Archive for May, 2004

Eric Idle presents… The FCC Song.

Monday, May 31st, 2004

I have to admit I’m a real Python fan. I can quote The Holy Grail and Life of Brian till the cows come home. So it’s always nice to see the surviving Pythons doing what they did best.

Eric Idle’s pretty much a permanent US resident now, but he might not be for much longer if this song is heard by the people he sings about. For non-Americans, the FCC is the Federal Communications Commission. Other than that, I think all the stories he refers to have been well and truly covered in the UK press, so should make sense.

“Here�s a little song I wrote the other day while I was out duck hunting with a judge� It�s a new song, it�s dedicated to the FCC and if they broadcast it, it will cost a quarter of a million dollars.”

Download it here (3.1Mb)


Sunday, May 30th, 2004

A couple of years ago I started teaching myself computer programming. But not being the sort of person who can go step by step through the usual “Hello World!” routines I decided instead to create a couple of applications that I thought would be useful.

The first, Daydreamer XMLwas a rudimentary content management system for Dreamweaver that predated “Contribute” and was designed to solve a particular problem I was having in my job at the time. If you use Dreamweaver, give it a go. Version 2 is nearly complete but after Macromedia brought out contribute I gave up. MacUser, a UK magazine actually featured DayDreamer as a “Top 10 Web Utility” on their cover CD so maybe I was on to something!

My current project is something called “S:Team” (i.e. “esteem” – geddit?)

“S:Team is an online tool to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses when working and studying as part of a team. S:Team will help you identify your teamwork tendencies, and to identify the roles that others can play too.”

It’s a tool initially designed for students after i got fed up with colleagues sticking them into groups and expecting them to get on with each other for team-based projects. I created a version in Javascript and, simultaneously, in REALbasic, and it works quite well. I even sold a copy!

Last Christmas I decided to improve it and started on version 2, this time in Flash using Actionscript 2. Again, it’s just about finished but the last six months have been quite hectic. I’m hoping to sort it out over the summer. But last week S:Team was “announced” to the art and design academic community in a publication my department produces, so the past few days I’ve been busy making the site a bit more user-friendly. Feel free to give it a go – the online version works and is free for individual use. If you want to use it with staff or students you need to buy a site license. Version 2, which will be free to owners of version 1, should be out in September and it’s looking much better.

When I used S:Team with students back in 2002 it worked a treat – none of the teams had any problems that couldn’t be sorted out. Teamwork is something that should be taught properly, not just used as a quick fix to staffing problems. S:Team helps that process, I hope.

Welcome, Icelanders!

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

The ability of information to spread virus-like never ceases to amaze me.

I’ve noticed quite a few hits to this site coming from a link over on the Icelandic National Team site to my “Graphic Design Education is Failing Students” story, which is still the most visited post on this site. I can’t read Icelandic so am not sure whether the link is along the lines of “you must read this, it’s great” or “you must read this, it’s laughable!” Whatever, I’m grateful for the reference.

I’m guessing the site is about Graphic Design from the few recognisable words I can see. I wonder what the nature of the debate is over there? So far this has been dominated mainly by US contributors (in fact I appear to be the only Brit that I can find and the only non-North American writing on the subject). It’d be nice to hear from someone from other countries, either privately or using the comments link (you can post anonymously incidentally!). If you do email me privately (using the link under my profile) let me know if you’re happy to be quoted here.

Danielle Foushee’s Rant

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

Danielle Foushee’s “rant” over on her site strikes a chord. Much of what she says about the state of graphic design education (this time in the USA) echoes my thoughts on the UK state of affairs.

The link above will take you to the article directly, but check out her whole site at

I’m wary of quoting whole articles as I think people should visit the author’s site and support it in whatever way you can. Equally, however, I’m wary of selectively quoting for fear of skewing the argument to support my own. But Danielle’s comments are worth giving some space to here. She is a practitioner teaching in higher education, but a rarity (by UK standards) in that she sees her subject as a body of knowledge and practice. It’s more than just “the visual”, far more. But the rot has set in and will be difficult to put right.

