The Design Process

The Wacom Inkling

TL:DR (ahem)

It’s a fantastic thing which has the potential to be very useful. You are drawing with a biro though so adjust your expectations accordingly. The software is awful, but not so bad as to make the device useless. Just make sure you export as SVG.

Far TL:DR

If you sketch a lot and need a digital copy of your sketches, get one. I’m glad I did. Actually, I’m not. See below.

Update: I discovered that Wacom believe the Sketch Manager software is so vital to your everyday computing needs that they’ve set it to launch on startup. What’s more (and I suspect this is down to the dodgy Windows to Mac port) it doesn’t do this properly, in a way you can change using the Mac OS ‘Login Items’ setting. To stop it launching at startup, have a look at this Apple Discussion entry. I found entries for Sketch Manager in both the main and user ‘Library’ folders. What’s more the user library folder is hidden, so you might want to ‘unhide’ it first. This is a terrible thing to do, requiring technical knowledge that shouldn’t be expected of any buyer of a consumer product to fix.

Update 2: I bought mine from Wacom directly. I don’t know anywhere that has them in stock. You might want to reconsider anyway, given the above.


Wacom have (finally) started sending out orders of their new product, the Inkling. I got mine the other day and I’ve been having a good play with it. It’s very good. Not perfect, but very good. The announcement video set some very high expectations, some of which are matched by reality, while some… aren’t.

The whole idea of the device is to record what you draw so that you can import it into image editing programs later, either as a bitmap or (more excitingly) as a vector image. It keeps a track of every stroke, in the order you made them, and records how hard you were pressing on the pen, so the recorded lines vary in thickness with pressure. I think it was this that really got everyone interested.

As a gadget, it’s a lovely little thing. There’s a pen, a receiver, some spare nibs and a USB cable, all neatly packaged in a case that doubles as a charger. Closed, the case looks like a rather glam pencil case with an elaborate hinge.

Using it

Getting started with it is straightforward. You clip the receiver onto the edge of your paper (or notepad, envelope, napkin or whatever) turn it on, and draw. The pen turns on when you start drawing, though I found best to give the nib a preparatory tap on the page somewhere first, just so you know it’s ready, otherwise you’ll lose the first stroke.

The receiver has a couple of buttons, one to turn it on, and the other to create a new layer in your drawing (yes, you can create layered drawings). Turning the receiver off and on will create a new file, as will squeezing the clip – as you might do when changing the paper, which is a nice touch.

Does it actually work?

Well yes it does, rather well actually, but it does depend on your drawing style and your expectations. It does a very good job of recording your strokes, from the faintest to the heaviest of lines, and it’s as good as my tablet at recording the fairly fast and loopy lines of my handwriting. I tried a few drawing styles, from handwriting to fast and loose scribbles to a sketch of my hand, crosshatched shading and all, to see how it would record them, and for the most part it did a very good job. Looking at the vector output I can see why Wacom supplied the pen with only ballpoint tips; you can probably play with the settings to improve things but ballpoints aren’t particularly nuanced or subtle drawing devices, and the output reflects that. As I said, it records things well, but not beautifully. When exporting as SVG, the vectors are made from very short line segments (they aren’t smooth beziers) and very faint lines tend to come over a bit thick, so what you’d drawn as subtle crosshatching is recorded as a rather heavy bit of shading, while thicker lines come across as a bit thin.


Scans of various sketches, compared to how they come across as SVG. This is using all default settings the device comes with.

I don’t see any of this as a serious problem though. I think by making the pen a ballpoint Wacom are signalling the quality and style of drawing that the device records well. With a few tweaks to the settings, I can see myself using it to record some actual illustrations for use as final artwork, but its real strength seems to be in recording rough ideas. My sketches of lettering ideas, flow diagrams, outline illustrations, logo and site ideas all came across perfectly (though with provisos, see below) and were great to use in Illustrator as guides for finished artwork. Because the output is vector and faithfully records pen pressure it works far better than a scan might, and means I don’t feel I need to delete the guide layer to keep file sizes down (as I might with a scan).

