All posts filed under “Graphic design

Detailing and retailing

HMS Furious
The dazzle painting of HMS Furious, c. 1918. Image from A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships

A couple of weeks ago we looked at casino carpet design – a field where busy, garish graphic design is deliberately employed to repel viewers, and direct their attention somewhere else. Ben Hyde commented that deliberately unattractive “background music, lighting, seating, and color schemes in large malls” may be used to drive shoppers into the quieter surroundings of the actual stores, which certainly rings true in some cases I can think of.

On another level, though, A comment by Kenshi drew my attention to the dazzle camouflage used in the First World War, which is quite startling, in a brilliantly bold way. Roy R Behrens‘ book, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage, from the website of which I’ve borrowed these images, looks extremely interesting, and I will certainly be ordering a copy when I have the budget.

Developed in Britain by Norman Wilkinson and in the US by Everett Warner and Frederic Waugh, the dazzle techniques were intended to make “a single thing appear to be a hodgepodge of unrelated components,” as Behrens puts it in this fascinating article. The aim was that such visual disruption would cause confusion and make it difficult for the enemy to identify what kind of ship – and what size – it was from a distance, with the use of ‘reversed perspective’ in the patterning a part of this. The ship’s course – and angle to the viewer – would also be problematic to identify, with colouring including bright whites, blues and sea-green alongside black, darker blue and grey selectively helping parts of the ship to blend into the seascape, and other parts very much stand out.

Breaking the enemy’s ability to distinguish elements of the ship properly, and generally to cause distraction and make it difficult to concentrate on observation for protracted periods, were all part of this plan; painting ships with different dazzle patterning on each side made identification even harder.

Despite being likened to Cubism disdainfully by some contemporary journalists, the processes used for designing the camouflage were developed both analytically and empirically, and extensively tested before being applied to the real vessels. Nevertheless, there are certainly elements in common between dazzle techniques and parts of Picasso’s and others’ work; Behrens has written further on the interactions between Cubism, Gestalt theory and camouflage (both in nature and man-made).

From A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted ShipsFrom A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships
Left: The Mauritania in dazzle paint camouflage. Right: Those blue and white stripes are familiar to UK shoppers today. Images from A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships

Intriguingly, the right-hand image above, with the bold blue and white stripes, has something in common with an everyday livery familiar to tens of millions of British shoppers: the iconic Tesco Value branding (below), at least in its original form. I’m not suggesting an actual link, but as we will see, there is something in common in the intentions behind these disparate methods of influencing viewer behaviour.

Image from Plap man
Tesco Value Beans. Image from Plap man on Flickr.

The same Tim Harford article quoted in my recent post about defaults suggests that the “infamously ugly” Tesco Value packaging is intended as a tool to facilitate price discrimination:

The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible. The British supermarket Tesco has a “value” line of products with infamously ugly packaging, not because good designers are unavailable but because the supermarket wants to scare away customers [from the Value products] who would willingly spend more [on other brands, or Tesco’s ‘normal’ private label products].

Whereas the dazzle camouflage was intended to confuse and disconcert the viewer, the thinking behind the Tesco Value graphics (I would love to know who designed the original style) thus appears to be to disconcert or repel certain viewers (customers) so that they pick a higher-priced alternative (usually on the shelf just above the Value items – Tesco’s planograms have thinking behind them), while allowing immediate segmentation – those customers looking for the cheapest products possible find the Value products easily.

There can’t be many retail situations where pretty much the same products can be sold successfully at two different prices on the same shelving unit just because of differing packaging graphics, but it seems to work for Tesco, in the process creating a significant meme.

Image from B3ta threadImage from Boakes
Left: a ‘Tesco Value’ tattoo, from this B3ta thread There have been many others. Right: Rich Boakes’ ‘Tesco Value’ greetings cards have been widely imitated, and could even have inspired this effort from Asda.

Updates to the Tesco Value branding in recent years have reduced the intensity of the blue stripes and brought the style closer to other supermarkets’ ‘value’ brands, which all tend to be similarly sparse (e.g. Sainsbury’s Basics, below), but the Tesco style is still the most distinctive.

Adequate biscuits

Freelancing Part 3: The Ben Wilson Interview

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I looked at some aspects of what it’s like being a freelance designer / engineer / maker, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Lots of freelancers have blogs, and sites such as Freelance Switch and Sologig News draw together some very interesting (and diverse) people and advice. I did an interview for Sologig News a few months ago.

One of the things that I’m often asked, mainly by design students intrigued by the idea of working for themselves once they graduate, is just how to go about doing it: how to raise your profile, and find the right projects to take on. Having really only been marginally successful in this area, I decided to interview Ben Wilson, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of projects, and who’s achieved a great deal working for himself in this field. Ben’s blog, along with his brothers, is a great photostream-style travelogue of interesting products, vehicles, graphic design, places and influences.

