William Eggleston’s objects for scrutiny


William Eggleston at the National portrait gallery is an interesting experiment.

Eggleston is not a natural portraitist. A portrait represents the relationship between sitter and photographer. Often, Eggleston seemingly has no obvious relationship with his ‘sitters’, even if there is one in real life. Instead, his photographs are pictures of people as beautiful objects for scrutiny. If there is a spark of life it is by chance. His photos of objects themselves are where the real portraiture is.

Eggleston, the chic beatnik, the technical innovator, reveals the 70s by accident. His photos in nightclubs, of singers, of the girls who jealously fight over them, show how a studio 54 way of life is played out when dropped into the context of the Mississippi delta.

The photographs show how garish surfaces can be camouflaged when placed on top of other garish surfaces. The framing is spontaneous and casual; often, one images, fuelled by quaaludes.

The most expressive photograph in the exhibition – the closest to a portrait – is the one of his daughter in facepaint, standing in front of an entrance. Unusually, there is eye contact. The subjectivity is two way. Even Eggleston cannot be indifferent about his own daughter.

Wayfinding is interaction

Every wayfinding designer is obliged to define wayfinding at some point, so here is my definition.

Wayfinding is interaction.

It is the interaction, more or less purposeful, of people with places.

Defining wayfinding as the interaction of people with places has the advantage of opening up the well-established body of thought and literature around design for interaction and seeing what of it can be applied to wayfinding problems.

Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics, for instance, can be applied to the design of wayfinding systems.

Christopher Wickens 13 principles of display design has useful ideas that can be applied to the design of signs.

Wayfinding is interaction.

Design for wayfinding means understanding the interaction: the people, the places, the purposes.

Review of the year

Stand up of the year 
Killing It by Tappy Bernstein

Tappy Bernstein has been on the radar for a few years now, quietly building a reputation for perceptive, no-holds-barred observational comedy. 2015 proved to be a watershed year, as his one-hour Comedy Central special Killing It brought him to wider attention. In it he describes in unflinching detail how he murdered eight strangers then members of his family; by turns touching and darkly hilarious, Killing It is reminiscent of early Richard Prior with the confessional energy of Margaret Cho. A future classic that will cement Bernstein’s reputation for 25 years to life.

Film of the year
Star Wars: Libido

Gaspar Noé’s boundary-pushing addition to the Star Wars canon was the surprise hit of the year. Featuring depictions of explicit sex in 3D, Libido extends the Star Wars universe in surprising and sometimes painful directions.

Design of the year
The Water Game Plangent Design

“With The Water Game we were responding quickly and pragmatically to a real-world problem,” says Plangent’s lead designer Simon Chard. “We wanted to use gamification techniques to engage with local expertise in developing countries to find alternatives to energy-intensive, clean drinking water.” The Water Game was developed quickly, using a combination of rapid prototyping and low cost 3D printed components. “Energy expenditure and water consumption has fallen since The Water Game was rolled out. We’re proud to be helping empower people to make forward-facing choices.”

Do people look for signs?


Woman with map in front of Legible London totem, London 2010

This is one of the key questions about signage, and one that no one ever asks properly: do people look for it?

Do people expect to see signage, or do they expect to have to search for it? If people do look for signs, do they do so consistently? Are they more likely to look for signs in some types of places and not others? If people do not look for signs, what do they look for instead in order to use a space?

The temptation as a designer is to believe that everyone is as fixated on the things you make as you are. I have fallen in to this trap myself. Yet spend some time walking round a place with people who are not designers or architects (my parents for instance) and it starts to become uncomfortably evident that, a lot of the time, people do not see the signs that you do.

These questions bother me a lot as I have never met two designers with a similar estimation of how likely people are to look for or see signs. If sign designers can’t agree on this, or even pose the question, how can we convince the world at large – clients, collaborators – that we have a genuine, credible expertise? Moreover, how can we make signs that we agree will work, and that do work in reality?

Legibility schmegibility

Legibility is not a helpful idea.

The word legibility causes confusion among designers and clients because it is ill-defined. It is used in informal speech to mean a lot of different things, and often this can confuse rather than clarify.

