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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Design’ Category


Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Graduation ceremonies should have credits, in the same way that films do. This would emphasise to students and a wider set of stakeholders the scale of the support and the hidden activity that goes into providing the environment in which students can flourish.

Design Puzzles (2)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

For a while I wondered what these benches were all about:

Benches at Stratford International

They appear at a number of London and South-East railway stations, and when I first saw them I thought they were a bizarre and out of keeping design decision. Why choose something in such bright, primary-ish colours against a generally muted design scheme. They wouldn’t be out of keeping somewhere—but, not here! And after a couple of years it suddenly struck me—they are the olympic rings, that hung up at St. Pancras during the games, sliced and turned into benches! My supposition is confirmed by Londonist here.

Design Puzzles (1)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

What’s going on here?

# _____ DAY

This is the back of the packaging of my protein bar. What’s with the white stripe across the top left? It reads, basically “# _____ DAY, fuelled by 12g of PRIMAL PROTEIN”. Presumably the the # is a hashtag marker, and there is meant to be some text between that and “DAY”. Is this some kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise? I don’t think so, it seems rather obscure without any further cue. Did it at one point say something that they had to back away from for legal reasons: “# TWO OF YOUR FIVE A DAY”, perhaps? If so, why redesign it with a white block? Does packaging work on such a tight timescale that they were all ready to go, when someone emailed from legal to say “uh, oh, better drop that” and so someone fired up Indesign and put a white block there. Surely it can’t be working on such a timescale that there wasn’t time enough to make it the same shade of red as the rest, or rethink it, or just blank out the whole thing. Is it just a production error? At first I thought it was a post-hoc sticker to cover up some unfortunate error, but it is a part of the printed packaging. A minor mystery indeed.

Kruft (1)

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

I often refer to the process of taking the content that I want to communicate and putting it into the 200-by-300 pixel box reserved for content in the middle of our University’s webpages as “putting the clutter in”. I get the impression that my colleagues on the Marketing and Communication team don’t quite see it this way.

Verboten (1)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

I like the literalism of this graphic from Dreamland at Margate, particularly the one depicting “May cause motion sickness”:

Dreamland ride restrictions graphic

Design Failures (1)

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

Here is an interesting design failure. A year or two ago, the entry gates on my local stations had a message from a charity saying with the slogan “no-one in Kent should face cancer alone.”. A good message, and basically well thought out. The problem is, that they were printed on two sides of the entry gates, which open when you put your ticket in it: as a result, one side of the gate says “face cancer alone”, and this part of the message is separated out when the gates open:

"face cancer alone"

Interestingly, someone clearly noticed this. When a repeat of the campaign ran this year, with more-or-less the same message, it had been modified so that one side of the gate now says “don’t face cancer alone”:

"don't face cancer alone"

There’s a design principle in here somewhere, along the lines of thinking through the lifetime of a user of the system, not just relying on a static snapshot of the design to envision what it is like.

Creative (1)

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

An interesting challenge for computational creativity research. Build a system which takes in a large dataset, and which builds an interesting and informative infographic from that data.

Tech is Blue

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

Here’s an interesting and unexpected result. Do a google image search for “tech”. You will, at the time of writing, get something like this:


Tech is clearly blue. The same is true for “digital”:


and for “cyber”:


I had to make sure that the search-by-colour filter was turned off. This is really surprising to me. I have seen lots of these kinds of images before, but I am gobsmacked at how dominant this colour scheme is as a way of depicting technology. Where does it come from? Some vague notion of “computers are made of electricity, and electricity looks something like a lighting bolt going across a twilit sky”? The second choice seems to be some kind of green-screen terminal green, which is vaguely comprehensible; but, even so, odd. I am in my forties and probably of the youngest generation to have used a terminal for real, and even then only for a few years whilst I was at university.

I wonder what other hidden colour schemes there are out there?

