All entries from 2010

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  1. 2010 in Retrospect

    Analog, Mapalong, more tries at trans-Atlantic sleep, Cuba, Fontdeck, and my youngest son entering school; it all happened in the last year. At the end of 2007, I wrote up the year very differently. After skipping a couple of years, this is a different wrap-up. To tell the truth I put this together for me, being the very worst of diarists. It meant searching through calendars, Aperture, and elsewhere. I hope it prompts me to keep a better diary. I give you: 2010 in pictures and words:

    January

    Albany Green, Bristol.

    Albany Green” width=

    Analog.coop is still fresh after launching in December. We’re still a bit blown away by the response but decide not to do client work, but to make Mapalong instead. We jump through all kinds of hoops trying to make it happen, but ultimately it comes down to our friend and colleague, Chris Shiflett. He gets us going. It snows a lot in Bristol. The snow turns to ice. I slip around, occasionally grumpy, but mostly grinning like an idiot.

    February

    Morón, Cuba.

    Morón, Cuba” width=

    My family and I go to Cuba on our first ever all inclusive ‘package’ holiday. It’s a wonderful escape from winter, tempered by surreptitious trips out of the surreal, tourist-only island, to the other Cuba with an unofficial local guide. My boys love the jacuzzi, and sneaking into the gym. Z shoots his first arrow. Just after we return, he turns 4 years old. Now, he wants to go back.

    March

    DUMBO from the men’s loo at 10 Jay St. — home of Analog NY in Studio 612a.

    DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY” width=

    I visit Chris in Brooklyn to work on Mapalong. We play football. Well, Chris plays. I cripple myself, and limp around a lot. At the same time I meet the irrepressible, Cameron Koczon. We all get drunk on good beer at Beer Table. Life is good. Cameron comes up with the Brooklyn Beta name. It starts to move from idea to action.

    Just before Brooklyn, a discussion about First Things First opens during a talk at BathCamp. The follow-ups become passionate with posts like this straw man argument and a vociferous rejoinder.

    April and May

    In the garden, at home.

    Lowri in our garden” width=

    The sun comes out. The garden becomes the new studio. Alan Colville and Jon Gibbins stop by as we work on Mapalong. The hunt starts for a co-working space in Bristol. I write pieces about self-promotion and reversed type. Worn out from the sudden burst, I go quiet again.

    June

    Mild Bunch HQ!

    My desk in the new studio” width=

    We find a place for our Bristol co-working studio studio. Mild Bunch HQ is born! I design desks for the first time. Our first co-workers are Adam Robertson, Kester Limb, Eugene Getov, and Ben Coleman. Chris and I meet again across the Atlantic; he makes a flying visit to Bristol. The gentle pressure mounts on fellow Analogger, Jon Gibbins to come to Bristol, too. Something special begins. Beer Fridays have started.

    Fontdeck!

    Fontdeck website” width=

    Fontdeck comes out of private beta! Almost 17 months after Rich Rutter and I talked about a web fonts service in Brighton for the first time, the site was live thanks to the hard work of Clearleft and OmniTI. Now it features thousands of fonts prepared for the Web, and many of the best type designers and foundries in the world.

    The Ulster Festival programme.

    Ulster Festival of Art and Design programme” width=

    For the first time in around 15 years I visit Belfast. At the invitation of the Standardistas, Chris and Nik, Elliot Stocks and I talk typography at the Ulster Festival of Art and Design. We’re working on the Brooklyn Beta branding, so talk about that with a bit of neuroscience thrown in as food for thought. Belfast truly is a wonderful place with fantastic people. It made it hard to miss Build for the second time later in the year.

    June was busier than it felt. :)

    July

    Mild Bunch summer; Pieminister, Ginger beer, and Milk Stout.

    Pies and beer” width=

    Summer arrived in earnest. X has a blast at his school sports day. I do, too. Mild Bunch HQ is liberally dosed with shared lunches from Herbert’s bakery and Licata’s deli, and beers on balmy evenings outside The Canteen with friends. That’s all the Mild Bunch is, a group of friends with a name that made us laugh; everyone of friendly disposition is welcome!

    August

    8Faces and .Net magazine.

    8 Faces and .Net magazines” width=

    8 Faces number 1 is published and sells out in a couple of hours. I was lucky enough to be interviewed, and to sweat over trying to narrow my choices. The .Net interview was me answering a few questions thrown my way from folks on Twitter. Great fun. Elliot, Samantha Cliffe, and I had spent a great day wandering around Montpelier taking pictures in the sun earlier in the year. One of her portraits of me appeared in both magazines. Later that month, I write about Web Fonts, Dingbats, Icons, and Unicode. It’s only my fourth post of the year.

