Archive for May, 2005

Design Your Own Games!

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Back in the 1980s a friend with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum got hold of a program called HURG (can’t remember what it stood for) which essentially allowed you to create your own platform games.
A few of us had great plans for transforming the games industry and tried to come up with the next big thing.

Obviously it didn’t work… (well, we were only 13 – I mean, as if someone so young could ever make it big in the tech industry…)

But I’ve just bought a copy of Power game Factory which is a cool-looking (and cheap!) program for the Mac that lets you produce side-scrolling games. I’m certainly not imagining that I’m going to produce anything that anyone else will want to play, let alone buy, but I’m looking forwards to producing something. Maybe a game in which designers shoot clients, (or ordinary people shoot demon designers!)

Anyway, looks cool – check it out.

Bad Project Warning Signs

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Andy Budd (fellow Brightonian) has just posted a list of warning signs for bad projects when it comes to web design. I’d say they also apply to print design as well and have encountered most of them in the past.
I run workshops teaching Dreamweaver etc to private clients – big companies as well as hobbyists. One of the common problems is that big companies are sending people to learn ‘how to do web design’ so they can take on their site – as well as carry on doing their ‘real’ job. I advise them at the very least to set aside a day that will be their ‘web day’ and make it clear that if anyone wants stuff putting on the site it has to be with them by midday at least two working days before – get people seeing the site as a publication with a schedule rather than an ad hoc thing that can be updated at the drop of a hat. Otherwise they’ll extract the micturition.
That’s if, of course, the company can’t be persuaded that a web site is a full-time commitment, not something that can be slotted in whenever. They wouldn’t do the accounts that way, or hold board meetings in that manner, would they?

I’ve shamelessly nicked the list but I recommend you visit the original post to read the comments that people leave – and indeed make Andy’s blog one of your regular ports of call.

Individually none of these signs should be deal breakers. However put a few of them together and it may be worth thinking twice about taking on that project.

  • The project needs to be done in an incredibly short space of time, due to a fixed deadline. In these situations the potential client has often known about the deadline for a while. However it’s taken them longer to plan the project than initially anticipated so they expect the developer to make up the time.
  • The potential client says that have no idea about budget. This could indicate they haven’t done their home work and aren’t very serious about the project.
  • The potential client says they have a budget but won’t tell you what it is. This is often an indication that the client doesn’t trust you and feels that if they let you know their budget, you’ll simply charge them more for the same solution.
  • The client says they want the site to be as cheap as possible, or they have an extremely low budget. This usually means the client doesn’t value their web presence much, preferring cheaper over better. In this situation potential clients are often spending their own money, can be extremely demanding and expect more for less.
  • The client expects much more from the project than their budget will allow. In these situations it can be difficult to manage the clients expectations.
  • You are expected come up with design ideas for the pitch. This is often problematic as you won’t know enough about the project at such an early stage. These type of pitches can turn into a beauty contest where participants are solely judged on the visuals they create rather than their ability and track record. There is a strong risk that elements of your design will be used even if you don’t win the pitch.
  • The potential client won’t tell you how many agencies they have contacted about this project. This could indicate that they have emailed a large number of agencies and are shopping for the lowest quote.
  • You will be pitching against a large number of other agencies. This often means the client hasn’t done their homework researching potential suppliers. If the pitch involves lots of preparation this puts a financial burden on the agency, while limiting the chance of success.
  • There is no central point of contact. Projects for large companies often involve many stakeholders. If there is nobody managing the project at the clients end you’ll having to do it for them. This vastly complicates the project and increases your overheads. Being a supplier you’ll have no power in the organisation, making your task extremely difficult. You also run the risk of getting sucked into company politics.
  • The potential client hasn’t provided you with a request for proposal and doesn’t have the time to fill in your design questionnaire fully. If the client isn’t willing to put the required time into the project it could indicate aren’t going to take the project seriously. It could also indicate that they have contacted lost of agencies and just don’t have the time or are simply window shopping.

Valuable lesson no. 1: the client who knows it all

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

It’s my day off today but I had to go in to work to pick up tickets for the private view this week.
While I was there I got talking to second years about their research project proposals for next year – they’re worth 15% of their final mark (or 30% if they so choose, which a lot of them want to). One student is choosing to investigate whether graphic design is ‘worth it’ – I think she’s becoming a bit disillusioned with it all. In particular she wants to look at the ‘we’re all designers’ mentality that is so common these days and seems to devalue the status of the designer. (I think we as designers, and design education, have a lot to do with that as we attempt to depict ourselves as magicians and prostitute ourselves in art galleries rather than the real world – it’s no wonder ordinary people (if you excuse the term) would prefer not to do business with us).

