rob waller

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

That old people sign revisited

Apparently this sign is patronising and disparaging to old people, and Spring Chicken organised a design competition for a replacement. They are an online retailer/advocate of well-designed products aimed at older people.

The results have been around for a few months but I've only just spotted them. Have a look at the outcomes on their website:

The designers have had a lot of fun with the brief and almost all the entries are of the designer-as-cartoonist genre.

For example, this one by Margaret Calvert and Marion Deuchars is based on the children crossing sign (which was in fact originally designed by Calvert, although she was not responsible for the old people sign):

And this one was designed by Neal Lankester:

I had a chuckle at these and many others, but there are only two which, for me, take the brief seriously and might be contenders for actual use.

This first one, designed by Else, nicely recognises that the issue may not be physical disability but confusion and dementia.

This entry, from Together Design, simply amends the current one to reduce the degree of stooping. By replacing the walking stick with an umbrella, continuity is maintained, but with less stigma.

But actually I question why the existing sign is thought to be patronising. It is not meant to be a social comment but a warning to drivers of a danger ahead. The danger is not old people per se, but people who are physically challenged and therefore slow to react, and who may well be recognised by their stooping gait and use of a stick. Signs have to be cliched and exaggerated to be instantly recognised by drivers.

One more thing... that word 'elderly' is odd. Do they think the word 'old' is too stark or bleak?

This is the British habit of softening the impact of the simple Anglo-Saxon with a Latin elaboration, and it's not necessary.

And another thing. I nicked the photograph at the top from Spring Chicken's website. What's remarkable for me is that I might find these elderly people half way up a mountain. Good for them.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Adrian Frutiger 1928–2015

Adrian Frutiger passed away in September. Here is a lovely obituary from the New York Times. I particularly liked the quote at the end:

'As conspicuous as Mr. Frutiger’s work became, it was for its inconspicuousness, he said, that he hoped it would be known.

 “The whole point with type is for you not to be aware it is there,” he said in an interview on the Linotype company’s website. “If you remember the shape of a spoon with which you just ate some soup, then the spoon had a poor shape.”'

I met him briefly at a lettering workshop held at Reading a few years after I graduated. I have the programme somewhere and will amend this post when I find it. What stuck in my head was his classic demonstration of the universality of Univers in which he would overlap a transparent letter 'a' from a range of fonts until the Univers a emerged.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Security questions again: I wish I'd thought of this

Have a look at Soheil Rezayazdi's Nihilistic Password Security Questions.

What is the name of your least favorite child?
In what year did you abandon your dreams?
What is the maiden name of your father’s mistress?
At what age did your childhood pet run away?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Phones and shops: two schema shifts from history

Trying to explain schema theory at our recent summer school, I mentioned these two examples. The first is the user guide developed by Sainsbury's in the early 1950s to explain to customers how self-service shopping works. The second is an early set of instructions about how to use a telephone.

Source: I scanned this from an article in Sainsbury's customer magazine some years ago, but have lost track of the citation. 

Source: the BT museum. 

Schemas* are mental structures that we use to organise knowledge. We try to fit new information into our existing schemas, and we bring our existing world knowledge into play as we interpret any information. Schema theory is associated with the psychologist Frederic Bartlett, and it is also central to the work of the child psychologist Jean Piaget, who saw schemata as the basic building blocks of thinking.

Bartlett, F.C. (1932), Remembering: An Experimental and Social Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

* yes, the correct plural is really 'schemata' as it's from the Greek, but the anglicised version in increasingly common and less show-offy.

Information design meets gardening

I caught up with Paul Matson at the recent Vision Plus conference in Birmingham. Paul did the MA Information Design at Reading when I was teaching there. He works for the Institute of Physics in Bristol, creating web sites but as a sideline he's created a great gardening concept, Sowhow.

Paul sells organic seeds, packed on information cards that explain how to grow it, store it and cook it. I particularly like the link between garden and kitchen (I'm a fan of Monty and Sarah Don's Fork to Fork, not just for the clever title).

