24 October 2014

When is a widow not a widow?

When I was little my concept of flux was anchored to an outlook of completion. I'd see roads being fixed, houses wrapped in scaffolding, bridges being built, and all I could wonder was when are they going to finish the world? When is all this stuff going to be done? But that was flipping ages ago. I know as well as you know that nothing stays the same for long and transience rules. However, some things don't change, and for good reason. We all manage to drive here in the UK on the left hand side of the road okay, and know that a white horizontal line through a red circle means 'don't go there!'. If the rules weren't in place then it would be nothing but Cannonball Run on the roads, with Burt Reynolds.

Apologies in advance if your search engine has brought you here looking for Burt Reynolds. There's nothing to see here.

Whether you like rules or not, we can all agree to differ that rules make order out of chaos. I like rules. Rules allow me to know where I am. If I'm riding on a designated cycle path and a pedestrian tells me off, I can happily rebuff their remark with a 'sorry, you're wrong there' as I pedal onwards. If I want to cancel a subscription to an overrated TV-on-demand service and I get the old never ending direct debit trick, I can call them on it. If I want to refer to one word sitting on its own at the end of a paragraph a widow, I know I'd be wrong. Because that's not a widow. Or is it? Oh dear.

It all started when I was reading Murakami's 1Q84 Book III and a rogue line of text particularly caught my eye. The word 'Lips' sat all on its own at the end of chapter 13. I opened a debate in the studio over what everyone thought a widow constituted. For me, a widow is a line of text at the end of a paragraph left on its own at the start of a page or column of text. Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style has always been there to back this up, with the handy mnemonic 'widows have a past but not a future' (a bit archaic, yes, but I catch his drift). The studio was unsurprisingly split on the matter. Popular parlance, it would appear after researching the topic, would lead me to believe that many refer to the one sad, lonely word as a widow. But it's still a mixed bag of opinion. In some cases what some call a widow, others call an orphan and vice versa. Why has this issue become so unclear? Is it a 'my understanding is better than your understanding' pissing match in the same vein as the tiresome old classic Noah Webster's American English Vs Samuel Johnson's English English? (Ultimately, they're both right, right?). Maybe. But I find it a little odd to accept that when dealing with typesetting and proofing, the lines are blurred at all.

Before you have a game of pool it's wise to know the house rules to which you and your opponent are playing; after accidentally sinking the white do you take the free shot from anywhere on the table, off the line or from behind the line down the baise? But to ask "hey guys, before I get started setting this 200 page document, is a widow this or that when it comes to you marking up the corrections?" would be both weird and a fundamentally troublesome. In fact, I stumbled upon this guide by Bulldog Press where they do indeed quite clearly outline their set of definitions. Applaudable, but in the long run, cumbersome. Furthermore, they throw another term into the mix - 'runt' - which I only recently discovered myself on an Adobe InDesign forum thread whilst researching widows.

When the plot starts to thicken, you need some trustworthy opinions to help make sense of it. So I turned to my former typography tutor David Jury to ask for his take on the matter. A knowledgable source whose excellent book About Face I've been returning to over the years for typographical solace.

"I was hoping to come up with a really definitive reference but I'm surprised at how difficult it turned out to be." David replied, and instantly put my mind both at rest - that I'm not alone and going mad, and to work - that it isn't as simple a matter of this-or-that.

David said "Widows and orphans... these are the same thing in the sense that both are used to describe a single word or small number of words on a line of its own at the end of a paragraph. The term 'orphan' however is used to describe that same word when, it is not only on the last line of a paragraph by itself, but when that line is at the top of a new page."

So the single word alone is a widow! I was wrong all along! We're done. Good work, we can all go home now...

"However, the use of these terms has become chaotic. Not only have the two terms sometimes switched function I now see that the first line of a new paragraph that happens to be the last line on a page is also called an orphan. This is entirely new to me." David continued. "I began to wonder if I had always had these two terms wrong but my description is (or was) correct although now clearly a little archaic."

I wasn't so sure if David's understanding is archaic, as he puts it, because there's no definitive answer to which term is old, which is new, which is good, which is bad. Interestingly, though, David adds a clue to the dating of these two nomenclatures. "I looked at some older printer's manuals and widows and orphans are not even mentioned, so I guess these are relatively new terms anyway - something I didn't know."

If David's confused, I'm confused.

"My first thought concerning the blurring of its meaning was that the internet was to blame... people too quick to make public statements without checking their facts, but Bringhurst scuppered that theory."

