So long, 2018

2018 has been a great year for me: great, I mean, in the context of personal milestones. I’m now a homeower (taken long enough), I have a steady (and interesting) job, and I truly enjoy what I do and where I am within this crazy, warp-speed-change-at-the-drop-of-a-hat online industry.

I don’t believe in getting overly sentimental about the passing of the year; after Auld Lang Syne has come to a stop, it’s time to look forward to the year ahead, and to march on with some small life changes (which I’m avoiding calling resolutions, just because.) Many of these changes are personal, but some are professional, and I hope the two work together to make me that little bit better in the coming 52 weeks, or 365 days. Here are a few of my small life changes that I thought I’d share:

Personal

  • I’m cutting down on the booze, but not becoming teetotal, either. There’s a fine line between enjoying life and beating the hell out of life. I stopped smoking on Armistice day 2014, and I’ve only had much better health because of it. In terms of alcohol, a glass of wine a night is fine. Two large glasses of wine, followed by whisky, followed by whatever is in the booze cupboard, is not.
  • The dreaded gym. I like to think of myself as an avid walker; any excuse to use my legs and I’m there, plodding away at a leisurely pace. I’ll go for more of these walks. When it comes to genuinely improving my physical and mental health (and shedding a few Christmas ounces), the gym is the place to be. Going more than twice a week is probably something I should be doing, considering I sit on my backside for 8 hours a day.
  • Oh, the reading I will do. I’ve already torn through a fair number of titles in 2018, and the more I think about it, I’m happier reading fiction than I am watching Netflix (within reason). Any titles you could recommend, and I’ll add them to my impossibly large ‘to-read’ list.

Professional

  • ‘Networking’. I’ve been to my fair share of meetups, conferences and talks, but I struggle (as I’m sure many do) to connect with strangers in a more meaningful way. The operative word in this point is ‘stranger’, so I don’t think it’s remiss of me to say that talking to perfect strangers is my strong point. More to the matter, I should be more open to meeting new people.
  • Research, and reading around practices, processes, tips and fiddles. There’s so much out there I couldn’t even begin to sift through the myriad articles on Medium and the like, but a few surgically selected works, thoughtfully consumed and fully understood and explored, will be my remedy to the tsunami of opinions and listicles I try to pick my way through each day.
  • Taking the time to write - about anything. I’m paraphrasing here, but generally, if you write about a subject you’re interested in, you’ll learn more about it. I assume this is more to do with the groundwork that goes into not writing a load of rubbish (which I may have been party to once in a while,) but writing is something I thoroughly enjoy. And what’s wrong with doing more of the things you thoroughly enjoy? The thought of writing about something that could potentially be critiqued - and not in a nice way - worried me slightly; but hey, it’s the internet. Not many opinions on the internet count, do they?
  • Focusing on the multidisciplinary in multidisciplinary. Sure, I’m almost a 100% digital designer in my working life, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I look back on the rich tapestry of my design education, and it’s included graphics, print, architecture, systems, modelling, litho, painting, painting, life drawing, construction… the very things that give me the tools to look at the world in a different way and interrogate that perspective to create unique ideas. It’s criminal to disregard the whole stock in the stable.

That’s everything, I think. Nothing too high-and-mighty, and, for me at least, remotely achievable with a sprinkling of mindfullness. Here’s to a happy 2019.

Reith

I know this is old news, but it’s news nonetheless: the BBC has a new typeface, Reith, named after John Reith, the founder of the BBC. Their current corporate typeface, Gill Sans, has been put into a long-term retirement plan and will be slowly replaced by its successor due to the size and breadth of the beeb’s corporate and digital estate.

BBC's new font, Reith Sans and Reith Serif Above: A sample of Reith Sans and Reith Serif via the BBC’s GEL site

On a personal level, I’m fairly fond of Gill Sans as a display face. It looks unmistakeably British in it’s proportions; stately and understated, and comes in a raft of beautiful and delicately-cut weights. I would’ve loved to see what they could do if they introduced one of Gill’s other typefaces to the mix, plumping for a serif such as Pilgrim or Joanna. But, as is the case with a lot of commercial decisions, it’s part economical and part identity: the BBC is a large enough organisation to warrant its own typeface, and this is the perfect opportunity to express themselves with serifs for the first time in digital print.