    Birthday cake made by my wife, Lowri.

    Pies and beer” width=

    Sometimes, some things strip me of words. Thank you.

    September

    East River Sunrise from 20 stories up at the home of Jessi and Creighton of Workshop.

    Sunrise from 20 stories above the East River” width=

    The whole of Analog heads to Brooklyn for a Mapalong hack week with the Fictive Kin guys. We start to show it to friends and Brooklyn studio mates like Tina (Swiss Miss) who help us heaps. It’s a frantic week. I get to spend a bit of time with my Analog friend Andrei Zmievski who I haven’t seen in the flesh since 2009. Everyone works and plays hard, and we stay in some fantastic places thanks to Cameron and AirBnB.

    Cameron Koczon (front), Larry Legend (middle) and Jon Gibbins (far back with funky glove) in Studio 612a during hack week.

    In Studio 612a during hack week” width=

    Just before I head to NY, Z starts big school. He looks too small to start. He’s 4. How did time pass so fast? I’m still wondering that after I get back.

    October

    Brooklyn Beta poster.

    Brooklyn Beta poster” width=

    The whole of Analog, the Mild Bunch HQ and many others from Bristol, and as far away as Australia and India, head to New York for Brooklyn Beta! A poster whipped together my me, printed in a rush by Rik at Ripe, and transported to NY by Adam Robertson, is given as one of the souvenirs to everyone who comes.

    Meanwhile, Jon Gibbins works frantically to get Mapalong ready to give BB an early glimpse of what we’re up to. Two thousand people reserve their usernames before we even go to private beta!

    Brooklyn Beta!

    Simon Collison giving his Analytical Design workshop on day 1.

    Simon Collison giving his Analytical Design workshop” width=

    Chris and Cameron work tirelessly. Many, many fine people lend a hand. We add some last minute touches to the site, like listing all the crew and attendees as well as the speakers. Cameron shows off Gimme Bar with an hilarious voice-over from Bedrich Rios. Alan narrates Mapalong and we introduce our mapping app to our peers and friends!

    Day 2: Chris does technical fixes, Cameron tells jokes, and Cameron Moll waits with great poise for his talk to start.

    Chris, Cameron, and Cameron on stage at Brooklyn Beta” width=

    It’s something we hoped, but never expected: Brooklyn Beta goes down as one of the best conferences ever in the eyes of veteran conference speakers and attendees. ‘Are you sure you’ve not done this before?’ I hear Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler Frere-Jones ask Cameron. It makes me smile. The fact one of our sponsors asked this question in admiration of Chris and Cameron’s work meant a lot to me. I was proud of them, and grateful to everyone who helped it be something truly friendly, open, smart, and special.

    Aftermath: Cameron (blury in action centre left) regales us at Mission Delores; Pat Lauke (left), Lisa Herod (back centre right), Nicholas Sloan (right).

    Cameron speaks” width=

    The BB Flickr group has a lot of pictures and links to blog posts. Brooklyn Beta will return again in 2011!

    November

    Legoland, Windsor.

    Legoland” width=

    X turns 7. I realise he really isn’t such a toddler anymore. It took me a while even though he amazes me constantly with his vocabulary and eloquence. His birthday party ensues with a trip to Legoland on the last weekend of the season to watch fireworks and get into trouble. Fun times finding Yoda and the rest of the Star Wars posse battling each other below the Space Shuttle exhibit.

    8 Faces

    8 Faces number 2” width=

    8 Faces number two is published after being announced at Build. Much of the month was spent juggling Mapalong work, and having a great time typesetting the selections spreads for each of the eight faces chosen by the interviewees. That, and worrying with Elliot how it might print with litho. It all turned out OK. I think.

    The .Net Awards take place in London. Christened the ‘nutmeg’ awards thanks to iPhone auto-correction, I’m one of millions of judges. We use it as an excuse for a party. At the end of the month, lots of the Mild Bunch go to see Caribou at The Thekla. Good times.

    December

    Mapalong!

    Mapalong logo and screenshot” width=

    Mapalong goes into private beta! We start inviting many of the Brooklyn Beta folks, and others who’ve reserved their usernames. Lots of placemarks get added. Lots of feedback comes our way. Bug hunting starts. Next design steps start. We push frequently and add people as we go. Big things are planned for the new year!

    Clove heart from Lowri.

