Archive for May, 2004

Gay Teletubbies

Monday, May 24th, 2004

I had an interesting conversation with students about the merits or otherwise of the Teletubbies the other day. (Yes I get paid to do things like that!) Personally I am an admirer of the effect they have on small children (though the various Simpsons take-offs have forever ruined their wholesome image in my mind, I’m afraid).

Looking around the web to arm myself for any future discussions I found an interesting article on the merits of the TTs as role models, particularly as Tinky Winky is gay. Apparently.

Some people have nothing better to complain about. From

“In the United States of America, the conservative religious leader Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that the bag-carrying purple Teletubby, Tinky Winky, was promoting a gay lifestyle to children. The argument was made in the February 1999 issue of Falwell’s monthly magazine, National Liberty Journal.

The article, entitled ‘Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet’, claims: ‘The sexual preference of Tinky Winky, the largest of the four Teletubbies characters on the series that airs in America on PBS stations, has been the subject of debate since the series premiered in England in 1997.

‘The character, whose voice is obviously that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse in many episodes and has become a favorite character among gay groups worldwide.’

Fearless in their pursuit of the truth, the NLJ reporters have, er, discovered what colour Tinky Winky is, amongst other soaraway revelations: ‘Further evidence that the creators of the series intend for Tinky Winky to be a gay role model have surfaced. He is purple — the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol’.

Obviously, no-one is safe from the sordid homosexual antics of the Teletubbies: ‘These subtle depictions are no doubt intentional and parents are warned to be alert to these elements of the series. However, many families are allowing the series to entertain their children.'”

Clients – Who’d Have ‘Em?

Saturday, May 22nd, 2004

Earlier I expanded on a comment by Paul Rand to suggest that autonomy of the designer to make design decisions is inversely proportional to the design knowledge of the client.

Little did I know that only two days later I would experience this first hand. A web site redesign I undertook for a client, in which I made it accessible and usable, and replaced black and neon backgrounds with purple text for something far more sedate and becoming the client’s business was rejected. “That won’t do at all” I was told. “We want to put people off looking at the site – we don’t want to attract the wrong sort of people.”

The site is for a university faculty, and the theory is that people who are put off by purple text on a black background are not the right sort of students they want… Presumably they only want people who live in a time warp? That one of the courses deals with aesthetics, and another with decorative arts is something that will keep me amused for years to come.

At first I protested, and rejected notions that I should use lots of low res badly scanned images as back buttons etc, suggesting that the site had to comply with disability legislation (which it does at the moment), and implying I wouldn’t be responsible for designing a site that broke the law (never mind any rules of good design ever written). But this morning I woke up and thought “sod it. Take the money and run.” I’ve duplicated the site folder and will use the “nice” version in my portfolio, and give the “nasty” version to the client as requested. Alread the site looks garish and uninviting, and fails to get even single-A accessibilty status. And I’ve taken my name off it.

Have I sold out? Should I have resigned the job? I think its a useful lesson in real world design, and I’ll make sure I use it to help my students understand that being a designer is not as romantic as maybe people make out.

Test Drive a 1991 Macintosh online…

Thursday, May 20th, 2004

Ah this takes me back. If you’re too young to remember 1991 then a German web site offers you the opportunity to Test Drive a System 7.0 Macintosh…

When System 7.0 came out it was a real revolution. System 6 could only run one program at a time (unless you used the flaky Multifinder). Actually there were lots of other improvements too – like automatic handling of fonts in the system folder (previously they had all just floated around unordered and bewildering) and, er, other things. It’s strange that things we take for granted today were ground breaking once. I read a list of changes in System 7.0 recently and it made my eyes water, and made me feel really, really old.

When you try out the emulation, see if you can spot the primitive e-mail application. That was “big” in 1991 but I remember we couldn’t think what possible use it could be, particularly as you would have to dial up using your 2800 baud modem and wait while your message was sent. Easier to phone them! We did once try emailing a 48-page catalogue to our printers, but after four hours it wasn’t even getting started, so relied on “massive” 40Mb Syquest drives until we got ISDN installed.

(40Mb… how did we cope? When the iMac came out and dropped the floppy drive, it was roundly criticised in the PC press, but I can’t remember the last time I had a file that would fit on a floppy. Can you?)

Four years after we got System 7 on our Macs the rest of the company had veritable orgasms over Windows 95. I was called to a demonstration by a colleague who showed my how “innovative” it was. “Look” he said, “you can copy files to a disk like this” and he dragged an icon from one window to the next. “Right,” I said, completely unimpressed. Windows 95 = Mac 85, as the saying went.

The System 7.0 in the emulation isn’t quite as flashy as I remember it, but it’s certainly a cool reminder. What would bring tears to my eyes is if they could emulate Photoshop 1.0 or 2.0 and the interminable wait as youa asked it to merge two different documents. No layers in those days, or multiple undo. You took your chance, waited half an hour and if you didn’t like the results you started again. The amount of coffee I got through in those days is unbelievable.

