Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Which? best buys: I don't buy this format

Which? the consumer testing magazine and website, can be remarkably dense sometimes. We were looking at food mixers and Kenwood have done brilliantly in bagging the top four Best Buy slots.

Well done, Kenwood. The red one was best, then the white one, then the cream-coloured one, then the black one. Yes, they are the same mixer in different colours. 

Assuming they don't actually test the different colours separately, I reckon this is an information design problem. This format doesn't allow them to do the sensible thing and present this as one product with colour variants.

They could just call it the 'Kenwood KMix KMX754...', and the next column could list the colour variants.

Sh*t, S**t, S***

A friend remarked approvingly that I used the word 'shit' in a recent post. It's odd how words shift their position on the spectrum of rudery (or should that be prudery).

My late mother, who would have given Hyacinth Bucket a run for her money (although she was the real thing), would use the word freely (as in 'I've put chicken shit on my roses'), as a straight synonym for manure. 

I always think that when a newspaper prints a coyly bleeped word like 'sh*t' it forces me to think of all the rude words I know that might fit - not very edifying. Sometimes I'm stumped which makes me feel rather naïve.

I mentioned this in this blog a few years ago, after seeing the word 'w***e' in a headline. Click here for the answer, which disappointingly isn't even rude (unless someone is using to describe you). 

End of the Argos catalogue, end of an era

The Argos catalogue is no more. If you are the reader of this blog who lives outside the UK, I should explain that this was like a mail order catalogue but no mailing was involved. Argos has stores in every town, where you can/could browse a catalogue and order every kind of stuff, which was stored in a back room, mostly not on display. It inevitably moved online, and after acquisition by Sainsbury's the stores are moving to supermarkets.

Argos does a remarkable job of making a wide range of stuff available in small towns which now longer have specialist shops. At one of our early summer schools the host institution failed to supply a projector... so we popped out to Argos and bought the one we still use. 

Some of the vox pop comments in radio interviews struck a chord. Most homes had an Argos catalogue and in the pre-internet days it gave kids access to window-shopping. Families would browse the catalogue together and plan purchases, voice their aspirations and drop birthday present hints.

I'm not sure what the current figures are, but when Argos was a client in the 2000s the figures were astonishing and surprising: for example, they were one of the largest jewellers, furniture retailers and suppliers of electrical goods. Most of the photographers in Milton Keynes where they were based seemed to be sustained by product shots for the catalogue.

The production of the catalogue was a major operation involving five or six printing plants around Europe, and several binderies. They were delivered on pallets near the door of Argos stores for people to take home. When we asked about recycled paper it emerged that there wasn't enough recycled paper in Europe to print the Argos catalogue.

Every now and again they would ask us to review a particular aspect of the catalogue and propose improvements. We treated these projects as exercises in decision support, helping people to choose what features and qualities they needed, and which products had them. We would produce beautifully crafted explanations which were then made rather naffer by in-house designers to fit in with the brash Argos brand.

It was a fascinating encounter with the world of retail. For example, Good Better Best: a typical product range has to have basic products (good), an average products (better) and a top end (best). Some customers will invariably buy from one of these relative price points. 

When we worked on the Argos jewellery section, it included a diamond ring priced well over £3,000  although the average jewellery purchase was under £10. No one I spoke to could remember the expensive ring ever being sold but its job was to be Best and lift the image of the Argos jewellery brand. The recipient of a gifted ring could not know for sure that the giver was a cheapskate.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Why do flies shit on our HomePod?

It's a little hard to see in this picture, but there are several black flies sitting on our black Apple HomePod, which has dots of black fly shit on top. Why do they do it? There's nothing in the user guide.

Oddly enough I haven't seen this commented on. It's rare to get a dead end on Google.

Things you can't do in Madeira

Following the popular series of posts 'Things you can't do...' (2013), here's what we weren't allowed to do in Madeira last year.

I particularly like 'no walking on stilts near ladies', and 'don't do a poo while walking on water', although it meant the holiday wasn't much fun.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Gender neutral icons

Classic Isotype charts are sometimes referred to as 'rows of little men'. But how could we instead show rows of little persons?

