Archive for the ‘Guardian’ Category

Why eBooks must fail

Monday, July 27th, 2009

John Naughton, writing in The Guardian, identifies excellent reasons why eBooks must fail:

I own my copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and can do with it what I wish. I can, for example, lend it to friends, family and students. I can, if I wish, tear out pages and send them to people in the post, or stick them up on noticeboards. I can sell the book – if I could find a buyer. I can donate it to the local Oxfam shop. I can read sobering or inflammatory passages from it at political demonstrations. And so on.

But if I had purchased an electronic copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four to read on my Kindle device, I would have none of those freedoms


Up to now, the debate about eBooks has been dominated by technical issues: ergonomics, portability, storage capacity, the readability of display screens, the quality of the user interface and so on. These are important matters, but ignore the biggest issue of all, namely the ways in which the technology enables content owners to assert a level of control over the reader that would be deemed unconscionable – and unacceptable – in the world of print.

He’s right – designers tend to focus on the aesthetic and affective aspects – how useable is the technology, how open is it, does it replicate the “experience” of reading a paperback… but the real “experience” of reading a book is bound up in the tactile and the social. Lending a book to someone – or even just saying you’ll lend it to someone, is an important part of reading.

All the hoo-hah about Amazon deleting books and tracking what you do with what you buy aside, the real issue with eBooks is that all the focus and research has gone into the technology and completely missed what it means to read a really good book.


Graphic designers and cabbies

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

In a discussion with a journalist from Times Higher Education last week about Twitter he asked how I responded to critics who said Twitter threatened to “dumb down” education and research I speculated that the same complaint was probably made about moveable type (Guttenberg, not the blogging tool).

Stephen Bayley over in The Observer asks if technology makes us stupid.

All new technologies, going back to fire and the wheel, by way of movable type and light bulbs, de-skill people. Old crafts are abandoned or lost in favour of automation. And when you de-skill someone, you alter not only his culture, but his personality. Satnav has done this to black-cab drivers. Once this proud tribe had a private religion known as the Knowledge; all of London’s streets had to be memorised. It was an amazing feat achieved only after great effort, and consequently it was admired and therefore empowering and dignifying. The Knowledge gave black-cab drivers what the marketeers call a “point of difference”.

Now any larrikin can buy a satnav for £199 and tell you how to get from Edmonton to Peckham by using rat runs. The USP of the black cab has disappeared in a miasma of pixels. As a result, some urban anthropologists have noted a change in behaviour of cab drivers. Once known for courtesy and reliability, many have become sullen and aggressive. This is because technology has democratised their proprietary knowledge and beliefs.

When I read that I thought “you could say the same about graphic designers as for cab drivers”. By which I mean the invention of Photoshop, QuarkXpress and so on. I know, I was there at the time. My first job interview consisted of a guy throwing me out of his studio because he wanted a paste-up artist – a skill – not a Mac operator. His business didn’t last long after that.
Funny thing is, I still hear it. Bitter old men (and not so old, and not always men) bemoaning the loss of respect for their once proud profession.

The thing is, being a cabbie is more than just taking someone from one address to another. Surly cabbies are missing their real USP if they think the satnav has castrated them.
There is a difference between “skill” and “craft”. And “the knowledge” is more than knowing the quickest route from A to B.

Designers need to bear that in mind, too.

New design-related schools diploma – competition or support for product design degrees?

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The Guardian reports that:

The government’s qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has accredited five new diplomas that will be taught from September next year.

The diplomas will be in business, administration and finance, environmental and land-based studies, hospitality, and manufacturing and product design.

Whether this diverts potential design students straight in to industry rather than in to colleges or universities remains to be seen. And of course, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing also remains to be seen. But the immediate(ish) implications are clear: in the next few years product design courses will start to see applications from students with diplomas, not A-levels. That needs some preparation.

What the New Yorker teaches us about visual literacy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Richard Adams on the New Yorker cover ‘scandal’ makes a valid point:

John McCain can say that he doesn’t know much about economics and later deny it flatly, then have one of his top economic advisors say it will take one term for a McCain presidency to balance the budget, only to turn on a dime and say it will take two term, and almost nothing of it gets reported in the media. But hey, Jesse Jackson gets overheard using the word ‘nuts’ and it’s time to break out the ink.

If that’s what the ‘mainstream’ news media can do when left to their own devices, a cartoon is nothing.

Seems to me, as one of the commenters on this article says, this is another example (like the ‘nuts’ episode) of the media reporting on itself rather than on the stories.

But it also suggests something else: when we start summing up complex issues in illustrated form the scope for misunderstanding is huge.
At the New Views conference it was asked why critiques of design have to rely on words, why can’t we use design? (Similar arguments are made in favour of letting students create ‘visual dissertations’) Because writing depends on redundancy – it contains clauses, clarifications, opportunities to go off on tangents or rehearse devil’s advocate positions. Create a design to critique a design and you can’t guarantee that the message will be decoded correctly. The irony here is that I’ve just read several thousand words explaining what the New Yorker cartoon is supposed to be saying.

I think the New Yorker cover is a brave attempt to highlight the way the media and others pick apart minutae like the Obamas’ fist bump, unpicking images (often because there’s not really enough real news to fill a 24 hour news ‘culture’) but falls foul of precisely the same problems: images have no redundancy. The article that accompanies the cartoon is a few thousand words long and makes it clear what it is saying. The cartoon has no words and is consequently translated differently depending on who reads it, or (importantly in this case) reads about it. If the cover had instead been a cartoon alongside the article it might have made sense. As a cover, it doesn’t and simply exacerbates the problem it seeks to analyse.

Barthes famously said that images are polysemous, they have multiple meanings. Text, he said, fixes meaning.
I don’t think we’ve yet reached a level of visual literacy (or ever will?) where images like this can be divorced from the textual context.

"Do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider"

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

There’s a great (and somewhat worrying) article over at The Guardian about a forthcoming documentary on one of my favourite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams:

One of television’s most imaginative film-makers has condemned Mark Thompson’s leadership of the BBC as a ‘catastrophe’ and accused the corporation of undermining its worldwide reputation by insulting the intelligence of viewers.

Tony Palmer, who has won more than 40 awards including Baftas, Emmys and, uniquely, the Prix Italia twice, criticised the director-general after the BBC turned down a documentary of his. The film, about English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, has been produced by Five instead.

Palmer said he received an extraordinary rejection letter from a BBC commissioning editor explaining that, ‘having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play & share’, it had been decided the film did not fit with ‘the new vision for [BBC] Vision’.

Bizarrely, Palmer said, the letter concluded: ‘But good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.’ Vaughan Williams died in 1958.

It’s worth pointing out that Palmer is refusing to show the letter to anyone or name its author, and the BBC claims ignorance (and that it is already making a documentary on Vaughan Williams). If it’s true, though, it’s very sad in so many ways, as it suggests that there are people acting as gatekeepers at the BBC who have no knowledge of British culture, and that what Private Eye refers to as ‘Birtspeak’ is alive and well. ‘Findability’? What the hell’s that?

However, The Guardian has a nerve. A later paragraph in the article says “Vaughan Williams, whose best known symphonies include The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves”… Duh. RVW wrote nine symphonies and not one of them was called The Lark Ascending or Fantasia on Greensleeves. They are works for orchestra (the former for violin and orchestra), but most definitely not symphonies.


The good news is the 2.5 hour documentary did get made and will be shown on Channel 5 (the former soft porn channel, no less) on New Year’s Day. Can’t wait.