Monday, September 21, 2015

Remember those four year design degrees?

This ad seen in a London underground station makes me wonder why my course had to last four years.

Mind you, someone who came to our recent Simplification Centre summer school commented in his feedback: “I’m pretty sure that I learnt more relevant stuff last week than I did on my whole degree course!”

This may say more about his degree course, but I choose to view it as a compliment to our summer school.

Sticks well

My 95 year old mother asked me to buy her some glue and this is what they sold me. Not really her demographic but it did the job.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Some feedback for the feedback seekers

Every online transaction now seems to generate a feedback request. Fine - they're easily deleted if you have nothing to say.

But now they're starting to nag us. Southern Railway got in touch today to give me one more chance to fill in their questionnaire about my recent journey to London. It was fine, by the way.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Remembering Jan V White 1928-2014

I only just heard the sad news that Jan V White passed away at the end of last year, at the age of 86.

Jan was a magazine designer (he was art director for two Time titles during the fifties), consultant and educator. He is best known for a series of books that explained graphic design for non-designers - Editing by Design, Graphic Idea Notebook and Graphic Design for the Electronic Age are three of the best known. They are well written, well thought out, and continue to be relevant today, even in the digital age - in any channel where text, pictures and diagrams are juxtaposed.

Jan was one of my information design heroes – he was amongst the first to get the interconnection of language and design, and no one has explained it better to a general audience.

Editing by Design was published in 1974, the year I started work at the Open University as a designer tasked with making exactly that connection, in a research group that focused on learning from text. It proved a fantastic resource when the OU was exploring more accessible, journalistic formats for non-degree courses, and multiple copies were bought for staff in the community education team.

Jan was always generous with his expertise. Most designers just show their work, and don't explain how they did it. Jan's goal was to enable anyone to design a page that communicates, and he lectured tirelessly and internationally as a consultant and as a course leader for Popular Communication (the Swedish-based training organisation).

I only met Jan once, over the course of several days in the mid-90s when we were working together on a project for Xerox (one of his major clients - see the Xerox Publishing Standards that he helped to develop). He was kind, humorous and charming. Exiled as a child to England from Czechoslovakia in 1938, he was educated not far from where I was brought up, in Reading where he attended Leighton Park School. After the war his family went to the USA (see this interesting Wikipedia article about his father, the illustrator Emil Weiss).

With generous foresight, two years before he died Jan relinquished copyright on his out-of-print books, and made scans of them freely available on the Internet Archive. Links to all his books have been posted at

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Age bands again

A little while I go I posted this complaint against market researchers who use 55+ as a single age band.

Because I am 55+ I am a prime target for Saga, the financial services and travel group who specialise in the over 50s. So I was quite pleased to see their age bands were more sensitive:

However, expect a repeat rant when I hit 80. At that age, of course, the phrase 'which age category you fall into' will take on a whole new meaning.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

When icons grow old

Dürnstein (beautiful village on the Danube in Austria) apparently bans vintage cars.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Depicting older people

I've occasionally posted mini-rants about how older people are portrayed in newspapers. Any article about retirement or pensions seems to be accompanied by a library shot of two attractive elders on bicycles, frolicking on a beach or taking an expensive cruise.

Doesn't this just reinforce the selfish image the baby boomer generation has acquired with younger people struggling to buy homes? The caption might just as well say "Smug boomers partying non-stop at your expense".

But I've just found a source of positive and realistic images of ageing on the EAC website. EAC is a charity that used to be known as the Elderly Accommodation Counsel. Much better.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Recipe book designers: please think about the cook

A recent survey pointed out that while most of us have a shelf full of recipe books, we have a repertoire of about nine meals we actually cook.

So are recipe books actually for cooking from, or just for giving and receiving as presents?

Nigel Slater's Eat is a truly lovely object that reminds us of the joy of holding a well-made book. Just as meals are more than nutrition, books are more than information. Eat is bound beautifully with a bendy board and soft-feeling cloth.

The only thing is, having enjoyed choosing what to cook, I had to place some of the ingredients on top to hold it open.