    Tangerine with a heart” width=

    The Mild Bunch Christmas do goes off with a bang thanks to Adam Robertson making sure it happened. Folks come from far and wide for a great party in The Big Chill Bar in Bristol. Lowri sneaks shots of Sambuca for the girls onto my tab, and we drink all the Innis and Gunn they have.

    A few parties later, and the year draws to a close with a very traditional family Christmas in our house. Wood fires, music, the Christmas tree, and two small boys doing what kids do at Christmas. It’s just about perfect; A tonic to the background strife of the month, with a personal tragedy for me, and illness in my close family. Everything worked out OK. Steam-powered fairground rides, dressing up as dinosaurs, and detox follows with a bit of reflection. New Year’s Eve probably means staying in. Babysitters are like gold dust, but I just found we have one for tonight, so it looks like our celebration is coming early!

    2011

    In the new year, I’ll be mostly trying to do the best I can for my family, my colleagues, and myself. The only goals I have are to help my children be everything they can be, make Mapalong everything we wish it to be, and feel that calm, quiet sense of peace in the evening that only comes from a day well done. Other than that I’ll keep my mind open to serendipity. (…and do something about some bits of my site and the typesetting that’s bugging me after writing this. :)

    If you made it this far, thank you, and here’s to you and yours in 2011; may the best of your past be the worst of your future!

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  2. Web Fonts, Dingbats, Icons, and Unicode

    Yesterday, Cameron Koczon shared a link to the dingbat font, Pictos, by the talented, Drew Wilson. Cameron predicted that dingbats will soon be everywhere. Symbol fonts, yes, I thought. Dingbats? No, thanks. Jason Santa Maria replied:

    @FictiveCameron I hope not, dingbat fonts sort of spit in the face of accessibility and semantics at the moment. We need better options.

    Jason rightly pointed out the accessibility and semantic problems with dingbats. By mapping icons to letters or numbers in the character map, they are represented on the page by that icon. That’s what Pictos does. For example, by typing an ‘a’ on your keyboard, and setting Pictos as the font-face for that letter, the Pictos anchor icon is displayed.

    Other folks suggested SVG and JS might be better, and other more novel workarounds to hide content from assistive technology like screen readers. All interesting, but either not workable in my view, or just a bit awkward.

    Ralf Herrmann has an elegant CSS example that works well in Safari.

    Falling down with CSS text-replacement

    A CSS solution in an article from Pictos creator, Drew Wilson, relies on the fact that most of his icons are mapped to a character that forms part of the common name for that symbol. The article uses the delete icon as an example which is mapped to ‘d’. Using :before and :after pseudo-elements, Drew suggests you can kind-of wrangle the markup into something sort-of semantic. However, it starts to fall down fast. For example, a check mark (tick) is mapped to ‘3’. There’s nothing semantic about that. Clever replacement techniques just hide the evidence. It’s a hack. There’s nothing wrong with a hack here and there (as box model veterans well know) but the ends have to justify the means. The end of this story is not good as a VoiceOver test by Scott at Filament Group shows. In fairness to Drew Wilson, though, he goes on to say if in doubt, do it the old way, using his font to create a background image and deploy with a negative text-indent.

    I agreed with Jason, and mentioned a half-formed idea:

    @jasonsantamaria that’s exactly what I was thinking. Proper unicode mapping if possible, perhaps?

    The conversation continued, and thanks to Jason, helped me refine the idea into this post.

    Jon Hicks flagged a common problem for some Windows users where certain Unicode characters are displayed as ‘missing character’ glyphs depending on what character it is. I think most of the problems with dingbats or missing Unicode characters can be solved with web fonts and Unicode.

    Rising with Unicode and web fonts

    I’d love to be able to use custom icons via optimised web fonts. I want to do so accessibly and semantically, and have optimised font files. This is how it could be done:

    1. Map the icons in the font to the existing Unicode code points for those symbols wherever possible.

      Unicode code points already exist for many common symbols. Fonts could be tiny, fast, stand-alone symbol fonts. Existing typefaces could also be extended to contain symbols that match the style of individual widths, variants, slopes, and weights. Imagine a set of Clarendon or Gotham symbols for a moment. Wouldn’t that be a joy to behold?

      There may be a possibility that private code points could be used if a code-point does not exist for a symbol we need. Type designers, iconographers, and foundries might agree a common set of extended symbols. Alternatively, they could be proposed for inclusion in Unicode.

    2. Include the font with font-face.

      This assumes ubiquitous support (as any use of dingbats does) — we’re very nearly there. WOFF is coming to Safari and with a bit more campaigning we may even see WOFF on iPad soon.