Mac OS X is light years ahead of System 7.0 but some things don’t change. A recent demonstration of “Longhorn”, the next generation version of Windows, raved on about transparent windows, drop shadows, and the ability to move your windows automatically to see what each one contains. Yawn… seen it all before!

Design Formulas

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

You can probably tell that I’ve been reading Paul Rand over the past few days, and in the first few pages of Design, Form and Chaos he suggests two “rules” or formulas for graphic design.

The first is that the quality of design improves the further away the designer is from the influence of management.

The second is that interference from the client is inversely proportional to the design sensibilities of the client (in other words, as Rand puts it, the more knowledgeable about design the client is, the less likely he is to interfere in design decisions.

I quite like these rules. While I think they’re open to debate they certainly struck a chord with me.

Here the are graphically:

Gerontology and other seemingly irrelevant concepts

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

Earlier I said: “What is graphic design, and why is critical theory (embracing politics and sociology, semiotics and psychology, gerontology and any other ‘ology’ you care to mention) an essential part of studying it?”

Gerontology is, according to

The scientific study of the biological, psychological, and sociological phenomena associated with old age and aging.

When I mention this to students, initially I get blank stares. But after a bit of discussion it soon becomes clear to them why graphic designers (as well as all other types of designers) really should be clued up as to what things like gerontology mean.

Let me give you an example. In Why We Buy Paco Underhill discusses the fact that as we grow old our ability to perceive colours towards the yellow end of the spectrum diminishes. In practical examples, bearing in mind that Underhill’s area of expertise is retail design, point of sale etc, this means that any products aimed at, or consumed by, people of a certain age should not depend on yellows or related shades to communicate information. Put simply, no yellow labels on drug packaging and so on.

Just that simple point is enough to get most graphic design students re-evaluating their initial scepticism of the value of what Rand calls “clutter”.

Gerontology extends to early years as well. It is no accident that products aimed at very young children rely on bright, primary colours. Our eyes are not tuned in to subtle pastel shades in the first few years of our lives. Most of the world has been exposed to one of the UK’s most, er, “interesting” exports recently, the Tellytubbies and their cousins the Tweenies. Only designers who were knowledgeable of the finer points of gerontology and child psychology could have come up with the things you see there.

And what of other issues to do with colour? Colour blindness affects one in 200 women, while a staggering 1 in 12 men suffer from it. The condition is quite complex but essentially it means anything that is predominantly blue will be problematic for a significant proportion of the population, especially male. Yet blue is a traditionally “male” colour. Hence, a graphic designer ignorant of this most basic accessibility point is quite likely to produce designs that are not going to work with nearly 10% of the male population.

The following comes from Stephen F. Austin State University’s Psychology Deparmtent

“Tom” is typically an happy reader, but today he does not volunteer to read. His problem stems from the fact that the story is printed in blue with a purple background. “Tom” is unable to see the letters clearly and therefore, is unable to read with confidence. If a teacher is not educated in the area of colorblindness he or she may misdiagnose the problem, but if they are made aware of the possibility of color deficiencies, special measures can be taken to help students. Allowing “Tom” to read off of black and white copies of the story will help improve the contrast and allow him to read with confidence.

Since the effects of color blindness can be quite harmful, it is necessary to learn more about its effects on learning as well as teaching. Many teachers are not aware of the effects of color deficiencies in young children. If teachers were made aware of the potential problems of colorblindness, steps could be taken to aid the students with these deficiencies. It is often taken for granted that all children see in color. Books are printed in a variety of colors and with colorful graphics making them very appealing to the normal color-perceiving person. These publishing techniques make it difficult for the color-deficient student to see the material and to learn. Color is also incorporated with flannel boards, colored maps, transparencies, books with colored print, colored counting beads, and green or brown chalkboards (Sewell, 1983). There is no way a child who is unable to see the material will be able to process and learn it.

Problems with contrast can contribute to the learning issues of the visually-disabled student. A child may not actually display all the characteristics of colorblindness but may not be able to distinguish certain colors apart such as gray and black. This identification problem can also slow down the learning process. Many teachers have modified their teaching in order to accommodate the color deficient child. These modifications are really small considering the lasting effects they will have on the child’s future. Some of these modifications include labeling with words or symbols when the child needs color recognition, increasing the contrast by using white chalk on a black board, being aware of “trouble” areas, and by making black and white copies of colored text. By simply incorporating these techniques, a teacher can radically alter a child’s performance in academics (Lewis, et al 1990). The sooner the color deficiency can be identified the sooner accommodation can be made to help the child.