Profound infographic insight about Nigel Farage

Don't you just love it when the numbers make a neat pattern. Thank you, Daily Telegraph website.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Fit for purpose

It's oddly satisfying to see an icon and its referent so perfectly matched. If she could just face the other way...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Information Design 3.0

Word and phrases change their meaning over time and there's not much we can do about it. I'm a linguistic liberal, and you'll hopefully know what I mean by that (yes, that was a split infinitive and yes I know 'hopefully' used to mean something else).

But I do splutter into my cornflakes when I see 'information design' shifting in meaning every ten years or so.

There are at least three generations of it.

I first installed Information Design 1.0 in the late 70s. It was for the design of usable information: planning content and using typography, graphics and layout to display it effectively. It was comprehensive and included signage, diagrams, displays, documents, and eventually websites.

The Information Design 2.0 upgrade in around 2000 enabled web design, but most of the other features were hidden.

Information Design 3.0, released around 2010, only offers data visualisation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

So the bears don't get you

If you're worried whether it's safe to walk on the metal grating in Canada, these big feet are reassuring.

Pointing the way

Two nice examples of hand-held wayfinding.

Helping crowds at Birmingham railway station find the way out during refurbishments.

Aston Villa fans show their team which way to the goal (it hasn't been their best season).

Photo: The Times 2015.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Do they proof-read news graphics?

It's surprisingly common to see news graphics where the numbers don't match the chart lines.

I think the first example is just incompetence - or possibly the omission of a white vertical line to indicate the zero point for the data.

The second one looks like a cut and paste error. If you add up the percentages they come to 118% for 2015. But if you change the UKIP captions to read 13% and 18% everything adds up and the lines are the right length.

Picture credits: The Times.

New legibility test - just turn it upside down

I stared at this pen for a long time trying to decipher the brand name – but I had no problem reading the words KING SIZE.

Turn it the right way around and it's the familiar Sharpies brand. Have I just developed a new legibility test?

In my early career at the Open University I used multiple photocopying passes to show how some typefaces degrade more quickly than others - try it with Arial vs Bodoni and you'll see what I mean, although it worked better before photocopiers went digital.

You can also compare how easy it is to read typefaces through multiple layers of tracing paper. My business partner David Lewis used the term Strudel Test for this - following his mother's measure of when strudel pastry was thin enough (can you read a newspaper through it?).

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Exemplary caption from Time magazine

A December article on Starbucks had this exemplary caption. It's important to know which day in June it was that Getty Images captured this unique moment.

I'd like to see this level of journalistic integrity adopted for all the library shots that adorn today's quality papers.

For example:

Who are these people? Why are they on the beach? When exactly did this happen?

Picture editing at its finest

Another magnificently baffling picture choice, this time from the Independent.

Guardian colour code fail

Like a lot of blokes, I'm slightly red-green colourblind.

It hardly manifests itself in everyday life. I find it difficult to see when the amber light has turned to yellow-green on my Apple wifi router. And I'm slower at picking raspberries than other people. I can see the red fruit and the green leaves, but they're tonally similar and obviously shine brighter for others.

And now I can't read the Guardian's football page. The little bars are coded green, red or grey to show each team's run of form. Actually I suspect a lot of people will have trouble picking out these lines.

Designers please note: key distinctions should not be made in small areas of red and green.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ageism again

As much as through landmark birthdays such as 18, 30 or 40, we mark the passage of time as we transit through market researchers' age bands. Halfway through each decade, we have to leave, say, 25-34 behind and admit to 35-44.

That is, until we reach such a great age that the market researchers, who I imagine to be in their early twenties, think we must now be gaga, and no longer of interest.

It's usually 65... which I plan to reach in three years time. But recently I got a taste of the kind of rejection I must get used to. Faced with the options below, I didn't make a note of the brand (being so old I am obviously forgetful).

Relegating all oldies to a single 55+ category lumps me together with my mum. I was born in the 50s, and grew up with TV, rock and roll and air travel. She was born in 1919, and grew up in a world where milk was still delivered by horse and cart.