What the device offers is convenience, and a bit of magic. It’s less hassle than scanning or photographing your notebooks, and you get scalable vectors nicely separated into whatever layers you want. You can draw an outline sketch and then feel free to scribble and annotate all over it, knowing each addition can be turned on and off and moved about at will, or even deleted entirely. That’s the real appeal of this thing.

The software

There are some extra special bits of magic the Inkling hints at, but isn’t yet backed up by the software that comes with it. When you look at a sketch using the ‘Sketch Manager’ software, you can replay the drawing process as an animation, or use a scrubber to focus on a particular sequence of strokes. There’s something quite fabulous at seeing a time lapse of something being drawn, and here it is with your very own sketches! But, and I found this a little disappointing, you can’t export the sequence as an animation. The whole purpose of the player and scrubber is to allow you to split your drawing into multiple layers, as you might want to if you’d not pressed the ‘new layer’ button at a particular point. Useful, I’ve no doubt, but a rather mundane use case compared to the “can you see what it is yet?” fun potential. It would be nice to be able to export animations, and I know it’s not the main purpose of the software, but it seemed like such a big potential win that I was surprised it wasn’t there.


The main interface of Sketch Manager. Pretty horrid. Showing the directory tree is a very strange choice, especially for a Mac app. It’s not useful at all. Note how the toolbar icons look borrowed from another app.

The other issues with the software are less structural and more down to (it appears) a rushed job and skipped testing. The screenshots in the manual show the software running on Windows, looking fairly good, with everything looking like it’s in the right places. Seeing what it looks like on the Mac, I would hazard a guess that it was designed originally for the Windows UI, written for Windows, tested on Windows and then ported over to the Mac. Button assets look clumsy against the Mac’s grey UI, some buttons end up in the kind of drop down that you get when there’s no room to show everything and the text is jargon-filled and doesn’t feel like it was written for humans. There are some very odd labelling choices too; for example, the scrubber for the drawing timeline shows two numbers, one labelled L, the other R. Left, and right. I had no idea what these meant other than to wonder whether it was a count of left versus right handed strokes, which would be an odd thing to show since I’m fairly sure ambidextrous illustrators are quite rare. But no, as you move the scrubber bars, it shows you how many strokes are to the left of the scrubber (i.e. earlier), and how many to the right (later). I can’t imagine why this would be at once so important to show, and yet not label properly.


The document interface. Also pretty horrible, and largely incomprehensible. That large button down the bottom right takes you back to the main screen. Placed next to the scrubber and player like that, I thought it was a rewind control.

More serious problems show up when you try exporting sketches to Illustrator and Photoshop. At this point you really need to have restarted your computer after installing Sketch Manager (yes, it’s rather old school), if you don’t, Illustrator will give you a dialog asking whether you want to import the text as ANSI or not. Whatever you pick, you’ll get a large text field with the contents of an XML file in it. If you have restarted, you’ll get a series of very strange paths with stroke widths set using Illustrator’s calligraphy tool. It’s not great. Sharp corners get filled in as splodges and the whole thing looks like a vector trace of a bitmap.


A scan of the original drawing, and three different outputs. First is direct to Photoshop, the second is direct to Illustrator, and the last one was exported as SVG and opened in Illustrator.

Exporting to Photoshop was a bit better in that I got an actual image first time, but it created a 600dpi document with what looked like a scaled-up 300dpi image in it, which I think is exactly what it is; when you choose to export to any of the bitmap formats they create a 300dpi image. Also, when you choose to export to Photoshop, it changes your Photoshop settings so that the units of measurement are inches. I can’t even begin to comprehend the utter boorishness of this. I’ve checked, and checked again. I set my units back to pixels, export a picture from Sketch Manager, and there it is, inches again.

Not good. Really, really not good.

The only way to export vector data reliably is to use the ‘Save as different format’ option, and choose SVG. This works well, but is a faff as it defaults every single time to PNG and defaults the file location to the device itself. As I said above, the vectors are short straight-line segments rather than smooth beziers, but it does at least create a faithful replica of your drawing.


Viewed in Illustrator, the paths of a sketch exported as SVG (left) and direct to Illustrator (right). Even without looking at the scan, the difference in fidelity is clear.

I should point out that the Sketch Manager is far better than any vendor-provided scanning software I’ve ever used. Not exactly praise, but it is something.

