21 March 2017

A Mist Opportunity - fast food, UI design and Snoop Dog’s favourite weather

The commute to work the other day was that classic British trudge in the rain-not-rain which soaks you to the bone despite existing as a seemingly inert omnipresent grey smear. You could call it Cornish weather. Or maybe a grand soft day if you're in Ireland. I suppose it's drizzle, but it's a bit closer to mist. Hard to explain to your Spanish cousin, but if you're the BBC, you solve it with a simple icon of which Gerd Arnz would be proud.

The BBC's icon for drizzle

I'd never seen this weather symbol before. I'm not sure how long it's been in existence, but it must be quite new (I'm British. I own a smartphone. Ergo, I check the BBC Weather app like a teen checks Snapchat). So I had a dig around, asked someone I know from the internet called Jeeves, and found an old BBC piece on the redesign of their weather services, written by Melanie Seyer. It's a fantastic read, which - given the speed of how digital design develops - is still a relevant overview of a complex project, discussing research, user experience and graphic design. Curiously, it's briefly mentioned they were trialling a new symbol for drizzle. In 2011. Maybe I'd just never bumped into it?

Regardless, it's a thing of small beauty. It sits perfectly within the complete set of BBC weather icons and is a lovely bridge between the light rain icon and 'MIST' (one of only three which use words as adjectives - FOG and SAND STORM being the other two). Which got me thinking, imagine if mist absolutely definitely without a doubt needed an icon. What would it look like? How would you do it?

I did actually go through a brief design period of wanting to pare all messaging down to iconography, to the point of madness whereby I wanted to subtitle Stanley Kubrick's The Shining using only icons. Maybe the effect of reading too much Isotype history, or working on games which had to be localised in multi-languages. Instruction and information as a graphic was often an elegant workaround; pictures speaking a thousand words and all that. However, sometimes just one simple word is the quickest way to cut through and deliver your message.

Take the much maligned 'burger bar' for example.

IKEA's burger bar, appears top right on the nav.

It's a symbol many web users take for granted as an instruction to open a hidden menu. However, herein lies a classic design problem: no matter how intuitive you could argue this particular design pattern is - it's still a part of a language recondite to any user who's unfamiliar with it. (There's a wider UX conversation we could have right now, but I'll let Cassandra Naji do it better so I can stay on point - this is just a pithy blog entry after all).

Anyone who's owned a smartphone from the start has had the benefit of learning  iteratively, in tandem with the developers who create these user interfaces. New actions, swipes, hidden features, 3D Touch - they've been drip-fed to us. Now imagine it's 2017 and you've never picked up a smart phone before. No matter how intuitive the design of the OS may intentionally be, there's still an incredible learning curve involved. Intuitive design only works as part of a complex and myriad series of learnings undertaken by the user - not just technologically but socially. For the burger bar to work, you need to already have an idea of interfaces hiding content which can be revealed. You also need to decode the metaphor of three horizontal lines and what they could represent. A stack of content? Greeked text? A concertina? A delightful Rococo chest of drawers? Then there's action and consequence. Will tapping it make something happen which the user doesn't want to happen? And I haven't even mentioned the alternatives to the burger bar. Apple's Avocado on toast (I made that name up BTW) or the 9x9 cluster of dots. All variations on a theme trying to convey an action for which there is no set visual standard. Confusing.

Top: Apple's burger, bottom: Wired's burger.

So, three questions the user may ask themselves when trying to find the menu:
Where is it?
What is it?
What happens if...?

So, assuming the website is created for an English speaking audience, If we simply replace the icon with the word 'Menu', then the user need only ask the first question. It's an elegant simplification which seems counter-intuitive to the aesthetic simplicity of an icon, but it works. Which brings me back to 'MIST'.

Mist doesn't need an icon in this context. Mist is a atmospheric condition which affects visibility. It's damp. It's almost physically not there, but is. It's similar to fog. But it's not fog. It's mist. So, back to my original question, how would you create an icon for it? My answer: I wouldn't bother. Let it simply be 'MIST'.

Want some extra reading?

One of the original members of that small BBC design team, Adam Morris, writes about his experience on Medium.

The BBC’s guidelines on iconography (GEL - Global Experience Language) across their brand, including the weather.

29 December 2016

Woodland Type Faces

After recently seeing some lovely typographic work on Instagram by Mark Reddy and Jim Townsend 'Animalography', it reminded me of some woodland typographic animals I created a while back. As it often is with personal projects, more remain on the shelf than make it into the wild, so after a couple of years in hibernation, I've been inspired to let these ones go.

21 June 2016

Ground Control To Colonel Sanders

Tim Peake thinking about a KFC aboard the International Space Station

Nowadays, inspired creativity usually lands on our laps. Whether we get our news from the people we follow, curated content or maybe – like me – still enjoy a good old bookmarking app, like Feedly, grandpa. Other times, we seek it out. Searching, sifting, going down rabbit holes, until we stumble upon something truly marvellous. Sometimes, however, you have to go to Haywards Heath.