Tilting Trike by Ben WilsonDownlow Lowrider by Ben Wilson
Left: The Tilting Trike in arm-propelled mode. Right: The Downlow Lowrider
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In default, defiance

‘Choice of default’ is a theme which has come up a few times on the blog: in general, many people accept the options/settings presented to them, and do not question or attempt to alter them. The possibilities for controlling or shaping users’ behaviour in this way are, clearly, enormous; two interesting examples have recently been brought to my attention (thanks to Chris Weightman and Patrick Kalaher):

Send to FedEx Kinko's button in Adobe Reader

Recent versions of Adobe’s PDF creation and viewing software, Acrobat Professional and Adobe Reader (screenshot above) have ‘featured’ a button on the toolbar (and a link in the File menu) entitled “Send to FedEx Kinko’s” which upload the document to FedEx Kinko’s online printing service. As Gavin Clarke reports in The Register, this choice of default (the result of a tie-in between Adobe and FedEx) has irritated other printing companies and trade bodies sufficiently for Adobe to agree to remove the element from the software:

Adobe Systems has scrapped the “send to FedEx Kinkos” print button in iAdobe Reader and Acrobat Professional, in the face of overwhelming opposition from America’s printing companies.

Adobe said today it would release an update to its software in 10 weeks that will remove the ability to send PDFs to FedEx Kinkos for printing at the touch of a button.

No doubt the idea of linking to a service that’s often the only choice presented to consumers in the track towns of Silicon Valley made eminent sense to Adobe, itself based in San Jose, California. But the company quickly incurred the wrath of printers outside the Valley for including a button to their biggest competitor, in software used widely by the design and print industry.

I wonder how many users of Acrobat/Reader actually used the service? Did its inclusion change any users’ printing habits (i.e. they stopped using their current printer and used Kinko’s instead)? And was this due to pure convenience/laziness? Presumably Kinko’s could identify which of their customers originated from clicking the button – were they charged exactly the same as any other customer, or was this an opportunity for price discrimination?

As some of the comments – both on the Register story and on Adobe’s John Loiacono’s bloghave noted, the idea of a built-in facility to send documents to an external printing service is not bad in itself, but allowing the user to configure this, or allowing printing companies to offer their own one-click buttons to users, would be much more desirable from a user’s point of view.

In a sense, ‘choice of default’ could be the other side of process friction as a design strategy. By making some options deliberately easier – much easier – than the alternatives (which might actually be more beneficial to the user), the other options appear harder in comparison, which is effectively the same as making some options or methods harder in the first place. The new-PCs-pre-installed-with-Windows example is probably the most obvious modern instance of choice of default having a major effect on consumer behaviour, as an anonymous commenter noted here last year:

Ultimately, though, you can sum up the free-software tug-of-war political control this way: it’s easiest to get a Windows computer and use it as such. Next easiest to get a MacOS one and use it as such. Commercial interests and anti-free software political agenda. Next easiest is a Linux computer, where the large barrier of having to install and configure an operating system yourself must be leapt. Also, it’s likely you don’t actually save any money upfront, because you probably end up buying a Windows box and wiping it to install Linux. Microsoft exacts their tax even if you won’t use the copy of Windows you’re supposedly paying them for.

Starbucks Mug; photo by Veryfotos
Photo by veryfotos.

Sometimes ‘choice of default’ can mean actually hiding the options which it’s undesirable for customers to choose:

Here’s a little secret that Starbucks doesn’t want you to know: They will serve you a better, stronger cappuccino if you want one, and they will charge you less for it. Ask for it in any Starbucks and the barista will comply without batting an eye. The puzzle is to work out why. The drink in question is the elusive “short cappuccino”–at 8 ounces, a third smaller than the smallest size on the official menu, the “tall,” and dwarfed by what Starbucks calls the “customer-preferred” size, the “Venti,” which weighs in at 20 ounces and more than 200 calories before you add the sugar.

The short cappuccino has the same amount of espresso as the 12-ounce tall, meaning a bolder coffee taste, and also a better one. The World Barista Championship rules, for example, define a traditional cappuccino as a “five- to six-ounce beverage.” This is also the size of cappuccino served by many continental cafés. Within reason, the shorter the cappuccino, the better.

This secret cappuccino is cheaper, too–at my local Starbucks, $2.35 instead of $2.65. But why does this cheaper, better drink–along with its sisters, the short latte and the short coffee–languish unadvertised? The official line from Starbucks is that there is no room on the menu board, although this doesn’t explain why the short cappuccino is also unmentioned on the comprehensive Starbucks Web site, nor why the baristas will serve you in a whisper rather than the usual practice of singing your order to the heavens.

