22 December 2012

...an RGB Christmas

What is the Yuletide season without a selection tin of biscuits and a copy of the Radio Times? To celebrate, partner in crime Kate suggested we make a fitting tree decoration. Good idea!

18 November 2012


I recently read an interesting typographical piece over at ilovetypography.com about Krulletter - a traditional script letterform which appears on 'brown bar' windows in and around the De Pijp and the Jordaan areas of Amsterdam. Because it is becoming an increasingly rare sight as premises develop, change hands and close - and using these circumstances as the root - a new typeface called 'Krul' has been developed to help continue this fine Amsterdam legacy. With an upcoming trip to the city already planned (for Museumnacht - check it out) I decided not to miss out on seeing this type firsthand and so, upon my arrival, headed over to the Jordaan area for some Krul-lurking.

Almost straight away, my first example leapt from a pub window. It's a beautiful script and (type nerds unite!) exciting to see in context knowing it's part of a dying signwriting art form. It really does stand out with ornate curling swashes and super-thin thins. So much so that any modern revivalist scripts spotted on windows stick really stick out - there was definitely a bit of a Snell Roundhand party taking place on other pub/cafe windows. However, when photographing this type on glass, there were a couple of examples which had me wondering if they were original Krulletter or noble attempts to replicate the traditional neighbourhood style. Which brings me back to the original source of this expedition.

Ramiro Espinoza's effort in resurrecting Krulletter from the brink with revivalist typeface Krul feels like a worthy and correct endeavour. I understand the font is created with contemporary rationale for print and onscreen use, but if you open a bar in Amsterdam, and you can't use actual Krulletter, why settle for an anachronistic modern imitation script when you can, with Krul, have a typeface crafted with a warmth and understanding for the original sign writers favourite?

05 October 2012

...Blue Ray collection

27 September 2012

...skewing skeuomorphs

Hand drawn icon of Steve Jobs sticking his tongue out
Everyone's got their knickers in a right old twist over skeuomorphic design recently. If the discussion had an iPhone app, the UI would be a pair of screwed up cotton briefs with stitching so perfectly detailed by an angle-poised downward light source that Steve Jobs could - so we're led to believe - have been found hunched over his desk frantically licking it like some thirsty bespectacled Weimaraner. Alternatively, should the same app appear on a Windows phone, then the said twisted knickers would be a monochrome illustration of some pants bound by a solid red box. Whether or not Bill Gates would be seen dead running his tongue across this particular interface is unknown, but it could be safe to say he might. Or even safer to say he might not.

What's interesting, though, is that the Moores Law tail isn't wagging Microsoft's dog as far as their current design ethos stands. Despite the onward trend of ramping up the tiniest detail of every pixel of every onscreen graphic to match ever-higher resolution displays running on seemingly endless processing power, Microsoft has, with Windows 8, eschewed this trending whistles and bells eye candy methodology and stripped everything back likes it's 1999 - a time which can *just* remember saving your 1.44MB of data on to a removable floppy disk. Just because we can make everything look like it's water on glass, doesn't mean we should.

With debates raging on whether in 2012 we should be using anachronistic skueomorphs such as the floppy disk icon to signify saving your work when we have a generation of computer users with no actual reference point to the icon's original source, I decided that the problem could be solved simply with a tangible artefact which makes sense of saving. Sort of. And then made one. It's called the Floppyflash: a removable USB flash drive embedded into a 3 1/2 inch floppy disk with its own lick-able desktop icon.

Now when you've finished Photoshopping cats heads onto people with rainbow lasers shooting from their recalcitrant eyes and click save, you technically are saving to the floppy disk from which your icon came.

Then everyone will be happy and we'll hear no more about it, yes?

Props to the legendary Susan Kare who created the original 32x32 pixel Steve Jobs icon from which I took inspiration for my sketchy sketch.

Steve Jobs' alleged quote "I want to be able to lick it; I want it to be like glass on water" can be read in full in this revealing Co.DESIGN article.

21 August 2012

...The Common Databend

As the autumn truck rolls with a devastatingly inexorable momentum into a town near you, it brings together - like Tango & Cash - two seemingly unmatchable miss-matches of datamoshing and the common cold and makes an unarguable link between the two; there's a lot of it about.

