Site Redesign

I’m itching to do yet another site redesign—I have a pretty good idea of what I want and a working test version of it, allowing for a bit of tweaking—but I think it makes sense to wait until the release of WordPress 2.3 so I don’t have to worry about any compatibility issues. I’m considering losing the theme switcher, as well; since I make no effort to make changes to the site backwards-compatible, it’s probably better that way. And it’ll make it easier to rework things for my ultra-minimalist new look.

Of course the whole thing is increasingly irrelevant, since a growing proportion of my (diminishing number of) readers are now accessing HF through feed readers and may never see the design at all. But I enjoy the process.

I’m also intending to start a photoblog. I’ve always liked the idea of photography but found the results slightly disappointing. As a birder I know well the importance of good optical equipment; the difference between a cheap pair of binoculars and an expensive pair can be profound. I never bought a film SLR camera because I didn’t think I would get the use out of it to justify it; now with digital, knowing I can go out and shoot 50 or 60 and discard them all, it seems like a good moment to make a serious attempt to take some good photographs. So the photoblog will be part of that attempt; recording my learning process. But I can’t decide on a name for it. I could keep up the G.M. Hopkins theme and go for something like ‘Plough Down Sillion’ or ‘Shook Foil’ or ‘Finches’ Wings’, but I think I fancy a change. Hmmm. We’ll see.

The Elements of Typographic Style

I’ve been reading The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. When I ordered it, I noticed the mild coincidence that the author has the same name as the chap who translated the poetry of the Haida (the native inhabitants of the Queen Charlotte islands in the Pacific Northwest). As it turns out, though, it’s the same man. Which certainly explains why the books of Haida poetry are so attractively designed.

Haida mask

Alderwood mask of a woman of high rank, possibly Djiláquons. Haida, around 1830; in the British Museum.

It’s an impressive combination of talents, but there is a natural fit between poetry and typography. After spending all that time choosing and arranging words, what poet wouldn’t want them physically arranged on the page with equal care?

The parallel is marked: it’s all about the combined effect of a thousand tiny decisions. The poet and the typographer have to believe that every tiny tweak matters, that no detail is unimportant.

Now, with powerful computers at home, we all have the possibility of being our own typographers. But one thing that’s clear, reading the book, is that it’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s a lot more to it than choosing the least ugly font that came with your computer, picking a type size and a line height and letting the computer do the work. The point this was really brought home to me was where he argues convincingly that digital fonts often come from the foundries insufficiently precisely kerned, and that you will probably need to spend a couple of days with each new typeface manually adjusting the kerning so that even unusual letter pairs found in words like Ypres, Rwanda or Vázquez will be properly spaced.

section of William Caslon’s specimen sheet

A section of a specimen sheet printed by William Caslon; from Wikipedia.

Even so, there is a lot of information and advice in the book which can be used even for the normal user of Microsoft Word; about choosing the right type size and measure, arranging the text block on the page, and creating headers which are harmonious with the body type, for example.

This is one field where the internet lets us down, of course. I can specify a typeface – from a very limited range I can rely on the reader’s computer to have – a type size, a line height and a line length, but I can’t control the way your system and browser deal with the kerning, anti-aliasing or any of the other nuances that completely transform the appearance it will have on your screen. Still, even here, some knowledge of typography can only help, and the technology is moving fast.

It’s an interesting, readable and, as one would hope, very attractive book. The Haida poetry is fascinating as well, but that would need a post to itself, methinks.

‘Surreal Things’ at the V&A

Last week I went to ‘Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design‘ at the V&A. It explores the influence of Surrealist art on design, and demonstrates how quickly surrealist imagery was recycled as a design style; initially in very chic and expensive contexts and then in mass-market commercial design. And demonstrated in the process that it’s a very rare image that still manages to be startling, unsettling and generally unheimlich when used as curtain fabric.

Ruby Lips Brooch by Salvador Dali

That’s true even before the adoption of this imagery into the mainstream. One part of the exhibition was about the house of an art collector who was an early enthusiast of Surrealism. His house was painted purple; it had plaster shapes on the walls to look like sheets hanging out of the windows and huge model palm trees on either side of the door; he had the iconic Dali lobster telephones and Mae West Lips sofa, wolf pawprint carpets, and specially designed china, lamps and so on.