Paul Rand, as I mentioned earlier, seems to believe all the above is “bewildering” to the typical design student. How bewildering can it be to remember that as we age from infancy to our twilight years our colour perception changes, while for 1 in 12 men blue, green and in rarer cases red are perceived as grey? Not very, I would say, and hardly a burden for even the most skills-based graphic design curriculum.

mezzoblue ��� What is RSS/XML/Atom/Syndication?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

I’ve found myself having to explain RSS syndication a few times in the past week or so. It’s always worth reminding myself that not everyone knows what I know (though I try to forget that the reverse is also true!) While I have long known that there are still some people out there using Netscape 4 because it never occurred to them to update it, I ignore the fact that there are people who have never heard of RSS.

Which is a shame as I really do think it has the potential to be a “big thing” for the internet, particularly for those of us who graze information like whales eat plankton.

There are a few explanations of RSS out there, some very technical, but this one over at mezzoblue today looks a good place to start if it’s new to you.

I really do recommend getting hold of a news reader (I use NetNewsWire in its free version on my iMac and swear by it). I actually think I’ve stopped watching the news on TV and buying a newspaper now, because my RSS subscriptions to the BBC and Guardian newspaper seem to fulfill all my needs. I also subscribe to a lot of design-related blogs. Now I just double click on a headline and intro that grab my attention and away I go.

As mezzoblue puts it:

“What if there were … some way to have your list of bookmarks notify you when the sites you read have been updated? You wouldn�t waste time checking those that haven�t. Instead of loading 30 sites a day, you might only need to load 13. Cutting your time in half would enable you to start monitoring more sites, so for the same amount of time you originally invested in checking each site manually, you may just end up end up following twice as many.”

If you’ve not tried it, give it a go. And if you’ve got a blog of your own, publicise your “feed”. For what it’s worth, my feed is both traditional RSS and the newer, but at the moment less widely supported “Atom” format.

Why Critical Theory is Important (Part 1)

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

Paul Rand, in Design, Form and Chaos (1993) writes:

“To make the classroom a perpetual forum for political and social issues, for instance, is wrong; and to see aesthetics as sociology is grossly misleading. A student whose mind is cluttered with matters that have nothing directly to do with design, whose goal is to learn doing and making, who is learning how to use a computer at the same time that he or she is learning design basics, and who is overwhelmed with social problems and political issues is a bewildered student. This is not what he or she bargained for nor, indeed, paid for.” (page 217)

That this comes at the end of a book in which Rand discusses, among other things, sociology, politics, and business is strange enough. But unless there has been a seismic shift in attitudes among students in the ten years since that was written, Rand has got it wrong.

There are several points on which I would take issue with the above comments. Briefly, they are these:

  1. Higher education’s raison d’etre is to observe, comment upon and change politics and society.
  2. A mind full of understanding of the world is not a cluttered mind, while a mind devoid of them is empty. A graduate who is ignorant is not a graduate, and a designer who is bewildered by the thought that his or her design not only exists within, but contributes to, a politically complex society will not, at the end of the day, be a particularly good designer.

Students entering higher education are more intelligent and demanding than people think, and if Paul Rand spent five minutes with any of mine he would, I am sure, eat his words. Overwhelmed? bewildered? No. Conscious, thoughtful, intelligent, dedicated, socially aware individuals, several of whom I wouldn’t be surprised to see running the country within ten years? Most definitely.

There are several angles from which to attack Rand’s statement. Pedagogically, a convincing argument can be made for why any course that calls itself a degree should make the things he argues against a central part of their syllabus. The fact is, any course that does otherwise should be stripped of its degree status. It’s bad enough the British media labelling us “Mickey Mouse” subjects without people actually suggesting that’s what we should be.

Educational debates aside, the strongest argument against Rand comes from the subject itself. What is graphic design, and why is critical theory (embracing politics and sociology, semiotics and psychology, gerontology and any other “ology” you care to mention) an essential part of studying it?

Rand appears to take the view that graphic design is something you do, but don’t think about. Thinking about graphic design is something that critics and historians do, but not the producers (the authors). Therefore the study of graphic design must follow one of two strands: training in how to do it and education in how it works. The two shall never meet…

This divide between those who practise and those who critique is quite common. Yet oddly, teachers who teach art and design act as critics, and the “critique” is an integral part of most courses. Yet Rand, a famous critic, believes we should not teach the skills that develop the ability to critique – how odd. And how odd that students should allow themselves to be critiqued by people who have no formal training in how design works…

Graphic Design is not just an activity, it is a cultural text, because it stems from the need to communicate. This is something that Rand makes quite clear at the start of his book, but later forgets, and something I use to differentiate Graphic Design and Art as disciplines.

Communication theory tells us that all messages have authors and readers, and that in between these is “noise” that acts to disrupt the channel of communication. In order to ensure effective communication, the medium/channel used has to tune out, compensate for, or utilise the noise. This is as true of the graphic designer as it is for the television broadcaster, the telecoms company, the internet service provider.

