Graphic design seen from another perspective

You might not think an editors’ conference would have anything to do with graphic design, but in fact it did. Other than getting to know “industry standard” practices and expectations, it was revelatory to look at graphic design from the (stereotypical) editor’s viewpoint. My two surprising finds: Graphic design is misunderstood in editing circles, and bad graphic design is giving graphic designers and other artists a bad name. Since summaries of the relevant sessions have already been posted, I’ll just comment on a few observations I had. “Graphic designers,” it was said during the Q&A at Sunday’s “Clear Communication” session, don’t care about communication but instead care “only about visuals.” This is, of course, a grave misrepresentation, since graphic design is all about communication. In fact it is so much about communication that it’s also called “communication design”; I find it incredible that a quarter century after graphic design has been called communication design people are still claiming that graphic design is not about communication. So how did this misrepresentation come about? Friday’s “How and What to Edit in Visuals Accompanying Text” gave us a clue. The presenters showed a lot of badly designed visuals that don’t communicate (including apparently-not-to-well-conceived illustrations, badly designed infographics, and badly set text). Eventually I just had to say “bad graphic design is giving us artists and designers a bad reputation.” Editors have this misinformed idea that communication design isn’t about communication because there is simply too much bad art out there. Outside the art and design circles, it also appears that the term “illustration” is misunderstood, since one of the presenters said the style of a graphic can be “realistic” or an “illustration”—The problem here, of course, is that illustrations can be realistic. “Illustrations” is not the right word (which should be a big problem in an editing conference); the correct word should be “caricatured.” (My handwritten notes for the session “How and What to Edit in Visuals Accompanying Text”) The idea of caricature returned later when the “suppression (?) of irrelevant details” was mentioned. Suppression of irrelevant details is, of course, caricature. Strangely, McCloud’s Understanding Comics was actually mentioned. Perhaps the word is too technical for people outside art the design circles—or perhaps I see it as a normal word only because I’ve worked so long with this prof. We all know that colours have cultural significances, but I found it bizarre that at one point it was suggested that yellow should not be used because it would be misunderstood as indicative of a warning. I was shocked; not even American and Canadian designers would agree to that statement, and the example was an illustration. I had always felt Ontario to be boring but I’d have never thought of this as one of the reasons; in a multicultural country like Canada such a claim also sounds culturally biased. It was also mentioned that (if I read my notes correctly) neuroscience tells us that our brain cannot hold more than seven pieces of information at the same time. But I was skeptical because this contradicts Malcolm Gladwell’s claim (which I happened to be able to check because I happen to be from the right linguistic background). That said, since I’m actually working on a neuroscience project right now maybe I need to somehow weave this claim into some sort of query that I can ask the neuroscience people; this might prove productive :-) This is about all in terms of comments I can still make out of my notes, but perhaps I should mention two more interesting connections near the end: “Grouping like items together” was mentioned (Gestalt theory, something I’ve never been strong at); and reading information that isn’t really there into graphs (semiotics—debates around iconicity in particular—, another thing I’ve never been strong at). There was actually more semiotic talk earlier when perceptual resemblance (and of course, the comment about yellow that I disagreed with) was mentioned. This has little to do with editing but I guess these are reminders that I should brush up on my theory. For some reason that I’ve already forgotten, I tweeted a few times during Sunday’s session but didn’t take any notes. Why I didn’t take any notes on Sunday will forever remain a mystery…