But if Surrealism is a radical exploration of the subconscious, dreams, sexuality and so on, what does it mean to fill a whole house with surreal objects? I suppose the collector might have claimed that the whole house was one Surrealist artwork, but it seems to me that once you’ve decided to use Surrealism as a interior design choice, you’ve already neutered it; it just becomes a set of visual tics.

'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' by Dorothea Tanning

Surrealism is always very vulnerable to that loss of power; like a lot of modern art, the moment the audience stops taking it seriously, it’s very hard to recapture the mystique. The most iconic, striking surrealist works—the lobster telephone, the fur-lined cup, some of those Magritte paintings—are also the most easily absorbed as likeable mainstream objects. You can enjoy them as visual jokes or intellectual puzzles and they are memorable and interesting; but without the unsettling, dangerous quality that I think Surrealism aspires to. There’s a very easy slippage from powerfully strange to amusingly quirky.

London 2012 logo reactions

As regular readers probably know, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the London Olympics. But I’ve always had my own particular private worry about them. Not transport problems or cost overruns; no, what I’ve always had a nagging worry about is the opening ceremony.

There have been two big international sporting events held in the UK in the past 15 years: Euro ’96 and the 2002 Commonwealth Games. From an organisational point of view, both were a great success. But the opening ceremonies were cheesy, incoherent, unimaginative, clichéd. Half-baked. Second-rate. And my worry was that not just the opening ceremony, but the whole style, everything that the world will remember about the London Olympics other than the sport, might end up the same way: naff and a bit amateurish.

DSC03132, originally uploaded by Dean Morris.

There are plenty of people in the UK who know how to put on a show, whether it’s an exhibition, a rock concert, a West End musical or a royal funeral. For that matter, the fabulous opening ceremony for the Athens Olympics was done by a British company. But none of that creativity seems to survive contact with the government. Whether politicians just have bad taste, or it’s the clammy hand of design by committee that ruins everything, I don’t know, but the record doesn’t inspire much optimism. The ultimate example is the Millennium Dome. It was always an event in search of a reason for existing, and the cost of the thing wasn’t exactly going to endear it to anyone, but much of that would have been forgiven if the experience of visiting it had been exciting and stimulating. Or glamorous, or awe-inspiring, or shocking, or moving. Instead, it was overwhelmingly mediocre. I had a pleasant enough day out there with my family, but it was completely unwowful and unmemorable.

I was cautiously optimistic about London 2012, though. The team seemed to be very focussed and professional, the bid logo was certainly the best of the competing cities, and the videos for the bid presentation in Singapore were very polished and even quite witty. And beach volleyball on Horseguards Parade, where the PM will be able to watch it from the windows of 10 Downing Street, is a stroke of genius. So I had a sense of shock and a feeling that all my worst fears had come true when I saw that the new logo is, basically, ugly:

London 2012 logo

Not only is it garish and lopsided, it looks so dated. And not generically old-fashioned, but quite specifically dated. My immediate associations were Max Headroom and the original Channel 4 logo; other people have mentioned Smash Hits, the video for Money For Nothing, MTV, and the titles for Saved By The Bell. In other words, there’s an immediate association with the cheesier end of 80s yoof culture.

Now I have a certain nostalgic fondness for the 80s, and I know the decade is quite trendy at the moment, but it seems a bizarre note to strike for the 2012 Olympics. And what worries me even more than the retina-scarring gaudiness of it is that note of cheesiness. The Olympics is never going to be cutting-edge and hipper-than-thou; it’s too big, too old, and too establishment for that. But it should be possible to do it with a bit of panache.

Well, I’ve been reading some of the commentary on design blogs—there’s a couple [1, 2] among the daily links in the previous post—and although everyone seems to have the same initial reaction of startled revulsion, some people have, after a little thought, offered some defences of the design. There seem to be three basic points:

1) Technically speaking, it’s a very flexible design. It scales well, it works well in black and white and a variety of colour schemes, and it will work not just in print and on screen but on baseball caps, polystyrene cups and just about any other medium. Which wouldn’t make up for any of its other failings, but is worth noting.

