On one of my frequent tours of duty through the Sex and the City box set (all part of my wife's ongoing Ludovico technique experiments), a little detail kept bugging me. It wasn't the ridiculous frockery or the cutesy-incessant voiceover. It wasn't even the general air of "sod feminism, let's all marry rich so we can buy more shoes" being sold as girl power (hello the nineties!). No, it was the apple. The upside-down apple.
Every time Sarah Jessica Parker's writerlady opened her G3 Powerbook, the Apple logo on the back was upside-down! I’m sure it looked great when the machine was closed and slung under an arm, but not whilst in use. What's the point in carefully product placing a product into a place if the logo is guaranteed to be the wrong way up? And not just on telly, but everywhere: all those Macs being used in coffee shops and on trains and at conferences, all of them dumbly displaying what looked like Pacman’s incontinent deformed cousin.
This sort of thing irks me. I’m sure there are more pressing issues in my life (such as, why are we watching this when there's a perfectly good Buffy box set right there), but the fact that a logo was poorly set fifteen years ago has put a tiny indelible crinkle in my brow. But it irks. It irks and niggles.
So thank heavens that Apple saw the error of their ways and now the logo is mostly always the right way up (there's no accounting for folks merrily rotating their iPhones and iPads all over the place). It’s all better now. Compared to those days of the ninetysomethings, everything is more polished and smoother and roundier-cornier and just more Ive-ish.
And yet, buried under all that aluminium and glass and it-just-works, niggles remain.
Don't get me wrong, I love my Mac. And my iPhone. And my iPad. They are – you're reading this fine magazine, so chances are you may have noticed this yourself – really rather splendid. I converted from That Other Computer Method ten years ago and I haven't looked back. And I'm sure I must've owned a dozen mobile phones before this little gem, but I'd be hard pressed to remember what any of them were called or who made them. I am a brand-fan. Apple good.
It's just … well, sometimes I feel like the Princess and the Pea. No matter how comfortable and reassuringly supportive all my Apple gubbins may be, once the tiniest of disagreeable details becomes apparent, it plays on my mind. Why is it there? Why is it like that? Why isn't it right? Everything else is right, why isn't this right? And then I can't get anything done. I have to carefully clamber down from my pile of metaphorical mattresses and deal with that pesky metaphorical pea.
Why can't I see my email count in the toolbar? Why does iTunes split up my albums like that? Why is it easier to type § than #? How come the Calendar app icon shows the correct date, but the clock icon is forever stuck on 10:15? Would a ninth Safari tab really be that difficult? And two apps represented by compasses is a bit silly, isn't it?
I know, I know, I should get some perspective. We live in the world of tomorrow (or Tomorrow’s World, as we called it yesterday). When I grew up, the best bit of technology I owned was a typewriter that came with black and red ink ribbons (just imagine the possibilities!), or perhaps Zoidzilla. If I were to go back now and explain to my pipsqueak younger self some of the things you can now do with an iPhone, little me would probably pop with excitement.
But then a troubled look would appear on my angelic little face.
“So it's telephone that I can carry about and it plays songs and movies and games and it's also a camera and a book and a notebook and it connects to a sort of super-Ceefax and it feels like a lump of chiselled science fiction amazingness and it fits in my pocket and I can get it to do stuff just by talking at it?”
“But you can't uninstall Stocks?”
Sorry young self. The good news is that, one illogically insistent app aside, these little things tend to right themselves. The lab-coated boffins at Apple see the same idiosyncrasies as us regular folk, and they strive to keep the niggle count low. They may have a bit of a backlog – they’re still reeling from the fallout of the infamous iTunes Vertical Traffic Light Buttons Incident of 2010 (aka “the tut heard around the world”), and have recently lost valuable resources to the Skeuomorph Back-peddling Division – but they're doing the best they can.
And there's a flip-side to all those irks: a thousand nice little touches that you take for granted until you suddenly notice them one day and realise just how deliberate, how considered every aspect of the Apple experience is. All those curves and angles and dimensional ratios didn't happen by accident. And they all add up. The biggest company in the world is built on a foundation of details.