The upshot

The Inkling feels very much like a tool for designers more than illustrators. If you sketch rough ideas – layouts, lettering, schematics and the like, you’ll find it very useful. If you want to record your sketchbook of illustrations, you certainly could, but it might cramp your style having to use that pen - Wacom themselves say it’s good for preparatory drawings, and I agree. I don’t use ballpoints very often for a couple of reasons – I don’t particularly like the quality of line they offer, and the ink smells bad. For the sheer convenience of this tool though, I could live with both.

The Guardian iPad App

The Guardian now has an iPad app. Previously if you wanted to read Guardian content on an iPad you could read the website, use the iPhone app or attempt the Digital Edition. I used to subscribe to the Digital Edition, a downloadable PDF of the paper (now with an online viewer) in exactly the same form as it was printed. By the looks of it, it’s much improved these days. I cancelled my subscription fairly quickly, because while it was good for reading some articles, seeing things like “continued on page 5” with no hyperlink felt weird, and some of the diagrams in articles had text on them which at the resolution the PDF was created at was unreadable. I complained about one issue like this and was sent a jpeg of the graphic at a higher resolution. Great customer service but it never seemed a scalable or sustainable solution.

So last year the Guardian did a survey of its iPhone (and presumably web) users asking what they’d think of an iPad app, and how much (if anything) they’d be willing to pay for it and/or a subscription. I figured that if they did it well, it could be revolutionary. The iPhone app was (and is) so good it still stands as a reference guide for how to do a content-driven app well. If the iPad app was as good, then it’d be great.

I’ve used a fair few magazine and news apps for the device and they’ve all been a bit of a let-down. As it’s the first mass-market tablet the iPad presented a new and unfamiliar environment to design apps for. Some went down the fill-it-with-crazy-interaction route, others down the scan-our-printed-edition route, most sort of somewhere in between, but nothing really felt natural to the device. It takes time to learn about the new medium rather than simply adapting what went before.

I think the Guardian app is mostly there. There are a few things that I think ‘hmm’ at (well one thing, the issues list), but it does what it’s designed for and is a pleasure to use. The design principles for the app (from this article by the project lead, Jonathon Moore) are beautifully focussed and simple:

  • Reflect the strength of the form
  • Create an interface that is always responsive and consistent
  • Design simple user journeys
  • Design for the majority (what are the 3 or 4 features that everyone will enjoy?)
  • Realise we can’t do everything
  • Appreciate simple is best

These are principles that can and should apply to the design of pretty much everything.

Strength of the form (of content)

 A full feature.

It struck me that in all reviews of apps like these, much attention is given to the surface features of the software, but the content is largely ignored. It’s typical feature-itis, and ignores the user’s experience of a thing. The entire reason for someone using this app is to read the Guardian, and let’s be fair, reading a printed broadsheet (or even a Berliner) in almost any situation is rarely a comfortable experience. But you put up with it, it’s worth it for the content, and after a while the medium of crumpled, flapping paper tends to fade away. To do the same (or better) in an app requires a deep understanding of what the content is and how people regard it.

“But to me it was always about how to capture the essence of the print experience and translate that into forms and behaviours that felt right on the iPad.” Mark Porter

I know from experience of developing websites that content is often regarded as the ‘word filler’, viewed as the own-brand mystery sauce to be poured into the shell of the app, not really to be considered as an aspect of the design itself. This is a massive mistake.

Browsing the printed Guardian you see articles from a broad range of subjects, short snippets of fact here and there, and huge page-spanning features and editorials. Newspapers are varied. News websites, even the Guardian’s, are rather more uniform. The pressures of news-now, of getting the story ‘up there’ before anyone else changes the style and format of journalism. There seems to be less room for editorial and analysis - a story is happening now, and this is how it is, …but what does it mean? Most of that type of content remains in the printed paper.

“When we look at the pages of a printed newspaper we take in a range of stories at once. Some are big, some small; some are obviously more important than others. The decisions about space, position and treatment are the product of the experience and values of the editors, and when you buy a printed newspaper you’re not just buying the words and pictures, you’re also buying those values and judgments.” Mark Porter

Bringing that to an app requires a solid understanding of how it works in the paper - how to signal to the reader the relative importance and scale of an article. Is it news reporting? Is it opinion? Is it editorial? Analysis? In any paper it’s the typography and layout of the page that gives you this information.