This questionnaire is not just ageist, it's bad market research. The boomer generation has more money to spend, and the time to spend it, than many younger people.

Ageist imagery

I'm puzzled by a story that's appeared in The Sunday Times and other papers:
"The road sign that shows a hunched couple clutching a stick as a warning to drivers to slow down should be banned because it deters employers from giving the over-50s a job, says the government’s tsar for the elderly.  
Ros Altmann, the business champion for older workers, is to press Jo Swinson, the women and equalities minister, at a meeting next month to act on the grounds that the sign is discriminatory."
I don't understand why Ros thinks this image depicts the over-50s. Surely it depicts the over-90s, and if/when I reach that age I will be glad of a sign near my care home to warn speeding drivers.

In any case, this icon is more than counterbalanced by the usual Getty Images retired couple: slim, tanned and happy, the male with a full head of hair, they flaunt their generous pensions as they cavort hand in hand on beaches in exotic locations, on cruise ships, or pursuing some unfeasibly athletic retirement pastime. When things turn ugly between the have-it-all boomers and Generation Rent, I will blame Mr and Mrs Getty for winding up the young 'uns.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Moving house and brand experience

We're moving house, so are trying to tell all the organisations we deal with – producing some interesting variations in responses. The patterns so far are:

I email them, and they reply.
I email them, they don't reply but make the change (as evidenced by mail going to the new place).
I email them, they don't reply and I don't know if they've made the change.
I email them and they mail me a form to fill in and send by post.
I log on to a secure site and make the change, and it's fine.
I write them and they make the change but don't reply.
I write to them and they don't reply (yet).
I write to them and they reply by post to the new address.
I write to them and they reply to both the old and new addresses.
I write to them. They write back to insist I call them, thus experiencing the phone menu hell I was trying to avoid. Thanks, John Lewis Partnership Card and Tesco Bank.
I call them and they make the change by phone.
I call them and they send a form to fill in and post.

Some of the replies wish me well for the move, which is nice.
One of them, a charity, apologises in advance that they were too late to stop a marketing mailshot.

One of them includes a snitty remark about giving them at least a month's notice next time. It's from an academic organisation, obviously.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Photojournalism today

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but newspaper photography is now rarely about news. Sometimes the connection between the story and the image is tenuous, sometimes downright misleading, and sometimes just daft. A few recent examples:

The story is about people in housing benefit. The stock image is of the Barbican in the City of London, where one bedroom flats fetch over £900,000. I suspect that few residents are getting housing benefit.

The story is about female employees at tech firms being offered the chance to put off having children by having their eggs frozen. "Find me a picture of some frozen eggs", the art director cried.

The story is about Bitcoin. Every story about Bitcoin has a picture of a coin. But the whole point is that it's not a coin.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The other Robert Wallers

Please excuse the egocentricity of this post, but I'm excited to discover I am listed in the Wikipedia entry 'PG Wodehouse minor characters'.

I've often wondered why every other Waller I come across seems to be called Robert.

There's obviously the Bridges of Madison County one, but there's also an election expert who emerges every four years or so, a psychiatrist whose emails I occasionally get by mistake, and the Rob Waller Band (which I only discovered by vainly googling myself). And my grandfather.

Fats Waller was an exception, of course. He was Thomas.

When I worked for the Open University in the 1970s, there were three Wallers on the staff, all Roberts. One of them was in the IT department, and as design tools became computerized our interests converged, and I started to be less and less sure whether mail was intended for me or him.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Postal irony

Parcelforce left a card saying they'd tried to deliver a parcel. Other couriers leave it with a neighbour, but they take it to the post office in the middle of town. I was away so Mrs Simpleton went to the post office to pick it up. Queued for ten minutes but they wouldn't give it to her because she wasn't me. So I had to go back into town to queue again and pick it up instead, armed with photo ID and proof of address.

Sorry to go on about this, but it's traditional when blogging about consumer gripes.