2) At least it doesn’t include a picture of Big Ben. More broadly: Olympic logos are generally forgettable, clichéd and bland. This one is surprising, striking, and, presumably, memorable. It has had an immediate impact, and although that initial impact has been negative, it is at least a strong reaction. And people will get used to the design in time. Possibly.

3) Most interestingly: it’s not just a logo. Because it is so visually striking, it sets up a visual signature which will be able to be carried through into all kinds of materials: TV ads, posters, banners, volunteer uniforms and so on. It really is, as the committee stressed, a brand rather than a logo.

These arguments have not quite won me over. ‘At least it’s not bland’ is a bit too much like saying ‘don’t you see? It’s ugly on purpose.’ Which just might be so clever it loops round to stupid again. And while I can see the virtues of a coherent visual style for the Games, the idea of the whole of London being plastered with lurid jaggedy shapes for the next seven years doesn’t fill me with an overwhelming sense of joy.

But at least it’s given me something to think about and a sense that, just possibly, there’s some method to the madness. Perhaps they know what they’re doing, perhaps it’ll all be OK; perhaps we won’t be looking back at the Games in 20 years time with a visceral cringe of embarrassment.

Parakeet feather on Moleskine

Parakeet feather on Moleskine

I bought a new notebook yesterday for my upcoming trip to Crete. This is the previous one, with a feather I found near the birdfeeders, presumably from a parakeet. I do like Moleskine notebooks. I’ve used masses of different notebooks of various kinds over the years both for birdwatching and poetry, but these are the only ones I really enjoy as objects in their own right.

They’re a fine example of why you can’t judge a product just on its functionality. Any old notebook which contains a supply of paper and is small enough to be portable would fulfil my requirements; I hardly ever use them for sketching or anything, just noted jotted in biro. The elastic to keep the notebook shut, the ribbon bookmark and the built-in pocket are nice touches but not really necessary.

It’s just a likeable object. It looks good: simple, old-fashioned, functional, ungimmicky. Even more important is that it’s very tactile; the oilcloth cover, good quality paper and twangy elastic all make it a nice thing to hold. I think it’s worth paying three times as much to get a notebook that gives me pleasure as well as doing its job. I just wish I got as much enjoyment out of using, say, my mobile phone.

The Campaign for Better Smilies

Smilies used to really irritate me. But I’ve been persuaded. So much online communication now is chit-chat, banter and small talk. And informal conversation is driven as much by tone of voice as by actual words. A real example. Someone leaves a nice comment on this blog, and I don’t really have anything to say in reply but want to acknowledge the comment. This seems too curt:


This seems too effusive:


So what I often use is this:

Thanks :)

Which seems a genuinely useful thing to be able to do. It’s just a bit friendlier. But you’ll notice WordPress hasn’t converted that into a smiley, because I have in fact turned smilies off. They’re just too ugly. These are the ones that ship with WordPress:

All wordpress smilies

They’re not the most horrible smilies ever, but I didn’t spend hours tweaking and fine-tuning the design of the site just to clutter it up with yellow cartoon faces. What I like about the classic emoticon is that it’s visually unobtrusive but clear. It is in fact like punctuation, which I think is the state all smilies should aspire to. But emoticons are limited. I know that people have expended endless ingenuity in coming up with ways to convey everything from ‘laughing hard while covering mouth with hands’ to ‘silent resignation’, but they tend to be large, ambiguous and, of course, obviously cobbled together out of other symbols. What I want is for fonts come with a range of emoticons designed to match the font. The most important one is a smile; the other ones I’ve found most useful in internet forums are ‘confused’ ‘roll eyes’ and ‘grin’, but they might as well include the other obvious ones: ‘angry’, ‘sad’ and ‘winking’ at least.

They don’t even have to be designed to look like faces; conceptually these similar to the exclamation mark and the question mark, and a similarly arbitrary symbol would be fine. But since emoticons and smilies are currently in widespread use, they seem like a good starting point. Perhaps something like this:


I am, obviously, not a type designer, but you can see what I’m trying to do. The more complex symbols, like confused or roll-eyes, would need a bit more ingenuity, but humans are nothing if not ingenious.

