Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Haggis alert

I panicked when I saw a recipe book open at this page in our kitchen. Actually Jenny was making the recipe from the previous page (a very nice lamb stew) so all was well.

But this is yet another example of a recipe book designed for the bookshop not the kitchen. It is first-form stuff that one recipe should take one page. With a flexible approach to design and editing, it's never hard to take 4 lines back to the previous page.

Screwed cup pack design

I wanted 16 of these washers, so I bought two packs.

Well, it clearly says there are 10 of them in the pack... until you see the smaller 'QTY 20' at the bottom right.

The grammar becomes clear when you see the wingnuts I also bought:

If you can stand one more...

David Murphy confesses that parsing signs has become quite addictive (particularly near the beach, I notice). So here's another one.

Bare feet only?

Bear feet only?

Monday, December 21, 2015

That symbol explained?

David has come across the key to that symbol puzzle. Now we know what it means, but we don't why.

My mother's maiden

Keep your security questions short if you want them to fit in an iPhone scrolling menu. Or perhaps these are real life examples of those Nihilistic Security Questions I mentioned a few months ago.

Perhaps we could mix these up a bit...
Why were you born?
Who is your favourite mother?
What is in a name?

Danger er..

David Murphy sent me this sign, seen at Point Cook Coastal Reserve, Victoria.

Watch out for snakes and er...  ladders?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Guardian colour code fail now sorted

A while back I moaned about the Guardian's use of colour coding in the 'recent form' column of their football league tables.

They have a coded bar for games lost (red), won (green) and drawn (grey). The problem is that the colours are tonally similar and the significant number of males with some degree of red-green colour blindness will struggle to see the difference.


But I looked again recently, and they've now introduced an additional spatial code - a nice example of necessary redundancy.



Picture of a cat

Looking back I've posted rather a lot of wordy stuff over the last week. So here's a picture of our cat.

You are somewhere here

Birmingham New Street station has undergone a massive transformation recently - it's now the Grand Central shopping centre with trains. It's very shiny indeed and is part of the continuing transformation of Birmingham.

But next time I go, I'm taking a supply of You are here stickers for the maps.

Copyright, permissions and information design

Last year Robin Kinross posted a nice account of the common dilemma faced by publishers of books on design – what kind of copyright permission do you need to seek if you want to reproduce a designed page, and from whom?

Robin's perspective is that of a design writer and publisher interested in reproducing fine historical examples of significant design. Mine is a little different – I typically want to show everyday documents as examples of a category, or to critique them (often negatively, for example drawing attention to outrageously small type in a consumer contract).

Copyright law is designed to protect writers, artists, designers and publishers from being ripped off, but there is provision for fair dealing for the purpose of criticism and review.

The problem is that publishers insist on playing it safe and getting permission. This gives you two problems. Most often it is 'who do you call?' if you want to reproduce part of, say, a credit card application form, or a car rental agreement. And secondly, these companies just aren't set up to respond, and even if you can get through they probably don't want you to reproduce it if you are going to knock it.

Robin quotes a famous judgement of Lord Denning about fair use – it's all a matter of context, intention and degree.

So here's my take on how the spirit of fair dealing might apply to reproducing information design: 

Clearly fair dealing
– Showing something you are selling (eg, second-hand book dealer showing a thumbnail of a book cover).
– Showing something because it happens to be in a photo with another purpose (a book lying on a table, a poster on the wall).

The grey area (uses which I think are fair but journal/book publishers may not)
– Showing something as an exemplar of a category (eg, typical covers from romantic novels to illustrate a genre - you could pick any one from thousands).
– Showing an object or design that is ubiquitous (Mars Bar wrapper).
– Showing an object that is freely viewable in public (street sign, shop front).
– Showing something to critique its design or wording, including negative comments.
– Showing something as an exemplar, where you don't know the owner's identity or cannot trace them, or they have not replied.
– Redesigning something as a demonstration of design principles, although using some or all of the original text.