It's so common this common cold that they called it the common cold, so allow me to rename this so-called databending (the now common practice of dicking around with the underlying code of a visual file such as a JPG or MPEG and outputting it to get some sometimes Pretty Ugly random results) the common databend. Pedant note: it's also referred to as datamoshing or glitch art - or as I prefer, the common datamosh or the common glitch art.

My favourite common datamosh comes when the process is as untouched by the human hand as possible therefore removing any conscious 'artistic' influence and letting the aesthetic chips fall where they may. My common datamosh effort above was created by opening up Google Chrome to watch Jerry Seinfeld's latest project Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and hitting the exposĂ© button in OS X. When the window resized - et voilĂ ! Instant glitch art. Completely random and un-replicatable. Unique.

More from the common databend can be found here:

Glitch art created by 'databending' - Duncan Geere
Auf einen Augen-Blick - Simon Crab
Databending and Glitch Art - Owen Priestley
Data Moshing and Glitch Art - Sam Smith
Compression Reel - David OReilly
Kanye West [Welcome to Heartbreak] - Nabil Elderkin
Evident Utensil - Chairlift

06 July 2012

04 May 2012

... renting DVDs

Confession time. I still rent DVDs. I like the reliability of the closed format. Sound doesn't suddenly leave the building halfway through the performance, 'For your consideration' doesn't pop up every five minutes to break the flow, audio tends to stay reliably in-sync with the actors lips, subtitles work every time and artifacting and sudden stops aren't part of the experience. Essentially, I know where I am; my expectations of watching a film uninterrupted are met with DVD and I feel it's worth the £2.50 I pay at my local video shop where a cat wanders round your legs as you browse the racks. However, you may have noticed it's 2012. Things have changed. Sometimes films find you.

A friend of mine (we shall call him Tim) had a copy of Drive, palmed to him on a memory stick that his mate had shoplifted from the internets. Upon telling 'Tim' how much I was dying to watch it, he told me what a good copy it was and, Here you go, take it, it's yours. Long story short, I took it, watched it and was blown away by it. Ryan. Gosling. For the pleasure it cost me nothing. However I was left feeling not the 100% fulfilled I should have been. 89% to be exact. How had I lost that crucial 11%? I had a pretty good idea how. So for my sins, I came up with a solution to a problem which I imagine probably only exists in my wretched little conscience: pay back the £2.50 I would have spent at my friendly local video shop.

Here's my guide to paying it forward:

Go to Poundland and buy some of those tiny little brown wage packet envelopes. As we've already established, it's 2012. You'll be as surprised as I was that they're still making them.

Write a brief anonymous confession on the front of the envelope. Don't tell them your name. As grey as this area already is, you have after all watched a film 'illegally'.

Under the cover of dawn, take the wage packet to the video shop. I'd avoid the cover of night, it makes the whole operation a bit creepy.

Pop the happy package through their letterbox. Don't run away or it could attract the unwanted attention of early risers such as paper boys/girls, milkmen/women, dog walkers, bakers and pensioners.

I realise £2.50 stuffed in a brown envelope won't prevent the diminishing returns on hard formats such as DVD and BluRay but for me at least - in my own selfish little way - I've strived to put right what once went wrong and hope that my next leap, will be the leap home. Take it away Al! [Cue Quantum Leap theme tune].

05 April 2012

...a flow chart to identify if you're British

Trying to understand our national identity outside of closing our eyes and picturing red post boxes and the BBC logo is something the British do, I say, on a regular basis - daily, around 11 o'clock, with a slice of Victoria sponge cake and a cup of tea. But what exactly defines one's nationality? Is it tradition? The food we eat? The customs which we inherit? Three colours on a piece of cloth billowing in a spring breeze? If you're having a national identity crisis, just follow the simple flowchart below.

16 March 2012

...asking Siri the whereabouts of my nearest Homeless Hotspot

In this late curve of human evolution, we've harnessed technology to provide a way of dealing with most tricky or problematic situations. I have this orange; how on earth am I going to automatically get the sweet juice out? With TECHNOLOGY. I have the latest feature film hidden away on a cigar box size cassette; how am i going to watch it tonight? With TECHNOLOGY. My heart has just failed; how will somebody pull my lifeless body away from my exquisite subconscious dying thoughts? With TECHNOLOGY.