Although Bringhurst does put a stake in the ground for what he teaches as a correct, I'm leaning towards David's first theory: that the internet is an excellent knee-jerk soapbox for expressing opinion.

Blogs have certainly altered the online landscape and the way people read and trust information. If Arianna Huffington can start a commentary blog then the next person certainly can, will and has (except theirs probably hasn't become one of the biggest online news resources called The Huffington Post). The clamour to be the first flag in the ground with a claim - no matter how spurious - can be irresistible, and if you own a blog, then why not? It feels good to be right. To win. But just the act of posting what you believe to be fact doesn't make it so.

When print was a long, expensive, manual affair, it would be in everyone's interest - from author to publisher to reader - to make sure you had the facts right before the words were set and the presses run. Plus, you wouldn't want to be called on your errors by your peers. So you took care. Now that cache which print brought with it has transferred online, but minus the care. The speed in which information can be stated can likewise be erased, so with all best intentions, playing fast and loose with facts - Wikipedia style - is no biggie.

Regardless of the whys and whens (that's a lengthier investigation for another time) without driving the fact-finding bus into piousness, I still wanted a definitive what. And if someone is the definition of being definitive it's definitely Erik Speikermann. So I asked him the big question outlining my understanding. Recap: a widow is a line of text at the end of a paragraph which appears alone at the start of a page. An orphan is the first line of a paragraph appearing alone at the end of a page.

"That would be exactly my definition." Erik replied, also casually throwing in this little nugget "In German, we call them Hurenkind (whore's child) for widow and Schusterjunge (cobbler's boy) for orphan. Go figure."

He also passed on a link to an article by Jennifer Kyrnin, dealing with widows and orphans online, further bolstering his answer.


Or is it?

Turning to another type cognoscente in the field, Phil Baines, in his and Andrew Haslam's Type and Typography, it's stated that a widow as one word on its own at the end of a paragraph. As an arbiter of scintillating popular party conversation I raised this with my brother James at my dad's 75th birthday. With a classically trained graphic design background and as a contemporary of Baines, it came of little surprise that James also thought that to be the case and pointed me towards one of his many resources: Type Matters by Jim Williams. In this book a widow is: "a single word, a very short line of text or the tail of a hyphenated word at the end of a paragraph." It also outlines further good type practices by which to abide when it comes to these pesky little stub ends and is all very good common sense, really. Responsibly typesetting so that readability comes first and individual words become invisible to the reader is hardwired in any decent graphic designer who will adjust their layouts accordingly. But interestingly, the issue of leaving one word alone at the end of a paragraph  isn't considered the offence equivalent to calling their nan a witch that some designers would have you believe. Rather, it should merely be avoided according to Bringhurst and Baines. Furthermore, my dad's birthday cake was delicious.

I'd like to shut the case on all this, but the fact that designers, type setters, writers, typographers, font jockeys and kern-nerds alike have such similar yet varying views makes me want to find one rule to, erm, rule them all. So, dear reader, what do YOU think?

I'm no scientist, but I know when testing theories, wider samples result in more accurate and tempered results, so I've created a survey to see if a general consensus emerges regarding the semantics of widows. There may be a chance that results get skewed from what you've already read here, but it's not like I've got a white lab coat on. Which is a shame. It's a strong look.

You can find the survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/8NT3L8H

Take the survey

Please get involved and share it with others. I'll be sticking the results up on this blog at some point.

At the front of this piece I cited the importance of using rules to aid road safety. In the grand scheme of things maybe my quest for the elucidation of terminology is not that important. An issue without an issue. You say tomayto, I say tomarto. Nobody is going to get knocked off their bike for referring to one word at the end of a paragraph as a widow. But you never know. Without proper guidance, one day YOU may collide with a creative director. I certainly won't be taking any responsibility when you file the claim.

25 July 2014

27 June 2014

Writing in beige ink

Writing in beige ink
If you have previously experienced the imperfect storm of stumbling upon this blog and having the time and/or patience to read any of my stuff then A: thanks for returning, I'll do my best that you don't regret it, and, B: you'll know I'm not a writer. That is to say I write, but I'm really a designer. One could argue that a paragraph is just an efficiently designed series of sentences built from words constructed from letters buried in a foundation of language protected by a damp-course of grammar. But there'd quite rightfully be a real writer waiting outside the back of this blog shaking their head in disdain whilst an architect pins me down in an ugly cacophony of smite and bawling and "BAD ANALOGY" ringing in my thick ears. So I won't. I'll merely flippantly suggest it in the preamble and sneak out the toilet window.

