In the Wild

I've been led astray by curiosity and an inability to understand the perfectly logical inner-workings of Melvil Dewey's mind, and now I don't know where I am or how to get out. I've been eaten by a library.

All I wanted to do was find a book I'd worked on a few months back. It had a low print run (a beyond-niche title; it's an avant-garde experimental book on avant-garde experimental music), so the publishers couldn't spare me a copy. But that's not going to stop me getting a look, feel, sniff of it! I've created something, I've contributed some tiny pixel to the world, and I want to see how it fits. On my computer, the book exists without context or use. It isn't alive until its been set free, having to fend for itself at the mercy of the readers.

So outside I went, far from my desktop, far from the publishers and the proofs and the printers, to find my book cover. Outside. In the wild.

At least, that was the plan. It turns out that the wild doesn't always do what you want it to, and is unwilling to just offer up any old book you fancy without messing you around a bit first. Stupid wild.

Trousers on, hair sort-of-brushed, my safari started in the bookshops of York. Or rather shop. Even though our little city has an enviable abundance of second-hand and specialist bookshops (one sells nothing but books on trains and/or the old testament), none of them are likely to stock my particular bounty. Which is a shame, as I'd rather been looking forward to JR Hartleying my way around town. I'll do that one day. Looks heartwarming.

So into Waterstones I popped for a frantic/nonchalant rifle through their shelves. I hunted high, I hunted low, I pestered the staff, I spent far too long getting distracted and tutting at the silly sub-genre-ifying of fiction (“cosy crime”, good grief). But my little paperback ego-boost was nowhere to be found. I consoled myself by sitting in one of their standard issue Randomly Located Comfy Leather Chairs, chuckling a hearty chuckle at the new Tom Gauld book. I left moments before I was asked to.

Wandering the streets, trying to furrow an idea out of my brow, the obvious finally struck me: an academic book, a book for academics. The university library would have it! By jingo, I'm right! And so off I popped, ever so proud of my incredible skills of deduction. And now here I am.

And … my book isn't. Not on the shelves, not on loan, not on that little trolley of books that haven't been put back yet. I've looked all over the place, in music, arts, geology (damn you, Dewey), but the trail has gone cold. There is nowhere else to look, not today.

It's okay though. I know my little book is out there, somewhere, living the dream. Right now, some chin-stroking avant-gardeners are probably sat huddled in a dimly-lit, wood-panelled room, waving my book around while they argue over who'd win in a fight: Alvin Lucier or John Cage. Hopefully one of this party has actually read the book, but hey, I'm not the author. I'm content for it to simply be used as a gesticulation wand.

My printly progeny will throw itself into my path one day, maybe years from now. Right now, here I am, trying to figure out where they put the exits in this bloody library.

Never mind. I'll just wait for a search party to find me. In the meantime, I'll explore the treasures in this labyrinthine concrete bookcase. Everywhere I turn, there's something I wasn't looking for that's worth finding. There's the satisfying heft of the quarto art books, more effective than any gym equipment; drawers full of curious old maps charting the muddy veins of WWI trenches across Europe; modern art monographs, their lustre undimmed by half a century of sticky fingers. It's probably for the best that I didn't lose myself anywhere near the science fiction shelves – I could spend days poring over those covers. I may not be able to admire my own handiwork today, but this is a lot more fun.

Now that I'm part of the process, I see all of this differently. A forest of books, each one a designer, sat idly wondering whatever happened to that one cover they did that time.

-

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Creative Review.

Finding Colour

"You're at work, aren't you?"

Technically, no. I'm actually sat at the dining table, nursing my daily coffee power-up and shovelling porridge into myself and the baby. But yeah, the wife is right as always: I'm not really here. I'm staring at nothingness, in my head, working. That spot in the middle distance, that's where it's all happening.

Far too late last night, I called it quits on a book cover I'd been working on. Something about it just wasn't coming together, and no amount of eye-rubbing or desk-tidying was helping. Even sticking the Social Network soundtrack on loop – usually a good way of shaking the cobwebs loose – failed to get me out of the creative quagmire. So to bed.

