Archive for April, 2006

Book’s here!

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

I got an email today from my publisher to say that the first copies of my book Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice will be here within a month.

Great news, I thought.

Then literally five minutes later a colleague in my office received a big white package, inside which was… my book!

(Hand modelling by Debbie)

I got to touch it for about three minutes before it was taken away from me to be sent out to be reviewed… It smelled lovely, all new book smells and everything. Looks good too. Hope it reads okay. My co-author, Lucienne Roberts, did a great job with the interviews.
The book is intended as an introduction to some quite complex subjects, a beginning rather than an end, and is based on the course I’ve been teaching for the past three years.

Click on the cover below to order from Amazon UK.

Pronounced difficulties

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

The late Ronnie Barker wrote a famous sketch in which he gave a speech as the ‘President of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Sufferers from Pispronunciation’ (read it below or listen to it here) about the problems faced by people who have ‘trouble with their worms’.

I suffer from a problem like this, but it’s not because I have a speech impediment. I didn’t go to university, I studied part time while I worked via the Open University. I enjoyed this method of study, it suited me down to the ground and I had a varied, broad education as a result.
The only real drawback I found was that the text-based nature of the course meant that I learned certain things and about certain people, but not one of the most crucial and underrated aspects: how to pronounce their names.

You might think this is trivial so let me explain why I think it isn’t. The course I teach to graphic design and illustration students means we encounter several philosophers, many of them with foreign names (to English speakers, at least). Let’s take Roland Barthes for example.
How do you pronounce ‘Barthes’? I say it ‘Barts’, but I’ve heard it said ‘Barths’ and ‘Bart’.

‘Bourdieu’ offers similar problems. I know I pronounce it wrong when I pronounce it like the wine, and I understand it should be ‘Bord-you’ or something, but it’s ingrained in my head the wrong way now so I will forever pronounce it wrong.
Why is this a problem? Because I’m conscious that I may sound stupid when doing this in public.
Take Foucault, for example – when pronounced correctly it sounds rude. ‘Derrida’, although I can’t quite remember how I used to say it, I know I got it wrong. In fact, I never said it out loud for fear of looking stupid. Yesterday I heard a professor at Berkeley pronounce ‘Camus’ as ‘Ca-moo’ – another name I’ve somehow got out of saying in polite company and it’s a good job as of all the variations I thought might be right, that wasn’t one of them.

And this is the problem. Today I had a conversation with a first year student who decided to call Bourdieu by his first name, Pierre, because he wasn’t sure how to pronounce his surname. On Saturday I spoke to a second year student who couldn’t say ‘Baudrillard’ even though we’ve discussed him at length in class. And the word that everybody gets wrong? Hegemony. Hej-EM-oh-knee.

So bad is this problem that when I introduce the word in my book, ‘Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice’ I explain how to pronounce it. I think someone will accuse me of dumbing down but I take this problem seriously. Because students don’t want to appear stupid mispronouncing key words they will avoid saying them at all, and it really stifles discussion. It’s not that they don’t understand the theories these people put forwards, they just don’t know (or don’t feel they know) how to say it so out of fear of looking silly they shy away from discussing them at all. And I know how they feel.

Bourdieu pointed out that academics use language as a weapon or marker, something to distinguish those with knowledge from those without and it’s true, we do avoid plain English often for the purpose of showing off. But using a word like ‘hegemony’ to sum up a complex concept is unavoidable – imagine the amount of time it would take to discuss some things if we couldn’t wrap concepts up in a convenient word.

The trouble is, the first barrier to overcome is not necessarily knowing stuff, but knowing how to say it. And for me it’s an enormous hurdle to students who want to discuss certain things intelligently but are hampered because we never bothered to take the time to make sure they could say things properly.

I think it’s something we need to be more aware of when discussing our subjects with our students.
I’m proud of the manner in which I got my degree and MA, but I feel embarrassed because for years I was pronouncing basic terms incorrectly. Some courses give out glossaries of key terms and key thinkers – I think perhaps we should also give out pronunciation guides. I wouldn’t be surprised if the quality of student discussion went up overnight.

“I am the President of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Sufferers from Pispronunciation. Or people who cannot say their worms correctly. Or who use the wrong worms entirely so that other people cannot underhand the bird they are spraying. It’s just that you open your mouth and the worms come turbling out in what ca say that you dick not what you’re thugging abeut. And it’s very distressing.