Black Cat, 6D01, and tactility

I went to the far west end of Dundas West today, to Black Cat Artspace. It was already just a few minutes before 9 when the streetcar finally arrived after a long wait, so I actually sort of expected to find a closed gallery when I got there. But of course, art openings don’t usually actually close at 9 (unlike Artscape Youngspace… =P). The opening was still going when I finally got off at Roncevalles. “Come in!” I looked around, marvelling at what I saw. “Is there anything you like?” “Everything is so cool!” RT described “Tag on Cups” (that’s what it’s called) as “Graffiti artists around the city decorating prethrown cups.” But I don’t think “decorating” is doing justice to what’s there. Every single cup there was sgrafitto, mishima, or both. I was really impressed with the underglazing. And the patterns and the drawings and paintings—I tried painting once and I know what I saw was a lot of work. Yes, I know this is technically surface decoration, but this is very intricate “decoration” we’re talking about. What really struck me the most, though, was that everything was so tactile. When I do sgraffito or mishima, the glaze would fill the holes and lines and smoothen the resulting surface out. Not these cups. You can still very much feel the carved parts—even the thin delineating lines of patterned lettering. (Ok, RT has corrected me: The surfaces were carved; it was not sgrafitto or mishima. And it was body stain, not underglaze. I failed to recognize what techniques have been used. But I’m still very impressed.) Which brings us back to our program’s “Del” show last Friday. One of the pieces was a tactile painting. But compared to these cups, that painting was not very tactile at all. In fact, the day before I went to Del I was at MOCCA, and I was looking at the other set of oil paintings (the first set was oil on plexiglass—on the back of the plexiglass—so the surface was completely smooth), and I was marvelling how three dimensional those paintings were. The only thing I didn’t do was to actually touch them. But those paintings were all more tactile than the “tactile” painting at Del. I’m still unhappy that Del was a two-hour show, and with close to non-existent promotion. But I’m also wondering if we’re being misinformed about the status quo of how tactile normal art forms are. Both Tags on Cups and what I saw at Mocca show that a lot of art is already very tactile…

The end, no matter how you determine it’s the end

Today was convocation. So it’s now the end, no matter how you determine if it’s the end or not. Anyway, several things that you’ll only see in an OCAD convocation:
  • Telling people to tweet and instagram their convocation experience (and plastering the backstage with the hashtag) but telling the same people they have to check in their phones in a coat check.
  • Not getting your diploma on the stage and having to return your gown before getting your diploma. (This was a real head scratcher.)
  • The school officials not following all the standard formulaic verbosity on the stage. (In fact when the chancellor (?) asked the president the rhetorical question of whether to confer degrees in absentia the president didn’t even say a thing—she just gave a nod.)
I thought this wouldn’t be a thing after GradEx, but this was still a thing. I thought I would see more people, but I guess it’s hard when this doesn’t happen at school.

Some thoughts about RGD’s accessibility webinar (Hi @good_wally)

[I had originally planned to just comment on my question, but what I wrote in a related email discussion sort of didn’t make sense. So let me write that down here too. So these really are just unorganized random thoughts.] Let me comment a bit on the question I posed near the end of the webinar, which ended up being literally the last question that got through: “What best practices would you recommend if the design had to work with a CMS hostile to doing things semantically?” This is, of course, a real example, one that I had already mentioned previously. In this particular case, which is a different case than what I had blogged about last time, what I found was that the CMS was so hostile to authors that I could not even get Microformat 1.0 content (dtstart and dtend specifically) to stick. Let us think a little bit here: Microformats are designed to work in pretty hostile environments. But in real-world environments that some designers have to work within, not even Microformat markup can survive. How can HTML structural elements survive? The answer is they don’t. I was not talking about environments where the the designer has the power to reconfigure the CMS (if so the question would have been moot); I was talking about situations where the designer is working with a non-technical client (with a CMS created by someone else) who has neither the technical skills to even go to the Administer screen nor the financial resources to hire someone to reconfigure their CMS. But they’ve already budgeted the money to redo their CMS—which you have no influence over either. I’m talking about a 100% hostile situation which you have no control over whatsoever. So what do we do in such cases? When people talk about making existing sites accessible this is the reality. Whether the CMS in question is WordPress or Drupal isn’t really relevant; in this particular case the hostile CMS is actually Drupal, but you can’t reconfigure it. In any case, I think the RGD is doing meaningful work in the accessibility area. A few days ago on an email discussion I actually cited RGD’s AccessAbility handbook because the RGD is actually one of the very few organizations that are not buying into the myth that print accessibility equals “large type size.” But someone disputed RGD’s ability to create accessible PDF files because the “accessible PDF” version of the handbook was not produced by the RGD but by an outside contractor. While the latter is true, I think, to be fair, this need to be put in some context. First of all, producing an accessible PDF from InDesign is not straightforward, and the steps Adobe documented (the same steps described by ADOD) do not actually work, and I can say this because I tried it when I did my issue of Cadmium (the OCAD SU zine that’s no longer being produced) and verified that the documented procedure did not in fact work. The other thing, which is quite tangential, is that (I might add having Accessibil-iT do the final work does not prove that RGD does not have the capability — it’s normal for graphic designers to contract out non-core tasks anyway —, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make) RGD has raised some points that do not seem to have been addressed by most other people talking about accessible print. So they are tackling a conceptual problem, with the appearance (let’s say this for the sake of argument) that they might not have the best practical skills (or craft). As our chatting at a pre-DesignThinkers student mixer two years ago showed, this is actually very “OCAD.”

