Archive for July, 2004

Graphic Design as Cake

Saturday, July 31st, 2004

Graphic Designers bake cakes. They may decorate them too, but a good cake doesn’t need to be pretty.

Cakes, iced or plain, are nice to eat.

Icing on its own is nice too, but it will soon make you sick.

Graphic Design that is all icing and no cake will soon become boring.

People will always want cake before fancies.

Design theory and its critics

Saturday, July 31st, 2004

The problem with theory in relation to graphic design is that many practitioners, teachers and students believe that it has no relation to the practice of design. Because many designers cling to the mystique and romance of what they do, or seek to enhance them, the idea that there may be a set of “rules” or “principles” that govern what they do is anathema to them.

But this is a misunderstanding of theory’s place in the design process.

There are, fundamentally, two types of design theory relating, in turn, to production and consumption.

Theories of production concern such things as grids, text readability, working methods, materials, techniques, colour and so on. They are the “rules” that for some reason so many designers believe are only there to be broken as though they offer a threat to creativity. When (or rather, if) they are they are taught it happens in the studio and the lion’s share of attention is devoted to them. They are about “doing” graphic design, delivered not so much as theory, I suppose, as theorems, which is why the moment someone does something that contradicts them the whole house of cards tumbles and it becomes open season on “rules”.

The theories relating to the consumption of graphic design tend to be ignored or only given lip service, yet they are essential to the study of graphic design and to understanding how and why it has the effect it does. Critics of theory in this sense, who believe it to be irrelevant, perceive it as a threat to their aura of instinct and artfulness. Theoreticians are like the people at a magic show who threaten to tell everyone how the tricks are done, or like the theatre critic placed in a powerful position able to make or break a show but unable to write one themselves.

But critics of design theory forget that at the end of the day graphic design is used by people who have little or no sense of the designer. To readers of design the “author” is the client, the company who commissioned the designer. Critics forget too that design is an anonymous profession – more-so than the refuse collectors, the postman and the street cleaner even, because for one thing we see these people as they do their work and secondly we appreciate the service they carry out. It is tangible, real, and we know if it is done well or not. the only people who critique design in this way, or who know the names of designers, are other designers, and the ones who are named are not so much famous for being particularly good designers as famous for being famous.

Designers who ignore the theory that helps us understand how design works (rather than how it is produced) ignore the purpose of what they do, which is facilitate communication.

And yet, even with Graphic Design’s recent entry to the academy and its supposed intellectualisation as a field of study and research, we seem to be bombarded more and more by designers who believe the purpose of what they do is self-expression, and stake a claim for authorship of the work they produce over and above the true authors, the people who commissioned them. The designer who interferes in the dialogue between the journalist and her reader, the corporation and their customers, the musician and his listeners, is an egotist.

The blurring of the distinction between art and design is damaging to both, and in this environment the role of theories of cultural production and consumption is increasingly marginal, critical in the negative sense rather than the constructional way it should be seen. Not only this but theories of production go out of the window too; few graphic design students are taught about grids, type, colour theory and so on because of a dangerous ideology that such things are outdated or wrong. Instead, many courses adopt an approach that favours the modern art world’s nebulous idea of “concept” rather than the design world’s more definite meaning of the word. It is ironic that as advocates of greater academic rigour in graphic design education are criticised for being anti-vocational, the same critics are guilty of presiding over a generation of visually illiterate graphic design graduates unable to be the sort of designer industry wants.

Graphic Design as a subject and a practice no longer exists. It has fragmented into Graphic Art, in which the artist is the focus, and Graphic Communication, in which the reader is central. Yet there are few, if any, courses that take this latter approach and, while the demand is most definitely there from students, industry and society there appears to be little enthusiasm for the idea from teachers. Perhaps this is because the discussion of theory calls their bluff about what they really know of their subject; perhaps also because it challenges the guru-like status and air of mystery off which they trade.

