31 October 2018

Videogames: (Sketch) / Design / Play / Disrupt

I took a trip to London recently to do some gallery lurking, and was fortunate enough to get a ticket into the V&A's latest digital inspired offering, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt. As a designer within the industry this show is exploring, when I saw the curtain lifted on how games are made (a brainstorm wall, a spreadsheet of narrative forks, how sprints work, etc.) it began to feel like I'd come in on a Saturday to do some paid overtime – with me doing the paying.

But then something happened. I saw a kid, a girl. About ten years old, taking notes and sketching. And then a boy, he looked about 12, discussing with his dad all the inner machinations on display. Looking around, amongst a varied ragtag bunch of punters, I realised a large contingent were kids with parents. When the next generation of makers are getting inspired before your very eyes, you quickly start seeing things differently. The day-to-day in front you instead morphs into dreams. That spreadsheet, a dry but necessitous tool of organisation, becomes a truly beautiful, rational weapon of brilliant logic slaying the demons of disorganisation. My love for a spreadsheets and Gantt charts became crystallised as I saw afresh their pedagogical powers. And as I moved along this work-away-from-work, observing the hours, days, weeks, months and years of design, development and production unfold as art, I found the big one. The holy grail. A single artefact carefully secured, sheltered by dimmed light and protected by glass. A sketchbook. And it got me thinking.

I began thinking about thinking. I thought about the thoughts written down and how they got turned into something real. I wondered if that designer ever wondered what would become of their sketchbook. Did they see it as a workaday means to an end? A breadcrumb trail of thought? Or some other thing; proof of their part in something much bigger? Could they ever have imagined that a small part of their creative process would become worthy enough to be considered curate-able in the same room that showed the life work of David Bowie, currently next to an exhibition on Frida Kahlo in a museum space shared with epochs of diverse human antiquities, art and endeavours ranging from Tipu's Tiger, to Constable, to a 3D printed gun? My guess is not. I imagine they thought it would just sit on top of another sketchbook, in a long line of sketchbooks, gathering damp or dust or whatever it is you find at the bottom of a box in an attic. Until now.

Now it’s firing the imaginations of kids and showing that what we do, what makers do, is no different to what they do. Dreaming, sketching, making. And very often just doodling. (But doodling’s fine, kids. It frees the brain.)

I clearly remember as a kid myself, sketching on my 'William' custom headed notepaper my brother James got made for my birthday when he worked at Prontaprint. I looked up to him being a Graphic Designer and one day hoped I could do the same and somehow combine with that my massive love of The Beano, and turn my cottage industry of imitation comics and home t-shirt printing into something like a job. Funnily enough, something like that did happen. I did become a graphic designer. I did end up working with The Beano, helping make a couple of games. And the constant throughout this journey? Keeping sketchbooks.

It’s impossible not to. It’s one place where a constant thread of thought can be scrawled, traced and relinked in a tangible space. Quickly and easily navigated by thumb and forefinger, amended simply with a pen. Looking back through my current sketchbook, I can see an analogue time machine of projects and thought process, and even a few bits of those aforementioned Beano games scratched out. In the spirit of Design/Play/Disrupt, here are some of those sketches from two recent releases I worked on at Jollywise for Beano Studios: Return to Lender and Sausages and Chips.

We all know Da Vinci kept sketchbooks. Artists throughout time have done the same. As have designers. In one magical display, the V&A has helped solidify the importance of the medium for whatever field you work in, and turned the almost impossible games-as-art debate into a beautifully winnable argument. If you get a chance, take a look. And take a sketchbook.


Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt

On now at V&A until Sunday, 24 February 2019


This post was first published on the Jollywise blog

20 July 2018

Innovation, simplicity and creative thinking Eno nutshell

The old aphorism 'Necessity is the mother of invention' came to mind recently when I was listening to Episode 38 of the Adam Buxton podcast, in which he interviews Brian Eno (for the second time; the first time being episode 37, continuity fans).

Whenever Brian Eno says something, gold falls out. Kind of like a sagacious and thoughtful alchematic raconteur. If he had a strapline, it would be 'More than a musician'. You may have gathered, I really really really like Brian Eno. During one of Adam's signature ramblechats, they talk about making verse-chorus-middle eight pop/rock songs and, with it, some lovely insight into creativity spills out of our demigod. I mean Brian.

Discussing an early period of his songwriting, in one concise statement he manages to reveal more about a certain part of the creative process than few wordy articles ever have:

‘Very early on when I started writing songs, thinking, if I make a decision never to use the personal pronoun 'I', never to use 'you' in the singular, or 'love'. I thought if I make a decision never to use any of those three words in a song, I would already be in a very tiny area which nobody has explored very much. So that's kind of the trick I think, is to say okay, there's one target – the love song – and everyone is shooting at it. What about if I invent another target?’ (Click here, skip to 15:00.)

Back to that classic old aphorism ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. Difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions, and essentially what Eno wanted to do was set himself parameters that would force a unique outcome. Innovation by reduction. Parameters are a great creative starting point on any project - that's why interrogating the brief is such an important part of the design process: distilling the requirements of a project into a nutshell so time needn't be wasted in casting the creative net too wide. One nice little example of this is to ask the client what they’re not looking for, often weeding out some very specific details that otherwise may not get articulated until a much later stage where time has been burnt venturing down yet unknown dead ends. For example, “We hate purple. So as long as the interface isn’t purple, we’ll be happy”. Good to know.

What at first appear to be boundaries can quickly stimulate lateral thought. Eno's take on forcing a situation whereby constraint is actually a positive fuel – rather than a creatively stifling pot of old glue – is nice to hear from a sensible demigod. I mean, person. Whatever creative field you're in, it's just how you choose to do your version of it; to harness your own set of rules, whether it's a didactic approach like his or a more philosophical one – such as using the ethos of simplicity as a whole.

Simplicity as a design tool for making more by using less is something I believe all us designers strive to do, but in practice is very difficult to execute. Projects often require proof of existence by the volume of ideas, the complexities therein and the output created by them, and it's a struggle to counter the 'more stuff = better value' logic. However, to coin a mixed metaphor, there's always more than one way to get your cakes in a row, slice, then eat them.

I recalled another interview, with director Jonathan Glazer, talking about the process of working on total cinematic amazathon and best film-with-a-Hollywood-A-lister-driving-a-white-Transit-van-around-Glasgow, ever: Under the Skin.

‘The perfect machine is the one with the fewest parts. You don't start with the fewest parts, you're trying to distil to the fewest parts. Simplicity is something you end with, you don't start with it; you get to it. If you're lucky you get to it.' (Click here, skip to 12:48.)

Nicely put. His MO is to accept that things are complex. You start with a camel but strive to end up with a racehorse.

Today's takeaway, dear reader: yep, sometimes more is indeed more. But in whichever creative industry you work, simplicity wants to win, and the people at the top of their game will always find a way to let it.


This post was first published on the Jollywise blog

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.