So no, I'm not a writer. I know writers, work with writers and read writers to know that what I write isn't quite writing. So bear with me when I have the bloody nerve to suggest that some of the writing I've been reading of late has gotten just a little too beige for my colour palette. An unassuming hue of safe with a magnolia buff of staid.

Raised on a (probably unhealthy) diet of NME, I could hear the agitating voice of each writer loud and clear. Their enthused, often unflattering opinions of the bands/TV/movies about which they wrote meant a lot to me, regardless of whether I thumbs-upped or -downed their point of view. But regardless of what I or anyone else thought, the truth of the voice was always (and still is) the guiding light through the shadowy land of the dull prose and, ultimately, missing in a lot of written content I've been consuming.

Maybe that's it: consumption.

The voracious appetite for perpetual free content has, after all, given rise to the reams of grammatically incorrect newspapers being left on trains and untold duplicated duplicated content curated (un-lovingly farmed) for boggle eyes to gorge upon like Jabba the Hutt on spring break at a Las Vegas buffet, so reading yet another same-old toothless story on the democracy of Lego seems to make sense in this context. The demand for more certainly can make one feel the pinch. When the monster needs feeding, I know from experience 'getting work out the door' is the means to an end and a surefire way to end up on a fly-by-wire job; it helps avoid any snags and ultimately ensures a nice, pleasant, safe ride. And a satiated monster.

Did someone mention monster?

Adam Lee Davies, the ever-reliable syntactical buckaroo contributor to Little White Lies magazine recently reviewed Gareth Edwards' Godzilla for the publication online. It caused a right old hoo-ha, people spitting about how teenage and ill-considered the piece was. I really enjoyed the review. In no uncertain terms, you definitely know that from his perspective the film's a noisy, fun, smart, lizardy caper. His totes apprope prose only helps emphasise the giddy feeling that remains after viewing. Plus at no point are there any spoilers or synopsical (is that a word?) plot reveals which can often occur in these affairs. Read it for yourself here. Then read those comments below. If you have time, of course - I know how busy you can be.

The volume of vitriol disgorged from 'the bottom half of the internet' has been well documented, with both sides of the fence being painted with, erm, opinion paint. Good or bad, is the chance of authors bleeding to death by a thousand cutting remarks hobbling the writing that makes for interesting content? The idea of creatives being tractable by noxious bullshit is worrisome. I wanted to find out, so got in touch with Mr Adam Lee Davies via a medium I felt commensurate to my style of scribing: Twitter. A few questions pinged across with only a pocketful of characters, Paxman needn't be soiling the bedclothes.

I wondered, in 140 characters or fewer, if I wasn't the only one experiencing writing caught in some magnolia flux? "There's plenty of featureless beige deserts between the glittering gems." Adam offers, whilst I breath a sigh of relief that I'm not completely barking up the wrong tree.

However, isn't this the case in every industry? Graphic design is no different - there's wheat and there's chaff. You just don't want the chaff to take over or you'll go hungry. He adds "A lot of copy is written against the clock these days and some of it does tend to read like (lightly) re-written press releases."

Which goes some way to explain an often homogenised style that comes across in a piece. If the press release issued is like an off-the-shelf white label product, then the feature that emerges is just a re-skin - a work model which I can certainly relate to from previously pushing pixels in video games. "Of course, not everyone wants red-line, adjective-heavy gonzo opinions all the time. Sometimes you just wan the info." Adam tweets.

Yes, it's true. A wonderful snafu served up by his Godzilla review seems to be a lack of solid info for which the trolls are hungry, not the emotional opinion of one person which they get. I wondered if the bottom half of the internet snake pit could influence a writer to play safe? Adam doubts that's it. "It would be horrid to rile people up for no reason," a leaf UKIP would do well to take out of his book "but every writer wants to engender debate."

Something that he's quite familiar with. But how does reading comments make him feel? Using Godzilla as an example, the chop encountered isn't a problem he says - he's a big boy (his words - unverified) who's happy to stand by what he's written. "Getting death-threats for my Skyfall review was perhaps a little strong though..."

What the what? Reading that James Bond review it's hard to see what would cause someone to send a personal email with the exclusive offer to die. Did it sway him in any way? "It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a pleasant experience, but the initial review was rather even-handed, so it goes to prove you never know what’s going to set people off. You just have to stick to your guns." God only knows the fallout from a lukewarm Star Trek review. JOKE internet, it's just a joke! Brrr.