    3. In HTML, reference the Unicode code points in UTF-8 using numeric character references.

      Unicode characters have corresponding numerical references. Named entities may not be rendered by XML parsers. Sean Coates reminded me that in many Cocoa apps in OS X the character map is accessible via a simple CMD+ALT+t shortcut. Ralf Herrmann mentioned that unicode characters ‘…have “speaking” descriptions (like Leftwards Arrow) and fall back nicely to system fonts.’

    Limitations

    1. Accessibility: Limited Unicode / entity support in assistive devices.

      My friend and colleague, Jon Gibbins’s old tests in JAWS 7 show some of the inconsistencies. It seems some characters are read out, some ignored completely, and some read as a question mark. Not great, but perhaps Jon will post more about this in the future.

      Elizabeth Pyatt at Penn State university did some dingbat tests in screen readers. For real Unicode symbols, there are pronunciation files that increase the character repertoire of screen readers, like this file for phonetic characters. Symbols would benefit from one.

    2. Web fonts: font-face not supported.

      If font-face is not supported on certain devices like mobile phones, falling back to system fonts is problematic. Unicode symbols may not be present in any system fonts. If they are, for many designers, they will almost certainly be stylistically suboptimal. It is possible to detect font-face using the Paul Irish technique. Perhaps there could be a way to swap Unicode for images if font-face is not present.

    Now, next, and a caveat

    I can’t recommend using dingbats like Pictos, but the icons sure are useful as images. Beautifully crafted icon sets as carefully crafted fonts could be very useful for rapidly creating image icons for different resolution devices like the iPhone 4, and iPad.

    Perhaps we could try and formulate a standard set of commonly used icons using the Unicode symbols range as a starting point. I’ve struggled to find a better visual list of the existing symbols than this Unicode symbol chart from Johannes Knabe.

    Icons in fonts as Unicode symbols needs further testing in assistive devices and using font-face.

    Last, but not least, I feel a bit cheeky making these suggestions. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Combine it with a bit of imagination, and it can be lethal. I have a limited knowledge about how fonts are created, and about Unicode. The real work would be done by others with deeper knowledge than I. I’d be fascinated to hear from Unicode, accessibility, or font experts to see if this is possible. I hope so. It feels to me like a much more elegant and sustainable solution for scalable icons than dingbat fonts.

    For more on Unicode, read this long, but excellent, article recommended by my colleague, Andrei, the architect of Unicode and internationalization support in PHP 6: The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets.

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  3. Reversed Logotype

    Reversed type optical illusion example.

    This image shows a particular optical illusion that confronts us every day. Notice the difference between the black text on a white background and the reverse. With reversed type — light text on a darker background — the strokes seem bolder.

    Black text on white is very familiar, so we can be forgiven for thinking it correctly proportioned. For familiarity’s sake we can say it is, but there are two effects happening here: The white background bleeds over the black, making the strokes seem thinner. With reversed type the opposite is true: The white strokes bleed over the black, making it seem bolder.

    Punched, backlit letters on a sign outside the Nu Hotel, Brooklyn.

    One of the most obvious examples of this is with signs where the letters are punched into the surround then lit from inside. In his article, Designing the ultimate wayfinding typeface, Ralph Herrmann used his own Legibility Text Tool to simulate this effect for road and navigational signs.

    One might say that characters are only correctly proportioned with low-contrast. Although objective reality hails that as true, it isn’t a good reason to always set type with low contrast. Type designers have invariably designed around optical illusions and the constraints of different media for us. Low-contrast text can also create legibility and accessibility problems. Fortunately, kind folks like Gez Lemon have provided us with simple tools to check.

    As fascinating as optical illusions are —  the disturbing, impossible art of Escher comes to mind — we can design around reversed body type. On the Web, increasing tracking and leading are as simple as increasing the mis-named letter-spacing and line-height in CSS. However, decreasing font weight is a thornier problem. Yes, we will be able to use @font-face to select a variant with a lighter weight, but the core web fonts offer us no options, and there are only a few limited choices with system fonts like Helvetica Neue.

    Reversing a logotype

    For logotype there are plenty of options, but it makes me slightly uncomfortable to consider switching to a lighter font for reversed type logos. The typeface itself is not the logotype; the variant is, so switching font could be tricky. Ironically, I’d have to be very sure that that was no perceivable difference using a lighter weight font. Also, with display faces, there’s often not a lighter weight available — a problem I came across designing the Analog logo.

    The original Analog logo seen here is an adapted version of Fenway Park by Jason Walcott (Jukebox Type).

    Analog logo original.