Noise consists of lots of things, from the physical distance between sender and receiver to more conceptual problems such as generational distance (a 33 year old designer experiences noise when designing for 3 year olds and 73 year olds), and cultural distance (whether in terms of East v West, American v British, or high v popular culture among many others). Because most graphic designers will spend a lot of their time communicating with people who are not themselves, they will always experience “noise”. For their design to work, that noise has to be tuned out.

There are two ways a designer can do that: only do jobs that are within your limited cultural horizon, or expand your cultural horizon so that you have a greater understanding of what makes the world, and the people within it, tick.

A designer who opts for the first option, either voluntarily or because they haven’t been given the education they deserve, will quickly run out of steam. It’s something you see a lot in some students’ work – an obsession with whatever is faddish at the time (skateboard culture, tattoos, copying the style of designers of favourite CD covers and so on). This obsession has no context and no future. When the fad fades they will be busy playing catch-up with whatever new one comes up. But they will never innovate, never be the designer who the next generation of students copy.

Web Design Not Sexy Anymore?

Monday, May 17th, 2004

Keith Robinson says, over at Asterisk:

“I�m not sure this is a real news-flash, but this weekend I was talking to someone about my job when I realized that being a Web designer was no longer �sexy.�”

I became a graphic designer cos I thought it would attract women. It never did. I don’t think I ever told a girl I was a web designer because I thought it would put them off!

Don’t tell me I got it the wrong way round…

Pickle’s First Day Out

Sunday, May 16th, 2004

Many years ago (it seems) my first web site was one I made for my cat, Jenny. It was my way of teaching myself HTML, though I put it together with Adobe PageMill, which at the time seemed like a revolution in web design. The site was a joke (in more ways than one), but Jenny got emails from all over the world (which made me worry, somewhat) and at one point was getting more emails than me…

Anyway, Jenny, like PageMill, has gone to a better place. What made me think of this is that a friend told me yesterday that she had found that site while looking my name up on the web! I’m quite surprised – I haven’t found it, and I can’t think why it would still be around. How worrying to contemplate going back to my first fumblings and be confronted with them – please, God, no.

Recently I overcame my grief at Jenny’s passing and got a new cat, Pickle. She’s two years old but had never been outside as her previous owners had a top-floor flat. So I got her vaccinated and put a microchip in her in case she gets lost, and over the past few weeks she has been venturing out. She’s still very timid, particularly out the front which can be quite busy and noisy. But she loves the back garden which is small and entirely enclosed by high walls, so it’s quite safe.

Remembering Jenny’s site made me think it was time to give Pickle a token presence in cyberspace, so for those of you who like such things, here’s a short movie of Pickle’s First Day Out. Enjoy!

Gunnar Swanson: Is Design Important?

Sunday, May 16th, 2004

The more I write on the subject of design education the more I find others have been there before me (which is a good thing). In Is Design Important?, Gunnar Swanson says pretty much the same things I say in Graphic Design Education Is Failing Students but seven years before me. I wish I’d had his piece to hand when tackling my former colleagues on the need to change our curriculum.

Gunnar refers to Paul Rand and I’ll have to revisit his writing as I had always read Rand as being supportive of a broad design curriculum, but Gunnar’s citation suggests I have been misinterpreting him. Certainly the assertion that a “student whose mind is cluttered with matters that have nothing directly to do with design� is a bewildered student” in Design, Form and Chaos is one I would take strong objection to (though I’m wary of taking it out of context – I haven’t read the rest of the book, yet). In my view, a designer should be a polymath, interested in everything.

I’d like to quote Gunnar’s article in full (I’d like to pretend I wrote it!), but I’ll just quote his final paragraph – head over to his site and read what he has to say on this and other subjects. Thanks to Tom Gleason for the heads-up. I hope someone from the “other side” of the argument is willing to enter into a bit of (good natured) debate on this topic.

“The interests of the design business have traditionally driven design education. It is time to reconsider whether that is really in the interest of design education, design students and, for that matter, the design business. The pace of development of the design business has, in the past, allowed for the kind of consideration and analysis that a maturing field needs. The current changes in design leave little time for practitioners to reflect and that is unlikely to change. That room to grow could be provided by design studies that are independent of vocational concerns. Without such a balancing force the graphic design business is in trouble. With it we could discover that design is, indeed, important.”

After you’ve read the full article, take a look at Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art: Design and Knowledge in the University and the �Real World� from 1994. I think I’ll stop writing the mega-post I was burning the midnight oil over as it says much the same thing to the extent I’m glad I found Gunnar’s site before I got accused of plagiarism! Ten years on, though, maybe it’s time to revisit the issues – certainly this debate is not happening in the UK as much as it needs to.