This is, as any regular reader of this blog will know, a cause dear to my heart and so we chatted for a bit. Turned out she was having problems with the editors of a magazine she works on who want to be ‘hands on’ when it comes to the design. Not even graduated and she’s getting the best lesson you could have: dealing with clients who think they know better than you! (I should be careful here – I’m not suggesting that clients shouldn’t be respected; of course they should. But I think you know the sort of situation I mean.)
I got back home to find that Joel Wheat, a student at Portfolio Centre has written a great piece on precisely this issue. (I’d put a link to PC’s web site here but as they’ve chosen not to let it work in Safari I won’t bother – I hate it when people do that – bad, bad design choice).
I think it’s an area that deserves to be looked at more – indeed I submitted a paper to an AIGA conference on it but it never got chosen 😦
Anyway, read Joel’s article. I’d be mightily surprised if it didn’t strike a chord with any designer who sees it.

Met a lady the other day that told me that her grandson was also a designer. “He can draw really well and is good at the computer too”. Turns out the kid is 17 and, from her description a veritable virtuoso in the realm of Microsoft Word. I have run into to this time and again. Read the full article

Tight Briefs

Monday, May 30th, 2005

I have, on several occasions, encountered graphic design courses where tutors will walk into a studio full of waiting students and deliver a verbal brief similar to this: “I want you to explore the idea of isolation” or “illustrate the concept of repetition”.
You know the sort of thing – they’re called ‘conceptual’ briefs, and they’re usually the result of an extremely poor imagination on the part of the staff, or just stupid attitudes to planning.
There’s no indication of what students are supposed to learn on these projects, or how they will be assessed. For the students, it’s nothing more than a guessing game, wondering what it is that the tutors are after, and hoping that they get it right.

Briefs like this (unclear, ill-considered) have no place in graphic design education. They’re not the equivalent of creative callisthenics, the sort that might be used in writing classes because they aren’t presented as such. All they do is confuse people – even tutors can’t agree on how to assess the results, and the people who set them are notoriously contradictory in the advice they give and the way they assess.

A student approached me shortly after I started teaching back in 2000, having difficulty with a brief to design a poster illustrating key graphic design concepts. In actual fact, this was the fifth or sixth student who had mentioned this to me, and I knew there were many more.
‘What is being tested here?’ I asked, ‘Your design skills, your layout skills, or maybe you knowledge of key design concepts?’
‘I don’t know’, she said.

There’s the first problem. What are the objective criteria for evaluating the results? All graphic design briefs in industry have (or should have) this simple list. It might be ‘increase awareness of our new product among users of competitor X’, or ‘increase understanding of our core message among currently under-represented markets such as young women’. It’s those clear objectives that allow someone to judge firstly what is wanted, and secondly whether what is produced will work.

The same is necessary in education: we call them ‘learning outcomes’ in our jargon and they’re usually worded something like ‘by the end of this module/unit/project students should be able to demonstrate their ability to communicate key concepts of graphic design to…’ or ‘show their ability to experiment with different layouts and reach a rational conclusion about the best choice for clear communication’.
It’s actually really difficult to write good learning outcomes and those are very poor examples – but even these would be far better than the wooly, even non-existant intended outcomes that accompany most project briefs. The truth is, most projects have the same invisible learning outcomes: ‘students will be kept busy for several weeks while we wander round acting like gods and giving out contradictory advice, then disappear to the staff room and complain about how stressed we are’.

So this student had no objectives and, therefore, no idea about how to proceed. ‘I can’t get creative about this’ she said. Okay, well two mistakes there. Firstly this belief that you have to be ‘creative’ in graphic design. 99% of design isn’t ‘creative’ in the sense that it’s usually used in ‘our world’. To be creative means to create, it doesn’t mean to be different or special or unique or ‘knock your socks off’.
Armed with this mythical view of creativity as being different, students dismiss potentially good ideas – something they learn from their tutors – because they’ve ‘been done before’ or ‘it’s old hat’ or ‘it’s too clichéd’. Well here’s a newsflash: communication relies on clichés. If we didn’t use phrases and words and gestures that were understood through familiarity we would always be finding ourselves misunderstood. That’s if we could actually come up with something to say. And that’s the problem with our definition of ‘creativity’ – we tell our students that it means being different and so they stare into space fearful to the point of nervous collapse of coming up with anything that might be familiar, if not to them then to their tutor who has the knowledge of accumulated years of fantasising over back issues of Creative Review, the designer’s Playboy.