    The logotype worked well when testing it in black on white. However, I wanted a reversed version, too. That’s when I noticed the impact of the optical illusion:

    (Reversed without any adjustment.)

    Analog logo reversed (flawed).

    It looked bloated! Objective reality be damned; it simply wouldn’t do. After a few minutes contemplating the carnage of adjusting every control point by hand, I remembered something; eureka!

    (Reversed then punched.)

    Analog logo reversed (punched).

    Punching the paths through a background image in Fireworks CS4 removed the illusion. (Select both the path and the background then using Modify > Combine Paths > Punch.) Is this a bug? I don’t know, but if it is, it’s a useful one for a change!

    Modify > Combine Paths > Punch in Fireworks CS4.

    N.B. I confess I haven’t tested this in any other Adobe products, but perhaps you will be so bold? (’scuse the pun. :)

    Fireworks CS4 screenshot.

    Matthew Kump mentions an Illustrator alternative in the comments.

    I grinned. I was happy. All was well with the world again. Lovely! Now I could go right ahead and think about colour and I wouldn’t be far from done. This is how it emerged:

    Analog logo.

    A final note on logotype design & illusions

    Before we even got to actual type for the Analog logo, we first had to distill what it would convey. In our case, Alan took us through a process to define the brand values and vision. What emerged were keywords and concepts that fed into the final design. The choice of type, colour, and setting were children of that process. Style is the offspring of meaning.

    I always work in greyscale for the first iterations of a new logo for a few simple reasons:

    1. The form has to work independently of colour — think printing in greyscale or having the logo viewed by people with a colour-impairment.
    2. It allows for quick testing of various sizes — small, high contrast versions will emphasise rendering and legibility issues at screen resolutions, especially along curves.
    3. I like black and white. :)

    I realise that in this day and age the vast majority of logos need to perform primarily on the Web. However, call me old-fashioned, but I still think that they should work in black and white, too.

    Brands and display faces emerged with consumer culture during the 19th Century. Logotypes were displayed prominently in high streets, advertising hoardings, and on sign boards. In many instances the message would be in black and white. They were designed to be legible from a distance, at a glance, and to be instantly recognisable. Even with colour, contrast was important.

    The same is true for the Web today; only the context has changed, and the popularity of logomarks and icons. We should always test any logo at low resolutions and sizes, and the brand must still have good contrast (regardless of WCAG 2.0) to be optimal. A combination of colour and form works wonders, but in a world of a million colours where only a handful are named in common parlance, having the right form still seems a smarter choice than trying to own a palette or colour.

    A final word

    This article was prompted by a happy accident followed by a bit of reading. There are many references to optical illusions in design and typography books. The example image at the start of this article was inspired by one found in the excellent Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger. There’s also plenty of online material about optical or visual illusions you can dive into. There’s also more on how the eye processes light. Oh, and don’t forget the work of M. C. Escher!

    Human eyes are amazing. In two sets of watery bags we get a wide-angle lens with incredibly sharp focus and ridiculous depth of field. Apparently our brain is even clever enough to compensate for the lag in the signal getting from retina to cortex. I know next to nothing about ocular science. Spending a morning reading and thinking about optical illusions, and contemplating my own view here in the garden office is pretty awe-inspiring. If only my photographs were as good as my eyes, illusions or no.

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  4. Self-promotion

    The world has changed. Everything we do is more immediately visible to others than ever before, but much remains the same; the relationships we develop are as important as they always were. This post is a few thoughts on self-promotion, and how to have good relationships as a self-publisher.

    Meeting people face to face is ace. They could be colleagues, vendors, or clients; at conferences, coffee shops, or meeting rooms. The hallway and bar tracks at conferences are particularly great. I always come away with a refreshed appreciation for meatspace. However, most of our interactions take place over the Web. On the Web, the lines separating different kinds of relationships are a little blurred. The company trying to get you to buy a product or conference ticket uses the same medium as your friends.

    Freelancers and small companies (and co-ops!) can have as much of an impact as big businesses. ‘I publish therefore I am’ could be our new mantra. Hence this post, in a way. Although, I confess I have discussed these thoughts with friends and thought it was about time I kept my promise to publish them.

    Publishing primarily means text and images. Text is the most prevalent. However, much more meaning is conveyed non-verbally. ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’

    Text can contain non-verbal elements like style — either handwritten or typographic characters — and emoticons, but we don’t control style in Twitter, email, or feeds. Or in any of the main situations where people read what we write (unless it’s our own site). Emoticons are often used in text to indicate tone, pitch, inflection, and emotion like irony, humour, or dismay. They plug gaps in the Latin alphabet’s scope that could be filled with punctuation like the sarcasm mark. By using them, we affirm how important non-verbal communication is.

