Monday, May 17, 2010


It is nice to see information design reaching new areas of life. The Clear Building Survey, offered by some building surveyors, looks much easier, both to write and to read, than the traditional kind.

Economic recovery - I'll drink to that

I'm impressed that the Scottish Parliament publishes information in three languages: English, Gaelic and Lorem Ipsum. And I love that the photo accompanying the headline 'Scottish Economic Recovery Plan' is a pint of beer. That's definitely a plan.


Thanks to Martin Evans for this.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Which? chart is the dodgier?

We've been discussing the concept of graphic literacy in our department. Part of it has to be the ability to spot errors, in the same way that you might spot a word used incorrectly, or poor grammar.

The Met Office chart was one example of poor graphic proof-reading, and here is another one. I saw this in Which? magazine last November and sent them a green-ink letter. It's from an article about the cost of living in the UK, compared to other European countries. The article actually showed that the UK was the second cheapest of the five countries they compared, but they chose to highlight the high cost of fuel in their headline.

In a geeky moment, I compared the figures they gave with the accompanying bar chart - the £39 difference between Germany and the UK results in twice the height difference as the £112 difference between the UK and Spain. And their chart does not appear to start at zero. Here's their graphic and one I knocked up by entering the figures in Excel.

Perhaps this is a bit geeky, but Which? claims to be unbiased and evidence-based. They said they'd check what had happened, but the offending graphics are still on their website.

Probably a poor chart

UK people will remember that in 2009, one of the rainiest summers in memory (and the third rotten summer in a row), the Met Office issues an optimistic press release promising "The coming summer is 'odds on for a barbecue summer', according to long-range forecasts".

This was accompanied by this bar chart, brought to my attention by Emma Hicks, a student on our MA Information Design course. She is doing a project with our meteorology department to suggest improvements to the way they express probabilities in forecasts.

Not only does it display 20%, 30% and 50% in the wrong proportions, but the hotter orange colour for the 50% bar makes it appear that a much more extreme difference in temperature is being forecast. Actually the predicted differences are less then 1 degree apart.

As it happens, the summer was warmer than average... the only problem was it rained all the time.

The Met Office has since announced they are dropping long range forecasts. They might want to look at their PR department at the same time.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

In defence of Powerpoint

I recently became slightly embroiled in a debate about Powerpoint, when it came under fire [insert own pun about bullets] on the infodesign café list - best known critic is Edward Tufte, of course. Thought I might share my contribution here:

"In defence of Powerpoint, perhaps the contrarian view in this list...
  • on one hand, there's nothing more deadly than someone reading off a load of bullet points, word for word
  • but on the other hand something like this doesn't catch on unless it fills a need, and we should hesitate before assuming people are lazy or worse for using it
  • it's not always displacing a longer reasoned argument (which takes hours to write). More often it's the alternative to a spontaneous, unscripted verbal performance, which goes unrecorded, can easily go wrong, and which not everyone is confident enough to attempt.
  • I've found Powerpoint particularly useful when speaking to people whose first language is not my own, and for following presentations in another language, when I have only a school-level reading knowledge of it..
  • it's also good for people who weren't at the meeting... when I've given presentations without slides, or with purely visual ones used as punctuation or as talking points, I end up producing bullet point versions to distribute later.
  • is there some contradiction between the view that Powerpoint "fundamentally devalues reasoning and logic in an argument, and replaces it with mere summation and statement" and the idea that "one good image, or one good graph with important statistics, is much more persuasive"? [quote from another debater in the list]
  • Powerpoint is easily mocked with the Gettysburg address or Churchill's speeches in bullet point form, but oratory uses similar techniques to make itself easily grasped and memorable: rhythm, alliteration, etc. 
I think seven bullets is enough... "

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Giant mosquitoes - you must be joking!

In the context of an academic network, someone recently recounted a well known anecdote about visual literacy in Africa - the one where farmers dismiss a film about controlling mosquitoes or locusts on the grounds they don't suffer from giant insects that are 4ft wide (the size they appeared on the screen - geddit?). I have heard this story too, and wondered if it was an urban myth (or rural myth, even).