In an academic environment where a teacher is rated by the number of exhibitions they have mounted rather than their effectiveness as a teacher, there seems little hope for either theory or practice in graphic design.

Wanted: One Sense of Humour

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Tom Scott, a student at York University (my home town, yay!) is in hot water after posting a spoof of the UK government’s advice leaflet on what to do in the event of a terror attach. His site is at and is quite funny.

But quite why the government (or someone in the civil service at least) thinks it should be removed is beyond me. In the UK we have a healthy tradition of satire going back to the middle ages and continuing today. This is quite timid compared with the sort of stuff printed in Private Eye every fortnight. “Student finds spoof terror attack drill is no laughing matter

Martin Wainwright

Thursday July 29, 2004

The Guardian

The government yesterday mislaid one of its most effective weapons against terrorist fanatics – a sense of humour – when it demanded the removal of a student’s internet skit on its Preparing for Emergencies campaign.

A heavy-handed email topped the inbox of linguistics undergraduate Tom Scott, 19, who spent a happy day on Monday composing a spoof website based on the Cabinet Office’s design.

The message was ‘firmly worded,’ said Mr Scott, a self-confessed computer junkie from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. His spoof instructions came from HM Department of Vague Paranoia and included tips on dealing with alien attack and zombies (‘remove the head – suitable tools you may find in your shed include shovels and cricket bats.’)

Mr Scott said that the website,, was transparently not a real communication from anyone in genuine authority, with a photograph of Anthea Turner heading the section on basic first aid. Advice on bleeding says: ‘Just make sure it doesn’t get all over the carpets, but if it does, some proper cleaning stuff will fix it up good as new.’

Mr Scott said: ‘It is quite obviously a parody and I don’t think anybody is going to be confused by it. I’m not sure if this email came from someone high up or a low-level civil servant. But whoever it was, they don’t have a sense of humour.’

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said legal advice had been taken over the spoof, which also reassures readers: ‘This campaign is not in response to a particular threat, unless you count the threat from the Liberal Democrats.’

She said: ‘This student’s intention may not have been to confuse people but he has deliberately tried to mirror the format of the official site.’

Similar spoofs in the United States have surprised their creators with the extent to which whacky instructions – such as clearing gardens of all shrubs because terrorists like to hide in them – have been followed.

Mr Scott, who starts his second year at York University in October, said he had more than 200 emails in the first day, all supportive except the Cabinet Office’s.

Dick Cheney goes after negligent paramedic?

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Every so often I look at this blog’s statistics to see who’s been here and how they got here. It’s often quite interesting to see who’s linking to me in their blogs and web sites, or who’s sent an email to someone with a link to my ramblings. Most are fairly obvious, links from design and education sites and so on.

But then you get really odd ones.

Yesterday someone from Halliburton, no less, came to my site after searching Yahoo for the term “sue paramedic outside scope of practice”. Mmm…

My site came fifth in the search rankings, strangely enough. But isn’t Halliburton Dick Cheney’s old company? The one with all the Iraq contracts (purely coincidentally of course)

Do you think it was the man himself? And why Cheney be wanting to sue a paramedic? Maybe something to do with his numerous heart attacks? (Here’s a thought – if Cheney dies, won’t that mean G W Bush will take over running the USA? What a thought!)

I really am intrigued by this… If anyone knows what lies behind this story, let me know.

On second thoughts, don’t – I’m sure it’s not as interesting as anything I could make up.

Pickle, the great hunter

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Pickle, my cat, is making me laugh a lot at the moment. She’s never been out before this summer so the world outside the window is something new and wonderous. I keep hearing plaintive meows and either I look out of the window or she jumps in looking half terrified as she drops something living from her mouth.

Now considering my friend was moaning recently about finding live pigeons in her house thanks to her flatmate’s cat, I think I have it lucky. Pickle only seems able to catch moths and butterflies, which I then have to liberate as she tries to get them to play with her.