    The other critical non-verbal communication around text is karma. Karma is our reputation, our social capital with our audience of peers, commentators, and customers. It has two distinct parts: Personality, and professional reputation. ‘It’s not what was said, it’s who said what.’

    So, after that quick brain dump, let me recap:

    • Relationships are everything.
    • We publish primarily in text without the nuance of critical non-verbal communication.
    • Text has non-verbal elements like style and emoticons, but we can only control the latter.
    • Context is also non-verbal communication. Context is karma: Character and professional reputation.

    Us Brits are a funny bunch. Traditionally reserved. Hyperbole-shy. At least, in public. We use certain extreme adjectives sparingly for the most part, and usually avoid superlatives if at all possible. We wince a little if we forget and get super-excited. We sometimes prefer ‘spiffing’ accompanied by a wry, ironic smile over an outright ‘awesome’. Both are genuine — one has an extra layer in the inflection cake. However, we take great displeasure in observing blunt marketing messages that try to convince us something is true with massive, lobe-smacking enthusiasm, and some sort of exaggerated adjective-osmosis effect. We poke fun at attempts to be overly cool. We expect a decent level of self-awareness and ring of honesty from people who would sell us stuff. The Web is no exception. In fact, I may go so far as to say that the sensibilities of the Web are fairly closely aligned with British sensibilities. Without, of course, any of our crippling embarrassment. In an age when promoting oneself on the Web is almost required for designers, that’s no bad thing. After all, running smack bang through the middle of the new marketing arts is a large dose of reality; we’re just a bunch of folks telling our story. No manipulation, cool-kid feigned nonchalance, or lobe-smacking enthusiasm required.

    Consider what the majority of designers do to promote themselves in this brave new maker-creative culture. People like my friend, Elliot Jay Stocks: making his own magazine, making music, distributing WordPress themes, and writing about his experiences. Yes, it is important for him that he has an audience, and yes, he wants us to buy his stuff, but no, he won’t try to impress or trick us into liking him. It’s our choice. Compare this to traditional advertising that tries to appeal to your demographic with key phrases from your tribe, life-style pitches, and the usual raft of Freudian manipulations. (Sarcasm mark needed here, although I do confess to a soft spot for the more visceral and kitsch Freudian manipulations.)

    There is a middle ground between the two though. A dangerous place full of bad surprises: The outfit that seems like a human being. It appears to publish just like you would. They want money in exchange for their amazing stuff they’re super-duper proud of. Then, you find out they’re selling it to you at twice the price it is in the States, or that it crashes every time it closes, or has awful OpenType support. You find out the human being was really a corporate cyborg who sounds like you, but is not of you, and it’s impervious to your appeals to human fairness. Then there are the folks who definitely are human, after all they’re only small, and you know their names. All the non-verbal communication tells you so. Then you peek a little closer —  you see the context — and all they seem to do is talk about themselves, or their business. Their interactions are as carefully crafted as the big companies, and they treat their audience as a captive market. Great spirit forefend they share the bandwidth by celebrating anyone else. They sound like one of us, but act like one of them. Their popularity is inversely proportional to their humanity.

    Extreme examples, I know. This is me exploring thoughts though, and harsh light helps define the edges. Feel free to sound off if it offends, but mind your non-verbal communication. :)

    That brings me to self-promotion versus self-aggrandisement; there’s a big difference between the two. As independent designers and developer-type people, self-promotion is good, necessary, and often mutually beneficial. It’s about goodwill. It connects us to each other and lubricates the Web. We need it. Self-aggrandisement is coarse, obvious, and often an act of denial; the odour of insecurity or arrogance is nauseating. It is to be avoided.

    If you consider the difference between a show-off and a celebrant, perhaps it will be clearer what I’m reaching for:

    The very best form of self-promotion is celebration. To celebrate is to share the joy of what you do (and critically also celebrate what others do) and invite folks to participate in the party. To show off is a weakness of character — an act that demands acknowledgement and accolade before the actor can feel the tragic joy of thinking themselves affirmed. To celebrate is to share joy. To show-off is to yearn for it.

    It’s as tragic as the disdainful, casual arrogance of criticising the output of others less accomplished than oneself. Don’t be lazy now. Critique, if you please. Be bothered to help, or if you can’t hold back, have a little grace by being discreet and respectful. If you’re arrogant enough to think you have the right to treat anyone in the world badly, you grant them the right to reciprocate. Beware.