David Bailey, Creative Director of the BBC’s GEL and UX&D contingent, had this to say about the reasons for commissioning a new typeface:

To improve distinctiveness. Our previous, most heavily used fonts, Helvetica and Arial, are classic grotesque typefaces designed to communicate information anonymously and without fanfare. For the BBC to remain a vital and relevant digital service in an increasingly busy marketplace, we need to appeal to as many people as possible. Having a broader range of expression and visual tonality allows us to stand out in a crowd and aid recognition. A familiar face, so to speak.

To improve legibility. Helvetica, Arial and also Gill Sans (our previous corporate typeface) were designed last century for print. They don’t perform well on today’s digital screens, causing issues with legibility. So this was an opportunity to solve those issues by designing a digitally optimised typeface.

To save money. By owning our own typeface family, incorporating a range of styles, we can significantly reduce our annual spend on licensing third-party owned fonts. This saving can then be put back into producing world-class content.

It’s fairly difficult to argue with any of the above points, let alone the font licensing costs. I’m excited to see which contexts they’ll use the serif version, and I truly hope they consider using it for longer thinkpieces and even throughout the whole of the News site, however unlikely that may be.

Barebones

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about complexity, and how we, as designers, can better define the complexity/simplicity sweet-spot - and how I can avoid it. This was largely sparked by this inspiring graphic essay on complexity and a provoking lament from Isaac Newton:

‘I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.’

The frustration in that statement cuts deep. Even today, we can land a probe the size of a washing machine on a comet travelling at 84,000mph, but the vast majority of us (maybe all of us) still don’t understand the nuances and intricacies of behaviour and social change. Starting last year, I work as part of an integrated product team, iterating and exploring different options within some clear(ish) boundaries. What I soon discovered, to my horror, was the reality that even with a water-tight hypothesis the results were increasingly difficult to explain due to there being far too many variables, and far too much complexity. In most cases, the results were inconclusive, leading me to believe that the World Wide Web, and humans’ interactions with it, appears to be one of those unknowns unknows that only so much data-hoarding and rigorous interrogation can attempt to explain, for a very interesting and simple reason: human behaviour is intrinsically unpredictable (£).

Human unpredictability aside, there are still many technological twists, turns and tangles lurking out there ready to trap an intrepid designer enveloped in the digital world. Many of them are a symptom of problem solving the short way - plugging a leak with more technology. The amount of convoluted workarounds I’ve been privy to are beyond mind-boggling, and that’s not for lack of trying to keep work and functionality as simple as possible. MVPs are launched with the best intentions, but many are still more or less VPs, due to the cumulative effect of dithering, politics, and a disregard (or over-regard) for mitigating risk by key stakeholders. Designers are frequently employed as problem-solvers, using divergence and convergence methods and a light-touch approach to explore different ways to attack a particular issue. So, framing the question as a problem…

How might we deliver non-complex products that solve specific needs in an endlessly complex market?

…we start to see the enormity of the issue at hand. I remember a colleague of mine, an engineer, said this of current web technology:

‘We can solve almost any problem, and do almost anything. It’s just a question of how much time you want to waste doing it.’

This approach helps me sense check what I’m doing most of the time. Sure, we can do it. But, do we want to? And is it worth it?

In my case, I recently applied this question to my own home on the web. What is this little chunk of web meant to do, and represent? I could waste several months creating a dusty, room-filled mansion that is beyond my scope to maintain. But in the end I chose a comfotable, well-equipped apartment. You’ll notice there are no case studies, no portfolio and no ‘homepage’. I’ll add more functionality, posts and work as and when I need it, rather than creating a country pile with no inhabitants - just the way I like it.

Dahl

I love Roald Dahl’s work. I mean, who doesn’t? His razor sharp wit, wry style, and genuinely detestable villians make for excellent reading for anyone. He’s mostly remembered for his work on childrens’ books, but he wrote with such skill that adults happily allow themselves this guilty pleasure. Not to mention some horrifying nightmare fuel added in for good measure, too.

The form of the stories work well for their target audience, but also throw a bone to the rest of us. And these stories take a long, long time to gestate, let alone to create. Roald said this of his process:

‘I have a notebook for plots. It is the same one I’ve had for twenty years. If I get the germ of an idea, I scribble it down in the notebook, one idea to each page. … Once or twice every year, I leaf through the book … And then at last, perhaps after three years, perhaps after seven, there comes a time when I look at it and see that it is ripe for writing, and I take it out of the book, and start away.’

Seven years. I finished Design School seven years ago. There have been seven iPhones released in the last seven years. I wonder just how many of his stories took seven years before being unearthed, deemed ripe enough to be worked on. If that’s the case, maybe I can still get some blog posts out.