The first time it happened I was disturbed from watching TV by a strange mumbled crying from the cat. I turned round to see her looking scared half to death with two white wings coming out of her mouth. It seemed she’d eaten a moth but didn’t know what to do next. Miraculously, the moth survived (well, out the door, at least – it probably died of shock moments later) .

Yesterday I spent about half an hour putting a grasshopper out the door, only for the damned cat to go and bring it in again. Each time the animal was ever so slightly worse off until, eventually, it died after Pickle batted it one last time, then carried on playing with it until she got bored with its lack of movement.

I feel slightly guilty of course. I’ve just found the corpse and will have to dispose of it shortly.

Only being able to cope with things of that size and being so apparently terrified of them doesn’t put Pickle off bigger ambitions – we’ve got loads of seagulls (the really big, noisy buggers) pestering our street at the moment. She sits there making the most bizzarre clicking noises at them and I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day soon, she jumps through the window dragging one of them behind her. I suspect, however, I’m more likely to look out the window and see her being carried off to a nearby roof.

That’ll learn her.


Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

I was supposed to be at the graduation ceremony for my departing students today, but I was left off the guest list! Such is the lot of the “theory” teacher – always left out.

I’m considering going down to watch outside, as it’s a nice day, but it doesn’t appeal. Although my street’s about 20 minutes walk from where it’s taking place I’ve seen quite a few proud parents parking their cars outside and walking with their offspring, all dressed up. Considering the amount of money they must have spent on them over the past few years, it’s a wonder they all look so smart, but there you go…

Signing credit cards is impossible – discuss

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

I’ve been a bit quiet recently due to one thing and another. My stars tell me everything will sort itself out by the end of this week, so that’s alright then (and the same for every other Scorpio on the planet, presumably).

Despite being on annual leave I seem to be busier than ever. I’m teaching a two day workshop on InDesign later this week and it’s the only program I know that I haven’t used commercially – it came out after I’d given up design for teaching – so I’m in a bit of a panic. I keep losing things that I would know like the back of my hand in QuarkXpress, like hyphenation and so on. But I think I’m just being overly worrisome – it is all coming back to me and my only worry now is making two intensive days worthwhile for people. So much to cram in, so little time…

But all that aside, my new credit card arrived a few minutes ago (so shiny, so tempting) and I just rang the card issuer to confirm receipt. Now I can sign it.

But this is something that has always annoyed me about these things. My signature is far too large to fit on the tiny strip they give me to use. And my signature when I’m sitting down at a desk is completely different to the one I write when I’m feeling hassled in a supermarket. In calm circumstances, you can make out at least the first few letters of my name. When I’m flustered, it’s just a squiggle. And worse still, it’s a different squiggle every damned time.

So different in fact that I’m surprised I’m not asked to re-sign receipts on every occasion. (I worry when I’m not – often the cashier doesn’t even look, so when I am asked to try again I thank them for being so diligent).

Fortunately, this is one of the new “chip and pin” cards that should mean I can just use my PIN number in future rather than sign. But to my knowledge only one supermarket in Brighton has the new card readers, and last time I was in there they didn’t seem to be using them (there’s no way I can see for you to differentiate between old cards and new ones so presumably cashiers aren’t offering chip and pin to people even though they can).

But the whole tiny strip thing still annoys me. And it’s too shiny – I just spent several minutes practicing my signature in best supermarket checkout mode before committing mine to the strip. The pen just sailed straight off it and I’m now stuck with something that looks like a spider’s dipped its legs in ink before doing a tango. It’s almost illegible. I considered doing it again but how suspicious would it be if I crossed out my first attempt?

My friends always have a go at me for my signature. On letters it looks okay but the J and the B are big, suggesting something I presume. And they think my card signature is entirely forgeable. I’m more worried about why I don’t seem able to write my name at checkouts – some repressed childhood memory, perhaps?