Anyone unfortunate enough to lose their keys back in the 80s can testify technology is great. If you needed to pop out in the Sierra to buy a packet of Raisin Splits and a can of Tab Clear, but couldn't remember where you put the damn keys, the wife could literally tell you to whistle for them - the attached keyring would then respond by playing a tune to alert you of their whereabouts. Technology, you see, provided a handy way to always return keys back to their rightful owner, like a trusty metallic homing pigeon. And when I say trusty, I mean drunk. Because the homing pigeon didn't always return. A caveat of the technology was that you had to 'just put your lips together and blow' in the *correct key*. A trip to the shops would often start with what sounded like a sloppy budgie execution. Expectant Labradors would leap from baskets as the misconstrued sounds from their owners suddenly imbued new meaning. No longer did a whistle signify 'come on Nettles, walkies!' but instead 'I'm slowly surrendering my brain to a fob that hates me'. If you couldn't whistle in tune, FUCK YOU! Now of course, keys are being replaced with cards, retina scans, gestures and voice control. Voice control! Now there's an excellent idea. Despite its foibles I miss the subservient whistling-for-keys of yesteryear, we need something like that for the teenies. Who can we, the humble masses, rely upon for envelope-pushing technology that makes life so easy we leave common sense at the door with our keys?

Apple's latest UK TV advert for Siri, iPhone 4s' terrifying voice butler, is an incredible piece of work for an incredible piece of technology which makes human beings look incredibly dull. Having played with Siri, I'm suitably impressed with the panoply of technology involved and my mind, should I allow it to wander into such incendiary territory as wondering how it works, gets blown to bits. But the way in which it's being advertised is both hilarious and creepy in equal measures. In the latest UK television  advert we see a nice lady talking to her iPhone, asking Siri - our middleman - if her mum has emailed her that recipe. Is not everybody shouting at the telly 'check your email?!'

Or in another scene a friendly chap sitting lonely at a football match asks Siri Is my brother here yet? 

Again, look left and right. Is your brother there? No. Maybe call him? You are holding a phone, not the portable backup drive of Hal-9000. I understand that Apple have a technology and lifestyle proposition to sell in 30 seconds flat but according to California's favourite technology giant, it appears that human beings have, in a lax moment of common sense, let the once friendly blob of technology into our building, shake hands and then absorb common sense itself. Like the Body Snatchers just got real. It's maybe no coincidence the software to which we ask these daft questions is, basically, called 'Sir I', a nod to how subservient our smartphones are making us.

Another wonderful piece of life-affirming technology usage appeared in a news item from Wired whereby a homeless person can - for a suggested donation of $2 - be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot at 2012's SXSW. Like The Day Today never existed, It's actually not a joke at all but a way in which to utilise people as assets rather than human beings. Apparently, anyone who's having trouble with their bandwidth can use their £400 smart phone to hook up to a hobo (sorry, if we're reducing people to objects then I may as well just call them by a nasty, derogative term - nobody cares!) and, in exchange for money and precious human interaction, check yourself in at the local tramp (again, tramp, who cares!). Just like the fantastically successful Big Society campaign which David Cameron trumpeted from his featureless visage a couple of years back, it will be a great success. Except the Big Society idea was a load of rightwing bunkum used to slice benefits from people more needy than the restofus, and was very much as far from a success as you could get without losing the gravitational pull of the original idea. So herein lies the problem. Very few people, except those wiring up the homeless, will benefit from the whole peculiar exercise. I find it hard to imagine anything other than a few people milling around in khaki carrot top trousers sending tweets after a few dollars and cents have exchanged hands. I can see how the idea came about, that somehow technology would be able to free those living in poverty from their situation, but its enrobed in a misguided idealistic fog of love for technology that's skewed the idea of helping people.

I'm not saying we shouldn't help those in more need than ourselves, or, heaven forbid, stop buying iPhones. I'm just saying it's important we don't make technology into some sort of panacea for not only every problem we face - such as socioeconomic ills - but also problems that don't even exist; like trying to locate a member of your family instead of just having patience. Like Kip in Napoleon Dynamite, I love technology. But it can only solve some of the problems some of the time, and the sooner we accept this the better.

I asked Siri if he thought people were stupid and he answered 'I respect you'. If the technology we create has an inbuilt self-respect mechanism which reflects our opinions of ourselves - that we're actually not a bunch of nugatory idiots - then there's hope for us all yet.