    Celebrants don’t reserve their bandwidth for themselves. They don’t treat their friends like a tricky audience who may throw pennies at you at the end of the performance. They treat them like friends. It’s a pretty simple way of measuring whether what you publish is good: would I do/say/act the same way with my friends? Human scales are always the best scales.

    So, this ends. I feel very out of practise at writing. It’s hard after a hiatus. These are a few thoughts that still feel partially-formed in my mind, but I hope there was a tiny snippet or two in there that fired off a few neurons in your brain. Not too many, though, it’s early yet. :)

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  5. First Things First

    Last Wednesday I turned up in front of a friendly bunch of designers and developers at BathCamp — a regular and excellent monthly event in the city next door. Thanks to Mike Ellis for inviting me at the last minute, and everyone who attended. That day I’d roughly cobbled together a few thoughts about design culture from some old reading, a sprinkle of disquiet, and a bit of dubious optimism. Be warned, here be politics; provocative for some. My thoughts went something like this:

    1963–1964

    From what I have read, and soaked in by osmosis over the years, the early sixties were a fascinating time. In the early part of the decade UK society was emerging from the austerity following WWII. An impoverished Britain looked across the pond to the booming consumer culture of the USA with envy and ambition. Consumerism was on the rise. Advertising was on the rise. At the same time, there was a revolution going on in music, culture and politics. The baby boomers were about to change the world.

    In 1963 70,000 people marched from Aldermaston to London — part of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Test Ban Treaty was signed. Martin Luther-King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. James Meredith became the first ever black student to graduate from the University of Mississippi. The first ever X-Men comic from Marvel was published and Iron Man made his debut. The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. Coke launched its first ever diet drink, ‘TaB’. The Museo Bodoniano opened in Parma. JFK was assassinated.

    On 29th November, 1963, during a meeting of the Society of Industrial Artists (now the Chartered Society of Designers) at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ken Garland wrote First Things First, A Manifesto (plain text here). He read it out to copious applause. This is what it said:

    We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents. We have been bombarded with publications devoted to this belief, applauding the work of those who have flogged their skill and imagination to sell such things as: cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons.

    By far the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.

    In common with an increasing number of the general public, we have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on. There are signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, scientific and industrial publications and all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.

    We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible. Nor do we want to take any of the fun out of life. But we are proposing a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication. We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders, and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes. With this in mind we propose to share our experience and opinions, and to make them available to colleagues, students and others who may be interested.

    In January 1964, one hundred copies were printed by Goodwin Press. Twenty-two designers, typographers, and photographers were signatories. That same year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Jonhson, outlawing segregation in the USA. There were race riots in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Singapore. Terence Conran opened the first Habitat store. The Vietnam War escalated. Mary Poppins was released by Disney. The death penalty was abolished for murder in the UK. Nelson Mandela made his ‘I Am Prepared to Die’ speech in an apartheid courtroom. Jan Tschichold designed Sabon. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl was published (with a wonderful cover illustration). Educationalist and writer, Caroline Benn was passed a copy of First Things First. She passed it to her husband, Labour politician and maverick, Tony Benn, who published it in full in his Guardian column. Following that, Ken Garland was invited to read the manifesto in full on BBC TV. What amazing times.

    By the ’80s many people, like me, had grown up with a love of the music of the ’60s, but no memory of the time. The counter-culture of the decade had been absorbed and distorted into mainstream memory: Flower-power; Hippies; Vietnam war protests; Civil Rights; Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The Stones sang Paint it Black as we watched Platoon, going out to buy Zippos right after.

    2000

    By the late ’90s, the counter-culture I grew up with had been co-opted by corporate consumerism and woven into mainstream brands. From surfers to skateboarders and musicians to DJs, heros were willingly commissioned into endorsing the messages of consumerism. Designers were commissioned along with them. Culture was easy profit. If it was niche (and thus ‘cooler’) so much the better for parting youth from coin.

    The product developers, public relations consultants, brand gurus, ad agencies and design teams were so slick that most people seemed not to notice. After all, their heros lead the way. If people did notice, it seemed they quickly muscled past any twinge of loss and welcomed it, feeling validated. It didn’t seem to matter that it was to brand-build and sell gadgets or khakis. They barely noticed that their culture had become a lifestyle, or that their symbols were now just another transient fashion — one that would eventually be discarded by the new corporate curators they’d sold the rights to, who would then try to suck them away and onto to the next trend.

    I know this. That was me. I was there.

