Unsolicited Aggravation

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It’s easy to get lost in Pontin’s at night. A couple of weeks back, I was in the Sussex holiday camp – Bobby Davro’s spiritual birthplace – to see a bunch of bands play at All Tomorrow’s Parties, and I was struggling to find a way back to my chalet. Panic was setting in. The layout of the site, optimised for tipsy parents and bluecoats in the 1960s and unchanged ever since, had defeated me for the fifth time that day. It was getting cold. The dim lighting was particularly mugger-friendly and worst of all, the wayfinding signage was about as bad as the human mind can conceive of. I squinted at the signposts with their tiny type and confused iconography, and an ancient evil stirred in my breast. My breathing slowed, my pupils dilated and involuntarily, inevitably, I started to mentally redesign every accumulated visual crime that Pontin’s has ever committed in its 77 year history.

What the hell is wrong with me?

You don’t go to Pontin’s to experience the best in contemporary design. You go to Pontin’s to feel a profound sense of malaise over the course of a long weekend. I don’t actually want to begin a comprehensive overhaul of their company identity and signage, any more than they want to hire me to do so, and all my annoyance serves to do is to contribute to the ulcer that will be my ultimate professional reward.

This anger at the thoughtless stuff that surrounds us: it’s a bad habit. I think that most creative people suffer from it to some degree. My hunch is that, were you to stick a graphic designer in an MRI scanner during one of these episodes, you’d see the same areas of the brain light up as when somebody in a huge SUV cuts you up in traffic, or chews with their mouth open, or when you discover, and rediscover, and rediscover, the exquisite pain of knowing that somebody, somewhere, is wrong on the internet. We all have a very personal social poison that drips through our veins in our worst moments. The rudeness of it. That reckless disregard for other people is what really gets us. Even when the culprit is just poorly kerned type.

It also comes from the same part of the brain that motivates us to draw and re-draw from scratch, the part that drives the creation, destruction and constant sequence of refinements that makes up the bulk of our professional lives. If there’s a design policeman in your head, this is the good cop. The bad cop likes to waste your time and make you a miserable pub bore. It’s hardly Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, but still: fuck that guy.

You can see expressions of this impulse all over the internet with the rise of the ‘unsolicited redesign’, typically a short series of screens on Dribbble or Behance showing someone’s alternative solutions to highly visible design work. Apple’s divisive iOS 7 icon set was a particularly popular target for this sort of appropriation. On the face of it you could see this as a democratisation of design criticism: the fusty old gatekeepers might have to learn to loosen their veiny grip on the academy and abandon themselves to the Buzzfeedification of design culture. The problem is that these projects are never carried out in the context of the original design team’s brief, so you’ll often end up with eye candy that’s perfect fodder for Twitter and design blogs, but doesn’t have to engage with the minutiae of corporate politics, research, or boring technical considerations. For the most part the motivation is to attract attention and new work for freelancers rather than fulfil a brief, and it usually shows. I’d much rather see those work hours poured into messy live projects, but it’s not all bad. I’d like to believe that - here and there - such redesigns can form the start of a discussion or a mandate for change for hard-pressed internal design teams. Mostly though, they are pointless, scratching an itch that never existed in the first place.

My wife likes to joke that I’ll only eat in restaurants where I deem the menu typography and signage to be of a sufficiently high standard. This is only partially true. If it was entirely accurate I’d have starved to death long ago, because I have just enough self-knowledge to know that I’m an insufferable snob. All I need to learn to do now is to hide it better – from myself and most of all from everyone else.

⁋ This post was originally published at The 100 Archive. Unsolicited Pontins overhaul by Scott Burnett

Chris Judge has been busy

Here are some things that Chris Judge, long-time Pilcrow collaborator and occasional upstairs office-dweller, has been up to recently.

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He drew the cover and 60 interior illustrations for Roddy Doyle’s new children’s book, Brilliant

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David O’Doherty and Chris made a handbook for avoiding danger in a world of infinite peril, Danger is Everywhere, It’s been picked as the 2015 Citywide Read for Children by safety experts Unesco. 

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He wrote Brian and the Vikings, a picture book featuring a young Brian Boru, a horde of vikings and a gigantic dragon, with illustrations by Mark Wickham.  

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He released his fourth picture book Tin, a robot adventure that does not in any way mirror the plot of Robocop despite what I might think.

He also co-wrote the third season of Netflix exclusive House of Cards, drew all the explosions for Stars Wars Episode VII and washed the dishes “most nights”. None of this should obscure the fact that his winter biathlon skills are – let’s be generous here – middling. 

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Young hearts run free

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Mark Sorrell wrote a piece for the Guardian this week, Freemium games are a chance to teach kids how to manage their money. The tl;dr version: he argues that the public resistance to sprinkling children’s apps with in-app purchases and deceptive pseudocurrencies is predicated on a mix of mass hysteria and ignorance. What’s more, he says, by denying kids access to the joys of the freemium model, we’re leaving them ill-prepared to navigate the complex financial landscape that they will face as adults. The whole article is self-serving horseshit. 