Not fair dealing
– Showing something when you have asked permission but it has been refused (even though it appears to be a fair use).
– Showing something (as an art object) that museums have invested in (as an art object), and need to potentially earn income from.
– Reproducing so much of something that people don't need to buy their own copy.
– Showing something as an example of a designers work, but at full size and in a form that could be used as a design object (eg, as a poster).
– Using the work for its original purpose to save effort (eg, copying the design and wording of a form).
– Using the work in imitation of the original (passing off). Supermarket own label brands cross this line all the time, of course.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Visual design in action: it's here

My copy of the new facsimile edition of Ladislav Sutnar’s Visual design in action arrived a few weeks ago, and there’s a London launch on 26 November at a meeting of the Information Design Association. It’s a beautiful and faithful reproduction of the 1961 classic, down to the multiple stocks and beige buckram binding.

I came to Sutnar very late – around 2008 I think. For someone who has spent his life promoting, teaching, researching and practising information design, it was embarrassing to find I had completely missed this extraordinary designer who had used the term (and pioneered the practice) in the 1940s.

Sutnar didn’t just use information design as a synonym for graphic design (as some early adopters of the term appeared to). In his introduction to the book, he actually distinguishes between the two. While visual design (he seems here to conflate this with graphic design) is about visual patterns and structures that appeal to the mind and the eye… ‘The term “information design” should be understood as the integration of meaning [content] and visualisation [format] into an entity that produces a desired action.’

That’s as good a distinction as you could hope for – there is plenty of graphic design that’s great to look at but that ignores content, users and effects.

Ironically perhaps, in view of this concern for meaning, Visual design in action is easier to look at than to read. The examples are quite stunning and it is inspirational, astonishing even, to see wonderful modernist design (the sort that actually works) applied to a wholesale trouser catalogue, among other things. But the text – somewhat cryptic and set in unsympathetic rectangles of italic type – is quite hard to follow if you are looking for a closely reasoned argument.

Instead, I find it a rich source of quotable quotes to hang on to – nuggets like ‘the memory value of a simple, clear shape to facilitate quick recognition’ or 
‘…text, tables, graphs, drawings and pictures. All these elements must be composed in space in such a way that they work together as smoothly as the gears in a machine.’

This last quote speaks to Sutnar's concern for visual flow, and his pioneering use of double spreads – now being chased out of town by the current obsession with responsive design.

Sutnar’s theory of information design is best expressed here:
‘The performance standards to meet the requirements for functional information flow necessary for fast perception are /1/ to provide visual interest to gain attention and start the eye moving, /2/ to simplify visual representation and organization for speed in reading and understanding, and /3/ to provide visual continuity for clarity in sequence’.

Today we might speak of engaging the user, making information readable and understandable, and supporting navigation. It’s actually quite a rich model once you start thinking through the techniques and skills needed at each stage ­– a combination of graphic design, information design, and UX.

Sutnar's work has that timeless quality you find in the best of modernism: to our eyes the exhibition designs depicted here are completely contemporary, while the adding machines displayed look like museum pieces. 

Visual design in action was published towards the end of Sutnar’s career following an exhibition of his work. He self-published it to exacting standards, and it’s just been reprinted to the same standards by Lars Müller on the initiative of Steven Heller and Reto Caduff, using Kickstarter crowdfunding. Heller’s 1994 article in Eye magazine is the best introduction to Ladislav Sutnar.

Look at it, read it and marvel.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Small print nightmare from 1972

I've been blogging on the Simplification Centre website about the new 2015 Consumer Rights Act, which is supposed to banish the small print (we'll see). I came across this nice example of coverage of this issue from The Guardian, 30 October 1972.

