Building for users

Two things from The Brits who Built the Modern World (BBC 4, 13 Feb).

“I was really fired up by the idea of architecture that you can manipulate, and that you can change, and that’s responsive to the users.”

Nicholas Grimshaw talking about what led him to write his final year thesis, a response to the context set by Archigram.

(Or at least appearing to be; there’s stacks of match cutting in the documentary, and it all feels like a pseud’s-’I love 1996 architects’. Still, an informative an hour despite the arch voiceover and the vaults across time)

(I remember, when I first met him, Matt Jones insisting I explore the work of Archigram. I never got round to doing that, partly because he also insisted I meet James Bridle and Matt Webb, and read Global Frequency, and make Phonogram vs The Fans, and about half a dozen other things (AND that was about a month before meeting Anne… it’s been a powerfully weird five years). But the idea of an architecture practice that dealt in the form of imagination, trouble and ideas instead of buildings is extremely relevant to my interests)


“Buildings don’t arise out of thin air, they’re generated by needs – the needs of people.”

Norman Foster, on how building the Fred. Olsen Lines terminal demanded working with people across the company hierarchy to get a sense of their requirements for a shared space.

(This being one of those moments where working with [user needs] means you see instances of [user needs] leaking into the real world)

Big hollow rooms

photo 1

This at There gave me a lovely excuse to get out and about today, catching Out of Ice down at Ambika P3. Blending AV and actual ice with documentary footage from a trip with the British Antarctic Survey, it’s a very ‘me’ show. A similar vibe to The Lady From The Sea (the final show at The Wapping Project).

photo 2

It’s a quiet show, with lots of space for the drip of water and the crashing of boats through slush. Space to sit and think. I was saying afterwards, I’d happily swap out a church for that kind of show. Spaces that give your head and your body a bit of room. It’s partly why I loved the Viking Ship Museum and my trip on ‘An Arbitrary History: River’. I’d swap a church for a space that offers me this once a week in a heartbeat.


Pages lost

Last Friday I talked at The Design of Understanding about comics, specifically two futures for the medium that I’ve been processing for the last year or so. It seemed to go down pretty well, so I thought I’d put the gist of it here and link to a bunch of the things I referenced so the folks who went can buy some things.


The basics

I rattled through McCloud’s concept ‘closure in quick-smart time; comics happen when readers comprehend panels and the spaces between them both as parts and a whole. The page, then, is the fundamental unit of a comic. By controlling the format of the sequence – by putting images on a page in a particular way – you begin guiding the reader through the narrative.

That gives creators a lot of room for spectacular feats – I used Young Avengers, One Soul and Hawkeye #11 as examples here – which play with the 150 year-old toolkit comic creators have to hand.

Here’s a thing though; the multiplicity of digital platforms – and the variety of potential reading experiences therein – shatter the certainty of the page.


The page is fucked. It’s not coming back. If you’re telling a story that’s available online then you no longer control the layout the reader sees. They’re tapping and swiping and pinching-and-zooming their way through your work, many of them without ever seeing the page as a whole and a few of them experiencing your stories only single-panel by single-panel.

The panel is now the fundamental unit of the comic

That’s a big change. Completely shifts the reader’s relationship with time and narrative. Very hard to come to terms with. On a basic level, it means creators may end up defaulting to Rupert-like stories comprised of flexible sequencing and extra bits of narrative that can be picked up or dropped on demand. But it also means you can treat the web like a page. Meanwhile‘s a great example of that, as is XKCD’s ‘Time’.

‘Time’ is actually an incredible thing; I didn’t watch it unfold religiously, but with gaps of hours or days between panels. That meant I was experiencing a radically altered form of closure where the imagined spaces between panels had a profound effect on my interpretation of the story. Now, of course, you can go to Time at your own pace and watch it as an animation. But that’s not how I experienced it. I came in alone to each panel, bringing my own gaps and imagined spaces and context, to experience it as a comic through time. You will never have what I had.

Tears in the rain

Thing is though, the web’s a flighty beast. Try reading Philippa Rice’s ‘Leaving’ now. It blew my mind when I first read it as it does today… right util the part where the links take you to MySpace and the trail runs cold. That’s not Philippa’s fault – that’s the goddamn web we built.

It’s not just the web. Try reading Chris Ware’s comic for the McSweeny’s app after updating to iOS7. SPOLIERS: You can’t.

Touch sensitive

The brilliant stories that make use of the possibilities of digital technology will fall victim to the obsolescence of that technology. And that’s okay; lots of what I experience here – online – is ephemeral, just as all the comics I’ve given away and traded in or sold have been lost to me. But I keep the issues of comics I think will matter to me, that I love. I need to get better at doing the same for the things I love online.

On a personal note, I’ve spent a year wondering what my relationship to the medium is. I’m too busy to do much about it – GDS occupies my brain to an astounding degree – but I know it can’t just be about making things that seal stories in print. But I’m also not sure how comfortable I am that the long-term future of any story I make for the web comes down to hoping that someone clicks ‘Save Image To Desktop’.

The future, then; the death of the page will mean some brilliant, beautiful experimental stories are going to blossom, but we’ll lose many of them – most, in fact – to the fluctuating rhythms of the network they’re published on.