Legibility is often used more as a moral category, or to frame an insult – “this is illegible!” – than with any real precision.

Legibility sounds like it ought to be a real thing, but try to define it in any useful way and it becomes clear just how slippery it is.

For example – is something legible when people can read it quickly? Well maybe, but maybe reading something quickly takes more mental effort.

How do we know how much mental effort goes into something when mental effort cannot be measured? We don’t know. So is reading speed a good measure of legibility? Maybe, maybe not. And what does reading speed really reflect?

Alright, you may say, what about individual letters? Can they be more or less legible? If someone recognises one style of e more quickly than another, is this not more legible? If I can tell a 1 from an I then that is more legible, right?

What is legibility anyway?

The ability to recognise letters and tell them apart rests on two things that need careful separation.

Firstly, there is the physics of sight, the ability of our eyes to resolve detail.

If you can tell an e from an o, what lets that happen in the first place is the eye resolving the details of the letter. How light enters the eye, falls on the retina, how physical sensations are made conscious, is half physics and half perception. It is realm of psychophysics.

Letters may have small details that are more or less easy for the eye make out. But if the letters are big enough to be seen then the small details will be big enough to be seen and the letters will be read. They will be “legible”.

The only lesson that can be drawn from this is that letters with fine details should not be used where they cannot be made big enough for any of their fine details to be seen clearly. Legibility in this sense depends on how big you can make the letters.

Some styles of letters, without fiddly details, may be easier to make out if you have to fit something in a fixed space at a fixed distance. But this is a relationship between the type and its size, not anything inherent within the typeface.

The real question here is – why is your type borderline invisible in the first place? And the solution is obvious – do not to use type that is too small.

Recognising letters is reading

Then there is the learned ability of people to recognise a letter.

Recognising letters means comparing the shape you are looking at in the real world, on screen or in print, to the one in your head, the letter you are expecting to see.

What you are expecting to see is what you have learned. It is made up of all the impressions you have ever had of what that letter looks like.

The ability of people to recognise letters is a learned process. It is the shared cultural experience of reading. We have to learn to read, to associate arbitrary shapes with sounds and meanings.

What is obvious but seldom dwelt upon is that we also have to learn that these arbitrary shapes come in lots of different styles – typefaces. There is no one correct version of each letter that all other variations are derived from, just variations of an arbitrary, socially agreed symbol. What kind of e are people thinking of when they think of an e?

Posing the question in this way reveals how vague the idea of legibility is. If people are recognising letters quickly, what is their basis of comparison? They are comparing a letter to every other instance of that letter they have encountered, learned from and internalised. There is no one, gold-standard, super-legible letter shape against which all others can be measured.

Is there anything more useful than legibility?

Is there a better word than legibility to think and talk about how easy or difficult something is to read?

A clearer word and more measurable property of letters is discriminability. How many similar features does one letter have compared to another, and how many different? “Use discriminable elements” is a piece of advice given by ergonomists and even NASA.

Letters which are easily told apart may be useful when they will be seen in isolation and you have no other clues to recognise them. But to call this feature of letters “legibility” is not exact enough, particularly when discriminability is a more precise term. And making letters distinct from one another can make the letters stop looking like themselves. There’s only so much you can do to an l before it stops looking like an l.

Legibility as a displacement activity

Legibility is often a distraction from bigger design problems.

Signs – my area of expertise – are very often neither big enough nor bright enough. The style of letters cannot compensate for these failings. Becoming preoccupied with the details of one typeface over another steals time from the necessity of arguing for bigger, brighter signs.

Why bother? 

The reason to separate the physical side of reading from the cultural side is it helps define the answers to practical problems more clearly. To solve a problem you have to be able to put it in the right category.

If people can’t read something is it because they can’t see it, or because they don’t understand it?

If they can’t see it, it is a physical problem – the text is not big enough or bright enough to be made out.

If they can’t understand it it is it a cultural problem. The letters are so stylised and weird-looking that they’ve stopped looking like any script known to humanity.

In conclusion 

Legibility needs to be put into context, and taken with a pinch of salt. Most problems with reading type can be fixed with type size and illumination.

