Understanding the Design of Understanding

24th January, London

When I first read about the Design of Understanding, I wasn’t sure what to expect – the title is pretty general, and there wasn’t much information about the speakers‘ topics. But some interesting people that I follow were going, and it sounded like it was worth taking a chance on. And I thought I’d make some notes about the day for others thinking about going next year… if there is one, which there should be.

The talks were very mixed in style and substance, some speakers deliberately staying away from talking about digital, or their day jobs. It was a pretty chocka schedule – 11 speakers, each having about 20 mins, with a couple of questions here and there. I always find it hard to pick a favourite – I think I got things from all the talks – even the ones I didn’t enjoy that much.

A definite highlight for me was Durrell Bishop’s Marble Answering Machine – and essential watch for anyone that has anything to do with interaction design/UX/anything that actual people actually use. As well as the lovely video, he had great hand-drawn slides, always a bonus.

“Designers are good when content makes sense, but crap when it has no form”

He noted that designers need to find a vocabulary to explain the products they are designing – and that buttons with icons are often not the best way of doing this – even though that seems to be the default.

David Sheldon-Hicks spoke about a world that I had never considered before – user interface design for feature films. I suppose it’s obvious that somebody designs the UIs in films like Minority Report, Island and Prometheus, but I really had never thought about it. David is lead designer for Territory Studios, and mostly spoke about his work and experience of creating Prometheus, and working with Ridley. Using real data supplied by NASA, they are free to create UIs that have no dependencies on the current capability of technology – complete freedom!! Being a developer, I was dying to ask how they select a language for the lines of code that is so often displayed onboard spaceships, in sci-fi films. David’s term was ‘dummy code’ and from the sounds of it, so little thought goes into to what the code actually does (if anything) it’s the programmers that spend the time looking for that meaning that the joke is on. Still, it’s funny to see jQuery ‘launching rockets’.

Andy Kirk was talking about visualising data, and the service that visual.ly is providing by creating a space for the popular infographics that often don’t follow best practices, and so

‘all the junk is in one place’

But offered a list of tools that allow anyone to create visualised data, hopefully in a more accurate and sensible way – definitely one for the ‘to try’ list.

Jo Roach told the story of Makie Labs, and the challenges they have met and overcome in the development of the product – dolls that don’t follow the trend of super tall, skinny, un-jointed dolls that exacerbate stereotypes like ‘girls like pink’. The 3D printed dolls are customisable and can therefore be a 3D avatar. Jo made a really valid point that I hadn’t consciously thought about before, that Barbie dolls and similar never had moveable limbs, and couldn’t stand up as their feet were designed to wear high heels. And yet Action Man was ‘posable’ and so could do all kinds of things, I think this explains why I always enjoyed playing with my brothers’ action men more than the boring, static dolls aimed at girls. Also cool to see a business model based around 3D printing.

Matt Sheret, currently of GDS, gave a run down of the state of comics, and the challenges they face – similar to that of general digital publishing – in that they now need to be responsive, as they are consumed on a wide variety of platforms. And warned that “We all need to build our own digital attic” as content on the web won’t be there forever – using Myspace as an example. His own write up here.

Nic Newman on the future of news. It’s mobile and social.

Andrew Webb gave a very entertaining talk of the current foodie scene in London. The abundance of burger places and self proclaimed ‘foodies’, as well as the state of cookery books. Apparently we don’t cook recipes that are not accompanied by a lovely picture, and only ever cook 10% of the recipes in a book.

Simon Esterson opened with explaining the difference between magazines and daily newspapers – magazines are much more design based. A more considered format that can rely less on grid and conformity as there is time to think the design through. I’d hoped to hear more about Simon’s thoughts on digital publishing and how he thinks it will evolve, he didn’t give much away, but he did mention something about Adobe DPS being ‘over’.

Tony Quilan spun us a tail about storytelling, and how to baffle by using abstracts and loose faith by over-engineering the company story/history/policy. Don’t write your company ethos on the wall, it means it’s already broken.

I enjoyed Will Hudson’s (founder of It’s Nice That) talk, highlighting some advice for digital projects;
– prototype quickly
– think “outside the box”
– be consistent in your communication with clients/customers/readers

The day was rounded off by a Q&A between Russell Davies and event organiser Max Gadney. Discussion focussed on how to actually “get things done”, with one company’s solution being hire 10% more ‘getting things done’ people.

Bit of history, bit of writing

Typography: Week One

I’m very excited to be studying typography. I feel like I’ve picked up quite a lot from working with print and graphic designers, but to be able to concentrate on it and try things out for myself is going to be great.

Th first class was an introduction. What is typography, what is not typography and a bit of the history. Like, that Gutenberg didn’t actually invent movable type, but he was the first to do it in the western world. Homework was to watch a good documentary – Stephen Fry’s ‘The Machine That Made Us’. Lovely story about making a similar machine to Gutenberg’s.

An introduction to uncials, minuscules and gothic letters followed. Concerntrating on how to write the letters, using the angle of the ‘pen’ – two pencils taped together, with the points level. The idea being that we experience what it was like to draw the outlines of some of the letters, that in the old days would have then been carved out in stone.


Creating the different shapes by hand was lovely, and it provided context for how the uppercase and lowercase letters we know today evolved from Roman characters like those used on Trajan’s Column.

And then the fun part! Using a piece of balsa wood, and watered down ink, we painted the letter shapes we had just learnt on a larger scale. Using multiple strokes to create the curves and lines, and overlaying the glyphs created a colourful, layered ink mass of letter forms that stretched down the table.


Looking closely at the glyphs and figuring out how to draw them. Forcing us to look at letters as shapes rather than the meaning of the letter. It felt like a worthwhile exercise. Like the beginning of an adventure, when you know you need to journey through places you already know, before finding new and exciting things to see.

It’s been a while…

Yeah, so I think I did quite a classic thing of getting a job, being busy and stopping writing things. But I have been thinking about it more and more, so here goes again.

Over the last couple of years I have been working with creative directors/art directors/print designers/digital designers on their hybrid publishing apps. Explaining the process, requirements and restrictions and helping them realise their publication in a digital format.

The HTML content we create is fully responsive, and generally fully templated to allow integration with a CMS. As you can imagine, this creates a whole load of issues, when working with print designers that are used to a fixed format – no orientation change, no text resize, no million Android devices. It’s a steep learning curve.

I heard an art director ask a great question recently (not to me, thankfully);

“Where is the fun in web typography?”

Typography is such a massive part of editorial design that I think it’s almost the hardest thing to come to terms with, in digital. Yes we have webfonts now, and can control the line-height and letter-spacing etc, but what we can do looks like nothing when compared with InDesign. Which is what print designers are used to.

When working on the digital version of UK Grazia, we used a Google Doc for them to ask questions/make feature requests/raise bugs about the CMS. Thinking this was the easier option than introducing and supporting their team on our formal PM tool, it actually ended up with them requesting “the rich text edit functionality of Google Docs” in their CMS editor. It came from a desire to recreate what they had done in InDesign, but for the digital version. Which is kind of fair enough really, just not completely possible yet.

So back to the question about typographic fun. I reckon it is possible to be playful with type on the web, but in my world it needs to be responsive and template-able, which is where the difficulty comes in. But I like a challenge. I’m taking a primarily print based Typography course at Central St Martins at the moment, which I will be using as a starting point for experimenting with web type. I’ll take the excersizes we do in the class, and see how a digital version would work.

I’m not exactly sure what the classes will entail, or what the focus of each digital version will be, but it’ll be fun. And I guess the overarching aim is to find the fun in web typography.