Tumblr tag

And finally…

This post skips a bunch of things I referenced in the talk, so here they are…
Robin and Young Justice
Lizzie Stewart’s webcomics
Cafe Suada by Jade Sarson
Kate Beaton’s comics and her holiday diary
Come in Alone and Freakangels by Warren Ellis
Leila Johnson’s ‘The Trouble With Comics’
Paper Science

Motivational poster art of 2074

The Eckersley exhibition reminded me of the last time I saw a bunch of COI posters up close – at The National Archives.

The Royal Opera House is the first place I worked that consciously produced material for archival. Some small but significant percentage of everything was kept; preserved and stored in the knowledge that it might be raided by future generations for inspiration and understanding.

GDS is the second. It’s fascinating to be producing that archive in the mode of broadcast. Blog posts, videos, commits… it’s an open, living archive.

(In practise transparency proves to be a really easy form of communicating, largely because it needs to be true. Brilliant line I saw last night re-watching The West Wing; “I told him that, if asked about it tonight, he should – if only because it’s the easiest thing to remember – tell the truth.”)

If anything, we’ve super-served the archive. There are things we could be using those platforms to do now which would help us recruit and teach, but we’ve been using them to document instead. Kim‘s working hard to redress that balance.

In 2014 though, and we’re publishing that knowing there’s a potential for it to be remixed, reinterpreted and reimagined. Not even a hint of that in the WWII-era govt. communications, and yet we’re swamped with that now. Somewhere in our blog posts might be the novelty-mug slogan of tomorrow.


Type big enough to read and not mumbling

Tom Eckersley

I’m still not used to having glasses. I keep having to flit between having them on and off. One of the best things about the Tom Eckersley exhibition was that the public information posters were clear enough to understand either way. Bold, clear ideas. No ambiguity. Beautiful.

All the ads for exhibitions and lectures… not so much. But that’s a different thing.

I was chatting to Mark and Louise about how that could be a way for GOV.UK to talk about services. ‘Do this, here’ might be all we ever need to say.

People tried stuff out…

…and they were ace. I had a lovely evening last night, watching five very brave people show unfinished talks and films in a pub. Thanks to Giles, Reema, Anne, Louise and Ste for doing that – you were brilliant.

The audience were brilliant too. About twenty-five people came by, which felt like the right number. It meant some good chats got going at the close of the night without putting too much pressure to the people talking. The Queens Head is the perfect venue for that kind of informal affair too; thanks to all there.

Giles showing some slides

So, what did I learn?

Five might be too many people. It didn’t leave quite enough room for chat and feedback, and I’d like to make more space for that. Entirely my fault, that, and if I try it again I think I’m going to aim for three instead.

Eventbrite was an odd thing to use for this. It gave me a good sense of attendee numbers, and a means of telling people that I’d mucked up the timing, but it also made it feel a layer more professional than it ought to have done.

Technical hiccups didn’t matter. I worried a bit too much about them before we kicked off, and I needn’t have.

GOODNESS people are lovely. Generous with time and feedback, more than forgiving of mistakes and faffing, happy. That was nice, especially on a frosty January night.

I’d like more help next time. Maybe for programming – the variety was ace, and I’d like it to stay that way – but definitely for the audience. Anne did a brilliant job of getting some people in who brought a different energy to the room, and I think there’s room for more of that. It results in a better range of feedback, and that’s really what the night is all about.

Anyway, I’m going to mull on it a bit and maybe have another crack in March.

Little victories

The Environment Agency, blogging about the release of a service going into beta, using video on the GOV.UK blogging platform.

Environment Agency blog

I’ve visited a few bits of the civil service, with Ali, Russell and others, and there are things we take for granted about how we communicate at GDS that blows others away; videos, public blogs, senior management taking the time to talk to staff, staff sharing how they work with their colleagues… the lot. And the thing is, it’s all relatively easy for us. We’ve had the freedom to define how we do that stuff.

The really hard work, whether at GDS, EA or wherever, is in the graft of building a service. Obviously. But from the little corner of the office responsible for posters and powerpoint (or key-frames and keynote, if you like) stuff like this looks like success too. Well done them.

A night where people try stuff out

Getting feedback on work-in-progress can be really hard, particularly for things like talks and films where sometimes you need a range of inputs and perspectives. It’s especially hard to get feedback if you’re new to it all.

So, I’ve booked a room in a pub where people can try stuff out in front of a few friendly faces and with no pressure to perform. 7.30(ish) on January 20th at The Queens Head, Piccadilly.

Currently the lineup includes three speakers (Giles Turnbull, Reema Mehta and Ste Curran) and two film-makers (Louise Downe and Anne Hollowday).

If you’re free, come. You lot are brilliant, and your feedback could be really valuable. Plus it’ll be a great night in a lovely pub in central London surrounded by warm and friendly faces.

Details are below, but if you’ve got a minute do sign up to the Eventbrite page – space will be limited, and it’ll be easier to keep you up to date if details change.

A night where people try stuff out
Monday 20 January 2014, from 7.30ish

The Queen’s Head
15 Denman Street
W1D 7HN London
United Kingdom
(Google Map)