Talking of poor design and supermarkets: carrier bags. I can’t open the damned things (the same with bin liners (refuse sacks). I once spent an hour trying to get a black bin liner open, I kid you not. And in supermarkets by the time I have opened the bag, all my shopping is in a pile, the cashier wants my card and the next person is waiting impatiently. That’s probably why I sign the receipts so badly. It all makes sense now.

And while I’m at it (ooh I’ve missed this) why can’t people move away while they put their money and cards in their wallet/purse/handbag. So often the woman (and it usually is women!) in front of me waits while all her shopping goes over the barcode reader, hands over the cash or card, signs for it, puts the card/change back in her purse, and only then starts to put her shopping in a bag (which she seems to have been able to open, unlike me). It’s like people who wait until they’re on the bus before they start looking for the money they need.

Mmm… I needed that.

Back to the week/month from hell. Hope my stars are right.

Ten Myths About Teaching Graphic Design

Tuesday, July 6th, 2004

I’ve been a little distracted recently (some good distractions, some not so good) so haven’t been as active on this blog as I would have liked.

But with teaching over for another academic year I find myself unemployed for two days a week (which has its upsides despite the sudden drop in income) and the prospect of a six week summer holiday looming into which I am supposed to fit planning for a course I don’t even know I’m going to teach until two days before it starts, writing a book proposal (actually, two book proposals, but only one of which I’m really that keen on), getting some freelance writing commissions going (when editors change it can often lead to a slack period), devising a reasearch proposal for bidding in October, and designing a web site for a new client. So as usual my “holiday” will in fact turn out to be busier than ever. No wonder last year I ended up in hospital at the end of the same period! Oh, and I’m learning PHP and MySQL too…

I started catching up with the most recent year’s worth of Emigre today – an interesting publication to be sure, and one I’d quite like to write for if only I had the time(!) Just glancing through it reminded me that one of the things I wanted to do was write down some of the things I’ve heard said about teaching graphic design over the past few years that really bug me, and that’s what I plan to do here over the next few weeks.

So if I’m quiet it’s because I’m compiling counterarguments to “Ten Myths About Teaching Graphic Design”. I’m not sure yet whether I will write each one in full separately, or simply post short thoughts as they occur to me, to be compiled into something more intelligable later. For now, I’m just going to post what I think the top ten myths are. They may change later, I don’t know. But I’d be interested in receiving immediate reactions to the list, either via the comments facility here (which I’m told nobody likes registering for which is why most comments just come to me directly – you can post anonymously if you like) or via email. I’d be particularly interested in hearing from supporters of the different positions, or devil’s advocates. But all comments welcome.

So here, for the moment at least, are the ten myths:

  1. Theory is 20% of the subject
  2. Art direction is the same as teaching
  3. Only the best students should be allowed on courses
  4. Our job is to train people for industry
  5. Only good designers can teach design
  6. Teachers are born not made
  7. All judgements are subjective
  8. You can’t teach creativity
  9. There is no such thing as a right answer
  10. Graphic Design is conceptual
  11. You only learn by doing
  12. Graphic Design is taken by students who are thick

Okay, I know that’s twelve… I suspect one or two are quite similar so will be merged at some point, as “ten” is such a nice round number. But at one point or more, each of these points has been made to me by design teachers (not just of graphics) and for some reason my blood has boiled.

Anyway, that’s it for now as one of my distractions is coming round for dinner soon…

The English Civil Wars

Thursday, July 1st, 2004

I’m reading an interesting book at the moment: The English Civil War: At First Hand by Tristram Hunt. It’s a long held promise to myself to find out more about this period in our history. Growing up in York I was surrounded by history, of course (it is apparently the only place in England where every part of our history is visible in one form or another), but of all the different episodes this one, in which York played an enormous part, seems to receive short shrift. I can’t understand why – the ten years in which tehy took place, and the period afterwards are among the most dramatic any country has seen. As Hunt says:

The civil war years would see a king executed, the establishment of a republic, … a torrent of religious freethinking, and the creation of a military dictatorhip. All on English soil.