Read about the iffy origins of the Homeless Hotspot project here.
A massive thank you to Judge Nutmeg on TheAnswerBank who located the Apple Siri advert on YouTube. Damn I wasted a long time trying to dig that out.

09 March 2012

02 March 2012

16 February 2012

14 February 2012

...making an entrance

Functional sign nailed onto locked gates of building site entrance. See also gate pride.

01 February 2012

...sign language

Awaiting my number 12 bus to arrive on a cold January morning my attention was caught by a poster advertising cereal. Not because cereal is a delicious meal any time of the day and a good source of vitamins and minerals, no, but because I saw an ubiquitous pictogram of the iPhone we've all become rather familiar with; the logo which depicts 'Available on the App Store'. I was admiring its simplicity, how such an uncomplicated shape - a rectangle within another bevelled rectangle with just one line and one circle either end - can signify such complexities beneath the graphic. I also wondered what I'd have for breakfast when I got to work.

Along came the bus. I got on.

My bus journeys are currently being expedited by Deyan Sudjic's The Language of Things, a remarkably digestible read on the objects around us, the design behind them and together, what it all means. Unless Deyan suddenly turns it into an erotic crime thriller, I'd recommend it to anyone, including nanas - with a revealing eye and easy turn of phrase it reflects upon not just design but social issues which I imagine very few avoid brushing against in this flipping complicated world which we live. Discussed are some everyday objects around us and how their carefully considered shapes, forms and functions have made them the archetypes we're familiar with - even when in their most modern form they bear little visual relation to their predecessor. Take for example the first Bakelite telephone, designed by Jean Heiberg, with its silver dial and distinct ergonomic handset. Although pretty much out of popular use today, the pictogram to which it's associated is still an internationally recognisable symbol for telephone (for how long is arguable, given a generation of kids will never likely use or let alone see the Bakelite telephone for a reference point). However, although stuff gets superseded, when the item in question creates a culturally significant mark it does so in a collective conscience. This 'old fashioned' phone is hard to forget even after being upgraded and turned to scrap. Sure, there were other telephones before this particular model, but Heiberg's design hit the mark which elevated it to live on as a popular visual metaphor for telephonic communication.

Another example is the Deiter Rams calculator. Designed to be the most perfect form of this particular mathematical instrument it was purposely shorn of ornament and crafted to ascend such transient things as fashion. Rams' goal to ultimately remove any need for another calculator. As a result, this timeless object inadvertently formed an archetypal idea of what a calculator should be. So much so that Apple's own iPhone calculator bears an uncanny resemblance by using Rams' original calculator as inspiration for their skeuomorphic user interface. It's a neat little nod by Apple towards Rams' original mould-breaking one-calculator-to-rule-them-all rationale, picking up the baton to set a new category of device in the form of the iPhone; one-device-to-rule-them-all. But what becomes of archetypes such as the telephone and calculator now that many familiar, singular objects are being rolled into one clever little smartphone? This brings me back to the iPhone icon on the bus stop poster.

In the past, objects and artefacts pretty much did the same thing no matter who owned them. A telephone sat in the corner and rang until it was answered. An alarm clock told you the time and woke you up, a Walkman played cassettes placed into them as you went about your business. However, with the merging of these devices into one clever ergonomic handset you can lose in the bottom of your tote bag, our understanding of them should, in theory, be terribly muddied as we try to unravel precisely what it is that we hold in our hand. Between brands, smartphones differ wildly. Even off-the-shelf identical devices can each be tailored to the whims of their owner with countless apps changing their function at the drop of 79p for whatever the user desires; gaming, email, organising, social media to name just four. But despite the complexities of the technology within and the myriad functions performed, we DO understand exactly what this complicated little artefact is and at a snap know what it means to view the symbol for iPhone, whether on a website, in a magazine or on a bus stop poster. It means all these things and just one all at the same time. It's a mental extrapolation we don't even have to think about as our gradual understanding of smartphones has evolved whilst we've grown with them in a technological blink of an eye.