Danielle can come on the bus. The more I think about it the more there’s a need for some sort of conference on the issue (fancy a trip to Brighton, anybody?) or a manifesto from those of us who believe in design education.

Rant : February 12, 2004

Yesterday was the first meeting of a new, weekly, extra-curricular reading and discussion group for my graphic design students at X University (a Reasearch I university). Most of the students are seniors, about to graduate. They are not yet ready to compete in our harsh world�where visual ideas are sucked up in a cultural black hole and then spit out again as waste. The ten students who participated in this inaugural meeting are good-enough students: eager and enthusiastic. They want to learn as much as they can about graphic design and the creative process. I think the reading/discussion group is a great idea for undergraduates, and I�m glad the students are so zealous. They will learn a lot, and will hopefully find some context for their practice that has more meaning than blind commercial output.

As I�m trying, on the most basic level, to give these students a theoretical and philosophical foundation for graphic design thought and practice, I read continually in Emigr� (and elsewhere) about the sorry state of affairs in the Graphic Design community. This constant pessimism among our profession�s most outspoken pundits makes me feel defeated�like I�m fighting a losing battle�even as I agree to spend hours of my free time with students.

There are too many so-called �graphic design� programs in this country, spitting out underqualified graduates at an alarming rate. Many of these students barely have the skills to discuss simple composition and hierarchy issues, much less to articulate critical or conceptual ideas. These �graphic design� programs many times are not teaching Graphic Design at all.

In my view, Graphic Designers do not simply throw their work around like candy hearts on Valentine�s Day! We disseminate ideas. The business of Graphic Design is as important (perhaps more-so) as the writing of literature or the making of music. Graphic Design grabs people at their cores. It generates desire, it makes people act, it changes our minds, it appeals to our emotions and to our intellects.

Many 4-year �graphic design� programs are merely teaching students how to become technicians, not creative thinkers. Many faculty members believe that if they can teach the students how to use the relevant computer software, they have done their jobs.


Teachers are part of the problem in other ways, too. I think many teachers refuse to collaborate with their students. They refuse to listen to their students� concerns and questions, while demanding to be the center of attention and authority in the classroom. I have seen this at all of the institutions in which I�ve taught, and have probably been guilty of this myself. Students have vast, varied, and interesting experiences that can enhance the dynamic of the classroom, and they have a lot to teach the instructors themselves. Students often act as catalysts for new lines of inquiry in relation to course material and professional/academic practices of faculty. When instructors are closed to this kind of interaction with their students, many opportunities are lost.

There is another problem. Graphic design programs in many institutions are housed under Fine Arts Departments, and are all-too-frequently the disrespected cash cows for dwindling painting and sculpture programs. Universities are receiving less and less money each year from legislatures, so art departments accept more and more graphic design students to help pay the bills�these programs often cannot or simply refuse to hire new faculty to support this rise in student population.


I will start with some thoughts of my own: I believe that design education is where the ball could get rolling again. Let�s start by creating a standard for Graphic Design educators�a barometer that can be used to evaluate instructors and professors on their abilities. Then, lets give the best of these teachers some kind of certification based on these ideals. Institutions, then, would have a measuring stick by which to judge faculty applicants as being more or less qualified to teach Graphic Design. Once this system has had time to permeate design academia, the best programs will rise to the top and others will simply fall away or become irrelevant. This will take time, but the Graphic Design profession will not simply make corrections by itself. The most logical place to start, as I see it, is with an educational system that can either perpetuate the current status quo or reinvigorate a new sense of interest in theoretical and practical dialogue among Graphic Design�s practitioners, educators, and theorists.