“Intrepid travellers on the cross Channel routes have come up against amazing exclusion clauses in the small print on the tickets that rarely get read. Translating the legalese into practical terms, one such traveller concludes that: ‘The combination of conditions 3, 5, 6, 9 and 11c allow Normandy Ferries to have an incompetent employee stow dangerous cargo insecurely alongside my car and to divert the vessel from Le Havre to, say, Bilbao. If, as a result, the incompetent captain is unable to cope with the rigours of the Bay of Biscay so that the pitching of the unseaworthy ship causes the dangerous cargo to come adrift and if, consequently, it blows up hurling my car into the air and sinks a passing fishing boat with all hands, then not only do I have no claim against Normandy Ferries but I also must indemnify them against all claims made against them”.

I found this quoted in an EU document: "Report on the practical implementation of Directive 93/13/EEC in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland", 1999, by Brian Collins.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

West Drayton's architectural gem

All the services visible at West Drayton station. An early Richard Rogers?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gender and loo signs

I'm intrigued by the choice of colour and icon on this sign at Brunel University. Unfortunately I couldn't find a female sign to compare with and didn't have time to search. Gendered loos are becoming an issue - could this be some kind of a response?

Behind you

This sign at Brunel University is telling me that the Wilfred Brown building is behind my right shoulder. In a different context I'd think it was downstairs.

Here is another 'behind you' arrow I've previously posted, from Helsinki airport.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Parking visualisation

Parking notices are usually so badly written and designed that they appear to be deliberate traps to attact fines (see Martin Cutts's worthy campaign on this).

But I saw this sign at Westbury railway station* the other day, and thought: nice one, Apcoa.

I stumbled on the term 'knee rail', which was new to me although in context understandable. Off the central road the ground surface is gravel so they have painted white bars on the low rails at the end of parking bays.

*'Railway station' is old-geezer for train station.

Water coolers, squirrels, cocks

Thanks to David Murphy for sending me this, from his local health clinic. He has a very nice blog, which I  discovered earlier this summer. Mostly on distance learning, it reconnected me to my first job, at the Open University.

I first met David when I visited Australia in around 1981. I think he was possibly at Deakin University, which enables me to mention one of those odd 'small world' experiences that happens from time to time.

They had launched a course on visual design and semiotics, and one example of a visual-verbal clash in their course materials was of the sign outside an English pub.

The pub was called The Squirrel, and this is the logo.

The small world experience was that the pub was our local in Ascot, Berkshire, where I grew up.

Of course it never occurred to me that the logo was a cock-up (ho ho). It was not at all strange as many Berkshire pubs were owned by the Courage brewery, and this is their logo.

Context and usage blinds us to obvious communication failures, and they happen all the time with more serious consequences than this (for example, water coolers disappear).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Our local paper

Well it could have been a quartet  - the viola player might have stayed in the car.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Legibility research: seeing is unbelieving

A few years I did some legibility testing for BAA who were considering changing fonts for their airport signs. A key finding was that a narrow, condensed typeface (Vialog) was less legible from a distance than the regular ones tested (eg, Frutiger).

Top: Vialog
Bottom: Frutiger

In fact the results suggested that a smaller size of a regular font was just as legible as a narrow one at the same size – so using a condensed font to fit in longer names is actually unnecessary unless your main concern is consistency of x-height. [Insert usual disclaimer about more research being needed.]

This phenomenon is also recognised in studies by Garvey et al (1997) and Rubin et al (2006). It reinforces the warning that it is unsafe to assume that research results obtained with a particular typeface can be generalised across other typefaces – particularly if size is only defined in terms of height (eg, points or x-height) without taking relative width into account.

However, I recently read Gordon Legge and Charles Bigelow's very thorough 2011 review of recent legibility research. It's particularly interesting because Legge is a vision researcher and Bigelow a typographer, both distinguished and much published in their fields.

They express the opposite view, that narrower type is more legible, citing a 1996 study by Aries Arditi who has worked quite extensively with Metafont to explore different proportions and spacing of letters to optimise text for people with poor vision.

A little surprised at this, I've found the Arditi study and here is what he tested:

So... stop right there before you conclude anything at all from this with respect to setting proper typefaces for continuous reading. These letterforms are from opticians' test charts.

