There’s a nice article on Cocoia Blog about the ‘pollution’ of various Mac OS X user interfaces by Helvetica. It’s worth a read, though I can’t resist excerpting this little bit, as it made me laugh:
Speaking of iCal, which proudly boasts Helvetica in miniature point sizes on the screen, it has the utterly mind boggling feature that it shows you calendar information on a computer screen with everyone’s favorite 1950 typeface for print, and prints these exact calendars on paper in Lucida Grande, a computer display font from this milennium. “Utterly backwards” might be an apt term for such misfit typography.
There are some interesting-looking infographics here on NOTCOT, apparently providing some sort of analysis of various literary works. I’ve had a look through them, and while they’re certainly attractive, they don’t seem to provide any insight at all. The one immediately below, for example, might suggest how shorter sentences bunch up together in the narrative flow, but there’s no guarantee that several groups of small sentences, separated by (say) many long sentences, a short sentence and more long sentences might overlap, giving an illusion of a single bunch of terse, active prose. The rotation of the line by 90 degrees with each sentence is an arbitrary insertion in the ‘analysis’, and in itself provides no valuable meaning - it doesn’t even serve as a neutral carrier for information, rather it distracts the reader and confuses the data.
Some of the other illustrations provide a little more promise, but with having to refer to an (again) arbitrary key, any insight a graphical representation could provide is quickly lost. But, they’re beautiful. It’s as if the designer flipped through Tufte’s books without reading anything in them, and decided to create something that ‘looks like that’. OK, I’m being harsh; I’m sure that after a fair bit of reading and working out how the diagrams were made, there’s some vague possibility of gleaning some tiny hint of insight into the literary style of various authors, but you have to get past the fact that they seem to be primarily designed to be pretty* rather than useful. You can see more of the works on the designer’s site, apparently called “Untitled Document” (at the time of writing), here.
As for the ones attempting to depict sentence structure, they certainly leave a massive amount to be desired - in order to work out the difference between a colon and a parenthesis you’d have to get out your micrometer and be prepared to annotate like crazy. Or you could just read the original text. After all, there’s this amazing set of symbols and conventions that have been used for years to convey meaning and sentence structure. It’s called written language. Heard of it?
* And to appeal to people with more money than design sense, looking at the prices.
Sunday 9th Mar 2008
I love nonsense flowcharts. The one on this New York Times article by Sam Potts is nicely done, properly complicated in appearance and with some amusing possible answers (Fur Con being one). I answer “no” to the very first question (top left), but here I am, blogging about diagrams. OK, I’m not in the dark, I’m not in a basement, but since you can form intense relationships with science fiction and computers without knowing what D&D is, I am at least doubting the technical accuracy of the diagram.
I’m tempted to do one for typographers. First question bubble: “Exposed to Letraset early in life”
Browsing Drawn! the other day, I followed a link to Craig Ward’s site, showing some of his fantastic typographic illustrations. I’ve posted a couple of crops of two of my favourite images (so you can see the all-important detail) - visit his site for the full images. Beware the we-don’t-need-no-scrollbars site design. Leave your mouse over the word ‘DOWN’ and you’ll be able to see some more of his work… eventually. Are scrollbars so bad? Still, the site does look lovely.
I always liked the display screens in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I was reminded of them the other day by something. I went online to have a look round for a picture of some of them, and, well, there’s really not very much. Even the IMDB pages have very low resolution blurry shots that barely show the HAL console, never mind the details of what the info screens are showing. I’ve got the DVD, so a bit of stepping through frames later I can at least recreate the basic appearance of them. The small text is unreadable for the most part, but I could make a guess (that’s part of the fun). I created a desktop (iPhone/mobile) out of them too.
The big question of these things, though, is, “What are they showing?” Given that so much of the rest of the film is pretty carefully thought out, it seems a bit odd that these screens should end up as a slightly more sophisticated version of Star Trek’s blinking lights. There are some graphs, some video feeds, and a few lines of numbers, but these three-letter codes are the most eye-catching. If they’re supposed to be some representation of HAL, what are all the buttons on the console for? Actually, I do wonder why the buttons are there - since everything is done by voice, and when HAL goes wrong, there’s no frantic hitting of buttons or any hint that these consoles do anything at all.