The second mistake revealed in the student’s comment was that it relied on the idea that creativity is something that you pray for, and wait for, like the second coming. It’s depicted as a religious experience that some people are gifted with and others seek in vain. Creativity as religious experience is bull. We create whenever we make a cup of tea or a sandwich, whenever we make conversation or whenever we shake hands. It happens all the time and we are all of us equally creative. Creativity is a response to a situation, an action that causes things to happen. It isn’t a miracle. It’s like breathing: we all do it. The secret to breathing better, to improving the flow of oxygen to our muscles and organs, is to understand how breathing works and how it can be utilised. The same with creativity – and yet we do not teach creativity, we just expect it to happen and condemn those that appear to lack the gift. Many people insist creativity can’t be taught. The thing about fallacies like that is you only need one example of someone being taught to be more creative to disprove them – and there are many, many examples to hand.

So there was my student, confused and lacking ideas (she actually had lots of ideas but as I said they were all rejected out of hand not because they wouldn’t work, but because they weren’t ‘creative’ enough).
I told her she had to set herself some objectives, to tighten the brief. And the first thing I said she could do to help would be to define her audience. Forget the client for now, I said – you can please the client all you want in graphic design but producing a design that the client likes is just massaging their ego. And designing to please yourself, the designer, or worse – to please other designers – is nothing more than what I call ‘designerwank’, okay when done in private but somewhat disturbing when done in groups or in public.
‘Who do you want to teach these key concepts to?’ I asked. ‘Because if you decide you want to teach them to 13 year olds thinking of studying design at school, it will be a different poster than one aimed at first year design students. And if you decide your audience is expert designers then it’ll be completely different again. So choose an audience and then you can go back to your ideas and see if they work.’
Immediately the ideas started flowing and I left her with at least half a dozen completely workable, creative, ideas. She only had a few hours left but none of them would take long to produce, at least to a rough presentable state (something else we get wrong in design education is that we expect students to finish everything to a ‘professional’ standard, yet in reality no idea tends to progress beyond the black marker sketch before it’s taken off to the artworkers – and the majority of our students want to be the ideas people, not the Mac Monkeys; yet our focus diverts them down precisely this path).

I bumped into the student a few days later and asked her how the project was going. She’d thrown away all the ideas she’d come up with and gone for something ‘conceptual’ – she admitted it made no sense to look at, but it ‘looked creative’ – lots of letterpress and faded letterforms. She’d taken the view that the real intended outcome of the brief was not to answer it with something that worked, but something that you could frame and stick on your wall. That is, in many cases, what attracts the good marks in design education – not design, but ‘art’. In the design world the word ‘concept’ means something concrete, justifiable, objective; in the art world it means the exact opposite. And that’s what this student had decided was required.
It had taken her weeks to do something that a more intelligently constructed brief would have taken a few hours. There’d been no teaching as such, only ‘critiques’ that left her more confused. And there’d been no rational criteria for any of the judgements made.

She had learnt absolutely nothing, produced a piece of work she hated, and come out of it thoroughly depressed. All for the sake of a misunderstanding of what ‘being creative’ means and a lazy approach to teaching.

Quote unquote

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

I was schmoozing at a social event recently (something I don’t do much of and am never drunk enough to do successfully) when I was introduced to a woman with ‘This is Jonathan… Baldwin’

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘The Jonathan Baldwin?’

‘Er,’ I say, slowly, ‘yes…’

‘Oh I just quoted you in a paper I wrote’.

It appears she quoted something I’d written in Visual Communication which impressed me greatly – not least because it hasn’t actually been published yet… I meant to find out how she’d got hold of it but never mind.

I was reminded of the incident today when reading this discussion over at Speak Up. Worth checking out – some great pithy quotes that mostly serve to demolish the idea that design is about being clever. I might nick some of them for the book 😉

But what hit me most was the comment by David Weinberger that ‘Just because you happen to know a quote and like a quote, doesn’t mean that the quote is an absolute truth.’ This is something I agree with wholeheartedly, but it never goes away – bad enough in student essays ‘Neville Brody said…’, ‘Milton Glaser said…’ so therefore it must be true; but even worse when it turns up in meetings between professionals and academics.
And it’s the whole thing of ‘I know a quote therefore I’m clever’ and the way people chuckle knowingly when I suspect that they’re mostly like me, completely oblivious of the quotation but unable to admit that an idea may be worth thinking about even if there’s no pithy little comment from someone famous-for-nothing-but-being-quoted to back it up.