Look at the logo on the descendant of Sarah Jessica Parker's silly Powerbook, the MacBook. It's the right way up now, and it glows. And not only does it glow, it glows at the same brightness as the display. Dim the screen, and you dim the Apple. Not really necessary, but it brings a smile to the mind. And the charms of the MacBook light show don't end there. Even the most restless and pea-vigilant of princesses would struggle not to be comforted by the gentle pulse of the MacBook’s power light. A delightful de-irkifier, an anti-niggle.
Now all we need is an anti-Stocks …
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of MacUser.
- "You shouldn't let poets lie to you" – Björk explaining television is everything you'd imagine Björk explaining television to be.
- You have to love local news: York dog looks like Hitler.
- The Danish Royal family portrait will creep the bejesus out of you.
- Fab cartoonist Grant Snider gets the first year of parenthood spot on. The last panels may have made my heart go twang with recognition.
- If you feel a bit lost in your vocation, the Helsinki Bus Station Theory is well worth a read. Not sure why it has to specifically be Helsinki, but it makes it sound more profound, doesn't it?
- Latest issues of Creative Review and MacUser are out now. I flung wordy clumps at both, talking about designing to music and the beauty of the backs of things. And they're both full of lots of other lovely things and bits and stuff that you need to point your eyes at.
- When I actually get around to owning a house, I want one of these made of it: the negative space of a house cut inside a 908-page book. Just stunning.
- This should distract you from the horrors of existence and the human condition for a moment or two: furniture and fashion in Columbo.
- It's almost Christmas – a time of giving, loving, overlooking Phil Spector's misdemeanours, drinking and noticing that there are an awful lot of turtlenecks in Love Actually.
- Sorry, but I'm a sucker for Buzzfeed. It's mostly crap shoehorned into numbered lists, but sometimes they get a subject just right. For example: why the 90s was the golden age for magazines.
- Banana vs MRI.
Here's where the problem lies: designers are notoriously tricky and mercurial characters. They're difficult to control and stubborn about their ideas. As far as the brand consultants, the marketing people and the PR busybodies are concerned, life would be much easier if it could be proved that design is only a minor part of brand building, and much better if non-designers were in control of it.
By making branding into something other than a graphic design discipline, clients have leveraged control of design away from designers and into the hands of various non-designers. You can see this most clearly in the big branding groups, who employ dozens of 'suits' – strategists, business analysts, account handlers – and only a tiny number of designers. |
The most significant effect of this is to hand control of branding to brand people, and to be a brand person, you don't need to be a designer. Business people understand branding in a way that they don't understand graphic design.
They become obsessed with strategy, values, tone of voice and market research, forgetting that they are judged on their products, their services and their conduct, and not on what they say (or think) about themselves. In other words, businesses imagine that they can brand their way to success – which of course is an illusion.
— From Designers should give branding back its soul by Adrian Shaungnessy.
As much as I love my shiny, glowing Apple bits and pods, I still have a rather sizeable soft spot for good old fashioned stationery. Metal and wood and paper, you can't beat it. By far the best place to get hold of some nice little desk-bound rarities and stationed ephemera is Present & Correct. Hints, very heavy hints, have been dropped in the Benneworth-Gray household regarding the festive suitability of their gift cards. You can keep your big chocolate assortment tin, what I want is a bulldog clip variety pack.
In the mid-80s, suits from Marvel Comics and Mattel studied their latest focus group research and noticed that children react positively to the words "wars" and "secrets". This played into the toy manufacturer’s plans to license not just the publisher's characters, but to market fortresses and vehicle and weapons. All they need was a narrative to hook the playsets onto. The story was secondary, merely a showcase for the toys. Lots of expensive toys.
And thus was born the most cynical and influential comic series of the time, the transparently committee-made and catchily-titled Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. And furtherly thus, a very small me was sucked into the world of comics via the toy pages of the Argos catalogue.
In the far too many years since then, my comic reading has taken me in many directions: the Lovecraftian horror of Mike Mignola; the diagrammatic ennui of Chris Ware; the Belgian investigative journalism capers of Hergé. They all challenge the misconception that comics are just about men in tights (misconceived by the same people who think the term "graphic novel" isn't incredibly condescending). To be honest though, it's those formative fully-poseable Marvel heroes that I always return to. Nothing wrong with tights.