Still, it is all rather pretty!
Update: Steve Siers has pointed me to this fascinating site, with actual paintings of some of the screens. It’s definitely worth a look round the site at the rest of the work on there too. Also, he sent me this link, which kept me happily engrossed for quite a while - there is a HAL 9000 simulator and a screensaver in there.
I just found a link to this odd thing on NOTCOT. It’s essentially a synthesiser control panel for changing the forms of glyphs in a typeface, but instead of just changing sound, it treats the strokes as a kind of ‘play-head’ for creating sound, rather like a groove in a vinyl record. As you change the glyph, you change the sound, and vice versa. Also, what you do to one glyph will be done to all the others.
Now, my first impressions after looking at the results are to say that this is an evil device born of the unspeakable nether regions of mythological demons - I mean, to do this to type? They’ll be kicking puppies next! However, I’ve since watched the video and I think there may be some interesting things in there, say, altering the stress on type, adding some interesting brush strokes and the like, but that what you get would be a starting point for any kind of type project. I wouldn’t ever use any of the results as they are. Besides, the noises the thing makes are stunningly annoying. It’s no wonder most of the results are so hideously ugly, you’d end up with a seriously bad headache and a foul temper after a few minutes of using it.
There is one good thing about it though: the display interface. It reminds me of graphics from Star Wars, or the info-screens in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Any moment you expect a Ti-Fighter to come in and start blasting vertices from the bastardised remains of the glyphs:
If you fancy ogling some beautifully presented numbers, graphs and maps, Nicholas Felton has published his annual report for 2007 and it’s quite the visual treat. I’m boggling a bit at the idea of keeping track of so much data over such a long period - I remember seeing his 2006 and 2005 reports and being impressed then. I barely keep track of anything. Maybe I should start.
Over on Telstar Logistics there’s a great post on the book “Flight thru Instruments” which has some of the best information graphics I’ve ever seen. There is, as ever, a Flickr gallery of images from the book, which are a great source of inspiration, especially the seemingly simple ones like this and this. Go and take a look. There’s a nice bit of background on the production of the book:
It turns out, “Flight thru Instruments” is so beautiful because it was created by the General Motors “Graphic Engineering” Staff under the leadership of Harley Earl. And who was Harley Earl? Earl worked as a designer at General Motors from 1929 until 1959, where he rose to become the postwar chief of GM’s styling section. He drew styling inspiration from airplanes throughout his career, and Earl’s most famous design innovation was a little trick he cribbed from the swooping rear fins of the P-38 Lighting fighter flown during World War II.
The illustration below caught my eye especially. I’ve read definitions of pitch, bank and yaw in the past, and yes, they’re fairly straightforward concepts, but they never really seemed to stick in my mind. I always had to draw a little diagram to make it clear, and while the diagram below is much more complex (and I think it’s the least successful of the set for being hard to interpret) it contains a fantastic visual description of pitch, bank and yaw. I’ve redrawn them at right, a bit larger, mainly because I like redrawing things and I wanted to make a wallpaper of it (which you can get here: widescreen, square/4:3, and even iPhone). Yes, I know the text is a bit wonky, but I was trying to match the original, honest.
And, because I like the cover too:
This sign on Brighton’s seafront (click for a larger view) is one of the worst, if not the worst bit of information ‘design’ I have ever come across. I am a long-time resident of Brighton, and most of my time here has been spent living very close to the seafront. I am also very familiar with maps of the place (being obsessed with maps in general). When I first saw this sign, I had to look closer to see what it was about, as I hadn’t recognised that it was a map of Brighton seafront!
So what’s wrong with it? Let’s look at some properties of it in turn.
There are two usable ways to orient a map. The first is to place the ‘You Are Here’ point at the bottom of the map, and have everything that lies in front of the person looking at the map above that point. The further away it is, the closer to the top of the map it is. This is the most usable orientation for a map where you know the position and orientation of the person reading it. The second, and most usual, way is to honour the generally-accepted global convention of having north at the top, and south at the bottom. This is a good idea for maps that may end up being moved around, or duplicated and placed in different locations you don’t know or can’t control.