I’m always lewing it, and it makes one feel unbumfticoccal. Especially when one is going about one’s diddly tasks. Slopping at the slupermarket, for instance. Only last wonk I approached the chuck-out point and I shoed the gould behind the crash test the contents of my trilley. And she said, ‘Alright, grandad, shout ’em out.’ And of course that’s fine for the ordinary man in the stoat, who has no dribble with his waltz. For someone like myself it’s worse than a kick in the jack strop.

Sometimes you get stuck on one letter, such as wubbleyou, and I said, ‘Well I’ve got a tin of wupe, a wucumber, two packets of wees and a wauliflower.’ She tried to make fun of me, and said, ‘That will be woo pounds wifty-three pence.’ So I just said ‘Wobblers’, and walked out.

So you see how dickyfelt it is, but help is at hand. A new society has been formed by our mumblers, to help each other in times of excreamisis. It is bald Pitspronunces Unanimous, and anyone can ball them up on the smellyphone at any time of the day or none – 24 flowers of spray, seven stays a creek, and they will come round to get drunk with you.

The foreigners, they will be inperpetrators who will all squeak many sandwiches, such as Swedish, Turkish, Burkish, Jewish, Jibberish and rubbish. Membranes will be able to attend tight stools for heaving classes to learn how to grope with the many caplinkages of the daily loaf, which brings me to the drain reason for squeaking to you tonight. The society’s first function as a body was Grand Garden Freight, and we hope for many more bodily functions in the future.

The garden plate was held in the grounds of Benanpeliass Woodstick, and the guest of horror as the great American pip singer Manny Barrilow. It was opened by the bleeder of the proposition, Mr Dale Pinnick, Pillik, who gave us a few well frozen worms in praise of the society’s jerk. He said that in creeks and stunts that lie ahead, we must all do our nutroast to ensure that it sucks weed. And everyone visited the various stores and abruisements – the rudeabouts, thingboats and the darters, and of course all the old favourites such as the cokish eyenuts, stry your length, guessing the weight of the cook and tinning the pail on the wonkey.

The occasion was great fun, and in short, I think it can safely be said, that all the men present and thoroughly good women were had all the time.”

Pratchett on university teaching

Friday, April 21st, 2006

“Many things went on at Unseen University and, regrettably, teaching had to be one of them. The faculty had long ago confronted this fact and had perfected various devices for avoiding it. But this was perfectly all right because, to be fair, so had the students.”

“Interesting Times”, Terry Pratchett

Lost in translation

Friday, April 21st, 2006

One of my students is in Japan at the moment on an exchange visit (although I’m not sure we get anyone in actual exchange, so maybe they’re going to keep her? Who knows). Anyway, Sarah is keeping a blog, something I recommended she do but I think she was planning to anyway.

It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time and if she doesn’t make it as an illustrator she’ll surely be a great writer. Worth visiting and subscribing to the RSS feed.

Her description of her first lesson over there is fascinating. A mix of being lost in a country where no one speaks her language and she speaks none of theirs, and of being lost in a clearly different educational system.
What I find interesting about Sarah’s description is that I’ve interviewed quite a few British students over the years in different institutions and they report similar feelings of being lost not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, or what they’re supposed to be learning (to my shame, some of these students were my own). It’s not the language that’s the problem, but the transparency. There’s nothing in Sarah’s experience in Japan which wouldn’t be found in the UK.

I’m reading James Elkins’s “Why Art Cannot Be Taught” at the moment, which opens with a fascinating chapter on the history of teaching art, and the different techniques used over the centuries. The ‘draw animals using circles and lines’ exercise that Sarah describes seems to come from a long tradition in art education that suggests discipline is something that is learned through repetition. It’s an amusing challenge that, if described properly, could prove useful. But it seems to be an unnecessary imposition of someone else’s style of drawing which, like many teachers’ imposition of their style of teaching on students who learn differently from them, could have a negative effect. There are all sorts of similar practices in art education (drawing with negative space is a favourite) that are of little educational benefit but do serve to fill a bit of time, reinforce the idea that being an artist is hard, damn you, and allows the tutor to lord it over the servile students and talk bullshit for a couple of hours. I suspect other subjects have similar practices.

The exercise Sarah describes is a bit like me deciding I like Sudoku therefore I’m going to make all my students do it. Or taking in twenty jigsaws and spending a lesson assembling them. They’re amusing diversions, but do they possess an educational benefit?