Aside: our university timetable still calls classes held in a computer room “terminal” classes. I wonder what proportion of the students would have any idea why they have this name? I suspect that the vast majority just take it as an arbitrary signifier, and have no idea of its origins.

Uh-oh (1)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

From a colleague’s email: “SharePoint is very precise and there is plenty of room for human error to interfere with the workflows.” Uh-oh.

The Extensional Revolution

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

We are on the threshold of an extensional revolution.

Philosophers draw a distinction between two ways of describing collections of objects. Intensional descriptions give some abstract definition, whereas extensional descriptions list all examples. For example, consider the difference between “the set of all polyhedra that can be made by joining together a number of identical, regular, convex polygons with the same number of polygons meeting at each vertex” (intensional), and “the set {tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron}” (extensional).

Despite its claims to be (amongst other things) the science of data, computer science has been very intensional in its thinking. Programs are treated as realisations of descriptive specifications, satisfying certain mathematically-described properties.

As more data becomes available, we can start to think about doing things in an extensional way. The combination of approximate matching + the availability of large numbers of examples is a very powerful paradigm for doing computing. We have started to see this already in some areas. Machine translation of natural language is a great example. For years, translation was dominated by attempts to produce even more complex models of language, with the idea that eventually these models would be able to represent the translation process. More recently, the dominant model has been “statistical language translation”, where correlations between large scale translated corpora are used to make decisions about how a particular phrase is to be translated. Instead of feeding the phrase to be translated through some engine that breaks it down and translates it via some complex human-built model, a large number of approximations and analogies are found in a corpus and the most dominant comparison used. (I oversimplify, of course).

More simply, we can see how a task like spellchecking can be carried out by sheer force of data. If I am prevaricating between two possible spellings of a word, I just put them both into Google and see which comes out with the most hits.

Once you start thinking extensionally, different approaches to complex problems start appearing. Could visual recognition problems be solved not by trying to find the features within the image that are relevant, but by finding the all the images from a vast collection (like Flickr) that approximately match the target, and then processing the metadata? Could a problem like robot navigation or the self-driving car be solved by taking a vast collection of human-guided trajectories and just picking the closest one second-by-second (perhaps this corpus could be gained from a game, or from monitoring a lot of car journeys)? Can we turn mathematical problems from manipulations of definitions into investigations driven by artificially created data (at least for a first cut)?

The possibilities appear endless.

Terms of Art (1)

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

In most areas of human endeavour, we adopt words that have an everyday meaning and use them as the basis for terminology. For example, in physics, we talk about sub-microscopic objects having “spin” or “colour”. By this, we don’t mean this in a literal way, but we adopt these terms because we need to find names for things, and so we find something that is very loosely similar, and use that terminology. This doesn’t subsequently mean that we are allowed to take other properties of these labels and reason about the objects using those other properties (an elision that often seems to occur when word-drenched literary theorists wade into discussions of science).

When the day-to-day and technical usages of a word coincide, we can sometimes end up in a muddle. A couple of years ago I set a programming assignment about card games, and I used the word “stack” of cards. Despite being very careful to explain that this use of the work “stack” was not meant to imply that this piece of data should be represented by the data structure known as a “stack” (and, indeed, was best not), I still got lots of questions about this, and lots of submissions that did confuse the two. Perhaps I should have simplified it—but, there was a valuable learning point about requirements elicitation to be learned from leaving it as it was.

Another example is the UK government report from years ago that talked about the UK needing a “web browser for education”. This got lambasted in the technical press—why on earth would the education sector need its own, special, web browser? Of course, what was meant was not a browser at all, but some kind of portal or one-stop-shop. But, this could have caused a multi-billion pound procurement failure.

I think that we have a cognitive bias towards assuming that the person we are talking to is trying to make some precise, subtle, point, even when the weight of evidence is that they have simply misunderstood, or been unfamiliar with terminology.

I try to be aware of this when I am the non-expert, for example, when dealing with builders or plumbers.