We've learned recently - using Twitter as a media-friendly touch point - just by airing an opinion in an open forum you put yourself up to exposure to the worst in human behaviour. I can't even imagine creating something myself - say a logo - to receive anything other than mild annoyance from a disagreement on a colour way. So it's on reflection, and with regret (just like Sir Alan Sugar in The Apprentice) that I should be pointing the finger (just like Sir Alan Sugar in The Apprentice) at all. I understand deadlines, I understand creative thinking, I understand the mechanics of supply and demand (yes, the irony of this blog entry existing at all hangs coquettishly low in front of me). So maybe, I should wind my neck in. I ask Adam: should I wind my neck in?

"There is an awful lot of great writing out there, so it’s important to accentuate the positive, but you leave your neck exactly where it is, as I’m looking forward to reading the comments you get!".

It may not be a war, but for writers, it's a coal face out there. And it's very hot and coal face-y.

Special thanks to Adam Lee Davies for his time. And for his always splendid Ex-Rent Hell.

07 June 2014

02 May 2014

...upstream Color Zen

Illustration, eye, zen garden, ROYGBIV
If you think there's only one correct way to spell 'colour' then you'd better step away from the screen about now.

With grammar pedants now stepped away from the screen, I'd like to tell the remaining forward thinkers about a game called Color Zen. Anyone already familiar with this game should step away from the screen about now.

All who remain in front of the screen hear ye: Color Zen is, in equal measures, a beautifully addictive and addictively beautiful optical-art crown bowls pocket chess-for-one acid drop. But before I paint a lacklustre picture with a hundred dulled words - like a transcribed version of that retouched JC on the walls of the Sanctuary of Mercy Church - here are some screen grabs from within the game which (even without any sort of game mechanic attached) would have me entranced any given day of the week, including the hard-to-please Monday.

Looks lovely doesn't it?

The back-of-a-cig-packet aim of play is this: knocking shapes of the same colour into one another causes a wave of colour to flood the screen, absorbing any  other matching coloured shapes as it goes. Each level screen is framed by a coloured border. You complete the level by flooding the screen on your final move with the same colour which matches the border. Got that?

It's like being in control of a zombie apocalypse except instead of decimating a small town by biting, tearing and eviscerating, you spread your rainbow virus using colour, geometry and head skill. To explain all this is like telling you how beautiful the sunrise was this morning over my town, so if you can, download it now on iOS or Android.

On top of it being a thing of aesthetic beauty, its makers, Large Animal Games, have made a superb fist of level design, getting the balance in most parts spot on. And on the occasions where some levels appear easier than others, you're so ensconced in its ambient tone that you're not sure whether you fluked it or were in-the-zone from all the braincolourwashing (you can use that special compound if you like). The UI is simple and tidy, if a little confusing navigating through the Help menu, but you'll never need to visit that as the learn-as-you-play user flow has you up and tapping straight off the (coloured) blocks.

Reading an interview by UIPalette with the developers and designers reveals some insight which I found not only true to making apps and games in general but to 'the creative process' as a whole. Color Zen was the product of one of their Project Days: a creative labs boiler room approach where over 24 hours an idea (which quite brilliantly is decided upon from an initial internal free-pitch) is rapidly developed. No time to over-think things. Solidified focus. Stuff getting done. It came from the desire to do something simple and cool, almost for the sake of doing it. I'm sure there's workaday pot-boiler stuff everyone should be getting on with over at Big Animal Games, but that as a sole focus stifles creativity and it's this, after all, which is the solid fuel of innovation and progress. I bookended the weekly team meeting recently with a classic Charles Eames quote found published within the pages of The Designer Says which I keep on spouting off and have been known to stick to walls as a reminder to everyone with eyes (I should consider a Braille version - and I'm not being facetious). It's this, and it's true:

"My dream is to have people working on useless projects. These have the germ of new concepts."

From play comes work. The whole experience surrounding Color Zen - from the process in which the game was made to the playing of - is a heady source of inspiration. If you've made it this far down the page, regardless whether or not you think I've been creative, the fact that what you're reading right now exists only because I play Color Zen, goes some way to prove a point.