Although I imagine they are designed to occupy the same space on the chart, they are remarkably poorly conceived even to meet that objective. It is bizarre, for example, that the W has been compressed so it occupies the same maximum width as everything else, making no allowance for its angularity. No kerning has been allowed, with the result that although normally a wide letter it actually looks narrower than other letters.

By the way, don't worry, the narrow and wide letters here are the extreme forms tested (although why you would go that far I don't understand. Why would that ultra-wide 'I' ever be recognised? I have to confess that I understand very little of the Arditi study which uses a specialist terminology and reports its results quite cryptically, but it seems to be looking at the correct reading of individual letters in short strings, by very small numbers of visually-impaired people.

Arditi, Aries (1996) Typography, print legibility and low vision, in
Roy G. Cole and Bruce P. Rosenthal (eds), Remediation and management of low vision. Mosby Incorporated.

Garvey, P., Pietrucha, M., and Meeker, D. (1997). Effects of font and capitalization on legibility of guide signs. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board, National Research Council.

Legge, G. E., and Bigelow, C. (2011). Does print size matter for reading? A review of findings from vision science and typography. Journal of Vision, 11(5), 1–22

Rubin, G. S., Feely, M., Perera, S., Ekstrom, K., and Williamson, E. (2006). The effect of font and line width on reading speed in people with mild to moderate vision loss. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, 26(6), 545-554.

Waller R. (2007) Comparing typefaces for airport signs, Information Design Journal, 15, 1-15

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

That old people sign revisited

I blogged about this sign a while back. Apparently it is patronising and disparaging to old people, and Spring Chicken organised a design competition for a replacement. They are an online retailer/advocate of well-designed products aimed at older people.

The results have been around for a few months but I've only just spotted them. Have a look at the outcomes on their website: http://www.springchicken.co.uk/signofthetimes/

The designers have had a lot of fun with the brief and almost all the entries are of the designer-as-cartoonist genre.

For example, this one by Margaret Calvert and Marion Deuchars is based on the children crossing sign (which was in fact originally designed by Calvert, although she was not responsible for the old people sign):

And this one was designed by Neal Lankester:

I had a chuckle at these and many others, but there are only two which, for me, take the brief seriously and might be contenders for actual use.

This first one, designed by Else, nicely recognises that the issue may not be physical disability but confusion and dementia:

This entry, from Together Design, simply amends the current one to reduce the degree of stooping. By replacing the walking stick with an umbrella, continuity is maintained, but with less stigma:

But actually I question why the existing sign is thought to be patronising. It is not meant to be a social comment but a warning to drivers of a danger ahead. The danger is not old people per se, but people who are physically challenged and therefore slow to react, and who may well be recognised by their stooping gait and use of a stick. Signs have to be cliched and exaggerated to be instantly recognised by drivers.

One more thing... that word 'elderly' is odd. Do they think the word 'old' is too stark or bleak?

This is the British habit of softening the impact of the simple Anglo-Saxon with a Latin elaboration, and it's not necessary.

And another thing. I nicked the photograph at the top from Spring Chicken's website. What's remarkable for me is that I might find these elderly people half way up a mountain. Good for them.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Adrian Frutiger 1928–2015

Adrian Frutiger passed away in September. Here is a lovely obituary from the New York Times. I particularly liked the quote at the end:

'As conspicuous as Mr. Frutiger’s work became, it was for its inconspicuousness, he said, that he hoped it would be known.

 “The whole point with type is for you not to be aware it is there,” he said in an interview on the Linotype company’s website. “If you remember the shape of a spoon with which you just ate some soup, then the spoon had a poor shape.”'

I met him briefly at a lettering workshop held at Reading a few years after I graduated. I have the programme somewhere and will amend this post when I find it. What stuck in my head was his classic demonstration of the universality of Univers in which he would overlap a transparent letter 'a' from a range of fonts until the Univers a emerged.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Security questions again: I wish I'd thought of this

Have a look at Soheil Rezayazdi's Nihilistic Password Security Questions.