“I worked closely with Barry Ainslie, our Art director for Sport, to define a range of typeface styles that suited our headlines from print. We defined the minimum required and slowly built them out as the app developed. It’s the first time we’ve used our (extensive) range of fonts to such effect in any of our digital products.” Andy Brockie

That extensive range of fonts is the Guardian’s own typeface, Guardian Egyptian by Christian Schwartz. It has over 200 fonts.

It’s quite clear from reading the app that a great deal of thought and effort has gone into the typography, making it work perfectly on the iPad (which isn’t a perfect medium for great typography in itself). Looking through the images detailing the design process shows just how many iterations of type and layout were tried. I must admit to feeling a bit envious of them to have such time and resources to spend on it.

The details of the typography are often subtle - body text is perfectly readable, sidebars with links to related articles don’t intrude, colours are carefully used to illuminate interactive elements and bring variety to front pages, and headline styles change depending on the type of article. Most articles get a regular weight headline, so that when you get to one with a lighter weight, you know it’s a different kind of content, comment, editorial, obituaries and so on. Features and very long articles get a big screen-filling photo with text overlaid on it, with the article starting below.

It all creates a beautiful effect, inviting you into the content, and letting you read it without intrusion or obstruction.

The treatment of adverts is interesting, and welcome. They do exist in the app, but are restricted to interstitials and section front pages. So by design, while reading an article you don’t see adverts. By design! No hacks, no reformatters, no plugins, no extra services, this is how the content is presented, by the Guardian. Only a few other news apps (like the Channel 4 News one) do anything similar.

Strength of the form (of device)

The iPad is a determinedly multifunctional thing, but it relies on the two universal gestures we can do with our fingers, the stroke and the tap. Stroke vertically to scroll, horizontally to swipe. Stroke with more than one finger - more functions. Tap to select, to activate things and to type. Tap and hold for a contextual functions. But how to design and build an app that responds to these things in a natural way? Apple apps provide clues, but obviously didn’t solve all the problems - there never was an Apple app with loads of content that updates frequently, unless you count the browser itself. But that web/app debate is a whole other kettle of worms, and I’m not going there.

The Guardian app solves this simply, in a way that we’ve come to learn feels natural for the device. There are very few interactions possible; Text scrolls vertically, and you swipe sideways to change articles or sections. You can tap on links to other articles and sections. There are a couple of settings and you can share some articles, but that’s it. Which leads to:

We can’t do everything

What’s interesting is what’s missing. There’s no double-tap to expand the text. You can’t tap and hold to select (and copy) text. Many articles can’t be shared - only the ones that are also on the website can be. There’s no pinch zoom. Navigation is pared-down to just a few common functions and links.

There’s no option to have larger text sizes, accessibility support (such as VoiceOver) is OK, but fails on the front pages (where it reads out the ID for that type of headline).

Some of these things could certainly be added, and the accessibility could be improved, but I know from experience that the desire to get all features into the shipped product usually leads to the product not shipping at all. This is version one of an exceptionally solid app, and I’m glad they’ve polished it as they have. They may not be able to do everything, but what they’ve done is very well done.

Design for the majority

And this leads nicely onto the features the app does have. I strongly suspect it’s aimed at readers of the paper who are looking for something more convenient than the print edition but find the website content lacking and maybe the small form-factor of the phone apps constraining, i.e., commuters. Commuters on trains, specifically. Phone signal on trains is notoriously variable, and train operators often charge stupid money for Wi-Fi, even when it works, so the Guardian app pre-downloads its content in the background in the very, very early morning.

But aha, you say, what if something newsworthy happens at 7AM? The app is out of date! Martin Belam nails it:

“To me, that is like arguing that there is no point the BBC broadcasting the Today programme or putting Newsnight on iPlayer, because the news might be “out of date” the instant the programme is finished.” Martin Belam

To my mind that’s where newspapers still have a unique and valuable offering. You can get live feeds of news from multiple sources, but it’s newspapers, books and documentaries that (on their different timescales) tie the stories together and provide context and meaning. As a result it actually doesn’t matter if a newspaper is a little out of date, provided the journalists have done their jobs properly.