    In 1999, the superb Adbusters initiated a re-write of First Things First. Co-ordinated by Rick Poynor, it was signed by luminaries like Erik Spiekermann (amongst many others, including the original author, Ken Garland) and published in Emigre 51.

    Read the re-aligned First Things First 2000.

    (You may have to zoom Emigre’s squint-inducing 10px type.)

    Also, see the text of the Emigre article by Rick Poynor (PDF). It supplied many of the incidental facts here, and Rick Poynor illuminates the First Things First Manifestos of 1964 and 2000 much better than I ever could.

    2010

    It just so happened that I stumbled across First Things First as 2009 was about to become 2010. It was also just after Analog launched. Preceded by much navel-gazing on my part about what kind of work I wanted to do, for who, and why.

    When I read it, the first thing I thought is what about web design and development? How does First Things First fit? Rick Poynor’s comments on the 1964 original were thought-provoking:

    The critical distinction drawn by the manifesto was between design as communication (giving people necessary information) and design as persuasion (trying to get them to buy things). In the signatories’ view, a disproportionate amount of designers’ talents and effort was being expended on advertising trivial items, from fizzy water to slimming diets, while more ‘useful and lasting’ tasks took second place: street signs, books and periodicals, catalogues, instruction manuals, educational aids, and so on.

    Poynor goes on to say:

    Today, the imbalance identified by First Things First is greater than ever. The vast majority of design projects — and certainly the most lavishly funded and widely disseminated — address corporate needs, a massive over-emphasis on the commercial sector of society, which consumes most of graphic designers’ time, skills and creativity.

    I agree with Poynor who suggests that, ‘Design’s love affair with form to the exclusion of almost everything else lies at the heart of the problem.’ If there’s a legacy the ’60s left for me, it’s that everything we do is political and value-driven, from the products we buy to the jobs we take. Web design is no exception. If it is, where do we draw the line? At producing material for the intelligent design movement? Or perhaps designing insignia and making uniforms for the Nazis?

    I veer from accepting the political and economic status quo as the 1964 manifesto did. After all, it’s almost 46 years later, and the commercialisation doesn’t seem any less to me. In fact, to my mind, the barrage is ascendant.

    In Pynor’s article, author and book artist Johanna Drucker urges us to ask, ‘in whose interest and to what ends? Who gains by this construction of reality, by this representation of this condition as “natural”?’ In light of the current furore surrounding the Digital Economy Bill, that seems very close to what Tony Benn urged us to ask in 2005:

    What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interest do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you? Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one with power likes democracy. And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it — including you and me here and now.

    We already apply our morality, politics, and sensibilities to our work in a multitude of ways. All the designers I know are subtle, thoughtful, detailed, scrupulous people by nature. It seems odd somehow that any of them would think their work as being apolitical. Or, to put it another way, that form matters more than content and the agenda behind it.

    1964 seemed like a much simpler time where the lines were much more clearly drawn between differing agendas. Culture had not been co-opted by commerce so ubiquitously. Advertising was not synonymous with design. The latter still seems somewhat true to me on the Web, too. But, with the increasing concern over commoditising relationships through ‘monetising’ everything, especially social networks, I wonder for how long will it remain so. Already the rather obvious message that design can improve profitability is at the core of how many people represent our craft; a step up from being seen as frivolous stylists, perhaps, but is it genuinely enough?

    Everyone needs to earn a living; me included. However, at the risk of being called naive, much like the signatories of the 1964 manifesto, I definitely see the need for a debate. Without being too precious about this profession I hold with great regard, web design (with development) is the filter between content and people. As designers and developers we have great power to solve problems, provide amenity and guidance, educate and enthuse. Surely we also have a responsibility, too. So, where is our own First Things First, 2010, the web manifesto?

    Two things stand out for me, re-reading this post:

    1. There is an imbalance in how we value design: Too much emphasis is placed on commercial work in publications, lauding style over substance. Content, presentation and interaction are interwoven and shouldn’t be examined separately. To do so infers that the substance can be ignored as long as the æsthetic is good.
    2. We must somehow help to open up the opportunity of public work to designers, and redefine the value of design away from either pure style, or profit. That’s the tricky one. The way public work is commissioned often seems constipated and self-destructive to me. I don’t have a solution but I have a feeling the large agency dominance is part of the problem, and co-ops part of the solution.

    At the end of my talk at Bathcamp, there was only one question that mattered, really:

    Given the choice, what work would you choose to do?

    The answer to that is, perhaps, all one needs to know.

    For those masochistically interested in the Bathcamp material: the rough slides with even rougher notes are available as a PDF.

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