So it was nice to see how they've branded this service:

Monday, September 08, 2014

Vienna is the home of Isotype, but...

... these are the icons in the metro, next to seats reserved for people in gas masks... apparently.

Good morning? No, good night.

It's 2 seconds after midnight, and Sky News has just wished me Good Morning. That's just wrong. It's only morning in the Land of Pedants. For the rest of us it's still evening.

Don't ask me exactly when morning begins – I just know that it's after I've gone to bed. And dawn might also be involved. Or perhaps at 2am – the time they choose for changing the clocks when summer time starts or ends.

I recently learned that in Japan they extend the 24 hour clock when, for example, giving times for train journeys that end after midnight. So a train might depart City A at 22.30 and arrive in City B at 25.30.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bin Roman

Here's a tip if you're trying to remember which house number your typographer friend lives at. Look for the serifs.

(bin: Reading Borough Council; design: Martin Andrews).

Five is an odd number

This must be the oddest 5 I've seen... on the former Robinson and McKewan factory in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

Wish I'd thought of this

Have a look at these brilliant uncropped road signs. I'm not web-literate enough to know who to credit but here's a link:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Boingo email fail

I've been subscribing to Boingo the wifi service that connects you to hotspots which would otherwise want to charge you. I don't seem to need it that often, but £3.95 a month is OK as insurance. But I just noticed on my bank statement that £3.95 is now £5.95, a 50% hike. 

So I've searched my emails for their notification, and found it in trash. It is headed 'Boingo Mobile: More Hotspots, More Secure, More Value' and I trashed it because it appeared to be a marketing newsletter.

It does tell me about the price hike... near the end of the email which I stopped reading after the title. Loss of trust --> do I really need it? --> cancelled.

I'm also wary of products I can't pronounce. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Visualisation of under the street

They are digging up the streets in the centre of Reading, and guys with spray cans have been creating a nice visualization of the project on the pavement.

Embiggen – a new word marches on

If you look carefully at this clip from the Daily Telegraph web edition, under the picture it says 'Click to embiggen'.

I'm curious about this choice of word – is it possibly a little sardonic, given the topic?

It's not one I've seen before, so I looked it up. Apparently, it started in a 1996 episode of the Simpsons: read about it on the Future Journalism Project's blog.

There's no doubt we need a single word for 'make bigger'. Somehow 'enlarge' always sounds more written than spoken.
In our studio we used to use the verbs 'to bigger' and 'to smaller' when discussing type size, as in 'Can you try biggering the headline there?'.

Monday, August 18, 2014

'Write as you would speak.' But not you, man on the train.

One end of a phone conversation, heard on the train:
"We need to discuss which people we can leverage in each work stream in terms of capability uplift."

Apparently people really do say things like that, aloud, to other people, throwing into doubt the traditional advice on clear writing: 'write as you would speak'. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

World Cup brand values: the classical elements in action

Apparently the World Cup in Brazil has four brand values: Freedom, Solidarity, Passion and Diversity. This perfectly demonstrates my pet theory that most sets of corporate values fit the classic elements: Fire, Earth, Water, Air.

There's usually one about warmth or passion. Clearly that's Fire. And there's usually one about being real or grounded. That's Earth.

Air represents freedom, flexibility, creativity or imagination. Water represents nourishment, responsibility or caring, and I'm including the World Cup's 'Diversity' value here.

Working with Vodafone some years ago, I remember their first two values as Red and Rock Solid (no prizes for guessing which elements there). Their third and final value was Restless (Air). But as a customer I could sometimes have wished they had a Water value too.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Through the window

When you design a document for delivery in a window envelope, always check the post office guidance. It's important that no private information appears in the window along with the address.

Mail received by my son today. From the Post Office.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Which way to the metro?

We encountered this sign at Copenhagen airport recently, looking for the metro.

I went for the at-a-glance visual cluster and headed for the left. Jenny saw the horizontal grid, and headed for the right. I eventually followed.

The Copenhagen metro: a serious place for serious people

Blog Archive

rob waller rob waller rob waller