Where letters need to be told apart, discriminability is a useful idea.

Most of all, beware the unstated claims behind legibility talk, that some types are morally better than others.

New York Sitcoms and the hall of mirrors

Chandler Bing is in the Friends universe, but also Caroline in the City universe for one episode. Caroline is in both also; Phoebe’s sister Ursula is in the Mad About You universe; Seinfeld’s Kramer sublets his apartment from Paul from Mad About You. So … they are all the same universe. But George Costanza in Seinfeld watches Mad About You … and; in Larry Sanders, Hank auditions for a part in Caroline in the City, and falls asleep on the Seinfeld set … so Larry Sanders is the envelope for the others … see?

Party Down and the excellent logo

I love Party Down. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1073507/


It is a great show, about LA caterers who are, or have been in a different life, actors and writers. It has an exceptionally likeable cast. It is very, very funny. It thematises, all too believably, the quiet desperation that comes with the barriers to ambition. I’m sure there are better reviews of it from a dramatic point of view than I can give it here.

One of the things I like about it, and what I really want to talk about briefly, is the logo. It shows an attention to detail that could have just as easily not been there, and suggests a love of its purpose and a love of crafting graphics.

party down

I’ve tried to find who did it in order to attribute it, but I can’t. So this is another thing I like about it (for now, at least – until the designer surfaces). It is anonymous, workaday. I’m guessing, or maybe I like to imagine, it was done in an afternoon without too much thought or effort.

It is a simple, immediate and unpretentious idea, bringing to mind a Bob Gill approach to problem conceptualising and solving. It communicates its concept clearly. It’s black and white, like the outfits of the characters. It wears a bow tie. Like the characters.

But the thing that really elevates it and sells it, the craft that goes the extra mile, is a simple but important detail. It is a piece of optical alignment. The stem of the Y of PARTY sits on the upstroke of the N of DOWN. If this detail was left to a computer, the stem of the Y would be tucked in neatly over the middle of the N, leaving a big messy hole under the side of the Y down the edge of the logo.

Some designer took the trouble to correct this. S/he let the Y sit properly in space. Maybe this designer had read and understood Techniques of Typography by Cal Swann, or maybe s/he just had a good eye.

In any case, the logo, which could have been an anonymous piece of hack work, a little blemish, is an anonymous masterpiece of its kind. It shows the care and love evident elsewhere in the show. It is a simple, unfussy idea, flawlessly and unflashily executed. And this is why I love it.

More on getting type detailing right here http://tonypritchard.wordpress.com/tag/typographic-detailing/

Before the Dawn review on spiked

Spiked have published my review of Before the Dawn. Read it here


Before the Dawn

Trying to sum up how I felt about Kate Bush Before the Dawn is difficult, having loved her and her music since I was about thirteen. It was everything I love about her and everything that drives me crazy about her in one evening, plus a whole bunch of other stuff on top. It always comes back to the fact that I’d rather have her ambitious failures than someone else’s timid successes.

A fantastic band; Albert McIntosh (Bertie Bush) is a talented young man and strong stage presence; Kate still has a wonderful, powerful voice; hearing afresh how great these songs are – Lily; King of the Mountain (percussion); Top of the City (vocals); Watching You Without Me (maybe a desert island disc); Waking the Witch.

The spectacle; a “helicopter” that searches the audience like a sea for a drowning woman; a wonky room that slides back and forth and showers sparks during Watching You Without Me; a gigantic revolving moon; a tree that spears a piano; a choir hanging off a buoy during Hello Earth; gigantic doors; Kate with a raven’s wing; Kate taking off.

Kate loves hammy acting! There is a definite Bush school of Lion, Cross and Curve playacting that cannot be found anywhere else, and was there in the interstitial scenes during the ninth wave. Watching You Without Me (clearly becoming a pivotal piece in this review) is set up with a bit of sixth form skittery that drags.