It turns out that sleep was actually quite useful, certainly more so than staying awake indefinitely (must remember that for future reference). Whilst fading from robot-dinosaur-dreamspace to breakfast, I figured out where I was coming unstuck: the colours are off. The problem isn't solved yet, but at least it's identified. And now I can't stop thinking about it. It's sat there on my desk, incomplete, just a few metres from the kitchen. Come on, brain. Think. Finish your oat-slush and think. Colours.

The thinking behind the design as it stands doesn't particularly help. There's usually some element that helps to inform colour choices – something in the text, the concept, imagery. There'll be a seed of something. Not this time, though. It's pretty much entirely geometric and abstract and … well, seedless.

Perhaps it's right under my nose. How about a delicate blend of porridge hues? Or a cheerful greyish-brownish coffee tones? Maybe not. I would turn to my ever-loyal Pantone 549 mug for inspiration, but I've already taken advantage of that particular muse one time too many. Sorry, tealy-blue, but it's time we spent some time apart.

No. Sod it. This is going to involve me getting up, getting my trousers on and heading out into the sunshine. It's time to resort to that most valuable of design stratagems, a technique that dates back to the earliest practitioners of graphic design: a bit of a walk and maybe a nice slice of cake.

-

"Are you taking a photo of your Victoria Sponge?"

Yes and no, the wife, yes and no. I am pointing my iPhone camera at the undeniably photogenic slab of niceness, but I'm not taking a photo as such. There's more magic to it than that. It's more like I'm stealing its soul. I'm Kuler-ing it.

Kuler (reviewed in the last issue) is Adobe’s latest brilliant toy, an app that instantly plucks colour schemes from the world around you. Point your camera at absolutely anything – a Victoria Sponge, a lemon torte, perhaps even a mille feuille – and it'll produce a five-colour palette that you can save, name and export for use in any other Adobe app. It takes a bit of getting used to, and 99% of the sets you save will turn out to be useless, but it really is a great little tool.

Of course, having to hold up an iPhone and point it at things becomes a little tiresome after a while. What I really need is a Kuler HUD before my eyes, constantly scanning the world for chromatic wonderments. Imagine if it was built into something like Google Glass? Although of course, it'd have to be significantly prettier than Glass – cutting edge it may be, but ugly is ugly. No, the dream is a device that smooshes together all the best bits of Kuler, Glass and some chunky Wayfarers. Oh my yes, that needs to happen.

Unfortunately, that idea is the only fruit of my outside wanderings. My slice of cake has been eaten and had all the colour sapped from its spongy soul. I'll head home and continue my quest there … and maybe pen a lengthy proposal to Adobe, Google and Ray-Ban.

-

"You're spinning. Again. I'll go sort out the washing."

Spinning. Yes. Mmm-hmm. Leave me now, I'm having a creative moment on my spiny chair. Kuler has opened my eyes to the vast spectrum of potential visible everywhere. You know the stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (or rather, that bit in The Simpsons when Homer sits in the massage chair)? That's how I feel. Before today, the world was in colour. Now it's in COLOUR.

There’s colour aplenty visible from my little workstation. Just a quick spin of the old stool reveals a reliable source of inspiration: if years of hoarding books and records and magazines has taught me anything, it's that there's gold in them there spines. Slivers of rainbow, type and texture – I could look at these all day. But that doesn't seem awfully productive, so I merely rearrange them instead. And now I'm the proud owner of an entire shelf made up of nothing but black, white and red spines. Useful. Pretty.

The colours I need are around here somewhere. When they appears, they’ll appear in the most unlikely of places. My mind wanders back to a conversation with designer Nick Felton (aka Feltron). One of his legendary personal annual reports was a combination of greys and greens and whites – only later did he realise that the colours perfectly matched a photograph of some lichen he'd taken months before. So maybe I've already seen it, maybe the inspiration is already lodged in my noggin, maybe …

Whilst I furrow my brow and stroke my chin, my exasperated other half is actually getting something done; hanging washing in the doorway of our home studio, lining up an array of damp t-shirts just so. A navy and white striped one. A mottled grey one. A faded green one from a Wilco gig I dragged her to years ago.