Can you tell I’m short of inspiration for napowrimo? And, btw, if WordPress is going to insert curly quotes, I wish it would bloody well get them right. The automatic formatting seem to be screwed up in several ways since the release of WP2.1, and it’s really irritating. [angry smiley could go here]

Worst product design EVER!

OK, not the worst ever, but the one which is currently annoying me: screw-top beer bottles. You know the ones, which look like traditional crown caps but actually screw off.

You can see why someone thought they were a good innovation; they look the same (which is important, because what kind of girlie-man drinks beer from bottles with the same type of closure as a bottle of coke?) while being more convenient: no need for a bottle-opener. But ‘looks like a crown cap’ translates as ‘authentic serrated metal edge’. They’re like little blunt circular saws. If a piece of packaging is painful to open, there’s something wrong with it. Come on people, this isn’t fucking rocket science. I’m looking at you, Fentiman’s Ginger Beer.

I could have told them that.

“A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Treasury Department is violating the law by failing to design and issue currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired people.”

Speaking as a fully-sighted person, when I was in Ecuador (where they use US dollars) I found the near-identical designs of different denominations really annoying; it must be a nightmare for the blind.

FSotW: USSR Posters

Flickr set of the week is USSR Posters, an absolutely staggering collection of 1,469 “Russian and/or Soviet propaganda & advert posters [1917-1991]” put on Flickr by bpx. I’ve only had a chance to dip into them, but here’s a few to give you a taste:

The same person has an even larger selection of WWII posters which might well be FSotW another time. It certainly deserves its own post.

New new iTunes icons

I thought it would be fun to make a whole set, with different record labels. I’ve added Trojan, Upsetter, Chess, Apple and Sun:

You can get a zip of them as .icns files here.

Yet again with the iTunes icons

I decided that while the coloured vinyl was ok on its own, the addition of a coloured note was just too garish.

The anti-aliasing round the note needs tweaking, but I think it looks pretty good. Better than the original:

EDIT: OK, I’ve tweaked it. Here’s the final version:

For Mac users, there’s a zip of those designs I got as far as making into .icns files here. To change the iTunes icon: rename whichever icon you prefer as ‘iTunes.icns’. Then you need to quit iTunes, right-click it in the Finder and choose ‘show package contents’. In the ‘Resources’ folder, replace the original iTunes.icns file with your new one (but save a copy of the original somewhere just in case).

More iTunes icons

I’ve updated my new iTunes icons for the release of iTunes 7.

I’ve switched to using LaVern Baker.

Jonathan Ive and the post-gadget aesthetic

Some more thoughts on design in the tech industries. This time, the slow death of what I think of as the ‘gadget aesthetic’. The gadget aesthetic was a product of the novelty and glamour of electronics; it fetishizes the look of hi-tech gizmos. Lots of buttons, lots of LEDs, curvy moulded plastic, metallic-looking silver plastic:

This is the same approach as the set-designers for Star Trek: if you’re going to have some actor peering at a panel and saying “Captain! The dilithium crystal containment field is coming out of phase!”, then you really need the panel to look important. So you cover it in glowing panels and screens and buttons.

But now I think people have got past that; they want their consumer electronics to look stylish, but not necessarily in the Star Trek manner. One of the reasons Jonathan Ive has won all those awards for Apple is that he completely understands that. I’m writing this on an iMac which has less buttons visible than just about any other electrial product in the room – the clock/radio, the camera, even the fan. It is less visibly complex than the Anglepoise next to it.

Apple only have about 5% of the personal computer market, so perhaps you can’t look at their computers and assume that the design taps into a profound cultural shift. But they do have an overwhelming market share in mp3 players, and the iPod has that same post-gadget aesthetic. It’s not that it’s somehow trying to look anti-technology, but it isn’t trying to look ‘hi-tech’. It’s not trying to look like it fell through a wormhole from 2037. It has no LEDs or glowing buttons; the controls it does have are reduced to a circle of a slightly different colour on the front of the machine.

None of this is exactly rocket-science, and there have been thousands of words written about Apple’s cool minimalism. But on the specific point of a post-gadget aesthetic, Apple’s competitors either don’t get it, don’t know how to do it, or aren’t trying.

