Designing for the audience

Perusing the sleeve notes of some records I’d just bought from Oxfam, I was struck by how different the experience could be, depending on how the words had been set.

Many moons ago, I was warned against reversed-out text by David Ogilvy, who insisted it was a dumb designers’ self-indulgence, which invariably made reading more difficult. He also suggested that serif fonts were almost always easier to read in print than sans-serif. Yer know what? He was right!

Such matters had been on my mind since I saw the new redesigned Guardian. One particular bit of design had particularly raised my hackles: someone’s cretinous decision to set one of the letters in 20pt type in a narrow column:

You have to wonder, does whoever’s responsible ever actually read anything? Or are words just ‘elements’?

The latter, surely,
given that they
are clearly oblivious
to just how irritating
and distracting
it is to be forced
to read a simple
sentence as a
succession of three
or four word blocks.

It’s like a road designer setting traffic lights at 50 metre intervals along a main highway, sitting back to watch all the cars and buses and vans and lorries stop-start-stop-starting their way along the road, and thinking ‘Nice one! Well done me!’

Tricksy design should be strangled at birth. By which I mean, design that calls attention to itself, saying ‘Hey, look at me! Ain’t I cute?’ If you can see ‘the design’, it’s not cute; it’s just bad design.

Its getting bad

Howard Jacobson is a precise, even occasionally borderline pompous, writer, so I have no doubt his copy was in good shape when he submitted it.

Doubtless also, the apostrophe in the last sentence was added by a helpful work-experience intern. Jacobson is still appearing, so one presumes he survived the apoplectic rage which – again doubtless – accompanied his encounter with the ‘help’ in print…

“What can be measured can be improved.”

Last week’s ponderings on algorithms brought to mind two further illustrations of the limitations of metrics as a guide to action.

The first was exemplified by the title phrase, much in use when I was doing a lot of work on TQM, Total Quality Management, back in the ’80s. This was at the tail end of an inglorious  British industrial era, when this country still made most things, mostly badly. TQM – or at least the version of it I was evangelising on behalf of PA Consulting Group – was heavy on SPC, or Statistical Process Control. Essentially, measuring variance, en route to its elimination.  Improvement thru’ consistency. Which seemed fine as far as it went. But was there not a danger, I asked my client, that seeing it as the be all and end all risked distorting our take on what mattered? Fine as it was for helping build steam irons whose handles didn’t go wobbly, and reducing delivery delays, what about tasks where the things that mattered didn’t lend themselves to measurement? “How,” I asked, “do you go about measuring the incorruptibility of a policeman, the patience of a teacher, the compassion of a nurse?”

The second came in a quote from the ex military man speaking in the recent series on the Vietnam war about the invention of that conflict’s defining metric: the body count. In a traditional war, you keep count by tracking the front line: territory gained, territory lost. But in Vietnam there *was* no front line. Territory was all but irrelevant. So how do you know whether you’re winning or losing; whether things are getting better or worse? Well, you need to find something you can track – hence the body count. More enemy dead; you’re doing well. As the ex-officer put it: “If you can’t count what really matters, it’s a short step to deciding that what you can count is what matters.”

None of this, of course, calls measuring, tracking and improving into question. I suppose it merely cautions against allowing ourselves to be blindfolded by one way of looking at things, particularly if it’s a way we find congenial – perhaps, often, because it’s a way that plays to our strengths.

What do Wii actually want?

Dictating into my phone the other day, replying to a Telegram request from my daughter, I watched the words unroll on screen: “I don’t think the we remotes ever came back after Nik took them away the other day.” By the time I’d got to ‘Nik’, the screen had begun wobbling slightly; by the time I’d reached ‘day’, the word ‘we’ had been replaced by ‘Wii’. Awesome!

By chance, later that day I was catching up on the Weekend Guardian, as is my wont, and came across this letter:

The pros of ever more sophisticated software are considerable, omnipresent, and more compelling every day. But I’m sure it’s not just my generation that’s becoming increasingly uneasy about its immense and irreversible power, given the implications of some of its cons for the ways we experience the world, the ways we speak about the world, the ways we perceive the world – and our place in it.

Soundbites rule, ok?

Last week’s flurry of smirking delight over Rex Tillerson’s refusal to disown ‘fucking moron’ set me musing once again on the alchemy of the soundbite.

Those two words will hang around Trump’s neck for the remainder of his presidency. Supporters, detractors, players and commentators, no-one will ever forget them, or see the President without them muttering in the background.  It reminded me of the dawn of the Trump candidacy. At first, in those long ago halcyon days, the whole idea was an absurdity. Trump was blowing off wind, as was his wont, but as to his becoming President – what, The President? Of America? Seriously?

And then I heard the words ‘Make America Great Again’, and I thought ‘uh oh’.

So, four words made him Mr President; now two hobble him forever as President dumbo.

Never underestimate the power of words.