1642 sounds like such a long time ago, of course, but reading this book makes me realise it wasn’t all that long ago. Earlier this week I went on the London Eye, the world’s largest observation platform, and the idea of dots being joined was quite similar – from several hundred feet up you can see how London is laid out, and buildings you assumed were miles from one another actually appear quite close – Westminster is round the corner from Buckingham Palace and Tate Modern, while St Pauls is a stones throw from Battersea Power Station. If you are at ground level (and particularly so if you are on the underground) you don’t see the bigger picture.

In English history, the reign of Elizabeth 1st is far back in the past, but the Age of Enlightenment seems a lot closer – yet Caroline England (after Charles 1st), the period of the civil wars, links the two quite neatly. The dots are joined and 350 years seems like yesterday. If you think that we will soon be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, what’s another two and a half centuries on top of that? The pace of change, the pace of history, can be frightening sometimes.

And the effects of the civil wars are felt today, as Hunt says:

The consequences of the wars were as fundamental as the Russian or French revolution. It put the English off political upheaval to this day and brought the nation back from the brink in 1688 when the political establishment chose a Glorious Revolution (or Dutch invasion) rather than another bloody civil war. Its intellectual ramifications are eqaully tangible. with the collapse of the traditional authority of the church and state, novel philosophies and eccentric heresies flourished. A free press combined with a messianic fervour to produce some of the most fertile religious and political debate in European history. And for the first time, these debates included the contributions of the lower or middling sorts, the tenant farmers and small tradesmen, traditionally excluded from discussions of power. When we argue today about republicanism, the relationship between capitalism or private property and democracy, and the principle of devolved power within the British Isles, our starting point should be the civil war years.

And I don’t think the discussion ends with Britain. Americans would find much of interest in this book as early on it explains how the accession of a high church Archbishop of Canterbury contributed to the flight to the colonies by Puritans and other persecuted religious groups. And the effects of the English revolution would lead, 100 years later, to its natural successor, the American Revolution.

In the same way that we benefitted from having our industrial revolution before everyone else, so we benefitted from having our political one early too. It made us politically timid, as Hunt says, but fired us up in other ways, and you can see the sudden emergence of great English scientists, artists, writers and thinkers in the century that followed. It’s interesting to think that if the revolution had been provoked from the outside, as many attempted ones were (the French and the Spanish tried and, more recently, the Nazis) each served only to to strengthen resolve and unify erstwhile rivals against the pressure. The modern equivelant is not hard to find – no good has ever come of another country meddling in a nation’s affairs. Certainly, the meddler has come out worse in the long run.

England is littered with battle sites, and anyone who knows their Shakespeare will know that until the 17th century the country was frequently host to wars between rivals for the throne among others. A few miles from where I lived in Yorkshire was a bridge with a small blue plaque that commemorated a battle in the 1400s that saw more men killed in a day than have been lost (on the Allied side at least) in Iraq in the past year. And Marston Moor, one of the most famous battlegrounds in England saw over 30,000 men in battle in 1644 with over 10% fatalities – yet it was just a field we’d drive past every so often. Strange to think the Somme might one day be viewed in such a way.

That’s what I kept wondering in June when the 60th anniversary of D-Day was marked. It was, apparently, the last “official” ceremony. When, I wonder, will we make a conscious effort to stop remembering? Never, I hope – but what makes us remember some wars and forget others? Time, perhaps, or photographs, or film footage. These things make our recent conflicts more immediate, more real. Charles I and Oliver Cromwell are just paintings and statues, and no one knows what the combatants looked like, so it’s hard to get emotional or feel guilty. Perhaps that’s why Hunt’s book is so interesting, because it makes heavy use of the enormous number of personal diaries that were kept not just by the famous figures and the official record keepers, but by ordinary people whose lives were ripped apart by a conflict whose scale it’s hard to imagine today.