I suspect that the majority of the app’s users want a better, more convenient newspaper, not a prettier newsfeed. It sounds like that’s what the Guardian thinks they want, too. I know I do.

Design simple journeys

Printed newspapers offer very simple user journeys. There are articles on pages, and the paper is divided into broad subject categories, as sections, and you simply flip through them, stopping to read whatever catches your eye. The app uses the same scheme, but also creates a front page for each section. The design of a front page like this isn’t a trivial matter, and it’s particularly interesting the technology the Guardian uses to build these from the content of the newspaper automatically. When I read about it I was amazed at what they’d done.

“This was to be the world’s most beautiful, elegant, interpretation of the print experience - with a few digital twists. It was also to be tied intelligently into our print production systems. That was big task – a task that we underestimated. From get-go.” Jonathon Moore

That’s an enormous task, and I bet immensely satisfying to work on. Looking again at the design evolution Andy Brockie presents, I wonder how the system works out where to put everything. I’m slightly relieved that there is some human input to fine tune things, because if all of that was automatically generated we’d better get ready for welcoming our new robotic overlords.

“Unlike the iPhone and Android apps, which are built on feeds from the website, this one actually recycles the already-formatted newspaper pages. A script analyses the InDesign files from the printed paper and uses various parameters (page number, physical area and position that a story occupies, headline size, image size etc) to assign a value to the story. The content is then automatically rebuilt according to those values in a new InDesign template for the app.” Mark Porter

And then from InDesign to HTML. Automagically. That’s the future right there.

Appreciate simple is best

The simplicity and straightforwardness of the Guardian app is (like its iPhone version before it) going to stand for quite a while as the acme of how these things should be done. It’s also a good reminder that simplicity is actually quite hard.

A note on the business model

Much has been said (by oh so many people) claiming that ‘print is dead’ and that newspapers are whipping a dead horse of a business model. If you look at the distribution of printed newspapers people pay for with money, vs. the assumed-free access to news on websites, you’d be right. There’s more to the story than that though. As I pointed out, there’s a special type of content that newspapers have, and despite everything, not much of that content is actually available online. The few newspapers that have made a success of paywalls, such as the Financial Times, do put their analytical and editorial content online, and it shows that plenty of people are willing to pay for it.

For a more general audience the received wisdom has been that people are highly resistant to paying for news, and the Guardian’s own survey showed that many people are. However, not all are, and many people (I include myself in this) actually want to if it means getting a higher quality product. I can’t put it better than Martin Belam, again:

“It strikes me that it is considered quite normal for car manufacturers to have a range of products that are designed and priced to suit different sectors of the market. When a news provider does it, from some sections of the web community there is an almost instant knee-jerk reaction that this proves news organisations “don’t get” digital.
Just because you can have an always on app that crams in updates and breathlessly fast breaking news from live blogs, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to.” Martin Belam

There’s no doubt that the business models of delivering news to people are changing, but it’s quite clear that people still want news, and people still want journalism. I doubt the constantly-updating feeds of largely analysis-free news updates will provide much of a business model to anyone (except in aggregate) but actual journalism, that is most definitely worth something. Whether this app is what nails it we don’t know yet, but I think it’s got a damn good chance at making that breakthrough.

Letterpress, by Naomi Ross

I’ve seen this video by Naomi Ross linked a few times on various sites and on Twitter, but have only just got around to watching it. It’s a beautifully filmed and edited short video showing the process of creating a letterpress poster. It’s not a technical manual or anything, it’s just nice to watch and enjoy the process of creating something, lots of narrow depth of field shots, with warm, gentle grading and pleasant gently-animated labels for things. If the music were a little gentler it’d be one of those things to watch when you’re sleepy or hungover. Nice. Go and watch it here.


Lettercult: A Year In Custom Lettering 2010

Lettercult has posted an incredible collection of custom lettering projects by hundreds of lettering artists, all completed in 2010. There are so many projects that they’ve split the post across two days, and there are 33 (quite long) pages in each post. I’ve not had a chance to go through all of them yet, but the variety and the quality is remarkable — so much to look at! I’ve posted a few favourites below, one by David Croy, another by Jordan Jelev of The Fontmaker, and I’d be surprised if you’ve not seen her work already (but very worthwhile admiring again), a piece by Dana Tanamachi.