Hopefully, I will have some effect on the students in my weekly reading group here at X University. I want to cultivate in them a passion for learning, an ability to recognize good ideas, a desire to continually push the boundaries of their abilities and knowledge, and the confidence to eagerly discuss their endeavors with peers and collaborators. Maybe if I can reach these ten students, then they will be able raise the bar for their classmates by infecting them with a heightened sense of competition and focus.

Compensation Culture Comes to the UK

Friday, May 28th, 2004

After reading this article, I’m gonna sue everyone who reads this blog for the RSI that writing these posts is causing me. So there.

Actually, I think I will sue my local Co-Op supermarket. For Lent this year I decided to give up chocolate and crisps but then discovered these wonderful flavoured “milk shake” sweets. Before I knew it, I was eating a packet a day and, occassionally, two. I put on four pounds which I am now desperately trying to get rid of. So I think I will sue them, what do you think?

In fact, now I’ve written about them, I need a fix. That’s how addictive they are!

The Guardian | Fri May 14 2004 | page 7 | UK News: “Manchester’s biggest shopping centre is attracting an un-welcome type of customer: a plague of compensation-hunters with exotic grievances.

Recent claims against the Trafford Centre on the orbital M60 include a demand that the three miles of walkways be carpeted to avoid a repeat of a woman’s swollen ankles after hours of shopping.

The �900m mall has also been asked to pay medical bills for another shopper left with a cricked neck after ‘shock at the sudden movement of a street artist playing a human statue’.

Both bids failed, along with an attempt at compensation from a ‘shopper of Jordan proportions’ [note for non-UK readers: Jordan is a “model” in the UK with famously large breasts] allegedly trapped by her bust in a revolving door, suffering injury and distress. The centre has told would-be litigants that it should not be seen as a soft touch, ready to pay ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers on the grounds that fighting demands would be cheaper than a minor payout. The director of operations, Steve Bunce, backed the warning with a list of the ’10 most staggering’ claims attempted by Trafford Centre lawyers this year.

‘The number of people claiming against the centre is negligible in comparison with the number of customers, but we are exasperated and amazed by the basis for some claims,’ said Mr Bunce. ‘They reflect the compensation culture which is fuelled by the advertising campaigns claiming ‘no win, no fee’. Many claims are blatantly fraudulent.'”

Design Observer: writings about design & culture: Annals of Academia, Part II: Graphic Design and The New Optimism

Thursday, May 27th, 2004

An interesting article, and lots of interesting discussion over at Design Observer. I’ve got some thoughts on this but I need to get on with some essay marking – spookily, given the content of the article, including some very interesting takes on Roland Barthes, and 35 first year essays that specifically challenge them to link theory with practice… More on that later. In the meantime, read Jessica Helfland’s interesting article, and the discussion it provoked, of which this is just a taste:

“In general, we introduce theory in the classroom not because of the product it generates so much as the process it informs; but in the absence of an original idea, students often see theory as a validating conceptual armature, a crutch. This is where our educational system fails us: for as long as the connection bewteen theory and practice remains thwarted by poor pedagogical direction, we cannot expect our students to know the difference.”

Incidentally, it’s interesting to see that the same old faces (in the nicest possible way) keep cropping up in these conversations. It feels like I’m on the bus I mentioned earlier!

Fire devastates Saatchi artworks

Wednesday, May 26th, 2004

I’m not a huge fan of modern art, but today’s fire is a tragedy. Even if you think most of it was rubbish, we can’t predict what future generations might have made of it.

A former colleague taught Tracey Emin. Apparently her tent ‘Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-95’ caused a few raised eyebrows and red cheeks among the staff…

I’m starting my own version. I think a handkerchief will be easier to store, anyway.

Proof that every cloud has a silver lining: I would have thought the fire is an ideal candidate for the next Turner Prize?

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Arts | Fire devastates Saatchi artworks
: “Modern art classics like Tracey Emin’s tent and works by Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume were lost.

Art storage firm Momart’s warehouse on an industrial estate in Leyton, east London, has been largely destroyed and small fires are still burning.

