26 July 2010

…dot, dot, dash, dash

...cultural baggage. Number 2: Seinfeld

I should explain. This van was in front of me on the M25 Dartford toll. What is that logo? I thought. It's certainly not a Self Drive company logo. It's a hangover from the eighties; proof on four wheels that design in the early nineties existed.

It's Seinfeld. It's definitely Seinfeld. Yellow, shaped background. Big blue typeface. A touch of red. Primary colours in all their sickly glory. Seinfeld.

Camera. Click. Drive. Tollbooth. Think. Drive. Barbecue. Drive. Ponder. Definitely Seinfeld. Drive. Tollbooth. Ruminate. Drive. Park. Upload.


It's not Seinfeld.

In comparison it's not. I admit.

But in my head it is. Everything about it signifies Seinfeld. Maybe it's because Newman's postal van - VAN - is a recurring feature in the sitcom? Maybe it's all the episodes of Jerry driving to bluescreen. I don't know. Maybe it's - sigh- What?

Is my reference point askew? Maybe I'm getting confused with some other early nineties pop culture logo? There were enough of them.

A few possibilities emerge.

Saved By The Bell

Parker Lewis Can't Lose

Weekend At Bernie's

It's none of the above. Or, rather, it's all of them.

I don't want to go mad attempting to nail this one, so I'm happy to let the Seinfeld logo be the zenith of this particular style; an amalgamation of all the above colourful, angular motifs.

Unless YOU know what it is and let me in on the secret, I'll let it lie. Seinfeld: cultural baggage number 2.

22 July 2010

18 July 2010

15 July 2010

12 July 2010

...Invert Look

As part of the recent budget, the new coalition government decided to pull its big old clumsy blue and yellow cojoined leg back as far as it jolly well could to give the torpid UK economy a thundering kick in the nuts. The Libercon Dermosives or whatever we're supposed to call them, probably thought it an easy win to scrap tax breaks for the UK games industry. So short-sighted and out of touch was the decision, that individually writing down their ideas on scraps of paper, neatly folding them in half and putting them in a tombola would seem a more rational way to have chosen their deficit-busting policies. This government doesn't understand gaming. I'm sure they believe games are made by a few lazy ne'er-do-wells in their spare time to be played by a handful of loners with a propensity to vindictively re-live every pixellated action from Double Dragon on to upstanding, unsuspecting voters. A perception not only twenty years out-of-date, but twenty years wrong. If only these private-sector-sucking politicians could see how much money they could personally accrue from this (talented, prestigious, vital) UK industry, they may just change their minds. Right, comrades?

Where would we start in making them see the light? We need thrift! An expedient bulletin to make them understand the industry's far reaching cultural influence, affluence and pertinence. I know! Let's post the launch issue of Invert Look through the letterbox of number 10. I wonder who'll get there first in the morning to pick it up, Clegg or Cameron? I assume they untie their 'third leg' to go to bed. Nick is probably already making the tea and removing all the Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes from the miniature cereal selection to mollify David and his sweet, sweet tooth whilst the letterbox swings on its hinges. "My, what's this?" They'll say. Invert Look.

It's a new quarterly gaming publication from The Church Of London, producers of the excellent award-winning film mag Little White Lies. If you're familiar with the crisp, erudite writing from their contributors, wrapped inside layers of beautifully designed editorial, then you'll be as cock-a-hoop as I am that gaming has gained their attention. The launch issue - received free as a loyal *cough* subscriber to LWL - is a rallying cry at what a games publication can be in this climate of digital news, social gossip and blog saturation. No latest reviews, no sycophantic scoops, no early-adopting slavering over the latest technology; think watching Newswipe instead of the actual news. Quite refreshing, really. And it's about time.

Back in the early '90s when I was battling to get Alex Kidd to the end of his Miracle World before getting called down for My Dinner (there was a world before memory cards, kids), I'd worship at the altar of Mean Machines, my first magazine love. Before 'crowdsourcing' was a word, they had a feature calling upon their loyal readers to write in whenever a console or game was referenced in popular culture. It was an exciting crossover. The idea of anyone mentioning Nintendo or Sega outside of darkened teenage bedrooms seemed as unlikely a scenario as us teenagers getting girls inside our darkened bedrooms. But then it happened. Bruce Willis, at the end of Hudson Hawk (shut up, I LIKED it) asked "Will you play Nintendo with me?". Wow! Off went my letter to the magazine which killed the feature stone dead by the next issue. It looked like games weren't ready to penetrate the mainstream consciousness.