I only return in short bursts though. After a while I just give up and go back to reading boring old books without pictures (aka graphicless comics). Why? Because the comics industry has gone out of its way to set up as many barriers as possible to casual readers, and even treats dedicated ones with contempt. Comics have taken that "sod the plot, here are the toys" mentality and gone crazy with it. Comics are broken.
Let's say you've just been to see the latest Batman film. "Well that was incomprehensible but tolerable", you muse, "I'd like to give one of these comic books a try. I can handle Fred Bassett, I'm sure I can handle this". And so begins an epic quest to find the one shop in your town that might stock what you assume would be a comic called Batman.
But oh no. Once you're there, you realise that things aren't that simple. DC Comics don't just publish one must-buy Batman comic, they publish … well, I don't think even they know how many there are any more. The current list of Batman-related titles includes: Batman; Batman and Robin; Batman The Dark Knight; Legends of the Dark Knight; Batgirl; Batwoman; Batwing; Batman: Arkham Unhinged; Batman Li'l Gotham; Batman Beyond Unlimited; Birds of Prey; Catwoman; Nightwing; and Batman Incorporated.
In each of these, Batman may or may not be the alter ego of Bruce Wayne. Maybe it's someone else. Or maybe he's dead this week. Or maybe it's actually one of several Robins. Or – lets' be honest, who cares at this point, because DC Comics certainly don't – maybe it's Aunt Harriet.
(Incidentally, one of the other smaller ways that comics are broken: "DC Comics". That'd be Detective Comics Comics. That's what they call themselves now, as if they've simply forgotten what their initials are for. And to make matters worse, they actually publish a comic called Detective Comics. That's right, Detective Comics Comics comic, Detective Comics. I now have a nosebleed.)
Whichever issue you buy will be most likely be in the middle of an elaborate story arc that crosses over with countless other comics and refer to things happening in parallel universes and alternate realities – debris from the frequent cack-handed tidying up of loose ends created by interminable crossovers and contradictory stories.
The problem is, comics are a minor interest for DC and Marvel now. Without doubt, a lot of skill and love goes into their creation, but these publishers are subsidiaries of mega-corporations now. Films and television and merchandise are what it's all about now. It all comes back round to selling expensive toys.
So when I do occasionally pick up comics, I tend to go off them very quickly … until now, that is. My wife, my infinitely wise wife, she who knows how to shut up my ranting for a couple of hours, bought me a subscription to Marvel Unlimited. Unlike the pay-per-issue approach of the Comixology-based apps already used by Marvel and DC, this offers thousands of back issues available in an all-you-can-eat deal. You can only download six issues at a time – it's one of those buffets where they give you impractical small plates – but that's minor quibble. Because it’s flipping brilliant. I can avoid the rigmarole of actually going comic shopping! I can give up on an issue after two pages if I please! I can catch up on whatever colour the Hulk is these days!
Admittedly, it can be a bit slow and there's some of the usual 1.0 flakiness. Plus there’s no way I'm ever going to like the Smart Panels option (imagine reading with a responsible adult who points at the pictures and traces the words with their finger as they read out loud). But by golly, it's a great app. Availability, choice, simplicity. Putting the reader first, not corporate character licensing opportunities.
“Spotify for comics” may be oversimplifying it, but you get the idea. It's a brave move for a publisher to open up a massive chunk of their back catalogue in such a way, and it'll be interesting to see if others follow suit. Not just comics either – imagine a subscription-based Penguin app. Or, thinking sideways, how about Star Wars Unlimited: all the films, automatically updated with all the latest tweaks, rejiggifications and commentaries?
Anyway, I never thought I’d say this, but I'd be quite happy to only read comics on-screen from now on (perhaps with the exception of Mignola's Hellboy – I need those deep inky blacks). Marvel Unlimited has not only converted me to digital publishing, it's restored my faith in comics.
Right now though, I'm sat with my iPad, working my way through Guardians of the Galaxy, David Aja and Matt Fraction's excellent run of Hawkeye, and of course Mattel Presents Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars In All Good Toy Shops.
It's just how remember it: it's awful; it's amazing.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of MacUser.
Love these halftone cards designed by Sagmeister & Walsh for Moo. Why didn't I think of this first? They'd make ideal business cards. Not sure that I actually need business cards, but still … damn my stupid brain.