And there it is. Colours. Perfect. She'll pretend it's just some chromatic happenstance, but I think she's known all along. Brilliant, patient wife. So much more useful than a thousand apps.

-

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of MacUser.

140 Characters

Birdy borrowed from Death Records

Birdy borrowed from Death Records

I need to cull. I love my twitter feed and all the characters that populate it, but I really do need to cull. Several hundred voices all yammering at once is a bit too much to take in, so I need to get it down to a sensible number. A number that works. Too many followees and it's just noise, too few and it's like an awkward conversation outside the bathroom at a party. There must be a Goldilocks figure that I can aim for, some state of socio-mathematical perfection. Twitter is too valuable to just throw arbitrary numbers at, willy-nilly.

I know what you're thinking: it's all getting a bit Beautiful Mind around here. But patterns and formulas and ratios are all part of how I think – my head is all columns and codes and colour values and kerning. Fibonacci and Euclid and Palladio and Müller-Brockmann, all muttering sweet nothings. Numbers are important.

And so is twitter. To many, it's nothing more than a distraction, a trickle of ego and innuendo. It's all about how you use it. At its very basic level, it's simply a communication tool, an open conversation. If you nurture it carefully and make sure you only follow the voices you really trust, you've got something invaluable. Where would I be without my retinue of designers, writers, film-makers, weathered friends and heroes? It's a river of news and opinion and wisdom and humour and opportunity, flowing through my working day like a big flowy thing.

It's also the most fascinating search engine you could hope for. Rather than feeding a request into the great big Google Algorithmotron, asking actual human beings is so much more effective. Sometimes you ask a simple question and moments later you're inundated with generous pearls of wisdom and links and advice from all over the world, more than you could ever hope for. It's like having your own personal fleet of flying monkeys.

I took advantage of this when one of my more abstract works, Pouring Hot Fluids Over Apple Hardware, killed my close-bracket key. Whenever I needed to use it (more often than you'd imagine … in fact, here's one now), I just turned to the helpful distractible hordes of twitter. More often than not, there'd be someone already emoticon-grinning on there, so I could just copy and paste from that. If not, I just asked for a smile and I'd get a pile of nice little sideways happy robot faces looking at me within seconds.

So yes, okay, a lot of it is just silliness. But what's wrong with a spot of the old silly? You can't plan it this way, but with the right people, silly makes for a great foundation for more sensible chat. A bout of hashtag punnery – when the copywriters get going there's no stopping them – can lead you down all sorts of useful professional avenues.

Actually, tweets have proven to be a good starting point for lots of things. I've lost count of the people I've initially met on twitter who have turned into more important connections. Some I’ve met in person (so very 20th century), some I’ve gone on to work with, some have provided unexpected support elsewhere (network of designer dads, I salute you). A couple of years ago it even led to me taking over the reins of CR's twitter account for the day. As I recall, I mostly talked about scotch eggs.

I imagine what turns a lot of people off is that it's all rather public. Social networks have made us willing inmates in a pocket version of Bentham's Panopticon, allowing ourselves to be observed by one another in lots of different ways all the time. That is, on the one hand, downright terrifying. But on the other, it's incredible – full of interaction, narratives and lovely illogical connections.

Creative industries don't benefit one jot from everyone keeping themselves to themselves. They feed off generosity and openness. And numbers. Don't forget the numbers. Which brings me back to my initial quandary: how many people to follow?

I'm advised (by somebody on twitter, of course) that "Dunbar's number" is a measure of how many effective social relationships its possible to maintain. On average, it'a about 150. Or so it says here. That seems like a sensible level of interaction to me, but it's missing a certain poetry to it. If I just cull a few extra individuals, the number will be perfect and elegant and right. That's it. I'll follow 140 characters.

I'd best make sure though. I'll ask the flying monkeys.

-

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Creative Review

Amiga

There I was, lazily flicking through the latest releases on the App Store, looking for things I really don't need or want, just in case there's something incredible buried under all the camera filters and calculators and clunky weather apps. I was about to give up too, and then I saw something glistening in the most obvious of places. Right there on the main "Featured" page.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it said. As in, the XCOM: Enemy Unknown that I spent a Summer attempting to master on my Amiga 1200? That XCOM: Enemy Unkown? Surely not? Really?