A spokesman for Saatchi said he was ‘absolutely devastated’ and the cost was likely to run into millions of pounds.

He confirmed that Emin’s tent – ‘Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-95’ – and her piece known as The Hut had been lost.

Works by Patrick Caulfield, Craigie Horsfield and 20 pieces by Martin Maloney were also destroyed. Hell, by brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, may also have perished.

They represent some of the cream of the so-called ‘Britart’ movement of celebrated modern artists.”

Food Poisoning

Wednesday, May 26th, 2004

I managed to poison myself on Monday. I made a lovely chicken salad, with two bits of chicken breast lightly fried in olive oil. Nice and brown on the outside, completely raw on the inside. Heaven knows how the bugger didn’t cook right through.

Anyway, I got off pretty lightly – a sleepless night, dizzy spells at work the next day and constant feeling of nausea.

Working at home today, though, still feeling rough. Even the cat’s stopped talking to me.

So, courtesy of a fellow member of my local Mac User Group, is some advice for the barbecue season (here in the Northern Hemisphere at least)

When cooking chicken, cook long and slow and baste and turn regularly. Pay particular regard to the cooking times for the weight of the bird. If it was bought frozen, make certain it’s thawed properly using frequent changes of COLD water in a bowl. Inspect the insides to make absolutely certain it’s thawed. The meat should be cold but not solid. A good way of adding heat to the bird at the beginning of the process is to stuff it with blend of hot chestnut, sage and onion stuffing.

Towards the end of the cooking time, stick a skewer or sharp knife into the thickest [and most dense] part of the legs. The juices that come out should run clear. Do this in good light. If the juices are even a bit pink, nasties are still alive in there waiting to do you in!

Pork is a bugger too but chickens are the worst. This is why some religions which have developed in hot climates have rules built into their faiths about meat and fish.

Remedy after the pecking one has got you: Drink lots of warm water, take Immodium and eat rice for a couple of days. [Chinese advice]

Talking of chicken, has anyone noticed the ads on TV at the moment for “new” Chicken McNuggets? The tagline at the end: “Now made with tender chicken”. Am I the only one who finds that a little worrying?

Affect v Effect

Wednesday, May 26th, 2004

Since starting this blog a couple of weeks ago by recycling two old opinion pieces I wrote some time before, I’ve been struck by the amount of excellent writing that is going on around the subject of, to put it crudely, “what is design?” I tend to focus on Graphic Design out of habit, but I think a lot of the basic discussion is applicable to any field (though I suspect fashion designers might disagree – they usually do 😉

What has really struck me, though, is that whereas I used to feel (and at one point was made to feel) as though my views were “wrong”, I have found they are shared by most people writing on the subject – with important variations, of course, but broadly in sync enough that I don’t think a fight would break out if we found ourselves stuck on a bus together.

My experience over the past few years in the UK has been that design is moving towards the “conceptual” and away from the rather more concrete “concept”, and I suspect this is partly to do with the celebrity status of designers, and the confusion in people’s minds between design on the one hand and style on the other. I’ve never interviewed a potential student who has said they want to study design because they want to communicate, but have detected a lot of the “because it’s glamorous” in their responses. (That was partly why I did it, I admit!)

Consequently, design has become a thin veneer of a subject. Indeed, it has become an activity, not a body of knowledge, and teaching of design has, in some places, focussed purely on “doing” and “impressing”, going for the “wow” factor – affect rather than effect?

I don’t think this is sustainable. We’re now in a situation where the only noticeable advances in graphic design occur when a new version of Photoshop comes out, and thousands of people simultaneously discover a new filter. Lens flares, page curls, bevelled edges… I’m as guilty as anyone.

Is this what design is all about?

Question: why do advertising agencies in the UK looking for new creatives prefer to recruit graduates from humanities rather than arts subjects?

Anyway. Blood pressure rising, must stop.