Maybe all great ideas, like Dahl’s, take time to fully mature, and ruminate into something worth evaluating and addressing. It allows contemplation, re-writing, re-framing, divergence … all the techniques and processes that mirror what should be great design practice. Speaking of design practice, Dahl also drops this interesting nugget:

‘Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this …’

Writing is effectively the same as designing, only using various shapes, strokes, and fills on a particular medium instead of words to communicate meaning through a shared (visual) language. Nobody sits down and creates their finest work in one fell swoop. Time and effort work together to arrange disparate ideas into something unique and, dare I say it, delightful, for the observer or reader; shaving chunks off as well as appending more is a fine art that is necessary for the fine art of succint and powerful storytelling.

Trends in Web Typography: What's your Type?

Combing the web for inspiration often leads me down similar paths, and one website that’s nearly always on my go-to list is Typewolf, a stalwart of the cool and cutting-edge sites that utilise type as their main organising structure. As the clue is in the name, these sites aren’t always development marvels, but the typography is always on point, for better or for worse. There are beautiful sites, ‘interesting’ sites, and completely unusable sites; but they all have one thing in common: excellent and inspiring typography.

It’s hardly surprising that I come across similar combinations of typefaces with the number of repeat visits I make, and few seem to have hit the 2017 zeitgeist sweet-spot the same as extended sans-serifs and their lovely flouncy counterparts; dependable, elegant and beautiful display serifs. If it’s not extended subtitles and lovely serif headlines, it’s monospaced body copy and art-nouveau humanist faces. For the very trendiest, there is the resurgence of blackletter – the Fraktur and Textualis of old – maybe to remind us that in the dark ages, everything must have been difficult to read (if you could read, of course).

The depth of expression you can get from these typefaces is astonishing. Even if the site in question is set entirely in Helvetica, as this one is, the weight and size of the font can interact with the colours and visual elements in a way that images and graphics cannot.

Negative Labs as an example

Within the world of websites and letterforms, there are a few fascinating trends that appear to be entirely driven by pop culture and popular television shows. The precipitous rise in the decorative serif ITC Benguiat and fonts of a similar design have become immensely popular due to Netflix’s Stranger Things title screen, which uses a tweaked version of Benguiat. You can see a marked rise in Clearface and Korinna on the web, too; both similar in style, and each have a shared history of adorning fantasy books such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Extended faces, on the other hand, have seen an assimilation into Sci-Fi more often than on a design-conscious website. Industrial and nonsense-free, these look more at home on the side of a dumper truck or a spaceship than on some letterhead. Microgramma and Eurostile, two immensely popular typefaces for sci-fi and fantasy, surface relentlessly: Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to the Future, and The Incredibles.

The influence of Mad Men and the logo of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and all the associated mid-century furniture and design aesthetics, made their way into people’s living rooms, and eventually crept onto their marketing collateral and business cards.

Untold Stories as an example of Times New Roman

After looking at decorative typefaces for a while, it’s clear that there’s another contender: the Normcore fonts. Somehow, designers have made Times New Roman and Arial (and their clones) cool again, even if it is in some tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It appears the desire for understated cool has had a significant impact on the use of certain serifs and sans-serifs: there’s even a high-concept suite of fonts called Untitled Sans and Untitled Serif by Klim Type Foundry that champion the quotidian nature of a great experience. They argue that normal design, rather than special design, is of greater importance as ‘special’ design gets n the way of what’s important – the content and the message. I’m no stranger to this myself – the utilitarian Stevie Sans has long been a favourite of mine as it’s clearly a grotesque typeface, but has subtle nuances that not everyone will pick up on.

Untitled Serif sample

For all this choice, the classic forms with modern twists are the clear winners. Typewolf reports that Caslon, Gotham and Futura have been in their ‘most used’ listings since 2015. Perhaps the most surprising is that Futura still hasn’t been knocked off the top spot - this is likely due to the surge in popularity of geometric sans-serifs, especially after Google’s rebrand in 2015, and is considered to be ‘clean’ and ‘modern’.

If there’s one thing we can now celebrate as web designers, it’s that we have boundless access to beautiful, functional fonts. In the halcyon years, we were limited to just a handful, routinely relying on Arial, Verdana, Georgia or Times New Roman. Now, I can spend upwards of a day looking for a typeface that best suits my needs from countless providers. All I can say is I’m happy. And bring on what trends come next.