And that was it, that's all it took for me to tumble into nostalgia.

Ah, the Amiga. Commodore's flagship brand may have found itself a little bit buried by history, but if you are/were of a certain age, you'll remember it with a warm, cushiony fondness. For a period from the mid-80s to mid-90s, it quietly redefined what a computer should be, and found its way into living rooms and bedrooms and studios and people's hearts. Sound familiar?

In so many ways, the Amiga was Apple's spiritual cousin and forebear (can you be both, or is that considered spiritual in-breeding?). It laid a path down which Apple would find itself wandering a decade later. It wasn't trying to be an insipid business machine or a cheap arcade; it was trying to have a go at being everything, and mostly excelling. The graphics and sound capabilities were like nothing seen before – it was a giant leap in terms of home computing. No more screechily-loading audio cassettes here, thank you very much.

You get the feeling that the people behind it weren't entirely sure what they'd created, like it was a beautiful monster that had escaped the lab. It was (of course) left to the users to tame it and identify its strengths. Art, video, music – it was a multimedia platform, even if nobody could quite agree precisely what that fresh buzzword meant. With the right boffins at the controls, it could do incredible, unexpected things.

Babylon Five made spaceships with it; Andy Warhol painted Debbie Harry with it (“The thing I like most about doing this kind of work on the Amiga is that it looks like my work in other media.”); NASA kept track of their satellites with it; I … well, I strategically neutralised unknown alien threats with it in a traditional turn-based fashion. As you do.

Because on top of everything else, it was a great games machine. Whilst the other kids were squabbling over the whole Megadrive versus SNES nonsense, I was having a whale of a time. XCOM was just one of many games that sapped my hours as a teenager. Looking back now, all misty-eyed, the best of them have one thing in common: they'd all be quite at home on the App Store.

Games like Lemmings and Worms were the Angry Birds of the day – casual side-on puzzlers with fantastic character design. The plethora of tower defence games that we see today can be traced back to pre-Command & Conquer resource-strategisers like Dune II. And there was Zool ("the ninja of the nth dimension!"), notable for the amount of shameless in-game advertising (the nth dimension was made up entirely of Chupa Chups apparently) that we wouldn't bat an eyelid at these days.

Not only are there similarities between then and now – the App Store is littered with actual Amiga titles once thought lost to boot fairs and attics. Time is unforgiving to games. Films and music live on, easily hopping from one format to another, but games are usually shackled to their native hardware. Fortunately, the App Store has offered a second lease of life to the likes of XCOM, Speedball, Syndicate, The Chaos Engine, Alien Breed. Classics, every last one.

Many of these have benefited from modern interfaces. Pointing and clicking (or “clointing” as nobody ever called it) in particular has benefited from the move to touchscreens. More than just trips down memory lane, games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Beneath a Steel Sky are still great, they've just been waiting for technology to come back around to their way of thinking (but without all of that interminable INSERT DISC 14 floppy-swappy nonsense).

Playtime aside, the Amiga also made work fun. I tested its limits by relying on it for every school assignment, no matter the subject. Wordworth is still a far superior word processor to the text-riot that is Microsoft Word, and I have the essays to prove it. Deluxe Paint – which I'm fairly sure was made entirely of magic – was Photoshop before Photoshop and got me to where I am today. My entire further education, saved onto 3.5" floppy discs.

Just like Apple, Commodore made the possibilities of computers enjoyable and inspiring. There were others. Acorn and Atari had similar machines on the market at the time, and each had its strengths. But the five-letter A-word that most informed today's five-letter A-word? It has to be the Amiga. The thing is – and this is how it earns a rightful place in my nostalgius cortex – it promised the future.

They just got there a bit too early. Equal parts baffled and inspired by their creation, Commodore pushed the Amiga brand to what would one day become cutting edge. The CDTV, launched in 1991, embodied the multimedia ideal of art, entertainment and education in one machine. The idea was amazing. The idea failed. The Amiga got ahead of itself: it wanted to give you the web before the web existed; to deliver media that the humble CD-ROM just wasn't cut out to deliver. Basically, it dreamt of being an iPad.

