Archive for the ‘UK’ Category

English Ways of Saying Goodbye

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

My friend Qin, who is Chinese, rang me the other night and after about 30 minutes the time came to say goodbye. I had to go do something (can’t remember what – eat, I think) so I said so. “Okay, bye” she said.
I panicked. “What?”
“Bye” she said.

This was new to me. Normally when the English (I would say British but I don’t know if it’s true of the rest of the UK) say goodbye they enter into a protracted process of drawing things to a close. I first became aware of this when watching The West Wing, and then other US TV shows. In those, a telephone conversation would suddenly end, often without any form of goodbye at all. The last sentence would be spoken and bang the phone would be hung up.

How rude. How very un-English. But how efficient.

I think most of my hang-ups (no pun intended) about the telephone revolve around the whole process of starting up and winding down the conversation. It is almost entirely redundant but you start off with the “how are you?” stuff that takes up a few minutes before you get on to the meat of the conversation. If you’re calling someone you’ve never spoken before you have to give your life story and explain who you are.

But it’s the “good bye” that is particularly draining. We can’t just say “bye” and hang up. When I told Qin I had to go eat I was telling the truth but I was signalling that I would shortly have to go and do this. I wasn’t saying “go away I need to have food”. To the English the signal is like the coda in a piece of music. It says “right, we’re all done but let’s bring things nicely to a halt”. Saying “well I suppose I’d better go let the cat in” is just that – it’s a polite signal that the conversation has run its course, you have nothing new to say and, much as you may love the person on the other end of the line, pretty soon all you’ll be able to do is resort to a bit of heavy breathing cos you’re all out of conversation. The signal is a way of politely saying you know you’re both about to get to the end of the conversation and moving the discussion on to a roundabout way of acknowledging it.

When Qin said “okay, bye” it pulled the rug from under me. “What?” I said. “Bye” she repeated.

If she’d been English she’d have said “ok – what you having?” I’d have said “a ham sandwich” or something and she’d have told me what she’d had to eat, or was planning to eat. We may have riffed on that for a minute, swapped recipes, delighted in each other’s preferences for mustard or mayonnaise, brown bread or white before gently bringing the conversation to a halt. “Okay, I’ll let you get on” is often the preferred conclusion to the coda, the imperfect cadence, if you will, (to keep the music metaphor going) that leads to the final “good bye” and hang up.

It always has to be the person who made the call who “lets the other one go” – the receiver of the call can’t do it.

I tried to explain to Qin the etiquette she was breaking by simply accepting that I had to go and hanging up but she couldn’t get it.

There are similar things in English behaviour: we can’t buy anything without saying thank you several times, for example. I seem to remember hearing a comedy routine on this years ago but can’t remember. Basically it goes like this…
We take our goods to the counter and put them down. “Just those, thanks” we say. The cashier puts everything through and tells us how much. “£5.65, please”. We hand over the cash. “Thanks” we say. We get our change. “Ta”. We gather up the bag. “Cheers”. We head off “See you later. Thanks” We may add another “Cheers, bye” and then we’re off.
I count at least five or six instances of “thank you” or its variants.

It’s hard work being English, sometimes.

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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Designers win medals too

Friday, September 19th, 2008

This is something I wrote for the study guide for my Design History, Theory and Practice (DHTP) module which starts next week. The first lecture asks “what’s the point of DHTP?” and I try to head off the usual complaints about having to write and read and go to the library. I’ve found spending the first lecture on making the case for approaching design from an intellectual point of view not only saves time later, it tends to improve attendance and grades!