By David Croy


By Jordan Jelev of The Fontmaker


By Dana Tanamachi

Lettering Process: Frank Ortmann

Continuing the process theme of my last post, Jan Middendorp posted a link to this (mostly) non-digital handwriting and lettering process by Frank Ortmann of Freies Grafik Design. I’ve done a few screenshots from the video to give you an idea of it, but nothing beats watching an expert directly. I particularly enjoyed the practice work — this time spent ‘loosening up’ is (I think) a key part of any creative process, digital or not. Go and watch the whole thing, it’s good.



The Process vs. The End Result

I’m endlessly fascinated by seeing how people work. Everyone who perseveres and creates something will find their own way of doing it, but seeing how other people work is extraordinarily helpful for getting started, overcoming creative block or frustration at the amount of grunt work something takes, or just for gaining the confidence to just get the job done. Sharing techniques doesn’t mean you lose your ‘edge’ or some kind of competitive advantage — if your success relies on something like that it’ll be a short-lived kind of thing anyway, as no matter how good the technique someone, somewhere, will find a better way of doing it. What you actually create is unique to you. If someone wanted to rip you off they wouldn’t copy your technique, they’d use something far easier to master, like a photocopier.

So yes, sermon over. I was thinking of this while reading this post by Alan Ariail on his site The Art of Hand Lettering. In it he describes the results of a discussion with Yves Leterme during one of his workshops, namely the idea that, “The end result is what matters not so much the process”, and goes on to show some of his own processes. I was surprised to see how he goes from sketches to digital monoline ‘skeletons’ of letters, building them up to a calligraphic result. I’ve done a fair bit of stuff like that and always had a niggling doubt, the idea that of course, real letterers wouldn’t do this. Well it turns out that they do. Marvellous!

I would make one personal comment on the whole result/process thing though. I do think that process matters — not in any professional or even moral sense (I use the term loosely) — but in a personal, artistic one. The process is what you spend your time doing so it matters in that it should be enjoyable, satisfying and inspiring. It’s a shame that with many of the digital tools available there’s a distinct lack of joy in using them. But if you do find something that’s good, let the developer know you like it, and just as importantly, tell everyone else. But that’s my original point again.

Effective Simplicity

A few people tweeted links to this brilliant collection of packaging redesigns by Antrepo — they’re done as an exercise to illustrate the idea of reducing the design of the labelling to its simplest form, while also showing an intermediary step of a ‘partially simplified’ design. It’s interesting the effect it has on the different products. Some gain a sense of being a premium, high-value product, while others start to resemble economy, basic versions. The Pringles packs look pretty basic; with the full-colour printing gone, the basic nature of the cardboard tube stands out, and with the simple black printing it looks like a supermarket own-brand or something bulk-bought by caterers. On the other end of the scale you have Nutella and the Schweppes drinks — both of them look like the kind of ‘artisanal’ packaging you’d see featured on the Dieline or similar targeted at people who want the same old stuff but to feel a bit special about buying it. And having said that, the Corn Flakes one is just great. It’s absolutely perfect — if I ate cereal then packaging like that would definitely have shelf appeal with that beautifully simple and stark lettering, and how. It reminds me a little of the General Mills Kix packaging, which I also like a lot.


Visit Antrepo’s site for more info and links to the full set.

Of course, packaging for most fast moving consumer goods is brightly coloured and covered in imagery for a reason — it’s to draw the eye and make its purpose, contents or intended use immediately obvious to the shopper. Without going into some kind of pop-psychology analysis of consumer habits, it’s interesting to think what the manufacturers are intending with each package. The simplified Mr Muscle one looks great, but on the original you can easily tell it’s for windows and tiles even without reading any of the words. Similarly for the Durex boxes, I’d hazard a guess and say the orange box contains flavoured ones — the word ‘select’ hardly makes that clear — again, the original packaging wins out.