A few moments' Googling produced the probable origin of the anecdote, and a different interpretation: that the African viewers were in fact joking, but were misinterpreted by colonialist observers predisposed to think them primitive and visually illiterate. James Burns, a historian of African culture traces it to a colonial film maker William Sellers.
“After the war, when the magazine Colonial Development reported on the work of the Colonial Film Unit in Africa, it managed to squeeze two of Sellers’ stories into the article’s first paragraph.

‘On one occasion, during the showing of a serious instructional film in Nigeria, the audience was unaccountably rocked with laughter. It was afterwards discovered that the behaviour of a white hen that had strolled into the picture had distracted attention from the main purpose of the film. A film on malaria being shown to a bush audience made little impact because at one point a greatly enlarged picture of a mosquito filled the screen so that its structure could be explained. The audience declared that there was no reason to fear the tiny mosquitoes they knew, which were quite different from the huge and terrifying creature they saw on the screen.’

George Pearson, who became the Colonial Office’s chief film maker in 1939, related the story in an article he published in 1949. ‘The reaction among the natives was ruinous to the film purpose, for they said there would be no need for them to worry about the little mosquitoes they knew; those in the film were enormous and terrible things quite different from anything in their country!’ Pearson then explained the obvious lesson: ‘What had been overlooked was the complete ignorance of the primitive mind and magnification’[24]. Pearson could not resist retelling it a decade later in his autobiography. The story lives on in Southern African today. The historian Tim Burke found it circulating among White professionals in the advertising industry in Zimbabwe in 1991.”
Burns goes on to suggest an alternative interpretation:
“One’s first impression is that these stories are apocryphal, particularly since the specifics of the incidents are rarely given. And if true they are certainly open to alternative interpretations. Megan Vaughan, in discussing the reaction of the audience to the mosquito on the screen, pointed out that Sellers and his successors never considered that such comments might have been meant ironically. My own experience in Zimbabwe suggests the likelihood of this possibility. Two separate former mobile cinema operators of the Rhodesian Information Service recounted to me their experiences showing rural people films explaining the lifecycle of a new strain of maize. The use of time-lapse photography inspired members of two separate audiences to ask ‘Why does our government not give us this maize which grows so fast?’ Both informants related this story as evidence of the credulity of their audiences. However, when I told a third retired cinema operator this story he merely laughed: ‘Did they not realise the people were only joking?’.”
James Burns (2000) Watching Africans Watch Films: theories of spectatorship in British Colonial Africa, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 20: 2, 197 – 211

William Sellers (1941) The production of films for primitive people, Overseas Education: A Journal of Educational Experiment and Research in Tropical and Sub-Tropical Areas, (October 1941), p. 221.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Small print and your immortal soul

You may have read about the computer game company who inserted a new clause in their small print as an April Fools' Day jape. Around 7,500 customers apparently assented to terms and conditions that included the transfer of rights to their immortal soul to Gamestation.

On the basis that 12% of customers ticked an opt-out clause, Gamestation estimate that 88% of people fail read the small print before making online purchases. I'm surprised as many as 12% read them - I've asked this question at a number of conferences where I've spoken, and I reckon 2 out of about 400 people have put up their hand and admitted to reading the small print.

I found a nice comment about this on Mumsnet (in case you're wondering, no, I'm not a Mum - I googled it).

According to commenter GerbilMeasles, these are known as Friday Sandwich Clauses, and are sometimes inserted by playful solicitors to check if the other side is actually reading the contract they are supposed to be negotiating: 'They normally read something like "On completion and for a period of fifteen years from completion, the Vendor's solicitors shall on request from the Purchaser's solicitors provide on each Friday that is a Business Day a selection of sandwiches, pastries and other snacks as specified by the Purchaser's solicitors."'

Apparently a surprising number of these make it through to the final draft.