Do all videos need to be captioned?

This looks just like how I feel!—me
I was at the opening for Craft Ontario’s LookListen exhibition and the usual thing happened: I knew no one (which turned out to be actually untrue, but I forgot her name), so I was planning to just see all the work and leave. Except that this time seeing all the work would take a lot of time, because half a dozen pieces were music videos. Now the funny thing was that they used speakers instead of headphones, so during the opening you in fact couldn’t hear any music at all. Music videos without music—yet touched me anyway. This sort of reminded me of the art course in my program where the professor did not buy into the idea of “accessible art” in terms of how our program—at least on paper—defined accessibility. In this specific case was the video “accessible” or not? If you define “accessibility” as getting access to the lyrics, then it was completely inaccessible—even to hearing people. But if you defined “accessibiity” as getting access to the elicited emotions, then you could argue that the video was in fact, in an odd way, actually accessible. This sort of brings us back to the RGD webinar I attended today. One random thing that struck me was how the presenter suggested that we “banish all colour cues.” My reaction was “banish? Are you serious?” Colour cues don’t need to be banished; they just need to be supplemented by other cues that are not colour-based: It turned out that this was in fact exactly what the presenter meant. In the words of one of our profs, we need the cues to be in “different modalities.” I think those music videos that were in the gallery did use two different modalities. Yet they were created as pure art. Maybe in this sense art can actually inform design.

Observations, and observations not made

How we handled GradEx is full of missed opportunities. Not only have we missed it as an opportunity to put inclusive design into practice, we’ve also missed it as an opportunity to make design observations. CH’s suggestion to have my shelves arranged as a ladder made it possible to observe visitor heights vs shelf heights. Of course, whether I made the observations is another matter: I didn’t, except for yesterday’s observation of how a person on a wheelchair interacted with the shelves and how today a little girl interacted with the bottom shelf, I made no observations. I think the rearrangement of the chairs is working. It’s more logical. At the very least they announce “Look! We’ve got a video here!” Interestingly, most people do not sit on the chairs. They just stand and watch the video. We really should have videotaped the whole thing just for all the missed observations. If we’re allowed to, of course. And hindsight is always 20/20.

Why graphic design is not dead

DK and I chatted a bit yesterday about GradEx. We quickly went to “What is the point of this exhibition,” then to “Our program has no personality,” and then beyond. But as I pondered this today I realized that the fact that our program has no personality is not a showstopper. Bringing organization to disorganized elements and imposing a scheme to a composition that has no harmony shouldn’t be something foreign to us: This is what graphic designers do. I still remember during the post-conference townhall at AIGA’s 2012 “Pivot” conference when Ric Grefé talked about the importance of keeping our “craft” or risk losing our “specialness.” I was skeptical we had anything special to talk about. Doesn’t everyone have our technical skills these days? And then I was not even a good graphic designer. But the amazing thing is that even a not-so-good graphic designer who has never even been properly trained was able see problems that even people trained in other design disciplines apparently failed to see. I see this as validation of Ric Grefé’s claim: We do have something special (I still don’t know what it is), and our specialness does not lie in our technical software skills—our “craft” is something else. Which I believe brings us back to “What is the point of this exhibition.” When I chatted with the guy who’s showing sculpture next doors today one thing I mentioned was that I wanted to do GradEx because I didn’t feel I finished until I do this. When NW said it’s almost finished and I said “Two more days!” I really felt those were the right words to say. For a design student, the end is not having thesis done (“I thought thesis was hell; GradEx is also hell,” as relayed by RT), neither is it having technically graduated (as I so call my awkward situation), nor is it convocation; the end is having gone through GradEx, in all its “hellish” ways. Like what DEEP and INCD’s “Culminating Festival” should have been, GradEx is a full environmental graphic design (EGD) project, complete with inclusivity and accessibility issues to solve. This year’s two cohorts have not tackled it rightly, as an inclusive design problem (to be fair, neither has OCAD Administration tackled it rightly, as an EGD problem), so we have mostly squandered the precious opportunity. I wish next year’s cohort will take GradEx more seriously for what it is—an EGD project worthy of tackling from an inclusive design viewpoint.