11 April 2014

…a knockout cover story

Newsstand with a knockout Esquire cover
Times change but often simple truths remain. George Lois, that controversial copywriting art director raconteur creative magpie powerhouse of Manhattan's ad land enclave Madison Avenue - and on whom Mad Men's Donald Draper is supposedly based - was interviewed for the excellent 101 Episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. The topic of discussion was the fine art (or science) of magazine cover design. Nowadays we have rules based upon insight and metrics and eye tracking and user testing to help better understand consumer behaviour, in turn driving the decisions made about the design of covers which grab the attention of dawdling consumers loitering around newsstands like freshly shorn sheep standing stunned in a spring mist. Lois didn't have all this. What he did have, however, was an innate ability to understand consumer behaviour coupled with a third eye for impact.

Amid the gelatinous modern noise of physical magazine covers undulating before us at the train station, the corner shop and the supermarket, there's the unmistakable sound of a million digital devices being stroked and ogled in unison as the latest in digital written content is covetously absorbed.

The magazine is DEAD.

Or if it's not quite dead, it's DYING.

Or if it's not quite dying, the sun's setting and the vampires are waking up and brushing their teeth in their caves.

Their CAVES.

Or that's what we're lead to believe; that behaviour has been disrupted to such an extent that Eve can't put back the healthy bite she took from her Apple, Kindle or preferred digital device.

In the interview, Lois is adamant that "when you look at a magazine from twenty feet away it should knock you on your ass" which, given the rules to how a successful cover should work in 2014 (George Clooney looking you in the eye, a litany of blurbs, 100% yellow type, digital delivery) his rationale, you'd think, may not be so applicable. Even on the podcast they chose to fade out Lois mid-flow, editorially framing his opinion as the heated rant of an old guy out of sync with the zeitgeist. Love him or hate him - a bit harsh.

So on a trip to the supermarket I was pleased to feel a small pang of vindication for old George when across the lobby, betwixt the haranguing noise of ambient consumerism and the jostle of publications on the newsstand, Starburst Magazine popped out from twenty feet and pulled me over - simply by placing a big bold illustration of Kermit the Frog on the cover. However, for the record, I didn't fall over.

Starburst magazine pops on the newsstand

It could be argued that without those very same cover design rules which make one magazine blur into another, this particular edition of Starburst may not necessarily have stood out. But it did. So there you go. Times change but often simple truths remain. Whoever created it understands the same rules of creative design for which George Lois argued his case - and a very significant case it still is.

06 March 2014

…digital lion

Smug cat in a car making a lion's roar
Buses can be scary. Once whilst aboard a number 12 I was involuntarily fenced in by a lady three-sheets-to-the-wind trying to offer a lap dance to an indignant fellow behind us whilst 'singing' Blurred Lines in between declarations of how she was the fittest person on the bus.

On another occasion, I saw someone obliviously step out in front of one of Brighton's hybrid buses, nearly get squished, and jump back in understandable surprise.

It's sadly not uncommon that some poor pedestrian is accidentally struck by a bus in Brighton. I've seen it happen myself, by buses which - unlike the quiet hybrids - make big, gruff diesel engine noises that provide our ears with an unconscious audible alert. When one of the quiet ones passes, it comes sometimes with a double-take of recognition. Therefore the thought of a future Brighton with silent lumps of metal rolling around fills one with a sense of brrrrr. So when I read a piece on the future of electric automobile sound design coming out of Sweden, my mind was put both at ease and on edge.

In Street Sounds, Eliza Williams writes in Creative Review on the need for sympathetic sounds to emanate from the future milieu of electric automobiles and the associated potential our cities have in becoming audibly harmonised as a result. However, despite the noble task at hand to make the noise coming from our cars sound like angels brushing their teeth or something, I fear we're looking directly into the customised mobile phone ringtone abyss. With cars being ever-more connected to owners via our handheld devices, it's just one minuscule step away for mankind to personally choose a lion's roar as the sound to pull away from traffic lights by. With the chance to hack/add/customise your car noise, and without sensible regulation, this decade's Crazy Frog will become a terrible reality on the world's A and B roads whilst digital marketeers jizz in their pants at the unfolding viral opportunities.

23 January 2014

…a nice cup of tea.

I struggled with what to call this entry. Tea for four. Teanimation. Four tea. Oh four cup's sake. Tea tea tea tea bang bang, An animated proof of concept logo for Channel 4's now defunct weekend show T4 (admittedly this one may lack the punch of brevity). So I plumped for one which will probably get a high natural search ranking; 'A nice cup of tea'. You could call it cynical, but it's not like I'm selling tea. I'm selling wasted time. And the person who searches 'nice cup of tea' has just bought 15 seconds of it. Who knows, maybe it's just what they're looking for.