Well the answer is ‘possibly’: Sudoku is an example of the patterns that can be formed by numbers and could be a useful introduction to an exploration of the images produced through pattern and then, maybe, chaos. The jigsaw exercise could also tie in to learning about how the brain recognises shape and colour, or even about teamwork. But to make such things useful they have to be planned and they have to lead somewhere, often very quickly (I’ve used the crossword clue ‘Pretty girl in crimson rose [6], to introduce a lecture on visual language and the ‘My friend and me’ exercise I described a few posts ago to develop the idea that immersion in a language often makes us ignorant of the structures that form it, something that is equally applicable to visual language – but both times I very quickly move on to the point).

Well on that point, have a read of Sarah’s post and, as I say, visit her very entertaining blog.

Lesson One:

My first lesson was with this crazy dude Professor Mizoguchi. Class started when he came into the room, talked in Japanese, pointed at a blackboard, and talked some more. I heard the word ‘Brighton’ and some approximation of my name. I pay some more attention. He gestures at me to stand up, so i do. He says something incomprehensible, then puts his hand to his ear and gestures for me to respond. I am so utterly lost. He repeats what he had said. I’m still lost. Then he says something again, which i think required me to answer ‘August’. He then talked some more, and after a while (when i hoped he was no longer talking about me) i sat down. He then carried on talking, shouted ‘discussion’ and walked out.

So i sat for a bit, thinking about what i had got myself into, and then approached this very sweet Korean girl, a fellow exchange student, who i had hoped would help me make sense of the world. She explained that the project was marketing, then typed something into this little hand held computer type thing she had and showed me the result- the definition of the word material. ‘Is the project about materials?’ I asked. No. She shook her head, and typed something else, this time revealing the definition for commerce. ‘Illustration for commerce’ she said. Now we were getting somewhere. I typed the word ‘subject’ into the little computer. ‘Subject free!’ she replied. Right. ‘So what is your subject?’ I learnt that my Korean friend had chosen to advertise hair pins. Yes she had chosen hair pins. Maybe she likes a challenge. Or is very dull.

Then this Mizoguchi character came back into the room, and summoned me to his desk. He then showed me some rank illustrations done for Sony of varying sizes and said ‘that is project.’ I sat down again, wanting to plan my escape. He then came over to me and handed me a sheet with different sizes written on it and said ‘subject free.’

Ok then, so project 1 is to advertise whatever i want and present ideas for 8 different sized formats. I sat for a while thinking about what i would advertise, then got my phrasebook out and tried to ask in my broken Japanese what my fellow students had chosen. I found out that one had chosen to advertise jam (as in the condiment) another had chosen a ‘textbook for homework’ and someone else My Little Pony. Interesting. So i sat some more (for about an hour) as this is technically a ‘class’ that lasted from 1pm till 4pm, and so i felt that my presence was required.

Then Mizoguchi came over with a note saying ‘you can go to library to collect for your idea in this teaching time too.’ I was pleased to be told this, but as i made my move to leave i was accosted again, and project 2 was explained to me. Project 2 is to draw 12 animals (from the Chinese calendar) but only using straight lines, circles and 4 colours. I think its a ridiculous exercise, but who cares what i think? I can’t even speak Japanese.

(Via fothblog.)

Brighton illustration show

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Some of my second year students have organised what’s promising to be a great exhibition in Brighton which opens on Saturday. Some top-flight illustrators have contributed artwork based on the theme “if you could do anything tomorrow, what would it be?”

Check out the web site to see the works and, if you’re in the area, pop along. Any proceeds from print sales go to their graduate show next year, and you can buy online if you can’t make it in person. Some great pieces in there – highly recommended.

18 years on and my schooldays still haunt me

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

I am 35 (God help me), I have a degree, an MA and a postgraduate teaching qualification. I’ve written books and articles, spoken at conferences, been teaching for seven years, was a designer for ten years before that. I think I’m qualified to do certain things.

So here I am, filling in another application form for a job I know I would enjoy, would be able to do and would bring a great deal to.

So why, oh why, does this form, and every other form I’ve ever filled in, still ask me to list the school I went to sixteen years ago and the O-levels I took? Who cares that I got a B in O-level maths in 1986 (at the age of 15, might I add) or an A in Physics when I was 16? I’ve moved on. These things don’t matter. Let me just attach a copy of my degree certificates and have done.

