Sunday, October 24, 2010

Olympic security

In case you thought I'd lost interest in inept security questions (see here, here and here) I've just registered on the London Olympics ticket website.

Braving the shameful logo that I still can't get used to, I'm confronted by this choice of security questions:

Unfortunately at the age of fifty something, 'best friend' isn't a concept I think about much. I don't have a favourite sportsperson or a favourite food for that matter... at least not one that I could reliably remember two years later.

And what about all those poor sods who put Wayne Rooney down as their favourite sportsperson? Is there a way to change your mind?

I hope this isn't the entire Olympic security effort. Anyone who puts Osama bin Laden down as their best friend just won't get a ticket. That should do it.

Cleanliness 2010

Clarity 2010 was held at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, a fantastic facility with beautiful spacious modern architecture. The loo doors attracted a certain amount of comment - the inset handles were typical of sliding doors, and the Portugese word Puxe made you want to push. Puxe means 'pull' however, which wasn't all that easy.

Once inside you were rewarded with this very thorough 12-stage model of the hand-washing process.

Clarity 2010

Went to Clarity 2010 in Lisbon the week before last. Very stimulating, and met up with a lot of old friends. Three things stood out for me.
  • Plain language is happening in more and more countries, and is taken seriously enough for governments to take action. For example, the Portugese government used the conference to announce a new initiative, and while we there President Obama was signing the new Plain Writing Act in the USA.
  • While much discussion of plain language hasn't changed in thirty years (short sentences, common words, active voice), there were frequent mentions of information design, and several sessions looked at visualisations that clarify contract law.
  • Many of the meetings were visualised by Susanne Hoogwater of Legal Sketchpad - she is one of a growing number of people who make a living from recording meetings using visualisation. She introduced me to a new book, Visual Meetings by David Sibbet. Worth a look.  And there is an interesting link on her website to the use of visualisation in conflict negotiations: The physical mapping of different views makes it less easy to ignore what the other side is saying, and reassures participants that their view has been recorded. Not that any fights broke out among the speakers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You have been warned

This summer one of our students chose the Highway Code as her dissertation topic. It has evolved since its introduction in the early thirties, but is recognisably the same publication. This reminded me of a book we had in our house as we were growing up. A take-off of the Highway Code, You have been warned: a complete guide to the road was in print from 1935 well into the 1950s. It's by the cartoonist Fougasse and the writer Donald McCullough and I still enjoy it. Here are some favourite pages.

Monday, October 18, 2010

It's a sign

Seen by Martin Evans. You don't just die of boredom, it seems.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dona Wong on information graphics

Dona Wong's Wall Street Journal guide to information graphics is a great desktop guide to the design of graphs, charts and tables. She goes through all the basics, and demonstrates them using a simple graphic syntax that is undistracted by cool examples or the work of famous designers. Once you get used to her at-first-cryptic way of distinguishing bad practice (down arrow) from good (up arrow), it works brilliantly. This wasn't planned as a full review, but to note her thoroughgoing approach to information design and simplification. I loved her diagrammatic acknowledgement of the people who helped.

Dona Wong (2010) The Wall Street Journal guide to information graphics: the dos and don'ts of presenting data, facts and figures. New York/London: Norton & Co.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Clearing up crime

From a leaflet through our door on neighbourhood policing.

 I'm glad they cleared that up.

Plain Words in plain English

Sir Ernest Gowers is rightly acclaimed for his handbook on clear English, The Complete Plain Words. Published in 1948 it has never gone out of print.

It was aimed at civil servants communicating with the public, and in the first edition he writes "The purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English. To some of them this may seem a work of supererogation, calculated only to place an unnecessary new burden on a body of people already overburdened."

That's right - supererogation. I had to look it up too (it means 'spending over and above, beyond the call of duty'). And I had take a couple of run-ups before being able to say it out loud (think super + erogation).

A civil servant in 1948 would no doubt know this word, and therefore Gowers's sense of audience was impeccable. But these days we would tend to write about plain English in plainer English.

So I've had a go at translating a key section of Plain Words into plain English:

The original reads:
"A new technique is being developed for those pamphlets and leaflets that are necessary to explain the law to the man in the street in such matters as P.A.Y.E. and National Insurance. Its guiding principles are to use the simplest language and avoid technical terms, to employ the second person freely, not to try to give all the details of the law relevant to the subject, but to be content with stating the essentials, to explain, if these are stated in the writer's words and not the words of the Act, that they are an approximation only, to tell the reader where he can find fuller information and further advice, and always to make sure that he knows what are his rights of appeal."
Proof, perhaps, that a 92 word sentence can be reasonably easy to read if it is simply a list separated by commas. Here's my version:
"How to explain things like P.A.Y.E. and National Insurance :
  • Use simple language and avoid technical terms
  • Use ‘you’ as much as you can
  • Don’t try to give all the details, but just give the basics
  • Say where people can find fuller information and further advice
  • Always make sure people know their rights of appeal."
We haven't really improved on that advice in 60 years. To try would be supererogation, 'nuff said.

Differences of opinion

I enjoy public debate - a couple of examples recently seen.

Saturday, October 02, 2010


Seen recently in Hyde Park. No, I don't get it either.