Saturday 28th Dec 2013
Here’s a glorious bit of design nostalgia for the New Year. It’s hardly a new find on the web; designer Nick Job first started this archive of the British Rail identity manuals in 2011, but I’ve just been reminded of it. Somehow I’ve never written about it either, which is a bit of an oversight given the entirely-unofficial and tongue in cheek name of this site: the British Rail alphabet and signage guidelines were also used by the British Airports Authority and National Health Service, making them as much a government standard as Britain ever usually manages.
The alphabet had two variants, one for dark-on-light type and one for light-on-dark. Light (and illuminated) type on dark backgrounds creates an optical effect known as ‘halation’ - i.e. it develops a halo, a slight sense of the letterforms being thicker than they are. To cope with this, the letterforms are reduced by the width of an outline for the lighter type, shown in the last panel above — while retaining the same spacing and other details of the type. It’s worth pointing out that a revival of the typeface is now available to license and as a web font from FontDeck.
For the non-British (or the very young) British Rail was the nationalised entity that ran the vast majority of railways (and a few ferry routes and other transport-related things) in the UK, beginning in 1948¹. It was rarely out of the news (more so on slow news days) for ‘record losses’, ‘strikes’, ‘failures’, ‘delays’ and so on. Starting in 1994 the network was dismantled and sold off, with the last few bits sold in 1997. Instead of a nationally-owned monopoly, we have regional monopolies owned by a variety of companies and (perhaps amusingly), the nationalised rail corporations of other countries. The headlines are now about ‘record price rises’, ‘record profits’ (also: greedy executives and shareholders), ‘overcrowding’, and yes, ‘delays’. According to the polls², privatisation is generally considered to have been a Very Bad Idea and Can It Go Back To How It Was, Please. Whatever your view or politics on the matter are, running an at-capacity rail network will never make you popular with the people who have to use it. I’m being charitable there.
Despite each of the rail operating companies having their own brands, for most British people the British Rail identity is still a familiar part of the landscape, with the logo being the road sign symbol for any rail station, and much of the signage (especially at smaller stations) unchanged from pre-privatisation days. But what an identity! The whole thing is such a brilliantly consistent and well-designed system, owing much of its strength to its crisp, stark simplicity, to its minimalism and almost-total reliance on typography alone. There’s so little to it that there’s very little (virtually nothing) that can ever really look out of date or old fashioned — sure in the 80s everyone³ had a thing for Rotis (for heaven’s sake) and there was that grunge stuff in the 90s and we’ve had the web and all that⁴, but nothing that was really so outstandingly superior or more modern. What made the identity look bad was the usual thing that ruins most good things: neglect and apathy. A faded peeling sign in a shabby, half-ruined station with leaky roofs and deathtrap toilets is never going to look great, and by the time privatisation came along that was the caricature we were being presented with, and so out it went.
And that’s a real shame, for so many reasons.
1 It was originally called British Railways, changing its trading name to British Rail in 1965.
2 Quite a few links, but even The Express supports renationalisation, and it’s not known for its socialist views.
3 OK, not everyone, but it was very popular.
4 Pixellated type? So last decade.
Saturday 10th Mar 2012
Kelly from Design Crush linked to this last week, a project by designer and Chicagoan Steve Shanabruch to create a logo for each of the Chicago neighbourhoods. Some, he says, are based on personal experience, and others on research. He’s created a lovely set of graphics so far, all of them remind me of old movie title cards (or end cards, like these), some look like they could actually be names of movies set in the neighbourhood.
There’s something particularly compelling about design projects like these, they trigger a sort of completist tendency in me, an appreciation of the collection as object. I like sets of things, and interpretations (and reinterpretations) of things particularly so. Thinking of this, I was reminded of the Branding 10,000 Lakes project by Nicole Meyer, to design an identity for each of the lakes in Minnesota (which is indeed known as The Land of 10,000 Lakes). There are some lovely ones in the collection. Some recent ones here:
Monday 9th Jan 2012
This is something I’ve had open in a browser tab for months, and I’m sure it’s officially ‘old’ in internet parlance, but I’m still drawing inspiration from the images. Christian Annyas has isolated (and traced?) these old department store logos and made quite a collection of them. He makes the point that very few stores today use similar lettered styles to these, and that they go for a logo style that “won’t offend” — I wonder though, if all these logos were created with a similar sentiment in mind? After all, brands in a sector do tend to cluster, so as fashions change, they all change together.
Tuesday 18th Oct 2011
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:
These are principles that can and should apply to the design of pretty much everything.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I catch up with things I’ve marked to ‘look at later’, I see a recent post on Graphic Exchange about the new identity for Mad Brew Productions, by Adam Hill. It’s not really a type related thing but I’m very much partial to a nicely executed bit of engraving and linework, so here it is. The premise of the identity is that of ‘wearing many hats’, in that the company does ‘media’ and ‘interiors’ as well as its music production business.
I would link to the page on Graphic Exchange, but to my frequent frustration it’s a site without unique pages, if you can imagine such a bizarre thing.
Logos from 2007, 2009 and now 2011
You may have noticed a slight change in the design of the site. I didn’t want to make big changes, as I rather like the way it all looks, but wanted to clean up a few things and remove a few things that felt tired — it’s a design iteration if you will. So, the pages are opened up and I’ve lost the dark grey surrounding background. I’ve kept the right hand margin visible though — I like being able to ‘bleed’ images off the edge, and it helps to have an edge there to start with. A more significant change is the new typeface; I’ve switched to Bliss by Jeremy Tankard, provided by Fontdeck. It’s a face I’ve used on a few client projects recently and I’ve really enjoyed working with it, so I found myself playing around with the templates here, and yes, I just had to use it.
Then, there’s a change that I almost forgot I’d made — the logo. I’ve trimmed the black bar, but also simplified the crown yet further.
These wine labels, featured on The Dieline, by Marisco Vinyards are beautiful. They’re from “The King’s Series”, a range of wines produced to celebrate the family’s heritage — they’re descended from the tyrannical Marisco family who, during the 12th Century, owned and operated from Lundy Island, just off the coast of Devon. It turns out the family were periodically in and out of (but mostly out of) favour with the monarchy, inspiring the names of the wines, from The King’s Favour to The King’s Wrath. The labels were designed by Hook’s Christopher David Thompson and the beautiful, historically-appropriate calligraphy was done by Peter Gilderdale. I love the finishing on the labels — the textures are reminiscent of lacework and embroidered fabrics, and the strong varnish and deboss on the calligraphy makes it look like bright fresh ink. It’s all really rather lovely.
Tuesday 21st Dec 2010
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.
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.
Sunday 14th Nov 2010
I wanted to trace this for the fun conceit of the C being used as a retort stand. It’s an interesting way of dealing with the open space created inside the Ch pair — I don’t think it quite works, the horizontal bar is a bit clumsy and the positioning of the retort glass itself could be more balanced, but it is all rather fun. I’ve traced it as best I can, not having any higher resolution example than what you see below, so yes, the script is quite clunky. At a certain point you realise you’re creating rather than copying. Who knows, maybe the original was even more wonky? I’d love to see a high-res example of it though. Originally seen here on CO₂Comics, via Drawn.
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