I am 35 and my A in Computer Studies means I could program a BBC Micro in 1987 and nothing more. It’s my achievements now, not my choices as a teenager that make me who I am.
You might as well ask me whether I used Clearsil or Oxy10 to zap my zits.

Plus I only got six O-levels so I’m a bit embarrassed compared with today’s precocious kids and their twelve A-star GCSEs, alright?


Thursday, April 6th, 2006

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I have come to hate the word “passion” – people judging other people based on their “passion”, failing students because they don’ show “passion”.

Well here’s a Microsoft employee’s take on this. He calls it “enthusiasthma”:


The contemporary blight of communication, at least at Microsoft, is passion. You can’t walk three feet on the Redmond campus without hearing someone talk about passion.

If you interview for a job at Microsoft, you will get drilled about your passion. During the course of your job, you will attend meetings in which people constantly refer to passion. You will receive emails about passion.

Again, like communication, passion is a good thing. It’s good to talk. It’s good to be excited.

But, it’s gotten to the point that the passion has become a sort of disease. I call it ‘Enthusiasthma’ (if you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s a combination of the words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘asthma’). People act so excited about things that they can hardly breathe. And they live their lives this way. They show up for meetings out of breath, and present on topics with their voices notched up a whole octave. You can really hear the passion.

Except that you can’t, really.

This notion of constantly being excited is exhausting. It’s not healthy. It isn’t normal. It’s downright stupid and counter-productive.

People at the company are so terrified now of not appearing to show passion that they’ll give you Oscar-winning speeches about what they had for lunch and why it was so great for customers. If you end a sentence with fewer than three exclamation points, offset by several spaces to isolate the excitement and drive it home, then you clearly aren’t really behind whatever it is that you’re talking about.

This is bad.

Like, so bad.

As long as employees feel pressured to constantly overflow with passion, they’re going to be terrified to speak when it’s time to address what isn’t going so well. I’ve watched projects continue, and not with any great success, fueled mainly by passion. In those cases, yeah, people are being passionate, but they’re putting all this passion into things that aren’t really helping. They’ve been fooled by their own passion.

And this is happening company-wide. It’s like open honesty and skepticism are getting brushed aside for passion. It’s spreading thanks to that other often celebrated social disease, the meme. It’s everywhere. And the word is used so often that it’s losing its meaning.

At Microsoft, one of the other words you’ll hear left and right is ‘innovation.’ I’ve already said what I want to say about this awful word, but regardless of how overused I think the word ‘innovation’ is, I still understand its importance.

So here’s something to think about: As long as people are running around with all this passion, having left their critical thinking and skepticism in the late 90’s, and while they’re driving these sometimes winning/sometimes losing projects with all this passion, they’re handicapping their ability to innovate. Innovation is only good as long as what’s being created is actually useful.

We have this situation, then, where one company ideal, innovation, is getting squashed by another company ideal, which is passion.

The problem is that all of this reeks of extremism and zealotry, which never lead to real success. The way you win with extremism is by fooling yourself into believing that everything you think is right, and then bludgeoning your enemies with your abundant resources until they give. That’s not really winning.


How To Fix It

It’s never cool to just rant on without having a solution, and, fortunately, the solution here is simple.

Don’t buy into to the crap in these self-help business books. There will never be any single idea that will make you succeed. The best you can do is approach everything you do with a dose of skepticism, and by questioning everything at least a little bit. When one of your coworkers comes to you with this ‘FANTASTIC REALLY COOL   !!!!!!!!!!!!!’ idea, feel free to ask that person why it’s so great, and don’t settle for passion.

When your coworkers put effort into things that you know, deep down, aren’t good for the team, then they’re dragging you down with them, and it’s your right to speak up. Don’t be intimidated by someone’s out of control (and probably inappropriate) confidence.

It’s probably enthusiasthma.”


Ye Olde Graphic Designer

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Marian Bantjes has written one of the most interesting posts on graphic design I’ve seen for quite some time. She begins by analysing the rules and regulations of ancient heraldry before proposing a set of rules for logo design which rather appeal to me.
Read the full article for the best experience – the conclusion is below.

Here we are in the 21st Century, and we have very little graphic vocabulary that we can count on and read in a precise way. Corporate logos are most often completely meaningless, or they try to portray something quite complex without having a language to express it. They are quite often designed based on the whim of a CEO or a marketing department. They are vulnerable to fads, egos and stupidity. Colours are applied largely according to taste. Old logos are thrown out and new ones ushered in with little or no regard to history or story. It’s mayhem.