The food ones all have some kind of serving suggestion (albeit a ridiculous one in the case of the Corn Flakes, I mean, that’s quite a tempest going in the bowl) designed to put the image of the food in your mind, a simple association that makes you more likely to buy it. The only one I think where that doesn’t happen is with the Schweppes bottles. The type is pretty small on the simplified one, but it’s a hell of a lot more legible than the original. Given that you’re likely to see bottles like these in a fridge behind a bar, you’re going to be hard-pressed to read the label and form an idea in your mind that maybe you’d want mandarin as the mixer in your drink, as opposed to orange juice, say. You’re going to look and see confusing labels all done up with sparkles and images of bubbles, and not know if it’s soda and plain old OJ in them or something more special. You’d just end up asking for something generic, and end up (in a lot of British pubs at least) with some rank pre-mix out of a tap on the bar. I could mention at this point that Red Bull might be considered drinkable by some, and therefore a food. It’s not, but it is easily recognisable in a behind-the-bar fridge, which tells you something about British pubs and the drinking culture they encourage, but that’s an entirely different rant.

So yes, beautifully simple packaging is a wonderful idea, but I doubt we’ll see many big manufacturers opting for it, sadly.

On Maps Made of Words

The last time I posted about a set of maps made of words I was a bit hesitant about it. The map itself was attractive, and I liked a lot of things about it (I wouldn’t have posted it otherwise) but I did wonder how much of it was automatically generated, and how much of it was done by hand.

Not that there’s any problem with generating things automatically, as it takes just as much (if not more, sometimes) craft and creative energy to design, program and build something to do that, but sometimes with the computer generated stuff there’s a question of, “How much of this did you do?” Is it a plugin or script you downloaded? Should we be crediting someone else with the creativity and diligence to program the thing, and you with the idea to use it like this? Does it actually matter? It’s not like effort is ever any measure of quality, but of course we naturally associate a premium with something made in a way that doesn’t scale (through difficulty, moods, inspiration, randomness and so on), so that it becomes a unique object, or at least a rare one — this is the premium of the handmade, the crafted object. So this is what I was wondering about when I saw these maps by Seagull’s Hut, not made of type but hand-lettered, and then printed as limited editions:


I’m reminded of Jeremy Tankard’s Shire Types. Know what I mean?

It’s not like you can buy the original artwork, but it is in itself is unique, and the prints from it can only be copies of it; you can’t make new originals, which is something you can’t say for anything algorithmically produced. Well, unless you create AIs and they become conscious and develop an artistic sensibility that is. I’ve raised that issue before and had quite the flood of crazy comments from the internet’s vibrant and vocal apocalyptic tendency, including the gloriously and perhaps unwittingly eloquent, “humans will be instinct”.

So yes, don’t get me wrong, I do like the maps from Seagull’s Hut. Shame I can’t link to them directly, but go and take a look at their store. I don’t think I’ll be posting about any more maps made from lettering or type though. The inspiration has become a meme, and is ever more dulled by the transformation.

The Anywhere City

I love architecture. I love buildings — the art, the engineering, the design, the culture and history of them, and how they form en masse actually places that people recognise and form emotional attachments to; the design of cities, their growth, evolution and (perhaps sadly) eventual decline are all utterly fascinating to me. So I sometimes write about architectural stuff here, as it has a kinship in my mind with the design of type and lettering. I should warn you, this post is a bit of a rant, and because of the subject matter is a tad more political than normal. So, with that out of the way, we can proceed.

I follow a fair few architecture-related sites, one of which (and the most regularly and rewardingly updated) is Arch Daily. It’s basically a pretty damn fine site if you’re into architecture, featuring thousands of projects, new and old, innovative and traditional, and so on. One important thing I’ve noticed is that most of the larger projects being planned and built have a lot in common with each other, with innovation and traditional technique alike apparently reserved for the smaller projects. I’d actually go further and say these large projects are not merely similar but all subscribe to the same blank, unrelenting anonymity — an utterly uninspiring (if glittering and crystalline) mediocrity. Look at the renders below (from this article on New Chengdu City Center on Arch Daily), they could be anywhere in the world:


LA? Seattle? Tokyo? Osaka? Johannesburg? Frankfurt? Moscow? Almaty? Seoul? Beijing? Taipei? Mexico City? Sydney? Bangalore? Buenos Aires? Santiago?