So archetypes remain. As part of a visual vocabulary, they are the building blocks of how we understand symbols, which in turn exist to represent something in the simplest form, to communicate meaning. On their own terms, symbols can be understood because of the leg work put in by archetypes, but they can also be subverted, and it's a powerful tool the designer has at his or her disposal. Indulge me in a ridiculous macho simile if you will, but if symbols are bullets, context is a gun. Take a pictogram of a burger. As a sign it may literally just be saying 'burger'. But with it is carried cultural baggage that forms part of a semiotic DNA whereupon many signifiers can alter what's implied; fast food, beef, cow, hunger, greed, capitalism, economics, globalisation, USA, McDonalds, good, bad, obesity, abundance, value, cost. There's all this beneath a simple graphic and when used smartly the context in which the burger is viewed can truly skew the meaning. Stick it on a picture of a depleted rainforest and you make a political statement. Hackneyed maybe but a political statement nonetheless.

Even symbols created solely with one specific purpose rely on context. Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert's 1964 Men at Work warning sign has a primary function of alerting road users and pedestrians to oncoming roadworks by using a symbol of a man digging, set inside a red triangle. Learnt as part of the Highway Code, anyone driving in the UK will have this sign drilled into them for their driving test; we unequivocally know what it means. But what if we're handed a club flyer in the street and we see this particular sign used as part of the design - does it mean the road ahead's being dug up? Unless that's a hipster euphemism for a 'banging' DJ set, almost entirely unlikely. No matter where a symbol is seen, context is always a proviso of interpretation for a true understanding of what's before our eyes.

What on earth am I trying to say? I'm not sure. I've been writing this on and off for God only knows how long, tangled myself in many iterations of many strands of thought on the subject of signs, their symbols, the archetypes from which they are born, and the power they behold in both the right and wrong hands, but still I'm having trouble wrapping this all up. So let's try.
The generic smartphone has become part of the fabric of modern life, but it's Apple's aesthetically pleasing user-friendly iPhone which has forged a new archetype and symbolic benchmark into which all other same-category devices fall, further informing our semiotic understanding of them. All through design magic. And marketing. And vertically integrated lock-in business models. But that's another conversation altogether.

Semiotics. It's complicated. Yet simple. Yet complicated. And I've done nothing here to help matters. I'm sorry.

In a nutshell. DO read The Language of Things - even the most seasoned designer will enjoy the crystallisation of ideas when Sudjic eloquently shares his. DO also read Roland Barthes Mythologies as a companion piece. DO NOT ever use a pictogram of a burger as a political statement. DO NOT tell anyone I used the bullet and gun metaphor. DO remember to come back and visit, it can get so lonely out here on the internet.

Rainforest pic © Roberto Saccon 

20 January 2012

...business cards good enough to eat

I'd been meaning to do this for aaaaaages and I finally got round to it - make some Moo MiniCards based upon one of my very favourite things; biscuits. You're no doubt rather familiar with Moo.com already, but if you didn't know, these particular bespoke business cards are long and thin, which make them (almost) perfect dimensions for a variety of biscuits (I had to retouch my photography for the perfect fit). Rounded corners would've been nice, but for under £20, I won't start complaining about die cutting.

They come in Bourbon Cream, Rich Tea Finger Cream, Pink Wafer, Scottish Shortbread and Milk Chocolate Finger varieties.

Oh I'm sorry. Here's my card.

16 January 2012

..to search Google Search by Image

Just before Christmas, I was doing some housekeeping to my unruly Mac desktop. I found an old picture of a Dachshund downloaded when doing some pictorial research for a client pitch. Before I dumped it, I dropped it into Google Search by Image, just to see what got spat out. I'd never actually used their image search in this way before and was curious. You know how the saying goes; 'Curiosity killed the sausage dog and turned it into a sexy Asian guy resplendent in just yellow pants'.

Google wanted me to see a surprising amount of sauce considering it was a Moderate Safe search. Wanting to take it farther, I dropped the first search result (hot yellow pants guy) back into Search by Image to see what Google thought looked similar. A baby was delivered!

What would happen if I were to repeat the process ad-infinitum? It would be a revealing experiment into the responsive nature of Google's 'intelligent' search algorithms, I thought. But I just didn't get round to it. However, someone else did, and used a far more interesting process than mine. In Search by Image, Recursively, Transparent PNG, #1, Sebastian Schmieg takes a blank image as a starting point and re-feeds the results into Google 2951 times in a brilliant experiment where Google appears to eat itself. It's time well spent even if no double rainbows, dancing cats or sausage dogs get thrown up. (Thanks to Owen Priestley for pointing me towards it).

Search by Image, Recursively, Transparent PNG, #1 from kingcosmonaut3000 on Vimeo.