Here’s an iPod competitor, the 20GB Creative mp3 player:

I’m sure it does a good job of playing music. Ad someone has put some thought into making it look attractive. But look at the styling. The glowing buttons, the glowing outline, the moulded plastic, and the futuristic typeface on ‘Creative’ —  it looks like a communicator from Star Trek.

And here’s the ‘iriver H320 Lite 20GB MP3 Player’, which is, i anything, even more mired in the same culture of making products look futuristic:

You’ve got shiny glowing buttons, another futuristic typeface, the use of techy jargon (‘multi-codec jukebox’). It’s quite a cool thing and I’m sure a lot of people will look at it and want it, but it’s cool in a gadgety way. Next to the iPod it looks like it’s trying too hard.

One more example. Compare the silvery, swooshy Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 to Apple’s plain white wireless Mighty Mouse. They have nearly the same functionality (both have four-way scrolling; the Mighty Mouse has four buttons to the MSLM6000’s five), but the Mighty Mouse doesn’t feel the need to advertise how sophisticated it is.

At the moment all this stuff is so closely associated with Apple that it’s just perceived as Apple branding. In fact, the Nintendo DS Lite, which has a very similar kind of simple, ungadgety style, is often described as looking like it was designed by Apple.

But my feeling is that these companies are just ahead of the curve. There will probably always be a market for techy geek chic, for games consoles, computers and mobile phones decorated with das blinkenlichten. But electronic hardware is not the sole preserve of geeks anymore, and I think tech companies are slowly starting to understand that. Apple has always been the less geeky alternative to Microsoft, and Nintendo have always been more family-oriented and less focussed on hardcore gamers than their competitors. And generally speaking, both of them have been outcompeted, and have had rather poor market share.

But the runaway dominance of the iPod, and the fact that the DS is outselling the more powerful but more traditionally gamer-orientated PSP, raise the possibility that the non-geek dollar is finally starting to have a serious impact. I think we’re in an interesting time when a lot of companies know that they need to make their products more desirable to a broader range of customers, but there’s a lot of groping around to work out how to do it. The mobile phone companies have had to deal with this quicker than anyone, and they haven’t done a bad job; from the time that mobile phone use exploded, it probably only took them about five years to come up with a proper girly phone, for example. And there is a huge range of designs available, even if they often tend to be somewhat similar in overall look. So if the much-rumoured iPhone does ever materialise, it’ll be interesting to see what Ive and Apple can do when competing in an already well-developed market where the importance of design is understood. I’m sure there’s scope for a much better UI, for a start, but what really interests me is whether he can come up with a look for the phone which stands out from the crowd. If he does I’m sure it’ll be the least futuristic looking mobile on the market.

form vs. function — a stupid false dichotomy.

Core77’s design blog led me to this article about form vs. function in mobile phone design. The title of the article says it all: Is the ‘dumb blonde’ phone here to stay?

In this context, a ‘dumb blonde’ phone is one which looks pretty but lacks functionality. I can understand why someone thought that was a good gag, but it completely misses the point. It assumes that people actually want all the added functionality of web-browsing, email, multimegapixel cameras, Bluetooth, music playback and God knows what else; that they’ve sacrificed something by choosing a stylish phone instead. But perhaps they haven’t. Perhaps they just want to make phone calls and send texts. Here’s a paragraph whose stupidity makes it worth quoting in full:

Andrew Brown, IDC’s European mobile devices programme manager, said the operators and manufacturers have played their part in the dumbing down. “Everyone gets very excited about aesthetics. It’s easier to sell design than it is to sell feature functionality – it’s laziness.” Good looks are immediately apparent to the average buyer – the benefits of having 3G connectivity or a smart operating system are not.

Which inevitably reminds me of the equally stupid quote from Sim Wong Hoo I blogged about earlier. Sim, as the CEO of Creative, was completely failing to learn the obvious lesson about iPod thrashing his products in the marketplace. The same lessons apply to mobile phones.

