the loo, they can complain to the train guard.

I'll have to stop these toilet posts - Paul Luna's talking about the Oxford Literary Festival in his blog this week, and I'm lowering the tone.