But now here we are. One click and a thumb-twiddle and I'm playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown again as if no time has passed at all. Time to shoot me some good old fashioned aliens. Thank you Amiga, old girl.

-

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of MacUser.

That Awkward Designer Question

No. I can see what's about to be asked and no, I don't want to answer it. I'm sorry ma'am, I don't know you, and you can't make me answer it. No no no.

“What do you do?”

Can I get out of this somehow? Perhaps I could distract her and sidle away to the buffet. I saw mini-quiches. You can't very well interrogate a complete stranger at a wedding reception when they've got a mouthful of mini-quiche. That would just ruin the day for everyone. The only socially acceptable thing to ask in that situation would be “ooh where did you get that mini-quiche?”, to which I would mumble a reply and wave my hand in the general direction of the quiche-source and everyone would be happy and nobody would have to explain what it is they

“I'm a designer.”

Oh well that's just perfect. Whilst I was merrily distracted by savoury thoughts, my mouth went ahead without me and answered the unwelcome question. So now it's out there. Of course, that's just phase one of the polite chit-chat interrogation. Phase one isn't so bad. It’s what follows that makes me squirmy.

I can see the information being processed in her rapidly glazing-over eyes. Bless him, they're saying, he's got some Wayfarers and a knock-off copy of Photoshop Elements and he thinks he's a designer. Before those eyes have time to roll, here comes phase two:

"So what do you design?"

Now this is the big question. What the heck do I design? Why am I never prepared for this? Why don't I have a stock answer for this? How hard can it be to tell people what I do?

Here’s the problem: coming from a background of in-house designery at Quango Unchained, long ago I became accustomed to life as a Jack of all trades. Posters, books, websites, branding, magazines, adverts – every day I'd be designing a bit of everything. And that's how I've continued. It's all under the big design umbrella, and lessons learned in one area are undoubtedly invaluable and beneficial to another.

But the further I wander into this freelance life, the more I worry that I should attempt to be a master of something. By clinging onto all trades, am I just being greedy and leaving myself professionally diffuse, unmarketable?

Recently, I've found myself working on a lot of book covers – a particular line of work I love. So should that be the path to take? The more I sell myself specifically as a cover designer, the more covers I'd design, and the more expertise in designing covers I’d gain, right? It'd give my portfolio a bit of clarity, get me known as that guy who does that thing. I could sell myself and my services, easily and non-squirmily. In theory, the work would snowball.

And of course it'd be useful when hobnobbing at wedding receptions. I could head off career scrutiny by simply reeling off the literary classics I'd wrapped in my designy goodness. Maybe I could hand them out to all the guests – I bet Chip Kidd is forever turning up at nuptials with boxes of Jurassic Park. He has that look about him.

I'm aware that I'm nodding to myself and stroking my chin as this wonderment circles my brain. And the question is still just hanging there: what do you design? It's become awkward. After such a massive pause for thought, anything short of "flying cathedrals" or "the terrifying future of mankind" is going to be a bit of a disappointment. But okay, I'd better give an answer.

"Stuff."

Okay, so apparently my idiot mouth is not completely sold on the idea of specialising. Good to know. I suppose it has a point – I'd probably get frustrated only having book covers on the go. Even Mr Kidd branches out from time to time and works on non-bookular projects. I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and stifle myself with a pigeonhole (a situation that, quite frankly, sounds horrific).

Although the grass over there is a touch greener, I often take it for granted how liberating being a Jack of all trades is. Having fingers in pies did my imaginary friends Charles and Ray no harm – maybe I should continue following their lead and stop obsessing with how marketable I am on paper, and actually do some work on paper.

And here I am. Still nodding to myself. Now standing completely alone. Someone walks by with the last of the mini-quiches. Bum.

-

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Creative Review.

Apple's Silent Invasion of the Home

It's monday. I've had more coffee than is sensible and I'm trying to out-stare multiple deadlines. Wife and firstborn are frolicking in town, so I've been left to my own devices. And the devices have started to develop personalities.