I’m crap at remembering quotations. Even my own.

I think if I had to give students two secrets to success it would be these: learn to play golf, and learn some quotations you can drag out to excuse yourself in any situation.

Oh, and learn to laugh knowingly even when you haven’t a clue what’s just been said.

I know that’s three secrets. I just can’t be bothered to go back and change what I wrote…


Thursday, May 19th, 2005

I’ve been a bit quiet lately for various reasons. Partly the whole having to move house thing, partly very busy at work, partly just got nothing to say. Except I have. I’ve seen and heard lots recently that’s made me angry or annoyed me, or fascinated me, but I’ve found after telling the cat I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say.


Hopefully some profundinties to come soon. But in the meantime I’ve just bought myself some tickets for this year’s Proms season. Can’t afford it but if you’re going to push your credit card, push it on something good, that’s what I say.

A few years ago I splashed out and bought two tickets for several concerts and then took various friends along. My girlfriend at the time had never been to anything like it and I introduced her to Shostakovitch’s fifth symphony (ripped off in the soundtrack to ‘Troy’ incidentally, along with Britten’s War Requiem) and Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Both great hits with her. For the Shostakovitch we sat in the Choir, right behind the brass section – great choice as it turns out, it really made the music as ‘live’ as I think it could ever be.

If you’ve never been to the Proms and get the chance you should go. It’s worth just turning up on the night and trying to get in to the promenade area or the upper gallery. You have to stand, but it’s only about five pounds and the atmoshere is great.
A couple of times I’ve gone on spec to a Prom – the first time with a friend and her sisters. It turned out it was a concert of french music, stuff I’d never heard of. It wasn’t particularly crowded and we ended up sitting on the floor for most of it. The atmosphere was so relaxed people were lying down reading newspapers while listening to the music, which turned out to be hidden treasures. A fantastic night.

The BBC should be eternally lauded for running the Proms – great music (old warhorses, non-repetoire stuff and lots of specially commissioned new music), great atmosphere and very, very cheap. Add in a meal before or afterwards and you’ve got a great evening.
All the concerts are broadcast live on the radio and internet and some on TV.

So what have I plumped for this year?
There’s another Shostakovitch symphony – the tenth – and some of my favourite English classical music: Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ and ‘Sea’ Symphonies and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.
Now I just have to find some people to take!

Software for Tea-Making Duties

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005

In my first job, we used to have a tea trolley that would come round twice a day with a great big urn of well-brewed tea to which you could take your own mug and fill up for just 10p. It also had a good supply of crisps and chocolate and, on Fridays, freshly baked scones.

But staff shortages meant that the tea trolley soon became a stationary affair to which we would have to go and this brought with it a new duty: the tea rota. One of us would have to take a tray and a notebook, and everyone’s money, and get the order (and the change) right.

I hated it, and soon started ‘accidentally’ getting things wrong in the hope I’d be excused the task.

When we moved to a different building without the canteen, we were given our own kitchen and the tea making duties became more serious. As this Wired article says if you make a cup for yourself you have to make one for everyone.

But my boss, I remember, started taking advantage of this – he drank more tea than me and had an unreasonably large mug (‘the bucket’ as it was known) so I opted out of tea making and became a Klix coffee machine addict instead (it was also partly due to the fact that instead of a kettle we had those wall-mounted hot water tanks that never quite boiled, and as any tea afficianoado will tell you, you have to have freshly boiled water to let the flavour flood out). So I never had to make tea again.

Even in my current job, I’d rather forgo the freshly boiled and free tea and instead pay a pound a time for the cafe’s gross coffee than risk getting caught in the whole tea making ritual again.

Obviously my issues with tea making duties are not unique. As the Wired article says, one company has even gone so far as to write software that monitors who’s pulling their weight and who’s shirking their brewing responsibilities:

“In British workplaces, where etiquette dictates that anyone venturing to the kitchen must make a cup for everyone nearby, tempers can boil if colleagues neglect their tea-brewing responsibilities.

‘Open-plan offices may have revolutionized working patterns but, in the ever-polite U.K., it creates a situation where you can’t just make one cup, you must make one for everyone in the entire room,’ said Roope, a designer with London-based creative agency Poke, where job applicants are vetted for their ability to make up to 18 cups a day.”