Cut to:
The year is 2010, C.U. of 10 Downing Street's door mat. A bright green magazine. A pair of Superman slippers right of frame.

As a 36-page taster, Invert Look does a really nice job of creating an absorbing and entertaining genre magazine that actually disobeys the rules of the genre completely, for a wide gamut of readers. I for one am not the archetype who'd buy Edge, Gamer or the like. I read as a designer who dips into Red Dead, fiddles with twitter, drops in on Facebook. Via tight features including an interview with Edgar Wright, a biog of an hitherto unknown Nintendo cornerstone employee and an essay on the basic human sociological need to play, Invert Look raises questions about 'a new state of play' (their mast tagline). Of how culturally significant gaming has become; an integral colourful fibre meshed in the pullover of society, with no sign of it unravelling any time soon.

From the outset, Invert Look succeeds, and I'm sure will flourish, by inviting us all to the party. Come in gamers, Tweeters and Facebookers, programmers, designers and writers, and bring your friends. Help yourself to drinks and buffet. There's plenty for everyone. We're just waiting for David Cameron to arrive. He's bringing the trifle.

06 July 2010

02 July 2010

...hands that do dishes

Washing up the dishes the other day, I was pondering the Fairy Liquid bottle in front of me on the windowsill. It's one of those limited edition affairs, with retro packaging to celebrate the brand's 50th anniversary, reverting to the original design a lot of British households, detergent fans and bubble enthusiasts will be familiar with: White and cylindrical with flexo-printed dark green graphics. Vintage. A design classic.  Up there, I'd say, with Marmite, Colman's Mustard, Lyle's Golden Syrup and Tunnock's Caramel Wafers. That's the reason I bought it, really. It's just so NICE. So very nice, in fact, it let me in on a few truths about the power of marketing over function and vice-versa.

The design of this promotional pack has been rewound several decades (somewhere between way-back-when and yesteryear). It looks all very true to the period and yet there are some modern elements they've left in; two opposing indentations for grip, and the de rigueur non-drip cap. It's a sensible decision by the manufacturer to keep these attributes, as they don't detract from the overall authentic appearance and would, more importantly, be a detrimental omission for the consumer who has come to appreciate and expect these useful features. But in the process, look at what it tells us. The bottle is pared down to its most basic, usable form: Liquid to wash dishes; bottle to hold liquid; grip to hold bottle; cap to contain liquid. And that's it. That's all you need. After all these years and advances in production, all we've gained is a smart cap, a couple of dents and some nostalgia. So why is the modern bottle so different to its great grandfather?

Looking at both modern and classic bottles, comparatively they couldn't be more different. Firstly, the modern bottle is colourful and (armchair psychologists unite), we can all agree how humans warmly - or coldly - respond to hues and shades we come into contact with. A powerful device which drives sales (think Blueberry iMac). Secondly, the shape of the modern bottle is flat, wide and at first glance appears ergonomic, to help us hold the thing, making it easier to handle. And yet from a user's perspective, the classic bottle, with it's grippy-dents, proves otherwise. We have just been sold into the modern bottle.

Of course, there is also an evolution of a product to consider - the different 'flavours' (scents, anti-bacterial properties, hypoallergenic and mild formulations etc.), subtle shape changes of the packaging as each relaunch demands a little 'refresh', and advances in labelling technology which allows superior quality printing on more unusual substrates (such as plastics). But I'd say the shape has a lot more to do with making the product as physically wide as possible to aid brand visibility at point of sale and to stick the pretty label on. At a pinch, you may get more into a container for transit and storage, in turn lowering unit costs, but ultimately it's the marketing which sells the item, and a 'vanilla' white opaque bottle, just wouldn't sell in a modern market. Which brings us full circle. Because what would normally be a hindrance in shifting washing up liquid - a bottle that doesn't look the part or invoke feelings of confidence in what's inside - has instead become its USP and invokes feelings of warmth for a product which we're being reminded in this marketing push, is a brand leader we have trusted for for 50 years. Even the iconic baby on the bottle is flipped around, semiotically telling us a precious infant is happy to take that step backwards, so goodness gracious, why aren't YOU already? So hooray! Let's celebrate!

And that's exactly what I did in buying this retro Fairy Liquid. Now I'm making crazy bubbles, the bottle isn't slipping from my grip, and the last drip isn't running down the side. That's some usability testing right there, and the results are in. Boo to the modern bottle.