You see, I'm outnumbered. Although they like to make me think I'm the one in charge, the devices have complete control of the apartment. There are more Apple things here than there are rooms. All different shapes and sizes, and in various states of sprightliness/torpor – the box-fresh iPad Mini is like some kind of hyperactive space-ninja compared to the sluggish oaf that is my five year-old iMac. Eager-to-please iPhones seem to follow me around the place, appearing on unlikely surfaces (I left you on top of the nappy bin? Really? What do you want from me?) and scaring the bejesus out of me with abrupt chirps and whistles.

Back in the 20th century, as the heart of the home moved from the kitchen to the sofa, we were promised a future of robot maids and transforming furniture. What we got was screens. Lots of screens. Whether designed for your desktop, your pocket or your lap, there is no place modern computers are more at home than in our homes. Broken free of their work-or-play shackles, they've become appliances. Multi-purpose, genuinely useful, and constantly in use – which is why they're all covered in various flavours of grubby fingerprint.

It all happened without me noticing, a silent invasion. Natural selection slowly plucked previously essential boxes and gizmos from our lives and replaced them with Ive shininess.

First to go was the stereo, ushered into obsolescence by the arrival of iTunes. Whole swathes of shelf suddenly became available as my beloved CD collection – a trophy cabinet of an adolescence spent loitering in Our Price – was ripped and boxed and shoved into the attic. Now the music blarps out of the nearest device, wherever I want it to be (unaccompanied by the fascinated poring-over of liner notes – a casualty of digitalisation).

And then went the TV. Why squint at a tiny set across the other side of the bedroom when I can snuggle in and gently warm/roast your legs with a cosy MacBook and a Netflix account? Even whilst watching, it's handy to have a second device in case I need to – and I will need to – check something on IMDb. How else am I going to be sure that that's thingy from that film with that guy in it who looks like that other guy?

Before long, the purge was out of control. The black glassy rectangles were absorbing everything. All the little bits and pieces of my life that I took for granted, one day we woke up and realised they werent there any more. Clocks: gone. Radios: gone. Clock-radios: gone.

So here I am, surrounded by black mirrors (thank you Charlie for that one), all offering to help me with my daily grind.

And while they're at it, they're all talking to each other – photos and messages and films being flung about. Or rather, they're arguing with each other – with multiple iCloud and Dropbox accounts on multiple devices, and it all gets a bit murky. The place may be a lot less cluttered, but my shoebox full of photos never used to require this much constant administration. Quite when, where and how it's okay to delete content is all sorts of confusing. It's not so much living in the cloud as getting lost in the fog.

(Throw into the mix the ugly cousin of the family, the Xbox, gurning in the corner of the room like an eager-to-please halfwit. It so desperately wants to be the control centre of the home, but not before it isists you look at some advertising and play with its made-up currency. Moron.)

All of these things, luring me in with micro-activities to fill the gaps in between thoughts. I'll just sort out that photo album there, I'll just tinker with that playlist, I'll just make sure twitter knows I'm still alive, I'll just, I'll just.

Attention deficit aside, this new order of things is genuinely useful, even more so now that young Master Benneworth-Gray is here. Every single giggle and gurgle calls for a Google. Firsts – there are so many firsts – have to be recorded and shared and Skyped. My creaky old iMac used to primarily be a work machine, an Adobe-tronic. Now, it's basically a grandparent-appeasing device and nursery rhyme jukebox.

One of the handy little apps we have for him is simple to the extreme, but does the job of what would've been yet another dust-gathering appliance. It does one thing: it makes white noise. Just a constant shush to help him get to sleep. This:

"PPPPPPPSSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHH."

That's it. That's all it does, that's all it needs to do. And it works a charm.

Except now, with the latest update, it apparently has “social features”. Social white noise. Good grief. Is this the road we're going down? Can I not perform the simplest of tasks without being expected to tweet about it? Or is it more automated than that? While I get on with my work (I really must get on with my work), will my bijou house of tomorrow be socialising behind my back? Am I even a necessary part of the equation now? Maybe I'll wake up one day to a note telling me that the devices have moved on and got a place of their own. I can picture a nice little place by the sea where they can all just sit there in deck-chairs and bleep at each other and take Instagrams of the sunset and share them back and forth until the end of time.