The rest of this Slate article* from 2006, by Tim Harford, advances the idea that this kind of tactic is designed specifically to allow price discrimination:

This is the Starbucks way of sidestepping a painful dilemma over how high to set prices. Price too low and the margins disappear; too high and the customers do. Any business that is able to charge one price to price-sensitive customers and a higher price to the rest will avoid some of that awkward trade-off… Offer the cheaper product but make sure that it is available only to those customers who face the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to request it specifically.

Initially, one might think it a bit odd that the lower-priced item has survived at all as an option, given that it can only be a very small percentage of customers who are ‘in the know’ about it. But unlike a shop or company carrying a ‘secret product line’, which requires storage and so on, the short cappuccino can be made without needing any different ingredients, so it presumably makes sense to contnue offering it.

Thinking about other similarly hidden options (especially ‘delete’ options when buying equipment) reveals how common this sort of practice has become. I’m forever unticking (extra-cost) options for insurance or faster delivery when ordering products online; even when in-store, the practice of staff presenting extended warranties and insurance as if they’re the default choice on new products is extremely widespread.

Perhaps a post would be in order rounding up ways to save money (or get a better product) by requesting hidden options, or requesting the deletion of unnecessary options – please feel free to leave any tips or examples in the comments. Remember, all progress depends on the unreasonable man (or woman).

*There is another tactic raised in the article, pertinent to our recent look at casino carpets, which I will get around to examining further in due course.

Cleaning up with carpets

Horrible carpet

Following the recent post looking at aspects of casino and slot machine design, in which I quoted William Choi and Antoine Sindhu’s study – “[Casino] carpeting is often purposefully jarring to the eyes, which draws customers’ gaze upwards toward the machines on the gambling floor” – Max Rangeley sends me a link to the Total Influence & Persuasion blog, discussing casinos’ carpeting strategy in more detail:

They don’t want you to look at the floor, they want you to look at the machines!
… after some time you eyes get tired and need a rest. Normally they would be dawn to a area of dull colour that could be used as a “safe haven” (probably all done subconsciously). The ground is normally a good bet, yes?….not in a casino. As soon as you look at the ground it is worse than the machines and your eyes want to move off somewhere else and hopefully toward one of these many waiting, flashing slot machines where you can slot in a few more quid.

Indeed, casinos’ grotesque carpet patterns are apparently fairly notorious – a couple of years ago Boing Boing pointed to this fantastic gallery on Die Is Cast, the website of Dr David G Schwartz, an authority on casino design, strategy, and evolution:

Casino carpet is known as an exercise in deliberate bad taste that somehow encourages people to gamble.

In a strange way, though, it’s s sublime work of art, rivalling any expressionist canvas of the past century. Note the regal tones of Caesars Palace, the bountiful bouquet of Mandalay Place, the soft, almost abstract pointilism of Paris, all whispering, “gamble, gamble” just out of the range of consciousness as people walk to the nearest slot machine.

Image from Die Is Cast
A section of the 9-page gallery of real casino carpet patterns at Die Is Cast.

Implications of this kind of thinking

Are there examples from other fields where graphic design is deliberately used to repel the viewer, specifically in order to shift his or her focus somewhere more desirable?

In newspaper/magazine layout, one might think of company A using deliberately repellent/garish advertising graphics alongside company B’s ad, to shift the reader’s focus away from that page to the opposite page, where company A has a ‘proper’ ad. Or the low-priced items on a menu or on a shelf might be surrounded by ugly/brash/over-busy graphics, so as to make shoppers look away to the area where the higher-priced items are. Maybe even an artist (or the gallery) deliberately positioning ‘ugly’/repellent work either side of the piece which it’s desirable for the visitor to focus on: in comparison, it is bound to look more attractive.

I have no evidence that this happens, but I’m assuming it has been used as a tactic at some point.

Does anyone have any real examples of this?

Normalising paranoia


This is brilliant. Chloë Coulson, Erland Banggren and Ben Williams, three Ravensbourne graduates, have put together a project looking at the “culture of fear”, the media’s use of this, and how it affects our everyday state of mind.

The outcome is a catalogue, WellBeings™ [PDF link] accompanying a specially printed newspaper, The Messenger, designed to be used with special rose-tinted spectacles – simple, yet very clever:

Feeling brave? Read the paper as usual. Feeling fragile? Put on the rose-tinted spectacles to block out the bad news stories which are printed in the same hue as the lenses so it becomes invisible.

The products in the catalogue cater for people made increasingly paranoid by aspects of modern society, by ‘normalising’ paranoia – ranging from H-ear-Phones which allow you to hear what others are saying about you, to Rear-View Mirror spectacles to allow you to keep an eye on who might be following you. As Chloë puts it:

The whole project is about questioning attitudes – should we live in fear – are we safer that way, or should we live for now and not worry about what could happen.

