Archive for October, 2008

Northumbria University Design School

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I was invited to go down to Newcastle on Wednesday to give a talk at the University of Northumbria’s School of Design, now situated in its rather spiffy new building (the one on the left in the second image below)

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Northumbria is Jonathan Ive’s old stomping ground. Like me, he got his first break designing for the toilet industry so it’s almost like we’re twins. Er…

I was given an open brief which is always a bit tricky so I decided to do an amalgam of two talks, my annual “Good Design/Bad Design” lecture (where I challenge conventional wisdom on what ‘good design’ is) and the best bits of the keynote I gave in Texas in June (where I suggested university-based design education should be about making a difference in the world, not just churning out industry fodder).
When I arrived in Newcastle (I hadn’t been there for a while and had forgotten how cold it can be, despite it being a few hundred miles south of where I live now) I was pleasantly surprised to see this sign:

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Resisting the urge to add the missing apostrophe and correct the spelling of my name (ahem) I quickly took a photo with my iPhone and emailed it to my boss. I’ve now decided to make similar notices and pin them up around my own uni to make me seem much more popular than I am.

The lecture theatre we were moved to unfortunately was a little lacking heat-wise which (and here’s my excuse) led to me forgetting quite a few of the points I wanted to make, as did the fact that the head of design for Philips was in the room and I had planned on making quite a few criticisms of some of their products, including an electric shaver I was asked to review for Amazon.co.uk! (I must post that this weekend, in fact – suffice to say it doesn’t get very good marks from me, largely because of the excessive packaging and use of proprietary chemicals for cleaning). Needless to say I hastily skipped all the slides relating to that but because I couldn’t quite remember where they were I was keeping half an eye on my presenter display ready to click my remote furiously.
I was told later he’d have loved to have heard my take on things. Oh well.

It was, incidentally, a pleasant surprise to be greeted by a never-before seen sight: students voluntarily sitting on the front row:

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Despite the cold (the hats and scarfs above were a necessity) and having to skip through the last bits due to time constraints (top tip: when combining two different talks, both an hour long, you might want to chop half of it out if you still want to stick to 60 minutes) I think it went okay. I’m always a bit nervous about these things – as an outsider I’m able to be a bit more controversial than I could be normally and drop a few metaphorical bombs before leaving them to carry on the discussion, and I had planned a few zingers but was in the end a bit more restrained than usual, even skipping my traditional (half joking) rant about typography. Oh well.

I was also a bit down what with it being my birthday – enough to depress anyone the wrong side of 35.

Excuses, excuses.

I was really pleased to be asked and appreciated the audience’s participation in some of the ‘magic’ tricks (one of which I tried on a colleague in the pub when I got back to Scotland that night and, much to my surprise, it worked). I won’t tell you any more about it – if you want to see it you’ll have to invite me to come and talk 😉

My thanks of course to the students who found their way to the new venue and suffered through the cold (and my talk), to Jamie Steane, Head of Visual Communication and Interactive Media Design, for inviting me, and to Dr Joyce Yee for taking me to lunch and giving me a tour round the new building. Design is clearly a feather in Northumbria’s cap and the university’s investment in the building sends a clear signal about that. One that, I noticed on my way home, lights up for all in Newcastle to see at night:

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Vote McBlinky and Winky

Thursday, October 16th, 2008
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According to Sarah Palin you can’t blink. It’s a sign of weakness.

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Speaking in Newcastle later this month

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

I’m giving a talk at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle on 29th October – my birthday, as it happens!

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Pickle the Hunter

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

I had a couple of friends over for dinner the other weekend and I got up early to make a Summer Pudding and tidy up (two women = very critical).
Having a break I heard the cat come in through the bedroom window (it was the last warm day of the year and I was taking advantage of it) accompanied by some muffled miaows.

I didn’t think much of it and carried on watching Quincy. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw Pickle with what looked like a kitten hanging limply from her mouth. Except it wasn’t a kitten. Oh no.

I think this was her contribution to the dinner party. I should say that a) I live on a harbour not a waste dump, b) it was very clean, c) while filming I’m also thinking how the hell I’m going to get rid of it and d) it was actually quite tasty in the end.

Being too literal in logo design

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Cross posted from my other blog:

In one of my lectures, on visual communication, I use a little exercise to illustrate an aspect of semiotics.

I give the students a brief: they are to design a logo for a law firm that specialises in family law, dealing with families who are facing some form of legal entanglement. I tell them they have two minutes to come up with an idea.
Two minutes later I stop them and ask them all to stand up. I then start eliminating them by saying things like “sit down if you drew a police badge”. That usually gets rid of about half. A gavel gets rid of several more, as do jail bars, a law book, a police light and so on.
Before long we’re down to the last few students and I can usually get rid of them too with ‘hands’ or ‘cut out people’. I also eliminate anyone who used just words or initials (words aren’t so bad of course, I’m just being mean, but initials for firms always bemuse me – IBM and a few others aside, of course).

If there’s anyone left standing it’s either because I’ve missed a really obvious one (last year it was a bird, this year it was a court house) or because they’ve done something quite abstract – this year it was a square with four circles around it. Nice one. We have a winner.

(Just remembered, Orlando Weeks now of The Maccabees, “won” this a few years ago when he did a logo of “a unicorn jumping over a rainbow”. Mmm…)

The point I’m trying to make in that exercise, other than it being a bit of a break from them listening to me drone on, is that when faced with a quick challenge like that, students (everyone) tend to to think not in cliches (I happen to think cliches are good things – they’re how we communicate) but in too literal a sense. The last thing, I say, someone who is facing juvenile court on a shoplifting charge wants to see is a logo for a lawyer that screams “you’re going to jail!”.
Look at supermarkets – how many of them have logos that show a basket of shopping? (I seem to be the only one who thinks the Lidl logo looks like someone pushing a trolley)

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I came up with this little game (which makes more sense in the context of the lecture than it does here) a few years ago when some graphic design students at a previous job were asked by a local law firm to come up with a logo for a similar brief. The winner was a half open door with light coming through it. The tutor loved it, the clients loved it. I hated it. They thought it said “there is hope”. I thought it said “you’re doomed”. But then, that’s me for you.
It did, however, make me look anew at logos to try to find the overly literal. And while there are a few, they’re pretty rare and almost universally poor. I won’t link to any here – look for yourself you lazy git.

All of which brings me to something that amused me. A couple of years ago, after I’d done this exercise with them, some students came in to my office with something they’d found in the Yellow Pages. An ad for a law firm which fell in to exactly the trap I’d laid for them (click on the image for a larger version). I think this is a pretty amazing/bad piece of advertising – I’ll have to add prison tattoos to my list for next year’s lecture.

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