Category Archives: Design related

Design related

Photo Retouching / Rescue

As a person I love to see things salvaged, whether it be a classic old banger restored to its former glory or a building renovated; so long as it remains functional and in tune with modern life.

Recently I was asked by family to restore some old photographs. Due to a combination of factors such as the development processes involved at the time, as well as natural detoriation and scratching — these had faded rather heavily.

One of my Great-Great-Grandfathers, this photograph is over one hundred years old.

Like many processes the quality of the starting point determines the output, so I scanned each item in high resolution (about 6000 ppi) and then proceeded to analyse images on a channel by channel basis, repairing scratches and tears, and repaint in lost areas of detail. Once the repair had reached a suitable level I flattened the results and focused on restoring the contrast: first by particular area, then overall. The beauty of photoshop is there are multiple methods of achieving a result, so its often a case of experimenting with these methods in order to achieve the best results. Some factors such as poor focus at time of photograph can only be remedied to a degree, but I hope this example shows that even with photographs — some things deemed lost can be brought from the brink.


Almost a month ago Digg released v4 of its interface; I’ve been holding out commenting on it to see how the situation unfolded. I guess on the whole the majority of users won’t have heard about Digg, so to quote wikipedias definition:

Digg is a social news website made for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the Internet, by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories…

I believe the whole furore surrounding the release of version 4 will inevitably influence the direction other internet sites will take.

Ever since the term ‘web 2.0′ was coined to describe how social media and user interaction would take the internet into a new era there has been a surge toward user generated content. Control has shifted from the establishment to the individual. Any user with access to a computer can publish content and broadcast to as many people as say a traditional newspaper columnist. This in essence defines the modern era of the internet – opensource, sharing, user generated content and feedback. Inevitably, the ‘suits’ have been hard at work trying to figure out a suitable mechanic of harnessing the massive outreach and converting this to revenue. To date this has been achieved through advertising, and later individually targeted advertising.

Take Facebook as an example, the premise: its a social utility site that allows users to register, then insert their personal details as well as likes and dislikes, and connect to other people they may or may not know. The real business model is somewhat more ingenius; as opposed to the potentially hit-and-miss method of printing an advert in a newspaper or magazine (or even plonking an advert on a popular web site), facebook is a precision marketing tool with surgical-strike accuracy. As users we supply our own market information: our age, location, what we are into, what films we love, what music we are into, what groups we are part of – this data they hold is completely accurate as we ourselves put it in. Hence Facebook holds a database of all our personal details, and just so happens to offer an advertising facility that can pinpoint any range of individuals within this source. Unprecedented market reach combined with precision accuracy is a potent mix. Now all of a sudden the owner Mark Zucherburg is richer than Steve Jobs of Apple — that’s how much leverage that mix achieves.

Back on topic, Digg is a social news website — users don’t personally know each other, what people say or post is much more important than who people are, so there is no necessity to divulge your personal information. In Digg v3 users found the stories or threads themselves either through searching or most commonly through ‘up voting’ articles they found interesting, they could also ‘bury’ stories from advertisers trying to tap into the user base. The ability for users to stop advertisers in their tracks combined with the miniscule user data (and targeting)  presented a weak business model with little leverage for advertising fees.

So came the deal with the Devil: the release of Digg v4, which saw the removal of the Bury button – users can still hide the stories after seeing them, but cannot prevent the promotional content from reaching other users. The biggest sin is that you now follow channels submitted by ‘the establishment’, rather than from grass roots users; this is a regressive direction not in tune with the current era. Digg’s answer to the problem was to ram the advertisers messages as pseudo news stories down their users throats, and to neutralise user controls. Furthermore Digg took a thriving community and sold them out wholesale to advertisers. The immediate backlash was palpable, which led previous CEO Kevin Rose to duck out and hire someone else to take the flack.

I fully expect the Digg community to dwindle. I also think that the desperate business decisions of the founder have led to the alienation of their basecore. The only positive to take from this scenario is that if Digg does indeed  fail — or in the very least scramble to undo the damage, then other companies will not be so keen to make the same mistakes.