There are also a couple of products in there which are actually defensive weapons – a pepper spray disguised as a perfume atomiser, and house-key-cum-knuckleduster, and these seem to go beyond mere paranoia. All of these products are very plausible, and indeed, some of them are probably commercially viable. Whilst none of these is an architecture of control as such, I felt that they deserved inclusion here – pertinent to the sousveillance discussion, and also the idea of users turning products against instrusive aspects of society, from relatively simple items such as the Knee Defender (prevent the person in front of you on an aircraft reclining his or her seat) to Limor Fried’s Design Noir work on using electronic devices to create social defence mechanisms.

Equally – while perhaps not the focus of the project – the rose-tinted spectacles idea parallels closely the phenomenon of increasing self-selection of the news we expose ourselves to, as the internet and hundreds of TV channels allow segmentation like never before. The idea of a newspaper bringing readers only ‘good’ news has been tried a number of times (a recent example one-off) and has inspired some interesting pieces, but modern media permits many more coloured filters than simply rose-tinting. Clearly, to a large extent, deliberate use of this segmentation can permit intentional reinforcement, entrenchment, even inspiration of certain views and behaviours. Self-selected exposure to propaganda is a curious phenomenon, but one with enormous power.

What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 2

Office and workshop door plaques

In part 1 of ‘What I’ve learned so far…’ I looked mostly at being a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and the idea of ‘Wexelblat’s scheduling algorithm’ (or the ‘good, fast, cheap: pick two’ theory) as it applies to a young freelancer starting out. There were some very insightful comments which are also well worth reading.

Before starting on Part 2, I feel I should apologise for the relative dearth of posts recently. This seems to be a recurring pattern, although this time it’s actually resulting in some people unsubscribing in Bloglines… The reason is primarily that I’ve had a series of projects which have taken a lot out of me, time-, sanity- and confidence-wise. I can’t really explain too much at this point, but referring to Client Breeds 6, 7, 8 and 11 as explained at the excellent FreelanceSwitch should give some hints! Suffice to say, I hope never to make the same series of mistakes again. A later part of this series will be my own take on the ‘Client Breeds’ idea and managing different clients’ expectations, but for the moment, on with Part 2:

The Portfolio Dip

When you’re at university, college, or working on design in your spare time, the rate at which you add new work to your portfolio can be equal to the rate you do the work. If you do three projects in the final year of your degree, you can add three projects. But when you start doing ‘real’ projects for companies, they’re likely to be confidential, at least until they reach production (if they even go this far), so you can’t show anyone. This applies, of course, to designers working full-time for a company as well as freelancers, but is more importnat for freelancers. (Incidentally, a friend of mine whom I’d classify as an extremely successful freelancer, suggests that only 1 out 10 potential products developed for clients are ever likely to reach mass production, and he makes that clear to the clients as he goes, which is something I’ve been far too reticent about doing.)

Back to the point: the confidentiality requirements mean that – superficially at least – your portfolio starts to look a bit stale (e.g. this). The rate of new work added drops sharply, and this can certainly have an effect on your own confidence quite apart from – we might expect – not being so persuasive to potential clients. (If you’re also, sensibly, weeding out some of the older projects of which you’re not quite so proud – too studenty, too weak – then as well as the size of the portfolio decreasing, the period it covers may also decrease to a narrow focus around, say, the final two years of your degree. And the rate of work added actually goes negative.) Roughly, you might end up with something like this:

The Portfolio Dip

If the most recent stuff you can show them is a student project, or even a speculative competition entry hacked together in your spare time (if any), then they may well treat you like a student or a speculative chancer rather than a professional designer. What they expect to pay you could also be in accordance with this.

Equally, even if the early freelance jobs you take on do reach production quickly, or can be shown without a confidentiality worry, they’re not necessarily going to be especially impressive. For example, I’m grateful for getting the job of making new signage (below) for a local sandwich shop, to the client’s design, but putting this into a portfolio primarily focusing on more technically innovative work may well dilute its appeal to certain prospective clients.

Nibbles signage, Datchet, BucksNibbles signage, Datchet, Bucks

All of the above reinforces something very important. Industrial experience during a degree – ideally a summer internship or an actual sandwich year placement – can be extremely valuable, especially if some of what you worked on has reached production by the time you graduate or start your freelance career. In effect, this work can help ‘plug’ the portfolio gap, with real-life, commercially viable products which may even be familiar to potential clients already. While choosing a sandwich course makes your degree longer – and that year’s wages may be very low – with the right choice of company and some hard work, you may have an asset which makes your portfolio work stand out above others’.