A few things we should have done (not my program, but OCAD as a whole)

I thought I liked this year’s map. At least the sale is on the map. But people have asked UH enough weird questions that she suspected the map isn’t showing stairs or elevators or how to get to other buildings. But I just checked the map and these things are all there. Yet people aren’t finding this information. This is a failure of the graphic design. And the app? Sorry, it might have been a cool idea, but people aren’t using the app as far as I can see. People are asking me where to find the paintings. People aren’t using the app; they’re using the printed maps. And 21 colour codes with neither alternate text nor icons is non-inclusive design. Last years I thought the signs were bad. This year’s signs are no better. And showing at GradEx certainly changed my views of just how bad our signs are. People don’t know where they can find more things on the first floor. We have no directional signage. All this is embarassment for a design school.

A few things we should have done

Someone asked me a seemingly-random question this morning: The two chairs, are they just random, or have they been designed to be placed there so something looks better when I sit on them? Not so random really, is it? They should not have been just placed there randomly, and once I thought of that it’s obvious where they should have been placed: In front of the monitor. Every exhibition where films are shown have benches or chairs for people to sit on. We have a short film. The only logical place chairs should be placed is in front of the screen, so that people can sit down and watch the film. Also, I tried changing the lighting. If we turned off two thirds of the lighting it’s more obvious that we’re showing a film, but then the posters wouldn’t get sufficient lighting. This means two things: Posters should have had their own lighting, and where we’ve had put the screen isn’t really the best place the screen could have been placed. And people don’t realize what’s on the wall are lyrics. Maybe we should have had better signage. No, we definitely should have had better signage. And of course if I knew I would be doing lighting for my shelves I would have made a wooden box or something to house the messy cables. Everything have been placed in the room piecemeal, without regard to what the whole should look like. People are confused because our program has no personality, but also because we have not designed the space to create more coherence. We could have done better—at the least as well as MAAD. PS: Oh yea, we probably should have had a book for people to sign and leave comments too.

Stupid IKEA designs (do not buy...)

I’ve spent so much on GradEx that at OCAD I’ve literally only spent more on tuition. Anyway, after talking with RT yesterday I went to Canadian Tire today to look for lighting systems. To my utter surprise, I found absolutely nothing. So I walked over to IKEA because I actually knew they have LED lighting systems. So after spending more time than I should, I settled on the Omlopp countertop light because it seemed to look the best—even though it’s exceeding expensive for what I was going to do. The Omlopp is a complicated system and I actually managed to forget to get the power cord and had to later go back to IKEA to get it, losing two hours of precious setup time. There’s also something about the shelving system I’ve chose that really bugged me: The Ekby Laiva is decent enough, but to install the Ekby Valter bracket with a power screwdriver is next to impossible. You can’t even use a normal manual screwdriver; you pretty much has to use an “offset screwdriver” because the spaces are so tight. In any case let me get back to my point: after I tried installing the light to the second shelf a serious design problem with the Omlopp became very obvious—You can’t remove it. And I know this very well because I actually managed to install my second Omlopp backwards and after trying to pry it off (in order to fix it) for maybe half an hour I just gave up and concluded that prying it off is simply impossible. Yes, you read that right: Once you’ve installed the Omlopp on anything you can’t take it back out. An Omlopp that has been “clicked” into place is as good as having been epoxied onto the shelf. The shelf and the light are now one; you can’t even repaint the shelf now. It’s not that I haven’t seen stupid IKEA designs, but the Omlopp has to be the stupidest design I’ve ever seen, and it’s mighty expensive. If there’s anything I’m getting from this expensive exercise, it’s “Do not buy Omlopp.”
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