New lies

One of my peeves in the industry is that the term ‘new’ is commonly perceived as something that has never done before; seemingly plucked out the sky from the dexterous digits of a proficient genius.

My belief is ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ In fact the definition of the words ‘new’ and ‘fad’ are interchangeable and relative spins on the same notion. In fact anything new whether it be invented or designed is actually formulated from at least two former things. Even as human beings we are recycled objects. Aside from the obvious genetic construct from two individual sets of DNA, the very atoms we are composed of are borrowed. Both you and I are compositions of atoms that were once part of a plant, animal, soil, dinosaur… even excrement (and yes, some people more than others!) A well established maxim in physics is that ‘Energy is never created merely transferred’. Considering the earth itself was created from cosmic matter, there is truth in the Moby song ‘we are all made of stars.’

Creation occurs through an act Arthur Koestler coined ‘bisociation’ – the intersection of two individual planes of logic at an exact point where both concur. It is the same model for the moment of discovery and for the revelation at the punchline of a joke. This is why anything created HAS to be part-recycled. Anything invented is just the combination of something pre-existing with another plane of logic applied to it in [perhaps] a previously in-conceivable fashion. The more of a jump to reach this idea the more original the credit due. This act of creation is universal; its the same for graphic designers, artists, musicians and engineers.

It’s noteworthy that even the golden section originates from recurring measurements observed in nature. These underlying proportions have been taken and applied to aesthetics in multiple fields of study. A prominent example of this usage is by French architect Le Corbusier.

In the context of design, this construct from two things often occurs in the scenario where the designer has something already but needs an exciting ‘twist’ on it. When it comes down to the sourcing of the additional ‘second plane’ of logic, the phrase ‘Talent borrows, genius steals’ applies unashamedly widespread throughout the creative industry.

“Nothing is original, steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from–it’s where you take them to.” –– Jim Jarmusch

In his most famous book of essays, celebrated graphic designer Paul Rand stated why a designer collects other stimulus: “The artist is a collector of things imaginary or real. He accumulates things with the same enthusiasm that a little boy stuffs his pockets. The scrap heap and museum are embraced with equal curiosity. He takes snap shots, makes notes, records impressions on tablecloths or newspapers, on backs of envelopes or matchbooks. Why one thing and not another is part of the mystery, but he is omnivorous.”

“Wildly heterogeneous as his inspirational treasures appear, curiosity is the common denominator and the pleasure of discovery an important by-product. The artist takes note of that which jolts him into visual awareness. Without the harvest of visual experience he would be unable to cope with the plethora problems,  mundane or otherwise, that confronts him in his daily work.” — Paul Rand, A Designers Art

Therefore the only originality in the design industry is originality in where you steal from.


Formula one season 2010

After all the build up, the much anticipated Bahrain Grand Prix was a bland affair. The cars can no longer refuel in the pits so carry a full tank from the race start. In turn pitting strategy is less of a factor and positions change less frequently. The cars are slower due to the increased weight and the gap between the cars is bigger, as a result overtaking has suffered. Typically the drama builds much later on, but the current formula seems inert.

The only significantly interesting detail was the new broadcast onscreen graphics. The panels now slant to the same angle as the F1 logo (tut), they also stack at an angle which — although refreshing is an aesthetic modification instead of a functional change. I’ve always believed ‘form follows function’ and not the other way around. The panels feature web 2.0 style gradients which works well apart from the yellow lap time gradient doesn’t work due to the lower colour being far too dirty making the digits less legible. The transition animation is pretty good, although I prefer the old throttle diagram and animation; the new one is uninspiring. A quick look at some viewers comments on various bbc sites with regard to specific statistics now being omitted indicates that this years aesthetic changes have come at the cost of function. That’s not what information design is about.

By invitation only

As a graphic designer I often get asked to design wedding invites when friends get married. Its a rare situation in design as the client (typically the bride) knows exactly what they want – most brides have a clear vision of the whole event, and a wise groom will toe the line!