What is the name of your least favorite child?
In what year did you abandon your dreams?
What is the maiden name of your father’s mistress?
At what age did your childhood pet run away?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Phones and shops: two schema shifts from history

Trying to explain schema theory at our recent summer school, I mentioned these two examples. The first is the user guide developed by Sainsbury's in the early 1950s to explain to customers how self-service shopping works. The second is an early set of instructions about how to use a telephone.

Source: I scanned this from an article in Sainsbury's customer magazine some years ago, but have lost track of the citation. 

Source: the BT museum. 

Schemas* are mental structures that we use to organise knowledge. We try to fit new information into our existing schemas, and we bring our existing world knowledge into play as we interpret any information. Schema theory is associated with the psychologist Frederic Bartlett, and it is also central to the work of the child psychologist Jean Piaget, who saw schemata as the basic building blocks of thinking.

Bartlett, F.C. (1932), Remembering: An Experimental and Social Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

* yes, the correct plural is really 'schemata' as it's from the Greek, but the anglicised version in increasingly common and less show-offy.

Information design meets gardening

I caught up with Paul Matson at the recent Vision Plus conference in Birmingham. Paul did the MA Information Design at Reading when I was teaching there. He works for the Institute of Physics in Bristol, creating web sites but as a sideline he's created a great gardening concept, Sowhow.

Paul sells organic seeds, packed on information cards that explain how to grow it, store it and cook it. I particularly like the link between garden and kitchen (I'm a fan of Monty and Sarah Don's Fork to Fork, not just for the clever title).

Monday, September 21, 2015

Remember those four year design degrees?

This ad seen in a London underground station makes me wonder why my course had to last four years.

Mind you, someone who came to our recent Simplification Centre summer school commented in his feedback: “I’m pretty sure that I learnt more relevant stuff last week than I did on my whole degree course!”

This may say more about his degree course, but I choose to view it as a compliment to our summer school.

Sticks well

My 95 year old mother asked me to buy her some glue and this is what they sold me. Not really her demographic but it did the job.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Some feedback for the feedback seekers

Every online transaction now seems to generate a feedback request. Fine - they're easily deleted if you have nothing to say.

But now they're starting to nag us. Southern Railway got in touch today to give me one more chance to fill in their questionnaire about my recent journey to London. It was fine, by the way.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Remembering Jan V White 1928-2014

I only just heard the sad news that Jan V White passed away at the end of last year, at the age of 86.

Jan was a magazine designer (he was art director for two Time titles during the fifties), consultant and educator. He is best known for a series of books that explained graphic design for non-designers - Editing by Design, Graphic Idea Notebook and Graphic Design for the Electronic Age are three of the best known. They are well written, well thought out, and continue to be relevant today, even in the digital age - in any channel where text, pictures and diagrams are juxtaposed.

Jan was one of my information design heroes – he was amongst the first to get the interconnection of language and design, and no one has explained it better to a general audience.

Editing by Design was published in 1974, the year I started work at the Open University as a designer tasked with making exactly that connection, in a research group that focused on learning from text. It proved a fantastic resource when the OU was exploring more accessible, journalistic formats for non-degree courses, and multiple copies were bought for staff in the community education team.

Jan was always generous with his expertise. Most designers just show their work, and don't explain how they did it. Jan's goal was to enable anyone to design a page that communicates, and he lectured tirelessly and internationally as a consultant and as a course leader for Popular Communication (the Swedish-based training organisation).

I only met Jan once, over the course of several days in the mid-90s when we were working together on a project for Xerox (one of his major clients - see the Xerox Publishing Standards that he helped to develop). He was kind, humorous and charming. Exiled as a child to England from Czechoslovakia in 1938, he was educated not far from where I was brought up, in Reading where he attended Leighton Park School. After the war his family went to the USA (see this interesting Wikipedia article about his father, the illustrator Emil Weiss).