I love this gender neutral icon which Tesco are using in their supermarkets. Just by stretching the arms out a little, it allows people of any gender identity to see themselves in it - it could be wearing a dress (or have wider hips) or perhaps its arms are just positioned like this.

The Noun Project has various other attempts:
The one on the left by Dan Brunsdon is typical of solutions which just combine icons - not so much gender neutral as both-genders. 

 I quite like the right hand one by James Walker, with its suggestion of hips.

Monday, March 16, 2020

RIP Michael Hertz

I regret I wasn't aware of him until he died, but the designer of the New York subway map passed away recently, and there's an interesting obit in the NY Times.

When clients drop the ball

Karen Schriver recently tweeted: "What do Information designers do when a client spends a large sum to do a high-profile project, but then drops the ball and has no time to manage it?"

This is all too familiar, and over a long career I've had a few of these experiences, some of which are possibly still covered by NDAs or the Official Secrets Act so detail is not possible. They are infuriating and disappointing because even if we have charged for our work that's not the only reason we do it – we want to do great stuff and improve the world.

One notable one from around 20 years ago was a major government form that almost every citizen uses. We redesigned it and ran a large scale live pilot which showed we'd dramatically reduced error rates. The government agency realised that each error took a civil servant around 30 minutes to deal with, and the reduction in errors therefore meant that they would have to fire or redeploy around 1000 people, leading to a probable trade union dispute. They just took some minor aspects of our work which reduced errors by around 6%, which was their target for the project.

I have also heard civil servants worry that the improvement was so great that it would make them look like idiots for putting up with the old version for so long.

And I have had work ruined by in-house designers or contracted branding agencies who were tasked with implementing it, and digital teams who insist on controlling everything.

Oh well...

Monday, February 24, 2020

This is a sign

Looking back at those huge but ineffectual anti-Brexit marches, at least the signs were great. I particularly liked this one which wasn't picked up in the press coverage (yes, I was there so now you know what I think of Brexit).

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Dodgy chart hits the front page

It's not often you see information design cited in a political row but today the Number 10 press office tweeted about a dodgy chart used in an EU statement about trade relations with the UK. It's reported more fully on the Politico.eu website.

The EU published a chart showing the scale of trading relationships with various partners. It uses circles to represent amounts, and I've blogged about this before (well, it's nine years ago now...).

You shouldn't do that because humans can't compare volumes as well as they compare lengths. This is what Isotype was about...

Below left is the comparison they made. Then I've show the comparison by length, and, even better, horizontal bars with a block for every 10 billion and the figures provided.

According to Politico.eu:
'David Spiegelhalter, a professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, said the Commission's approach was "indefensible" and went against "standard graphical practice."
"It's also the biggest mistake to make. It's incorrect to use diameter to represent volume," he said, adding that it was "the sort of thing a junior person would do."'
...or a graphic designer, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Hello again

After a break of more than three years, this blog is back.

I stopped in 2016 because of various distractions, notably the rebuilding of our home and the design and construction of the garden, which is my pride and joy.

It's all settled down now, so I'm once again in need of an outlet for my opinions, observations and anxieties... however few people are listening.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Goodbye for now

My first post here was on 30 July 2006. Now on the tenth anniversary it seems a neat moment to stop. As someone used to say on Radio 4: if you have been, thanks for listening.

I also blog from time on the Simplification Centre website – I'll still be there.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The opposite of No Entry

I saw this sign more than once on a recent visit to Denmark - this is in the art museum in Aarhus. A nice idea, possibly a bit like an 'on' switch, and in colour and orientation the opposite of 'no entry'... but is it actually an improvement on an arrow?


Strange signs

These signs are on the wayfinding maps at the Southgate shopping centre in Bath. Any ideas? Are they even official?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Who wrote this and what were they on?

Clive Richards sent me this bogglingly baffling notice. I wonder just who wrote this, reviewed his or her work and thought – that's a job well done, everyone will understand this.

It's obviously not clear, so should we all call that number?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

True co-designing

This government office in Birmingham is a wonderful clash of cultures. I'm guessing the tall atrium, contemporary furniture and huge abstract painting came from the architect and interior designer. And I'm guessing the grotty old wooden cupboard covered with notices and someone's dry-cleaning is contributed by the people who work there.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Read the rules ("rules")

McDonalds is running a Monopoly-themed promotion. I hope you all understand the rules ("rules").