Plus, I happen to believe in it.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics offered a showcase not just of excellence in sport, but in design as well. Everything from the equipment being used to the garments being worn was designed. Ask the average person what we mean by this and they will undoubtedly talk about what things look like – the ‘style’ of the outfits, the shape of the bikes and so on.

brennan_sydney_main.jpgBut to take a view like that is to miss what we might arguably call the ‘real’ design, the design that’s the product of years (if not decades) of intense research into textiles, alloys, aerodynamics, ergonomics and more. When people talk of the millions of pounds spent on sports in the UK, they may think that all gets spent on training. But it doesn’t. Chris Hoy’s bike, Rebbeca Adlington’s swimming costume, Charlotte Burgess’s bow, and Deborah Brennan’s wheelchair are all the result of investment worldwide in design research.

And then there are the games themselves – everything from the obvious opening and closing ceremonies to the transport networks, the global television feeds, the ticketing systems, the catering, even the queues — all designed.

Design history and theory are no longer simply endless slideshows of the great and the good; pictures of this designer and that piece. Over the next three years you’ll be exposed to, and encouraged to discover, not what’s gone before but what’s possible. DHTP is about the future as much as it’s about the past. It’s also about broadening your view of what design is, from the ‘man on the street’ idea of design as style to something a little more ambitious and all-encompassing. And it’s about encouraging you to pursue a role in the cutting edge through your own research.

If I get the time, I’m going to do a video to go with it too…

Diplomas explained

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

The Guardian has a handy summary of changes to the school curriculum in England from today, including this summary of the new Diplomas:

Starting this term are the first five diplomas in engineering, construction, information technology, creative and media studies, and society, health and development. There will be 17 in place by 2011. [including product designsee this post for news of the announcement]

The new qualifications are intended to be an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels for 14- to 19-year-olds, blending hands-on learning and theory.
There are three different levels of diploma: foundation (level 1), higher (level 2) and advanced (level 3).

All are made up of three parts: principal learning; generic learning and additional specialist learning.

Principal learning is made up of qualifications, or units, specifically developed for the diploma subject and a project.

Generic learning includes ‘functional skills’ such as English, maths and ICT, alongside presentation, communication and teamworking skills.

Additional specialist learning involves more academic theory, an extended project and other qualifications, such as a GCSE or A-level, chosen from a catalogue of approved awards.

Diplomas will also involve 10 days’ work experience, ideally in a field related to the diploma subject.

Remember, if you recruit English students to design courses at college or university, you need to know what’s in the diplomas as they are intended as entry qualifications to FE and HE. They won’t show up for a few years yet, but they will eventually. It would be worth finding out if a school near you is offering a diploma in your subject and getting in touch to make sure there’s no mismatch between what’s offered and what’s needed, and maybe to offer some time to give a talk or demo.

The problem with graphs

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Take a look at this graph. It accompanies a story on the BBC News website about the property market and today’s announcement of Government measures to boost flagging sales.

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The graph plots the change in house prices as measured by two banks, The Nationwide and The Halifax. On the face of it things look pretty dreadful.

Except that the graph is wrong*. The values it is plotting are ‘rates of change’, so it’s a bit like plotting a car’s speed by plotting its acceleration and deceleration. You wouldn’t really do that as you can’t use such a graph to say what the car’s actual speed is at any one time, without making some tortuous calculations.

Let’s give an example. The graph plots changing values from April 2007 to August 2008. But the individual points relate to the relative change in house prices during the year to that date. So if you look at the point for the Halifax figures in April 2007 you see approximately 11%. What that means is that a house bought in April 2006 for £100,000 (good luck finding one that cheap) was typically worth £110,000 in April 2007.
Now look at April 2008. The graph shows that house prices fell by 1% in the previous 12 months. So that house which was worth £110,000 is now worth £108,900 – so it’s still 8.9% higher than it was two years previously.