As such the project becomes more of a working collaboration, and this latest effort was no different. The bride had the ribbon, paper, and art deco theme already in mind and just needed advice over execution. I provided some examples of art deco typography and various examples of famous design work from the era, as well as visualised different methods of ribbon application. The project workflow was smooth from start to finish and we’re both very pleased with the results!

wedding samples

Don’t you open that Trap-Door…

Atic Atac
I watched the fantastically written ‘Micromen’ on BBC4 recently
– hats off to Alexander Armstrong for his humorous portrayal of Sir Clive Sinclair. The program brought back many fond memories of those dark days of the early home computer. Me, my brother and my sister had a plethora of spectrums; firstly the ZX81, then the 48k ZX Spectrum, and finally the 128k Spectrum +3. It lead me to think about some of the great games I played: the most inspirational game I believe was AticAtac.

Great things about this game:
1. The trap door animation and sound.
2. The walking sound (which is now embedded in my brain). The game title is almost an onomatopoeia of this sound. (Note a similar sound can also be heard nowadays through the indicators on a Citroen C3 if I remember correctly.)
3. The abstract yet instantly understood elements: top down perspective, the door graphics, the progressive room architecture (distinguishable despite being constructed from lines).
4. The room with a devil that keeps coming toward you — to this day I still find this frankly disturbing. (Interestingly if you picked up the cross he would run away!)
5. The strategy: you had to remember which rooms lead to where and the locations of the keys.
6. The choice of playing different characters, the navigating of a maze of rooms, and the carrying of different keys to enter certain rooms. These elements have also inspired other later day game developers such as ID software who made Wolfenstein3D, Doom and Hexen, and Quake.

From a glance by todays standards it looks rudimentary and no different from hundreds of other sprite laden spectrum games, but you could tell by playing it that a lot of thought-process, time, care and energy went into the development of this game; it not only paid off but inspired the decisions and ideas of the modern day game developers, and also through approach to a design, me!

2009 recession from the designers perspective

The looming economic crises that is currently being hammered into our brains day in,day out is without question an ominous sign of things to come. However to this designer, the way this recession is being ‘sold’ to the masses is just the beginning of the annoyance.

Ok, so it might just be me, but does anyone else think the latest news coverage of economic downturn represents the nadir of an adoption of outdated marketing techniques of the hard-sell past by our mainstream newsrooms. Has society become so used to consumer conditioning that even the news must be sold to us in the form of a double punch generation-Jones advertising tag?

CREDIT-CRUNCH. Cliché, tacky, kitsch. It smells of the 1960s, and it would sound more at home bellowed from the mouth of Roy Walker whilst an animated Mr chips chomps through a credit card behind. Its no longer a term; its a brand. Anything related to a recession based turn of events is sold back to us under that brand. Does the average Joe find news labelled such a way easier to compute than relatively big words like economic downturn, or recession? Or perhaps they have become gradually more acquatinted with this method of delivery through life in general. I just hope its not the case that broadcasters are without fault, and instead it’s another sign of the nation dumbing down.

This is not the major annoyance; no its just a mere niggle. The worst part about being a designer in times like these is the impact on the design industry. One of my favourite designers from my salad days, Tanaka Ikko, described design as vitamins to a society; it’s not deemed essential, and during economic decline is a prime candidate for culling. It makes sense; on the whole businesses would rather slash advertising budgets than kick people to the kerb. Its the moral thing to do, but from a business sense it merely stretches the downward curve out, and in some cases a more painful death.

I seem to remember a case study Wally Olins once made about Nike: during the financial hardships of the 1970’s, sportswear manufacturers slashed advertising and promotions, all except Nike shoes who carried on spending as normal. Its important to note at this point in time Nike were an infant company – Adidas were the dominating leaders. Nike wanted to be present in the consumers minds on the upswing, and not on the back foot like its competitors. Nike pumped regular feed into advertising through the tough times, and when things started to look rosy, they literally hit the ground running (retro pun-age intended… you layman.)

Im not an economist, but my guess from the types of companies going down the tubes at the moment is that its the companies selling a lower quality product that are struggling. When high quality products drop in value to meet the demand, there’s room to manoeuvre on price; however cheaper alternatives have nowhere to go. Advertising is a key tool in raising perceived value and awareness — its not a replacement for quality, but it increases exposure. So in times like these you need people who know what they are doing at the reins. Its not a case of spending more, its a case of making what you spend work harder.