I've just ordered some items of a personal nature for an elderly person who is not online. Amazon suggest I share the news on social media.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Don't blame me for typos - I'm only human

Cheryl Stevens has started in interesting discussion on her Plain language, please Facebook page, about responding to clients who complain bitterly about trivial typos. Her point is that typos are actually inevitable because perfection in any kind of quality control is elusive. She cites the guru of quality management, W. Edward Deming.

I responded with an anecdote from my time working at the Open University.

I recall that one of our mathematics textbooks was found by students to contain quite a number of errors which had escaped the proof-readers. The errors were corrected and it was reprinted. The students then found further errors but fewer of them. This went on for several editions, and the story goes that the authors then used the declining number of errors in each edition as an exercise for students to calculate the probable number of errors still remaining.

As if to prove the point, just after I wrote the paragraph above I noticed a typo, so went back in to edit. The next morning I noticed another error and did the same thing. Immediately I noticed yet another... oh dear.

Adrienne Montgomerie responded by drawing attention to Ray Panko's website reviewing research on human error. He includes a list of research on proofreading - none of the studies found 100% of errors caught.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Rupert Bear: the fan club grows

Thanks to Paul Morgan for a namecheck in a nice blog post about the Rupert Bear books, pioneer exemplars of multi-layered communications. Paul was Communications Director for SANE Australia (the mental health charity) for many years, but is now independent.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Coy ****lines

This Telegraph headline is remarkably coy. Although supposedly designed not to shock, this particular example had me trawling through the dregs of my vocabulary for a rude word that would fit. Ironic that (note to self: is there an irony emoji? must get up to speed on that).

Couldn't find a rude word to fit. But actually it was printed full out in the main article.*

*whore... there, I've said it.

Friday, February 19, 2016

For mystery callers

After reading my doorbell post, Karel van der Waarde (the other person who reads this blog) sent me this almost poetically baffling sign.

A tad more

Apcoa wanted me to use this code to pay for my parking. I thought it started with 1. My stupid or theirs? A tad more space please.

Actually I think it needs more than a tad, which I take to be usually no more than 10-20% extra space. Typographic technical terms can easily confuse... for example, 'just a tad' is sarcastic, and is actually larger than a tad.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Belt and braces

Multi-modal communication seen at the Swedenborg Institute in London, where the Information Design Association hold meetings.

Excited by a door bell (I know, I know)

This blog is temporarily converting to a consumer review site (today only).

I just bought a new door bell - not just any door bell. Because both of us work in outbuildings, we kept missing callers, and wireless door bells didn't have enough range. This one is wifi connected, so it rings on your phone wherever you are. And then there's a camera and a mike.

So a builder called while I was in Birmingham, and I could speak to him. Freaked him out when my voice appeared, but we got over that. Actually, this looks like being an issue with some of the other brands which have very obvious cameras, but just don't look like door bells. This one is branded 'ring', which also works as an instruction, of course.

It's very expensive for a door bell but brilliant. And what branding people call the 'out of box experience' was great too.

They gave me all the tools I need, down to the bubble thing to make sure I installed it level. And the app was equally good.

Please don't

After being called off my sick bed to answer the door to chuggers from the Battersea Dogs Home (this is Somerset, for goodness sake), and then again to an 'art student' who couldn't speak any English but had translated cue cards for every response he thought he was getting...

I thought I'd put up a polite notice saying please don't... 

You can buy them online:

- Paper not wanted: Leaflets, flyers, advertisements, menus, junk mail.
- People not wanted: Sales people, charities, religious people, cold callers.
- Consequences: dogs, police, trading standards, prosecution.
Highlights of this collection for me include:
'Strictly addressed mail only' (write your own dominatrix quip).
'We don't need any advice'.
'Please leave and do not return'

What would a polite brush-off look like? I don't want to seem rude.

A matter of opinion, I'd have thought.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Toilet confusion

This brilliant post by Nick Parker is firmly of the type: 'I've been wondering about that too'.
I confess that when I read 'Depress and let go' on the label, I was expecting a psychotherapy angle.

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.