William Eggleston’s objects for scrutiny

we136_untitled-two-girls-memphis-tennessee-_1974

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.

Design for interaction is a more clearly established, more nuanced discipline than design for wayfinding.

Defining wayfinding as the interaction of people with places has the advantage of opening up the more well-established body of thought and literature around design for interaction and seeing what 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?

46635_459502568022_6039873_n

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

Here is my take on legibility.

Legibilty is not a helpful idea. It 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. Legibilty 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 legitimate thing, but try to define it in any useful way and it becomes clear just how slippery it is. Is something legible when people can read it quickly? Maybe, but maybe this takes more effort. How do we know whether it takes more effort when all the work happens in the head, and mental effort cannot be measured? We don’t know. So is reading speed a good measure of legibility? 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 and tell individual letters apart rests on two factors that need careful separation. Firstly there is the physics of sight, the ability of the eye to resolve detail. Then there is the learned ability of people to recognise a letter compared to what the ideal of what that letter looks like, that is, the shared cultural experience of reading.

If you can tell an e from an o, what allows that to happen in the first instance is the eye resolving the detail of the letter. This is the realm psychophysics, how light enters the eye, falls on the retina, how physical sensations are made conscious.

Letters may have fine details that are more or less easy for the eye resolve. But if these letters are big enough, the details will be resolved by the eye and the letters will be read. They will be “legible”.

The only real lesson that can be extrapolated from these observations is that letters with fine details should not be used where they cannot be made big enough for any fine details they may have to be discerned easily. Legibility in this sense is contingent on context. Some styles of letters may be easier to discern within a finite surface area, but this is a relationship between the type and its size, not anything inherent within the typeface. This brings to mind the old aphorism, “there is no bad type, only bad uses”.

Reading as a learned process

The ability of people to recognise letters, on the other hand, is a learned process. 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?

A clearer and more quantifiable property of shapes in general and letterforms in particular is discriminability. How many similar features does one thing compared to another, and how many different? “Use discriminable elements” is a piece of advice given by ergonomists and even NASA.

It is often useful to use letters which are easily told apart, particularly when they stand on their own.  But to call this feature of letters “legibility” is not exact enough, particularly when discriminability is a more precise term.

Legibility as a displacement activity

Legibility often distracts from more fundamental 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.

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. Beware the unstated moralising, behind the claims for legibility, 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/

pdown

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

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kate-is-great-but-she-isnt-a-god/15713#.VAR1qGRdXj8

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.

Highlights
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.

Maddening
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

Typography
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

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

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

Grids
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

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

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

Cartography
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

Signage
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

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