This map does neither. It places south at the top of the map, and yet if you look at what you see when facing towards the map, south is to the left.
A look at this map shows that it has various landmarks marked on it, most prominently the Brighton Pier and the West Pier. The problem here is that the broken south-at-the-top orientation of the map gives the impression of a skyline, rather than the top-down view of a map, and as you can see from the actual view below, for Brighton this represents a different idea. Brighton has two prominent tall buildings on the seafront - Sussex Heights and Chartwell Court. Showing the piers sticking up like that is more likely to evoke these two buildings, even for a local resident who is familiar with the two piers. For a visitor, they would look out from this position and see one pier, the West Pier having burned down and largely collapsed into the sea (I must point out that this happened long before these signs appeared) and two tall buildings. Despite the names on the map, it would be enough to trigger doubt in the reader regarding whether they were reading it correctly.
While much of the type on the sign is perfectly readable and reasonably well-set, it is again the map that has the problems. The lettering on the labels for the Marina, the two piers and the other landmarks is pointlessly, and needlessly, excessively casual and hard to read. I wonder sometimes if the mantra to ‘make it look friendly’ doesn’t get so locked into people’s minds that they lose sight of what the purpose is of what they’re designing. After all, surely it is far friendlier to make signs informative and easy to read?
One of the pitfalls for a computer-based designer working for print is to be distracted by the benefits and limitations of screen display technologies. In other words, things look different on screen than they do in print. Colours on screen are made by generating light, colours in print are made by selectively absorbing and reflecting ambient light. Drop shadows are a boon to a screen designer, outlining and adding definition to otherwise indistinct or low-contrast images, whereas in print, a drop shadow will come out as incredibly dark and heavy. Quite often you don’t see this until the final print proof has been made, if you get one. Printing workflows are so quick and easy now that often a obtaining a proof is considered in the same the way that maintaining a effective and robust backup strategy for your hard drive is, i.e. a chore to be put off, if possible. Printing a copy out on an inkjet photo printer doesn’t make an effective proof either, as these printers tend to be a lot more forgiving. On this sign, the designer has fallen right into the trap. Almost all the graphical elements have drop shadows, and the label for ‘Hove Lawns’ is barely readable thanks to the great blob of black ink surrounding it. The label with the fish jumping over it… I can only guess that that says ‘Fishing Museum’, and only then because I know that it’s there. Any tourist looking at this wouldn’t have a clue!
I’m at a bit of a loss over the choice of roads chosen as landmark routes. It shows ‘East Street’ just to the right of the roundabout, but the main road that any visitor could identify in Brighton (after the seafront) isn’t shown - The Steine. Just take a look at a real map of Brighton to get an idea of how strange the omission is. I wonder whether they thought that for a map promoting walking it shouldn’t show main roads, despite them being obvious and easy to identify? The other roads are a bit odd too - why Seafield Road? I’ve never actually heard of the place, and yet just two streets along is Hove Street, leading to Sackville Road, very much main roads and easy to identify. A poor map indeed.
This is more of a personal dislike. I detest ugly things, and the graphics on this sign are relentlessly hideous. Poorly drawn, garishly coloured, artless, unpleasant abominations mocking everything that is beautiful and graceful about the human form and the world in general, these little icons would be best left off this sign. It doesn’t help that they have strong drop shadows under them too - the blue blob under the ‘West Pier’ label is, I assume, a pool of water, and yet it has a shadow under it. Since when did a pool of water have a shadow? And one so dark?
The route itself
Yes, the very point of this map, is in essence, wrong! It shows you having to cross the roundabout by the Brighton Pier, when in fact you pass around it. The colours of the background too, they imply that you’re nowhere near the beach on your walk, and yet in actuality, you’ll be right on the beach.
Last, but by no means least, what is going on with the italicised ‘walk’? Perhaps they thought they needed to add some ‘dynamism’ to the name, but this really is not the solution.
In short, I detest this sign. Whoever did it should be placed in remedial graphic design training.
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