An interesting post over at Point today, with a comment by Andrew Blauvelt that I would like to quote deliberately out of context for a moment:

“Does graphic design have enough substance (i.e., a coherent �something�) to be the subject of such analysis? Autonomy would be important in order to isolate aspects of history, theory and practice that are meant to preserve and foster the possibility of independent direction and development of graphic design and is intended to be distinct from certain avant-gardist positions, mostly borrowed from art, that tend to suggest a split from social reality, which is very difficult for design to attain.”

That’s the sort of quotation an evil teacher might set as an essay question with the word “discuss” at the end. Mwa-ha-ha (evil laugh). I like it…

For the full context, read this interview with Blauvelt, then the article at Point.

"Trust me, I’m a designer!"

Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

Over the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about the web site I redesigned that the client wanted to look like the old one, and about the role of the designer.

Something that kept cropping up in my mind was a BBC TV programme called Changing Rooms, that has now been shown and remade around the world. In particular, one designer called Lawrence Llewlyn Bowen (who now presents the show over here). Invariably his designs would be greeted with horror by home owners to which he would respond “Trust me, I’m a designer!”. In fact it’s not just him. Virtually all the interior designers on the programme go through the ritual of opening a tin of paint to gasps of horror from their “clients” who, by the end of the show, usually end up liking it. I don’t think it’s a particularly British reaction, but it is typical that we tend to dislike ideas but like the application – we visit stately homes and marvel at the red or green walls, but insist on spreading magnolia (white/beige) all over ours.

Anyway, it got me wondering how the courtship ritual between designers and clients should go. Lawrence Llewlyn Bowen adopts the “trust me, I’m a designer” route, along with a faux arrogance and celebrity status that helps him pull it off. Most designers, though, don’t have the luxury of being “famous”, even though that’s what often draws people into the profession, and are often less trusted in decision making than your average plumber. I’ve often wondered why design is a profession that non-designers think they can do better than designers. (At a party on Sunday the hosts had, in their bathroom, a poster of Charles Rennie Mackintosh competition designs, many of which failed to win, and none of which survived untouched by the clients’ blue pencils. It happens to us all…)

At the end of the day, designers service clients, not their own egos, but if the ego isn’t served in some way the designer will soon find another profession. A design curriculum needs to recognise this, I think – currently most design courses inflate the ego of students and place the teacher as an expert in what’s good and bad. They don’t focus on the rationale of the design problem, or the selling of the concept, nor on the modifications that almost always take place after the client has had their say (they are paying after all).

My post on Saturday was ego-driven. “The client is a fool! I am a designer!” I still think he is wrong, and that I was wrong to take on a job without following basic procedures like getting a written brief, analysing the current site with the client and some users and so on. Who’s the fool? Answers on a postcard…

Coincidentally (as seems to be the way) I’m not the only person looking at home makeover programmes as a lesson in design skills. This morning I find an article at Boxes and Arrows entitled “The Confidence Game”. Extracts below, but check out the full article.

“The result a client wants � satisfied users � is not something the client can know has been achieved until well after the product is finished. Yet designers are selected with their designs unseen, and approval to begin building according to a design is usually given by someone who does not have the time or inclination to account for all its details. …

A designer who chose the colors and textures without consultation would stand out as arrogant and tyrannical; a designer who badgered the clients about where they think the sink should go would seem insecure, incompetent, and sycophantic.

A design does not sell itself, and the sales process is not entirely rational.

It surprises me that the design profession � while full of people who are knowledgeable about technology, technology cultures, and human motivation � complains so often (usually legitimately) about the lack of respect for our work. Turning to ROI and other seemingly logical or quantitative arguments to convince others of the importance of software design seems misdirected since we ought to have the skills and knowledge to make compelling arguments based on understanding what clients really want. Sales is about listening and solving a customer�s problems with available products and services. The same is true for design. As good listeners with a deep understanding of our audience and a range of skills to choose from, we designers should be good at selling our ideas, and unafraid to think of it that way.”