Fine. Good riddance. I'll be fine. I coped before them, and I'll cope without them. Somehow. The most important appliance isn't part of their gang, and it's staying right here. Coffee machine, I love you. Let's never fight.

-

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of MacUser.

Cinema 2013

Crikey. Despite having a baby following me around all year, I think I've been to the cinema more than ever before! It's all down to the existence of City Screen's amazing baby club, Big Scream. Every Wednesday morning, one of their screens would be full of parents (mostly mums) and their babbling spawn.

The lights would be a little brighter, the sound would be a little lower, but you could sit there and watch a film without too much hassle. Brody would either sleep through it or play on the floor (this mostly involved stealing other babies' toys). It was great, and gave us all a nice family play-date to look forward to each week. It also meant we ended up seeing some absolute crap (The Paperboy), but there were some nice surprises too (I was surprised by how much I loved Les Miserables). 

It wasn't a stunning year for film, but there were a few that stood out: Gravity, Le Week-end, What Maisie Knew. Both Hobbits were great once you got past the fact that they were going far beyond the modest confines of the source material (although I still think Smaug should be pronounced "Smaug" rather than "Smaug"). All the superhero movies were jolly good fun too – I probably enjoyed Thor: The Dark World the most.

A few few big disappointments: Before Midnight threw away the charm of the first two films and just gave us two hours of pretentious bickering; Pacific Rim was embarrassingly shoddy in every possible way; and Danny Boyle followed up his triumphant 2012 ceremonials by … showing off his girlfriend's bits in Trance. That was odd.

Anyway, here's everything I saw on the big screen this year:

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • The Impossible
  • Les Misérables
  • Lincoln
  • Hitchcock
  • Stoker
  • Oz the Great and Powerful
  • The Paperboy
  • Robot and Frank
  • Trance
  • Oblivion
  • The Place Beyond the Pines
  • Iron Man 3
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Man of Steel
  • World War Z
  • Before Midnight
  • Now You See Me
  • Pacific Rim
  • The Wolverine
  • The World's End
  • Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
  • Kick-Ass 2
  • The Iceman
  • Elysium
  • What Maisie Knew
  • The Way Way Back
  • About Time
  • Le Week-End
  • Gravity
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Saving Mr Banks
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Why Don't You Turn Off Your Computer and Do Something Less Boring Instead?

CLUNK.

Sorry, just trying to find a file.

CLUNK.

Really, don't mind me, I'm opening Photoshop.

CLUNK.

Seriously, pretend I'm not here, I just have to wait for the font menu to appear. Wait. Beachball … any second now … beachball … ignore the steam, that's perfectly normal … beachball …

Oh deary me. My older-than-I-care-to-admit Mac is starting to show its age, and the grinding and straining is getting to be a tad irksome. I'm actually impressed that it’s lasted this long without bursting into flames or being picked up by the British Museum. But alas the time to upgrade has finally come. I'm sorry old buddy old pal, we must part ways.

It probably doesn't help that the hardware is rammed to the rafters with decrepit software. I'm not usually one to blame my tools (THIS IS A LIE), but these ones are getting blunt and rusty and aren't up to the job any more. I've stubbornly resisted upgrading Creative Suite for quite some time now, but it's reached a point where I'm a little too far behind. When clients send me new file formats that I simply can't open because of their newfangledness – "Sorry, still not working. Any chance you can you send it over as a daguerreotype?" – I have to accept that perhaps my software is getting in the way of my work.

So here we are. Upgrade time. I'm hoping this won't sting too much. With Adobe going all subscribey with Creative Cloud (cue frothy-mouthed ranting and raving from pretty much everyone) and leasing looking like the sensible way to go for hardware, I should be able to spread the expense out a little bit. I'm sure it'll be horrific in the long run, but economic foresight never helped anyone, now did it? I'll take blissful ignorance, thank you very much. Now where do I sign?