This is a great danger in communication between people with different backgrounds. The person who is unfamiliar with the terminology can accidentally wade in looking like they are asking for something much more specific than they intended, because they accidentally use a word that has a technical meaning that they don’t intend.

Temporary Storage

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

This is an interesting part of the day-to-day environment that I have been interacting with for years:


The small, flat surface affords the placement a single object, or a small stack of them. This affordance leads on to it being used as a temporary repository for things that need to be taken downstairs the next time I am going downstairs. Here is an example:


It is interesting why it lends itself so naturally to this. It is partially because it is “in the way”. Many parts of the house afford having things placed on them, but are just a little bit too out of the line-of-sight to be effective as reminders. It also has the advantage of being quite small, so I am reminded every time I go past it to take the thing off before I break it. Other places are a bit too stable, and rapidly become permanent repositories for a certain category of things: the little stack of items in the corner of my desk used to be (and is still, in my mind) the place where I put things that I will need to use in the next week or so; but, it has now become a foot-high stack of stuff that I need to deal with one day. This space has the advantage that it is just the right size so that putting something there is an easy task, but too unstable and in-the-way that it can’t be used semi-permanently.

The design of locations to act as “reminders” within a physical (or online) environment is really difficult. Either the reminder is too in-your-face when you are trying to do other things, or it is too out-of-the-way to actually serve as a reminder.

Taking the Tablets (1)

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Using an iPad for any kind of productive task feels like working in a room without a desk, with no room for the messy-creative ad hoc organisation of material, and with a nagging person standing at your shoulder telling you to “put that back in the right place” every time that you have (even momentarily) finished with something.

Academic Spaces are Consulting Rooms

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

What are academics’ workspaces about? There is sometimes a view, commonly shared across administrators and architects, that they are “offices”, and that the vast majority of work is desk-based, working at computers or with books or papers. There is also a vague idea that this is a bad thing, and that things would be in some vague way better if people weren’t “siloed” in offices, and instead in some kind open-plan spaces where they might “communicate” better with each other (about what, is usually unstated). This might just be a half-arsed excuse for money-saving.

The idea of desk-based work is emphasised also by a view that they are “studies”. This is often offered as counter-narrative to the open-plan idea, it being seen as important to have individual workspaces for this.

I don’t recognise either of these models. Rather, my room is more a “consulting room”. Looking through my diary for the last few weeks, I am in my room for about half the time, the rest of the time I am teaching, meetings, interviews, at lunch, etc. I have about:

  • 4-5 hours of meetings with PhD students and postdocs;
  • 2-3 hours of meetings with project students;
  • a few short meetings with students about coursework, progress, or staff-student liaison issues; say about 2-3 hours a week. A number of these are rather confidential;
  • a couple of formally arranged meetings with colleagues for an hour or so each;
  • a few shorter meetings with colleagues; similarly, a number of these have confidentiality issues;
  • a couple of Skype discussions with colleagues elsewhere for 2-3 hours total.

So, a total of around 15 hours a week of being in my office talking to people.

The idea that I could work in an open plan space and “book meeting rooms” for occasional meetings is risible. Academics’ workspaces are closer to GP’s consulting rooms than offices or studies, and we would regard it as ludicrous to say that GPs should “book a consulting room” on the odd occasion that they see a patient.

Graffiti for Conservatives

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Why is graffiti such a conservative medium? The vast majority of time when I see some graffiti, it looks like this:


This looks very similar to the graffiti that people were doing when I was at school in the ’80s—we had a “graffiti wall” in common room, in a futile attempt to dissuade pupils from graffiting all over the school. Going further back, when I see the well-known images of graffiti on US subway trains in the 60s, again the overall look is very similar. For example, letters are bulbous and surrounded by a firm outline.