Here’s the first point: to choose a simple, attractive phone over an ugly but hi-tech one is not an irrational choice. It seems like such an obvious point that I can’t quite believe I have to explicitly say it, but I suspect I do. There’s a bizarre prejudice against aesthetics in the tech community, as though the pleasure in using an object you actually like is somehow an illusion, a deceit, and something of no value. Now if that’s how you feel, then fair enough. Good luck to you. Go and buy the most function-filled gadget, or the one which gives you most oomph per dollar, and ignore design issues completely. But if you want to sell gadgets to the non-geek community, you have to learn that people like to own nice things.

We’re not talking about a once-in-a-lifetime purchase: a mobile phone costs about as much as a handbag. Why on earth shouldn’t it be a fashion item?

Here’s the second bizarre prejudice: that added functionality adds value. This is the mentality that produced the much-mocked ballpoint pen with clock that used to be a staple of Innovations catalogues. Functionality you don’t want doesn’t add value, it reduces it. Even if it doesn’t interfere with the main function of an object, it makes it more complicated, which is a Bad Thing. I only use my mobile for phone calls and texting; so for me, all the other menu options are just unnecessary rubbish I have to scroll past to find what I want. By all means make a Swiss Army Knife phone with a tool for getting the stones out of horses hooves; just don’t expect me to buy one.

But the real problem, the one that underlies the others, is a belief that design is something you put on at the end, a lick of paint to pull in the stupid, style-obsessed consumer who somehow doesn’t appreciate the wonderful functionality you’re giving them. But design, properly, is not superficial. It deals with every aspect of the user’s experience of the product, down to the number of button-presses to perform an action and the obviousness or otherwise of how to do it. If a product is badly designed (or just as likely, not really designed at all), if it doesn’t try to make it easy for the user, then it’s a bad product, however many features it has.

My father has a PVR/DVD recorder that makes the perfect case study. When he got it a couple of years ago, it was the bleeding edge of the technology. And to be fair, it has proved itself to be a brilliant step forward from the VCR – no more scrabbling around for blank tapes, no difficulty trying to find what you recorded earlier. The basic concept of recording TV on a hard drive is superb. But despite that, I’ve come to actively dislike it. Because it was obviously put together by people who put all their effort into providing a certain set of features none of it into the user experience.

First example: pretty much everything you would need to do with the machine can be done, as you’d expect, by pressing buttons on the remote and using onscreen menus. But if you want to stop a timer recording, you have to press the stop button on the front of the machine twice. That’s completely unguessable, and easily improved upon; when someone presses ‘stop’ on the remote, just give them an ‘are you sure?’ message. Second example: despite the fact that even slightly complicated functions are managed through onscreen interfaces, the remote has 76 buttons. I don’t know what the right number is, but I’m damn sure it’s less than that. It also came with three separate manuals — an outline of the basic functions, a hideously complicated full manual that explained every possible function badly, and something in-between because, presumably, they realised the other two were both crap.

I’m conflating two meanings of ‘design’ here, attractiveness and usability, and of course they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, products often sacrifice usability for aesthetic appeal. What they have in common, though, is that they both make the product more likeable. They give pleasure. But pleasure is intangible and unmeasurable, so it’s all too easy for people to undervalue it, or just to pay lip-service to it. Because the thing is – good design is hard. It takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, an endless appetite for details and a deeply stubborn perfectionism. A company is never going to get it right if, deep down, they think of design as superficial.

A super-glamorous new look for Heraclitean Fire

Which isn’t actually going to happen. I was working on a new look for the blog a while ago, but came to the conclusion it was going to be just too memory-intensive. It’s heavy on the graphics, and because it uses lots of sharp-edged high-contrast shapes, you can’t compress the images very much without getting lots of glitching.

Anyway, I thought I’d produce a mock up to show you. If I’d worked it up into a full WordPress theme, I daresay I would have tweaked various things, not least the text styling. But it’ll give you the idea. I’ve done it as a PDF, although I don’t know why really.

Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

I was looking for an internet copy of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (which is a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste) and found the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. Not only does it have complete scans of the Chippendale, it also has Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, and lots of similar stuff like Temple of Flora, or, Garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher, The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, or, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, and A New Treatise on Flower Painting, or, Every lady her own drawing master: containing familiar and easy instructions for acquiring a perfect knowledge of drawing flowers with accuracy and taste: Also complete directions for producing the various tints.