Hang on. Hold your various horses. First I have to decide precisely what it is I’m replacing the old clunker with. Of course, my guts tell me that I need more of the same: the biggest display possible, as much as my desk can handle. But – to steal wholesale from Nick Hornby for a moment – I've come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains. The traditional desky-keyboardy-mousey approach, as lovely as it looks when you get it out of the box, is rather at odds with my new approach to work.

Basically, I'm trying to spend less time stuck indoors staring into the aluminium-framed abyss. I want to use my Mac as a tool for the final execution of an idea, not the exploration. As someone who came into the industry after the X-Actos and Cow Gum had already been tidied away to the big studio stockroom in the sky, it's important to keep reminding myself that design is at its best when it’s a physical act, more than a mere click-and drag. As Paul Rand told his students: "It is important to use your hands, this is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator."

So I've been spending more time drawing and sketching and doodling (trust me, there are subtle but significant differences), and rediscovering life away from the cursor. More photography, less Photoshop – that sort of thing. I'm covered in inky stains and papercuts and a look of shame brought on by catching sight of my own moronic handwriting, but creating without a screen has been eye-opening and revitalising. I'm one frantic creative episode away from being that guy with a stubby pencil permanently tucked behind his ear.

I’m tempted to unshackle myself from the desk completely. I need to go outside and play! With the aid of my trusty iPad, I can take all my emails and writing and admin wherever I go! I can take pictures of everything and lay on the grass and drink lemonade and frolic with the squirrels and the sparrows! Ah. This is only a theoretical plan and yet already I've become distracted by the majesty of nature. Typical. Bound to happen.

Perhaps I won't ditch the desk just yet – the reality of it is that no matter how much fun I have getting there, eventually that final execution needs executioning. And for that, nothing beats a big, glowing, retina-singeing computer … but just for a little while. At the fist sign of my brain going CLUNK, it's time to turn it off and doodle some doodles.

Go outdoors. Play.

-

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Creative Review.

Digraphs and Umlauts

When I was a teenager, way back in the 1990s, visiting Häagen-Dazs' bar in Leiecester Square was the height of sophisticated European-ness. This was long before their tubs were available in every supermarket and cinema – for a while there it was scarcity and Scandinavity that made their ice cream cool. They were basically the Sarah-Lund's-Jumper of its time.

Except …

Häagen-Dazs is from New York. That name means absolutely nothing! Here's the story behind it (pinched from Wikipedia): 

Mattus invented the "Danish-sounding" "Häagen-Dazs" as a tribute to Denmark's exemplary treatment of its Jews during the Second World War, and included an outline map of Denmark on early labels. The name, however, is not Danish, which has neither an umlaut nor a digraph zs – ä is used in Finnish, Swedish and German, but Danish uses æ for the corresponding sound (both of these are contractions of "ae"), and zs is used in Hungarian – nor does it have any meaning in any language or etymology before its creation. Mattus felt that Denmark was known for its dairy products and had a positive image in the US. His daughter Doris Hurley reported in the PBS documentary, An Ice Cream Show (1999), that her father sat at the kitchen table for hours saying nonsensical words until he came up with a combination he liked. The reason he chose this method was so that the name would be unique and original.

I love a good brand name origin story. I particularly like this one because the conceit completely worked on me. Plus it involves digraphs and umlauts. You can't beat a good umlaut. I'm now wondering what other brands I love are hiding behind made-up foreign words. Surely not my beloved Maersk?

That Old Tremendously Private Enjoyment

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Not sure how old this Lego advert is, but presumably it's from some point in the 1960s given the Samsonite reference. It's just perfect. There's immediate visual impact, but it's the copy at the bottom that really does the selling. That's some fantastic writing right there, and reads like it could've been written yesterday. Just smashing.

It's a shame that the Lego of today don't subscribe to that same anti-wargames philosophy, having given in to the conflict narrative approach perfected by toy manufacturers in the 1980s (whoever decided to turn transforming car puzzles into an intergalactic war has a lot to answer for). But underneath all the licensed attack ships and animal combatants, it's still essentially the same toy as it ever was. Whatever the picture on the box, the instructions in the book, it's still just a pile of bricks.

It makes things.