Sorrell has, by his own admission, a significant conflict of interest when he calls for us to look fondly on freemium games for kids. He earns a living as a “freemium game design and behaviour change consultant”. Just so everybody’s clear, the behaviour that he wants to change – in the context of free-to-play games – is your reluctance to hand over your money for in-app purchases or other microtransactions.

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App of the Day: MTN

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MTN is not a product of focus groups or exhaustive quantitive research into unmet consumer needs. The answer to “what’s missing in your life?” will never be “a mountain simulator”. And yet. MTN has hovered around the top 30 paid iPhone apps in the US App Store since its release, which means that a kerbillion (± 1Kbn) people are getting their rocks on right now.

MTN’s creator David O’Reilly is an artist/animator best known for his work on Adventure Time, Spike Jonze’s Her and the demented brilliance of his short film The External World (whose title card echoes the zoomed-out cosmos view in MTN). He’s also done music videos for Venetian Snares and ‘The Irish Venetian Snares’, U2.

When the app launches for the first time you’re asked to draw a couple of pictures of ‘Afterlife’ or ‘Beauty’ and your mountain is procedurally generated from these scrawls. At least, that’s the idea.

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Warpcore: the 5 best ambient spaceship noises on YouTube

In July 2010, YouTube started to allow users to post videos that were longer than 15 minutes. This kicked off a whole new upload genre of super-long endurance/ambient loops whereby you can watch Nyan Cat for a full day, or the William Tell Overture barked by dogs for 12 hours. I’m going to assume that nobody outside of the ‘professional torturer’ demographic has watched either of these videos in their entirety, because that would be terrifying. 

Ambient spaceship engine noises though – they’re a different matter altogether. You can use them as white noise generators to help you fall asleep, or you can just pretend you’re hurtling through space while you’re sitting in your office veal-fattening pen. Here are five of the best that YouTube has to offer. 

The USCSS Nostromo:

The USS Enterprise:

Battlestar Galactica:

Discovery One:

The Death Star:

Plants by Tinybop – a review

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With their impressive first app The Human Body, Brooklyn app studio Tinybop proved, free of the dead weight of a print textbook legacy, that they could take on the might of the fusty old education publishers and comprehensively destroy them in the App Store. According to Tinybop themselves, it’s notched up a dizzying 4.9m downloads to date. As an ethical company that concentrates on quality and refuses to talk down to kids, this is the sort of success that parents, educators and developers should be celebrating. Earlier this week they released Plants, the second in their Explorer’s Library series, and happily it’s up to the same high standard. 

The app presents you with an interactive diorama with two biomes, forest and desert, to explore (two more, tundra and temperate grasslands, will be added in a future free of charge update). It’s great fun to muck around in – dragging animals around, making it rain, planting acorns and, to my eternal conflicted shame/pleasure, causing wildfires. Although I did learn that fires are much less destructive in a grasslands context, so do make sure to concentrate the bulk of your virtual arson there.

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Made It: how to build an app

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Myself and Simon will be speaking our brains out at the first in a new series of talks called Made It at the Twisted Pepper on 22nd May. We’ll be joining Microsoft’s Clare Dillon, The Summit’s Tony Ennis, DIT School of Computing’s Susan McKeever, Redwind Software’s Conor Winders and Doortonic’s Shane Linehan to talk about our experiences making apps out of rusty old tins and bits of string.

Like a lot of developers we tend to work away by ourselves for long stretches of time, so it’ll be nice to get out and talk to other pasty weirdos in a reassuringly dark room for a change. Props to the Made It crew for a nifty bit of Dublin community building. 

Get your tickets here: Made It 

Think more, design less

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This piece by Mills Baker,  Designer Duds: Losing Our Seats at the Table, hits a few nails on the head when it comes to the rise of design in the tech industry. He critiques 3 apps developed in settings that are notionally “obsessed” with design – Dropbox’s Carousel, Facebook’s Paper and Biz Stone’s Jelly – that are performing poorly in the App Store. Path, too, gets a repeated pebble-dashing for wilfully ignoring actual user problems in favour of imagined ones: “the problems with Facebook do not actually have to do with how pretty it is.”

Most of what he says is spot on. The pernicious, tedious rise of design that is decorative and shallow above all other considerations, that doesn’t bother with the heavy lifting of solving problems for people: this is stuff that needs robust criticism. 

On the other hand, to lay all responsibility for business failures at the feet of the designers involved is kinda nuts. There are so many other areas where things can go wrong in projects of this scale, and when it comes to App Store success, you ignore the role of dumb luck at your peril. 

If the project is ill-conceived in the first place (as certainly seems to be the case with Carousel) then the primary role of the designer should be to say “that’s a really stupid idea” at a very early stage. Watch Mike Monteiro’s brilliant polemic, How Designers Destroyed The World, for more on this.

Update: Goran Peuc questions Baker’s central premise in The Real Problem Behind ‘Designer Duds