But what if … what if we had a graphic vocabulary that actually meant something? What if it were a hard fact that, say, an open swoosh = transition, and a closed swoosh (halo) = transition completed. What if, say, rows of dots indicated franchisement, underscores indicated automation, gradients indicated state of management … ?

What if various types of lines indicated mergers, takeovers and other states of corporate structure?

What if even the gradient had meaning? Or the drop shadow?

What if there were a fixed range of symbols for industries?

Designing logos would be an act of science: careful symbology applied in, yes, a creative and pleasing manner, that tells the tale of mergers, takeovers and change of business. At least then it would all mean something. Anyone could look at a logo and read its history. Logo changes would indicate what had changed. And it wouldn’t matter if the CEO did or didn’t like green; wanted or didn’t want a dog; loved or hated the shape. Then at last, we could look at a new logo and understand, ‘Ah, a young telecommunications company with sales over $100 million/yr which has merged with a digital company and is transistioning into the entertainment industry. I see.

(Via : : Speak Up : :.)

Discovering New Domains

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

Recently I had to look around for a domain name for a potential new project. Only trouble was, all the ones I wanted had gone (surprise, surprise) and I wanted to avoid odd variations on a theme, hyphens and underscores everywhere.

If you’ve ever wondered what the chances are of your perfect domain name being available, Dennis Forbes has done the maths, and it’s not only staggering but also quite interesting…

Every male and female first name, and every surname in the US census has been registered, and so have almost all the combinations you can imagine. Every two-letter acronym has gone, as has every three letter name. But if you want five letters, your chances are higher. You’re more likely to get a domain beginning with a ‘W’ than an ‘S’, while 11-letter domain names are less widely available than 17-letters.

So if you can decide on a 17-letter domain name beginning with ‘W’ you’re probably in luck.

“You’ve thought up a brilliant idea for a new Web 2.0, AJAX-enabled web app, or you’re about to release a thus-far-unnamed killer software app. Now you just need to find the perfect domain name for it to live at (and, in true new-economy fashion, you’ll base your corporate name upon whatever available domain name you find… PILLAGEANDPLUNDR Corporation).

You pull up GoDaddy and start punching in clever names, along with their many variations, only to find that they’re all seemingly taken.

‘This can’t be!’ you cry. ‘Has every possibility already been registered?'”

(Read the full article.)

US Censors Free Speech? Bullshit

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

An interesting, and worrying, article from The Guardian’s American media correspondent today:

“The US Federal Communications Commission just declared that shit and all its variants, including bullshit, are not merely indecent – which is where the law stood after the supreme court washed its seven dirty words out of comic George Carlin’s mouth in 1978 – but are now profane if broadcast. That is a profound distinction. Legally, a profane word is ‘certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance’. Nuisance, in this case, is not a dog barking but a word the community cannot tolerate. The FCC reserves ‘that distinction for the most offensive words in the English language’.
This devil’s dictionary has but two entries. Fuck, condemned in 2004 after Bono’s joyful utterance of the adjectival form at the Golden Globes, and now shit. Notice what is not included: no racial or religious epithet, no hate speech. Thus, the S-word and F-word are worse than the N-word and K-word. Even the FCC recognises the uncomfortable and un-PC irony that these epithets may constitute constitutionally protected political speech, while bullshit does not.

But bullshit is political speech. It is our single most precious means of expressing displeasure with the political and the powerful. Without the word, we are left with far less satisfactory means of protest. Don’t feed me the mothers’ bromide about swear words indicating a limited vocabulary: bullshit is the most expressive word we have to convey disapproval. In his delightful treatise, On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt compares its equivalent: ‘It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say ‘Humbug!’ than to say ‘Bullshit!”

So now imagine a protester at a televised rally railing, ‘This war is humbug!’ Doesn’t cut it. If, instead, she said, ‘Bush’s war is bullshit’, and that were broadcast, every station carrying it and the speaker herself could be fined per utterance, per station. If, fearing this, she censored herself, that is evidence of the chill the FCC has imposed on political speech. And if, because of that chill, a station decided to time-delay the news – a journalistically repugnant but pragmatic necessity after Janet Jackson’s infamous indiscretion – it could dump her words: ‘Bush’s war is ‘bleep’.’ But unquestionably, that detracts from the power of her statement and that is done only because the FCC threatens fines, presumptively, for use of the word.”

(Read the full article.)