Other stuff
The thing that threw me was walking to the venue from Hammersmith Tube. There is a small improvised shrine to Rik Mayall on a traffic Island on Hammersmith roundabout, near where he filmed the opening intro to Bottom. The fact that he was the same age as Kate, from the same circle, and a professional colleague, and that Kate was a big fan of his, leant the evening a slightly macabre quality. It also made me think about who we hold dear and how we honour them, which was fitting given the nature of the evening and the slightly creepy, over the top adulation attached to Kate.

How to be a wayfinding designer

I was asked the other day on twitter if there were any good books about wayfinding. The answer is no, there aren’t any; at least, there is no single, reliable, comprehensive and nuanced account of the subject in one place.

I have had to piece together a body of knowledge and expertise from all over the place. This list is a partial snapshot of my library. These books have all been of real, practical use to me in my day to day work. If a book gives me one idea, I consider it a useful investment and time well spent reading it.

The most important idea in wayfinding is: respect the subtle. Human beings are nuanced, complicated and contradictory. They are subtle, they do things in ways you wouldn’t think, they think things in ways you wouldn’t do. It is hard to know what it is like to be a human because we do most things, very complicated things at that, without conscious reflection. It is hard to introspect in a reliable way. This is important because navigating, carrying out tasks, appreciating aesthetics, all features of wayfinding and design, are all subtle.

The corollary is; people are not dummies, or stupid. If you hear sentences beginning either, “surely people can” or “you would have to be an idiot to”, be immediately on your guard. A crass and incorrect generalisation is about to follow, an over- or underestimation of how people are, usually in order to justify a piece of awful or inadequate design.

I stress this because it is not an idea you will readily find in design literature. You may find partial accounts of it, or caricatures of it, but never really embraced in all its difficulties.

Respect the subtle. People deserve the best.

Old Testament
Green, M; Allen, M; Abrams, B; Weintraub, L. Forensic Vision with Application to Highway Safety. Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, 2008

Dowding, Geoffrey. Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type. Wace, 1966
Swann, Cal. Language and typography. John Wiley & Sons Incorporated, 1991
Swann, Cal. Techniques of typography. Vol. 2. Lund Humphries, 1969
Spiekermann, Erik. Stop stealing sheep and find out how type works. Pearson Education, 2013

Spencer, Herbert. The Visible Word. Lund Humphries, 1969
Zachrisson, Bror. Studies in the legibility of printed text. Almqvist & Wisell, 1965

Albers, Josef. Interaction of color. Yale University Press, 1975

Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes. A sign systems manual. Praeger, 1970
Müller-Brockmann, Josef. Grid systems in graphic design: a visual communication manual for graphic designers, typographers and three dimensional designers. Niggli, 1981
Vinh, Khoi. Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design. Pearson Education, 2010
Roberts, Lucien E., and Julia Thrift. The designer and the grid. Rockport Publishers, 2002

Psychology, interactions and usability
Norman, Donald A. The design of everyday things. Basic books, 2002
Nielsen, Jakob. Usability engineering. Elsevier, 1994
Wickens, Christopher D., Sallie E. Gordon, and Yili Liu. An introduction to human factors engineering. Pearson, 2000

Hillier, Bill. Space is the machine: a configurational theory of architecture. 2007
Ching, Francis DK. Architecture: Form, space, and order. Wiley, 2010

Arthur, Paul, and Romedi Passini. Wayfinding: people, signs, and architecture. 1992

Imhoff, E. Cartographic Relief Representation. ESRI Press, 2007

Information design
Tufte, Edward R. Visual explanations: images and quantities, evidence and narrative. Graphics Press, 1997
Tufte, Edward R., Envisioning Information. Graphics Press, 1990

Uebele, Andreas. Signage systems & information graphics: a professional sourcebook. Thames & Hudson, 2007

Design in general
Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal principles of design, revised and updated: 125 ways to enhance usability, influence perception, increase appeal, make better design decisions, and teach through design. Rockport, 2010
Macdonald, Nico What is web design?. Rotovision, 2003
Hollis, Richard. Graphic Design: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 1994
Sudjic, Deyan. Cult objects: the complete guide to having it all. Paladin, 1985

Gill, Bob. Unspecial effects for graphic designers. Graphis, 2001
Ogilvy, David. Confessions of an advertising man. Atheneum, 1963