With generous foresight, two years before he died Jan relinquished copyright on his out-of-print books, and made scans of them freely available on the Internet Archive. Links to all his books have been posted at www.janvwhite.org.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Age bands again

A little while I go I posted this complaint against market researchers who use 55+ as a single age band.

Because I am 55+ I am a prime target for Saga, the financial services and travel group who specialise in the over 50s. So I was quite pleased to see their age bands were more sensitive:

However, expect a repeat rant when I hit 80. At that age, of course, the phrase 'which age category you fall into' will take on a whole new meaning.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

When icons grow old

Dürnstein (beautiful village on the Danube in Austria) apparently bans vintage cars.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Depicting older people

I've occasionally posted mini-rants about how older people are portrayed in newspapers. Any article about retirement or pensions seems to be accompanied by a library shot of two attractive elders on bicycles, frolicking on a beach or taking an expensive cruise.

Doesn't this just reinforce the selfish image the baby boomer generation has acquired with younger people struggling to buy homes? The caption might just as well say "Smug boomers partying non-stop at your expense".

But I've just found a source of positive and realistic images of ageing on the EAC website. EAC is a charity that used to be known as the Elderly Accommodation Counsel. Much better.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Recipe book designers: please think about the cook

A recent survey pointed out that while most of us have a shelf full of recipe books, we have a repertoire of about nine meals we actually cook.

So are recipe books actually for cooking from, or just for giving and receiving as presents?

Nigel Slater's Eat is a truly lovely object that reminds us of the joy of holding a well-made book. Just as meals are more than nutrition, books are more than information. Eat is bound beautifully with a bendy board and soft-feeling cloth.

The only thing is, having enjoyed choosing what to cook, I had to place some of the ingredients on top to hold it open.

Profound infographic insight about Nigel Farage

Don't you just love it when the numbers make a neat pattern. Thank you, Daily Telegraph website.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Fit for purpose

It's oddly satisfying to see an icon and its referent so perfectly matched. If she could just face the other way...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Information Design 3.0

Word and phrases change their meaning over time and there's not much we can do about it. I'm a linguistic liberal, and you'll hopefully know what I mean by that (yes, that was a split infinitive and yes I know 'hopefully' used to mean something else).

But I do splutter into my cornflakes when I see 'information design' shifting in meaning every ten years or so.

There are at least three generations of it.

I first installed Information Design 1.0 in the late 70s. It was for the design of usable information: planning content and using typography, graphics and layout to display it effectively. It was comprehensive and included signage, diagrams, displays, documents, and eventually websites.

The Information Design 2.0 upgrade in around 2000 enabled web design, but most of the other features were hidden.

Information Design 3.0, released around 2010, only offers data visualisation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

So the bears don't get you

If you're worried whether it's safe to walk on the metal grating in Canada, these big feet are reassuring.

Pointing the way

Two nice examples of hand-held wayfinding.

Helping crowds at Birmingham railway station find the way out during refurbishments.

Aston Villa fans show their team which way to the goal (it hasn't been their best season).

Photo: The Times 2015.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Do they proof-read news graphics?

It's surprisingly common to see news graphics where the numbers don't match the chart lines.

I think the first example is just incompetence - or possibly the omission of a white vertical line to indicate the zero point for the data.

The second one looks like a cut and paste error. If you add up the percentages they come to 118% for 2015. But if you change the UKIP captions to read 13% and 18% everything adds up and the lines are the right length.

Picture credits: The Times.

New legibility test - just turn it upside down

I stared at this pen for a long time trying to decipher the brand name – but I had no problem reading the words KING SIZE.

Turn it the right way around and it's the familiar Sharpies brand. Have I just developed a new legibility test?

In my early career at the Open University I used multiple photocopying passes to show how some typefaces degrade more quickly than others - try it with Arial vs Bodoni and you'll see what I mean, although it worked better before photocopiers went digital.

You can also compare how easy it is to read typefaces through multiple layers of tracing paper. My business partner David Lewis used the term Strudel Test for this - following his mother's measure of when strudel pastry was thin enough (can you read a newspaper through it?).