Naively, we see graffiti as a fast-moving avant-garde practice. We would expect it to be a rapidly changing medium, and we would imagine that there would be a rapid change of styles. But, this isn’t the case. Of course, there are exceptions, but the mainstream of graffiti looks essentially static compared with the mainstream of commercial design. Anyone with the slightest eye for design would be able to distinguish a number of design styles in the last 50 years, whereas a similar look at graffiti would fail to pull out much distinction. Graffiti seems to be a timeless, fashionless practice, more like a traditional medium like embroidery or baking than a high-fashion practice.

Perhaps the idea of avant-garde is more parochial than we think. We tend to assume that all practices will progress in the same way, with a cutting-edge fringe pushing ideas forward, feeding ideas into the next generation of the mainstream. But, of course, a lot of practices are not like that; instead, they are characterised by absorption in a craft tradition, showing deference to previous masters, etc. Perhaps graffiti is more along these lines.

Tattooing is another area where similar arguments can be made.

The Evolution of Architecture (1)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

First Law of the Evolution of Architecture: anything described on the original plans as a “cloister”, “arcade”, “loggia” or (God help us) a “stoa” will invariably be filled in within thirty years to make additional office space:

Overhang shelter being filled in at University of Kent

Ad (1)

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Just who is this online ad trying to appeal to?

If you DIED tomorrow who would take care of your family?

Am I meant to be the toothless old bloke? That seems to jar with the idea that advertising should flatter the audience; most advertising that is trying to advertise to an older demographic goes for the silver fox look, or the carefree-retireds-on-the-beach thang. Or, is this meant to be representative of “your family”—”poor old toothless grand-dad, who will feed him his soup if you get knocked down by a bus tomorrow?”. Either way, it is very bizarre. The random use of the geolocation (accurate, for a change; it seems to have stopped thinking that I live in Okehampton) only adds to the weirdness of it.

Ugh (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

The name of this place (in Sherwood, Nottingham) has long struck me as rather grim. It is clearly meant to combine the casual, leisuretime connotations of sitting in a nice cafe with the, to some people rather stressful, event of having your hair cut. Unfortunately, to me it just brings to mind a mug of coffee with stray hairs in it.

The Hair Cafe

Constraints (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Here’s a nice piece of design (from the University of Kent Canterbury campus):

Path with a bin at the end

There is clearly a plan here to stop people walking on that side of the road; the formal path stops, and there is a crossing point installed in the kerb. But, this hasn’t been very effective, as illustrated by the desire paths trailing off into the distance.

The new component here is the bin. This provides a nice terminator for the path without it coming across as an aggressive barrier. Bins are part of the regular street-furniture vocabulary, so it doesn’t jar (or look ludicrous) like a little fence would. Its secondary function of encouraging people to cross the road is effective without being obtrusive.

Above the Fold

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Something that continues to bemuse me is why so many web pages continue to split content across so many pages. I can understand in the early days that there was a need to save the amount of information transmitted per page, in order for pages to load in a sensible time. But now, it is the forming of the connection and commencement of downloading that takes time—once a page has started to download, the actual content seems to download very quickly.

Forums are particularly bad at this; frequently, I see things like this:

forum index in blocks of ten entries

I don’t see the point; it takes me a few seconds to read quickly through ten entries, then about the same amount of time to load the next ten, during which my continuous partial attention flicks to another page on the screen. I’d much rather load the whole thing and then read through it all.

I can see one exception, and that is where advertisers are paying each time the page is loaded (but, I understand that this is a rare model these days).

Some sites have taken to downloading more when you reach near the end of a page, a kind of continuous stream of posts; this seems better.

The apotheosis of this can be seen in the emails I get every few months from a second-hand book dealer whose catalogue I signed up for a few years ago. These consist of around 10 separate plain-text emails, in order to “send this by e-mail while minimising problems with formatting and size”. It is astonishing how quickly that sort of thing has gone from being a necessity to being something that looks really weird and outdated.
large list of bookseller's emails