What you can’t do with this graph is look at the August 2008 part of the graph and say what the value of that house is now, because it wasn’t bought in August 2007 – the figure is meaningless, therefore the graph is meaningless. (This is the same problem you get with monthly inflation figures – a figure of, say, 5% might be seen as high but it means prices went up 5% over the last 12 months, not in the last month. If prices stay at the same level, inflation will be 0% but that doesn’t mean things are getting cheaper. It means they’re staying just as expensive as before)

If I had bought that house in April 2006 I couldn’t use these figures, or this graph, to predict what the house is ‘worth’ now. But that would still be irrelevant unless I was thinking of selling now. But house purchasers don’t tend to buy and sell in a year, but after several years (often decades). A graph on that principle would show a steady and sustained increase in the value of houses. There’s a lot of people worrying over nothing – if you’re not thinking of selling your house then you have nothing to worry about, yet this graph is intended to make you worry.

(Let’s say that house price inflation stood at -10% in April 2009, then I could calculate the value of my home. It would be £98,010 – a drop in value for sure but of £1,990. In other words my house would be worth 1.99% less than it was when I bought it, not 10% less. See how it works?)

The only conclusion I can draw from this graph is that whoever inserted it is attempting to make things look more dramatic than they really are.
Which leads to a suggestion: the best way to increase confidence in the property market would be to ban stupid measures of the market that plot relative values over 12 months. The housing market doesn’t work on such small cycles.

(*Actually, ‘wrong’ is not the word, rather it’s ‘misleading’, but it’s so misleading it might as well be wrong)

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.

Designers asked by UK Government to tackle MRSA

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Design Week is reporting that five UK design consultancies are being sought by the Department of Health and the Design Council to collaboratte with scientists and healthcare professionals. They will be asked to develop “innovative design-led hospital furniture and equipment that could improve cleaning and reduce patients’ exposure to healthcare-acquired infections”.

The programme, called “Design Bugs Out” starts with a briefing on 2 September and will focus on research in three hospitals, identifying key problem areas.

Having identified five key areas, each team will be asked to focus on one and given a £25,000 grant.
After the closing date for submissions on 10 October, final teams will be announced ten days later and given seven weeks to develop prototypes. Winning designs will be exhibited next summer.

Art and design degrees ‘need overhaul’, say academics

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

The Guardian reports that:

A group of 50 academics have called for major changes to be made to the teaching of art and design at UK universities after a review concluded it was not fit for purpose.

The Group for Learning in Art and Design (Glad), a forum of academics who discuss learning in the sector, said teaching needed to better prepare students for work in a fast-paced, changing world.

[…]

Students should learn more than the bones of their own subject to reflect ‘the multi-disciplinary nature of the creative industries’, and work with different groups of people during their studies.

Prof Linda Drew, dean of academic development at the University of the Arts London and editor of the study, said: ‘The creative industries have changed dramatically and so must we. Art education is at risk of becoming conservative – it is important that art and design remains at the cutting edge of higher education.’

Teaching staff should also be given extra training to improve the general quality of education, says the report.

The GLAD conference is taking place next week where I’m assuming this report will feature prominently.

This echoes much of what was discussed at New Views 2 in July (see this post, this one and this one).

So we’re all agreed. Let’s get on and do it, shall we?

"You have to scream"

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Here’s a clip from my recent trip to Brighton and a short ride on a fast machine.

I should explain that just before the thing got going, I felt my harness come undone. So I spent the whole half hour (in actual fact it was probably less than a minute) clinging on for dear life. So when my friend, Qin, says “you have to scream” I am in fact holding my breath in anticipation of being flung out to sea. Rest assured, you’d have heard me scream then…

HSBC. The World’s Dumbest Bank?

Saturday, August 16th, 2008
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Spotted this ad in Dundee today. A few points spring to mind. Firstly, it’s a crap ad (sumo wrestlers do budge – it’s the whole point of the sport. In fact they don’t half get a wriggle on sometimes…)

But most importantly, given the strapline “The world’s local bank” it should perhaps be pointed out to whoever at HSBC signed off on this space being hired that, erm, there is no HSBC branch in Dundee.

In fact, the ‘local’ branch is a half hour drive away in Perth. Might as well be in Japan – which is the only thing that might help this ad make some sort of sense.