After a trip to the Ouse Valley Viaduct (if you haven’t been, go), a stop off on The Heath high street lead me to walk past a certain chicken-in-a-basket joint called KFC. In the window, a poster for their latest volucrine offering: The Supercharger. And on it, the almost magical line:

Leave space for it.

(Respectful silence)

On the weekend that ‘Our Tim’ returned from the International Space Station, this creative from whoever-it-was at Ogilvy won the English language. All copywriters hung up their pens, fingers and keypads. The creative industry permanently closed its doors for business and an ornate ten foot marble full stop was hand carved to mark the spot.

Bus Stop poster for KFC's 'Leave Space For It' campaign
Tactically placed six sheet, near KFC London Road

Like, mildly tolerate or vehemently loathe the brand, this tactical ad for KFC is rather splendid for many reasons. It speaks of the now; for those tuned into Tim Peake’s return, they’ll get it, and – if they’re inclined to frequent KFC – maybe get a burger, too. It speaks for the hungry; requesting that for those who want to, leave space in their wretched little tummy. And it speaks to the greedy; requesting that for those who want to, post massive great chicken filet down their burger hole.

After seeing Mr Peake wolf down a zero gravity tinned bacon sandwich on the tellybox (admittedly created by Heston Blumenthal, but come on, it’s still a TINNED BACON SANDWICH) without any actual mention of, or endorsement from, the astronaut himself, you can quite easily visualise him being jettisoned at 28 800 km/h towards his final dubious goal: KFC.

Stick a fork in the copywriter, they’re done.

29 July 2015

…Zen and the art of negative space

literature, philosophy, design philosophy, graphic design, negative space, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
I was recently gifted one of my many must-reads-but-somehow-never have-dones: Robert Persig's seminal Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This chunk of 70s popular philosophy is such a cornerstone of modern culture I probably don't need to tell you it's good. That might be like telling you Elton John is a popular singer/songwriter or vitamin C helps prevent colds.

One particular passage in it really caught my attention, where The Narrator talks about his shared motorcycle road trip with his son Chris and their friends John and Sylvia:
"In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, 'See? ... See?' and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent."

It resonates not just because it's a nice little philosophical truism, but also because it's a nice little design truism. A perfect metaphor for the age-old designer/client stumbling block: we want less, they want more. Persig's observation reminded  me of something John Maeda wrote in his brilliantly succinct Laws of Simplicity. Law 6 / Context: nothing is something.
"If given an empty space or any extra room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, business people would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity. 
On the other hand, a designer would choose to do their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. More white space means that less information is presented. In turn, proportionately more attention shall be paid to that which is made less available. When there is less, we appreciate everything much more."

It's a perfectly rationalised 'less is more' counter to the classic design misstep of filling in all your negative space, and offers the perfect maxim every designer should keep in their back pocket; nothing is an important something.

20 March 2015

…Instagram's community vs Instagram's commodity

Instagram picture of Benjamin Franklin with his arm around 'The Man'
Instagram is my favourite social network. There. I said it. After Initially giving it short shrift (from years of shooting on film I HAY-HAY-HATED retro-filters) I caved, accepted then embraced the ‘nice network’ after Twitter became Troller and Facebook became, well, Facebook. So it’s with knitted brow that Instagram are introducing a new ad model which will allow brands to post carousel-style ad stories on the timeline with links to web content browse-able within the app – much like Twitter and Facebook.

Now, I’m not a frikking idiot. I know a network can’t run 40 million posted images a day on good vibes alone (“unless you’re owned by Facebook!” someone shouts from the back of the internet) so something’s got to pay for the servers. And short of convincing a social generation raised on freemium to subscribe or make micropayments every time they post a picture of their breakfast (guilty), advertising is the obvious choice.

Since the rollout last year of promoted posts, Instagram became a bonafide brand platform and it’s since been noticeable how user engagements with brand accounts are increasingly done so in a way more akin to Twitter. For example, to celebrate Red Nose Day British Airways posted a joyous picture of their record-breaking highest gig in the sky from last year. Amongst all the fan love responses, one awkward, chilly off-topic question relating to an alleged BA association to animal welfare violations cut through the warm glow on the timeline like a hornet at a child's summer party.

At first this interaction seems a bit weird, given that the platform primarily converses with pictures. But not so weird when you look at YouTube: a platform that primarily converses with video but whose below-the-fold commentary reads like an irascible 70s teenager with Tourettes. It’s this tricky, brand-baiting, PR managed reality of paid-for which could be the turn-off for the people who helped lovingly build the network in the first place – the same cornerstone community whom Instagram is constantly celebrating.

It’ll be interesting to watch the balancing act between community and commodity as the network becomes more sophisticated but I really hope it succeeds in managing both. After all, it’s arguably the one big network left where one can converse daily and be surprised, inspired and feel genuine positivity without having to suffer misanthropic bellends as you do so.