We’re not talking about adherence to some new International Style here — these buildings subscribe to no ethos, no design principle, no philosophy. They are the safe, neutral buildings guaranteed to be approved by conservative planning departments wanting the skyline of New York, Chicago or Hong Kong at any cost, ignoring the culture, history and sense of place of the city they’re supposedly ‘improving’, and with little to no apparent understanding of the conditions that gave those cities their skylines. Oh sure, they’ll package up some significant buildings, a monument here, a couple of streets there, and they’ll be prettied up and photographed for the ‘culture’ section of tourist brochures, and meanwhile vast swathes of the city will disappear under motorways (labelled ‘boulevards’), office blocks (sorry, ‘towers’) and shopping malls (or ‘pedestrian-friendly traditional streets’) and dreary dormitory estates (‘upscale residential developments’). Then they stick some thin screed of greenwashing over the top and invoke the holy acronym of LEED and declare themselves satisfied.

At this point I probably sound like some arch-traditionalist, railing against the depredations of the modern world and all it brings, but that’s not my intention, or my point. My problem with these developments is that they’re being sold to rapidly-expanding cities around the world and aren’t being designed with the long-term life of those cities in mind. Cities like Chengdu have ancient histories and in some cases still have some of their original structure and urban fabric intact — architecture firms, planners, and most importantly, citizens need to recognise what’s valuable about the best and even the worst areas of their cities and think long and hard before approving any large-scale improvements. If this sounds like western cultural imperialism, the jumped-up western opinionist telling people desperate for an improvement to their lives that they should keep their barrios, their slums, their favelas and their cramped hutongs then perhaps it is. But then, I’m not the only one to say it and this isn’t to say those slum areas should stay slums, that they can’t improve or change on smaller, community-level scales. There doesn’t have to be an overarching project to demolish and replace them with some glittering arcology, instead, a longer-term effort to support the communities within them and prevent their control by gangs, just like what’s happening in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, including the infamous City of God itself:

For decades the favelas have been a deadly battleground, where thousands died in the turf wars of rival gangsters and drug lords. But two years ago - in anticipation of the football World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the government launched a new initiative. Since then the Police Pacifying Units (UPP), have moved into 12 favelas, freeing 150,000 people from the control of the gangs and bringing a new calm to embattled neighbourhoods.

You can watch the full report, ‘Peace in the favelas’ on Al Jazeera’s site.

While the Chengdu development appears to be built at the edge of the metropolitan area, giving perhaps the possibility of the city’s core remaining intact, there are a whole new set of problems as the city expands into wild areas and farmland. Earlier this year Václav Havel explained some of the problems this kind of expansion can cause, citing his experience of the changes to Prague in recent years:

What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.Václav Havel at Forum 2000, October 2010

You can see the effect of this round many British cities; instead of a boundary, the place tails off with business parks, warehouses, big-box stores, and strange areas of empty land, prevented from becoming wild, not used for agriculture, not built on, just waiting. There is nothing about these hinterlands that gives you any clue to where you are, not just which city, but which region and (road signs aside) even which country. Governments bang on about growth, endless growth, but very few people seem to ask what kind of growth it is we want. The kind of growth that turns our cities into this kind of anonymous emulsion of steel, glass and concrete doesn’t seem to be the growth anyone would choose, but the consequences of any individual action that bring it about are so far removed that effectively our choices are abstracted to boardrooms and cabinet offices, where we have little say. When faced with the Anywhere City, should you just shrug and accept it?

The Ames Lettering Guide

It’s so good to see Drawn (sort of) back again, I’d sorely missed its regular supply of illustrations and tutorials and feared it would never come back. But no, thankfully it’s back (as a Tumblr blog) with a beautiful new logo lettered by Chris Gardner. The grammar wonk in me is glad they’ve dropped the exclamation mark from their name too — makes referring to it a little easier, no?

So yes, the Ames Lettering Guide — Drawn linked to a nice tutorial on using one by Dustin Harbin, which brought back some memories of school for me. I remember we were shown how to use one and set some exercises, but since then the hand lettering I’ve done hasn’t had quite the constraints (or the volume) to need anything more than a ruler and a bit of patience, so I’d completely forgotten the thing existed. I’m sure there’s one back at my parents’ in a box somewhere. Maybe I’ll dig it out, because now it seems like a useful thing to have around.