And while I’m posting links to that kind of thing, I can’t resist adding one to Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.

‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ at the V&A

I went to see the Modernism: Designing a New World exhibition at the V&A, which was good. It was largely what you’d expect – white houses, angular furniture and posters with large sans serif headers printed at an angle – although there were some treats and surprises, like a Tatra T-87 saloon car.

Looking at the best of the modernist buildings, like the Villa Savoye and thinking of all those lumpen, red-brick, pitched-roofed houses that the British construction industry threw up over the course of the C20th, you can’t help feeling that our suburbs might be less ugly if we’d embraced modernism a bit more. Of course no style or philosophy is a substitute for a good architect. An industry that cares so little about aesthetics and design would only produce equally lumpen, graceless buildings in white-rendered concrete.

Incidentally, note that many of the most successful modernist dwellings seemed to be (like the Villa Savoye), stand-alone houses set in the country, where the trees provide a soft green background to the starkness of the design and the sweeping picture windows can look out over beautiful views. The large scale housing projects – and there were plenty of those in the exhibition as well – struggle to have the same impact. With rows of separate buildings, the effect can be rather a lot of visual clutter; perhaps because Modernism eschews decoration, so the aesthetic effects are achieved with structural elements – i.e. the shapes of the buildings. Or something. I haven’t really thought that through yet.

One of the odd things about the exhibition was that it was a constant stream of utopian, reformist ideals, but in the back of your mind was that the period it dealt with was bookended by the Great War and the Russian Revolution at one end and World War Two at the other, with the Depression and the growth of Fascism in the meantime. And yet somehow, all these idealists who were trying to change the world by giving the working man an efficient living space with Licht, Luft und Sonne seem to fit quite well into that kind of background. The wish to change the world by throwing out everything old and rebuilding it from scratch, to draw a line under ten centuries of European history and say “we can do better than that” has its echoes in the politics. Of course revolutionary Russia was one of the centres of early Modernist design.

And while I’m sure they wanted nothing but to make people’s lives better, the rhetoric – of the house as a ‘machine for living’, of progress, efficiency, mass-production – can be rather dehumanising. It reeks of top-down planning. And then there’s all the stuff about ‘hygienic’ living, with its celebration of cleanliness and the body. There’s a section about it in the exhibition, including some film of the ‘Sokol Slets’ – massed displays of gymnastics in Czechoslovakia which look like something Reni Liefenstahl would have dreamt up after eating too much cheese.

‘Performance of 16 800 women at the 1938 Sokol Slet. Strahov Stadium, Prague.’

Despite all the dubious parallels I’m drawing, it’s worth pointing out that both Hitler and Stalin disliked Modernism. Their idea of a good building was one smothered in heavy-handed political symbolism. And although some of the architects and designers were quite political (mostly leftists of various kinds, but some of the Italian Futurists were Fascist sympathisers, apparently), I’m not suggesting that any of that is terribly relevant to the actual buildings. I’m just drawing connections because I think it’s interesting.

My latest web design bonnet-bee

I was looking through WordPress themes on the Codex. I find it surprising how many people design themes with flexible-width text columns – i.e. ones where the columns get wider and narrower when you resize the browser window. One of the first things you learn when you pick up a book on typography is that if there are too many or too few words per line, the text becomes difficult to read. That’s one of the reasons newspapers divide up their articles into columns; with such small text, columns running the full width of the page would make it very difficult for the reader.

Picking a book at random off my shelves (a biography of Lewis Carroll, as it happens), it has about 13 words a line. On my computer, this blog has about 15 words/line. I can’t control how it will look on other system/browser combinations, but hopefully it doesn’t have many more than that. But this online version of Ulysses, with the browser window at a fairly typical width for me, had 24 words/line; and more if I stretch the window. That’s just silly.

Web design isn’t the same as traditional typography, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I just can’t see any advantage to flexible-width columns that would make up for the loss of control over how the text looks – and indeed the overall look of the page. Either decide to support people with small screens, or not, but pick a page-width and stick to it. Of course, if useless bloody Internet Explorer supported the max-width property, that would be a good solution, but you have to work with what you’ve got.