As well as various other bits of beautiful detritus, I've been using Pinterest to collect characters. Designed, hand-drawn, sculpted, accidental, the lot. I particularly like this big Z, but as is typical of the flow of images on the web, I have no idea who it's by or where it's from. Still, it sure is awfully pretty.
More characters here.
So here I am, back at the drawing board once again. Coffee rings and scraps of ideas all over the place. I'm going to pin this one down today, oh yes I am. Thing is, it's a massive job with wandering objectives and no obvious end-point. The client basically wants me to do everything – branding, stationery, website, marketing – with no budget and no brief. Quite what I get out of it is unclear. The crux of the problem (it's always satisfying when a problem has a nice firm crux, isn't it?) is that this handsome bastard taskmaster is little old me. The hardest client to client.
In theory, it shouldn't be different from any other job. Just sit down and think about what's needed and write a brief, then address the brief in an utterly sensible and methodical fashion. Simple, right? But no. Methodical becomes perfectionism becomes obsession and indecision and doubt. Frustration.
Time and time again, I realise I’m guilty of all my own client-from-hell pet peeves. My self-imposed deadline falls out the window as best intentions mutate and fragment; decisions get swayed by arbitrary passing fads; and yes, yes I do want to see that logo just a little bit bigger please.
No, a bit bigger.
Some designers relish designing for themselves, and are happy to live with these designs for years. They write themselves tidy little briefs and then just get on with it. At least, that's what I've heard – I've never actually met one of these fabled beings. I bet they have lovely skin and impeccable teeth.
When it comes to personal work, I find committing to an idea is just impossible. With client work, I’ll always reach a point where I’m happy with a solution. But not when that client is me. I get itchy feet and flit from one idea, aesthetic or execution to another in the blink of an eye.
Maybe I'm too close to the problem or something. I'm like a hairdresser trying to cut my own hair, unable to reach around to the fiddly bits at the back (damn you, metaphorical double crown) and making a right old mess of it. Maybe that's the solution: just get someone else to do it, like hairdressers do? There’s no shame in distancing oneself from the problem and letting someone else have a go, is there? Or is that admitting defeat and accepting my own designly failings? Bloody hell, when did pride throw itself into the mix?
But no. I don't want some other designer (or hairdresser for that matter) taking away my fun. You see, the real freedom of designing for myself is that it's never really about the end product, it's about the joy of the process. What might look like the flailing of an identity crisis is actually gleeful frolicking. It’s an invaluable opportunity to experiment and learn new processes.
It's like I'm eight again, dedicating a day to building an elaborate LEGO edifice. Come tea time, my beautiful creation will be smashed to pieces, the creative potential of the bricks restored for the next day. So much work and nothing to show for it but experience.
Most of my self-initiated projects lend themselves to short-run, adaptable and disposable branding. Digital-print stationery (such as that favourite of restless designfolk everywhere, Moo.com) means you never have to have two business cards alike ever again. Get yourself a rubber stamp of your logo, and anything you lay your hands on becomes your letterhead. Patrick Bateman would be sickened by all this.
The most educational and absorbing/time-draining project for many designers is the personal website. That Indexhibit portfolio I agonised over five years ago would still do the job perfectly well today, but I can't help myself. Rarely does a month go by without some massive overhaul of my site, much to the consternation of the three or four people who regularly visit it.
By now, these faithful few have probably worked out that I basically treat my site as an advanced Etchasketch: just pick up the web, give it a shake and start anew. Hours – ack, what am I saying? – days of work can be gleefully, frustratingly wiped away in an instant. Back to the drawing board. Again.
If only I could make money from this never-ending creative-destructive behaviour. Build, smash. Build, smash. Actually, that gives me an idea … maybe I should go back to where it all began … maybe I should give LEGO a call. I bet they have lovely drawing boards.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Creative Review.
You know when you see something so damn gorgeous, so timeless, so useful-looking (even though you're not entirely sure what you'd use it for)? It fits all of the aesthetic qualities you hold dear, the shapes and materials and versatility? And you see it in all the right places, from the permanent collections of MoMA and the Design Museum to the background of the rather fantastically-designed Oblivion? And you know, you just know, that you need it in your life?
Ladies and gentlemen, the B-Line Boby Trolley.