Design principles in practice

Thomas BrownIt’s rare that you see such a perfect example of clarity, simplicity and design principles all coming together to such good effect. I stumbled on this website belonging to photographer Thomas Brown and was blown away by its perfect balance, restrained colour palette, and judicious use of white space.

As well as being simple and beautiful, it sends a very powerful message about his approach and the kind of work that he’s interested in doing.

Don’t be a grammar snob

Grammar policeEvery time I write about language or grammar I worry that people will think that I’m a grammar snob. You know, one of those nasty mean people who delight in pointing other people’s writing errors and mistakes.

I often correct errors in other peoples’ writing, but not because I’m trying to prove a point or to show that I’m somehow superior.

I do it because it’s part of my job and I like to think that I’m being helpful. But am I?

This is a question that troubles me greatly and I know there are times when it doesn’t matter and that I should just restrain myself. My husband is still annoyed about the time that he wrote a poem for me and I corrected the spelling. How awful of me.

People will judge you

I think it does matter when you are writing documents at work because it reduces your credibility if your documents are littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s really just a case of looking as if you don’t care.

I’m fully aware that everyone makes errors when they are rushed or tired. I do it all the time and don’t expect to be humiliated or hauled over the coals for this. I’ve probably made an error somewhere in this post. I usually do…

I try hard never to be cruel or unkind when I’m reviewing documents. Most people are doing their best and want a bit of support, but I also don’t think it’s helpful to let obvious grammatical errors slip by. I figure that if people are asking for help with their writing then they really do want to learn.

I try not to be a grammar snob

I prefer to think of myself as a word nerd – a person who likes words and language in all its forms.

I don’t know that much about grammar actually. I often can’t remember what the parts of speech are called (subject, verb, object, adjective, adverb etc.) although I was pretty pleased with myself this morning when my husband asked me what the word ‘the’ was called and I knew it was a definite article. Actually, I was just guessing, but it turned out I was right. It’s the only definite article in the English language so it’s not that hard to remember.

My mother taught me everything I know

Most of what I know comes from having a mother who insisted that we spoke properly when we were growing up and this has been very helpful over the years. If I’m not sure about something, I just go with my gut feelings and this has been a pretty good policy. Keep in mind that there are also some situations where you can be technically correct according to the rules of grammar, but you will sound like a complete weirdo, so I suggest that you try and stick with the most common usage. Only a grammar snob will pick you up and quite frankly they should find something better to do with their time.

I’d be interested to know if there are aspects of writing that you find particularly challenging?

Discover the wonderful world of podcasts

podcastOver the past year I’ve become an avid podcast listener. As a result, I’ve noticed that conversations with friends frequently revolve around great podcasts we’ve discovered recently. We share notes about new and interesting programs in the same way we talk about good books that we’ve read, or would like to read. It’s all enormously entertaining and endlessly fascinating if you’re the type of person who likes interesting ideas (and since you’re reading this blog, that probably includes you).

Quite often though, one of my friends will tell me that although they’ve heard about podcasts, they either don’t know where to start or what to listen to, so I’ve decided to write a little beginners guide for all of you who fit into this category.

Lets start with what a podcast actually is

Basically, podcasts are like radio programs that you can listen to whenever or wherever you choose. It’s like radio ‘on demand’ but the program choices are much wider. Some podcasts feature people rambling on about stuff that they are interested in, others feature in-depth interviews, discussions, comedy and so on. There’s a strong focus on storytelling in many podcasts.

Podcasts are even more intimate than radio because you choose to listen by subscribing. (We’ll get to how to do this in a moment). Podcasts are cheap to produce, meaning that anyone can make their own radio show. This means that the quality varies, but also means that you can find quirky little shows about pretty much anything you are interested in.

Like good radio, the best podcasts are quite well-produced and easy to listen to. They vary in length from 10 minutes to around an hour, although there are some longer ones. The format makes them ideal for people who walk or commute. I often listen to them at night if I’m having trouble sleeping.

Best of all, podcasts are FREE. They cost nothing to download, except for internet access of course.

How do you listen to a podcast?

Listening is easy. You just need a computer or a smart-phone. Apple devices have a built in podcasting app, which is very convenient.

In researching this post, I came across this wonderful and easy to understand description of how to access a podcast.

How to listen

What should you listen to?

If you use iTunes to find new podcasts, you can easily become overwhelmed. The link I’ve posted above tells you how to subscribe to Serial, a very successful podcast that’s been downloaded more than 5 million times from iTunes, but is actually not my favorite, so I’m not recommending that one.

I would start with this one produced by BBC Radio 4 called In Pod We Trust. Listen to the first episode called Welcome to Podland where Miranda Sawyer talks to podcaster Helen Zaltzman. Helen has a  show about language called The Allusionist. You can find episodes of the Allusionist on iTunes or from the show’s website.

My third recommendation is 99% Invisible which is about the design of every day things. My son recommended this show to me and it’s still one of my favorites.

What about you?

I have quite a few other podcasts that I’d like to share, but I’m interested in discovering what you’ve been listening to?

Have you come across any good ones lately? Please share!

Being concise is hard work

At my workplace we have a new trend which involves conveying entire concepts and strategies on a single page. This has evolved from the various ‘plan on a page’ and infographic documents that have become commonplace over the past couple of years.

The documents vary in quality. Some look good but are essentially meaningless, and some are ugly but give a fantastic overview of a complex project or proposal. When they are both well-designed and easy to understand, magic happens.

Even though I have a tendency to be super-critical about most of these documents, I am truly excited to see that my colleagues are really knuckling down and have a really hard think about what it is that they are trying to say and how they can best convey their ideas. I saw a fantastic example today which explained (in one page) the contents of two and half folders of information. It was an awesome piece of work and a credit to the author.

It reminded me of the joke about being concise which goes…

I could have made this shorter if I’d had more time.

Being concise forces you to clarify your ideas in way that just doesn’t happen when you have the freedom to write a long document. I’m not against long documents per se, but they can often lead to fluffy writing. Short documents impose discipline. You have to get your ideas in order and provide just the right amount of context for the reader.

This can be really hard work, but it’s worth it.

Cole Nussbaumer has this to say about being concise in her latest post.

There might be a lot you want to say about a given topic, but if you can’t condense it crisply and clearly in a way that can be understood and remembered by your audience, you’ve not positioned yourself for success.

I think this is good advice. Check out the complete post.

The long, the tall and the short

I’ve noticed that lots of people have become mysteriously taller and thinner in the documents and presentations I’ve been reading or reviewing at work lately. Either that, or they’ve become shorter and fatter, and who needs that?

English: John Wayne and Audrey Long in Tall in...
English: John Wayne and Audrey Long in Tall in the Saddle Trailer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whilst I applaud the use of images in newsletters and presentations there is really only a few people who are that tall, or indeed, that short. John Wayne (6’4″) and Danny de Vito (5′ 0”) spring to mind. The rest of the time people are unwittingly distorting images, including graphics, because they don’t know how to constrain the proportions.

It’s really easy to keep your images looking good

In MS Word and in emails, you simply adjust the size of the image from the corners (not the sides). In PowerPoint, adjust from the corners while holding down the SHIFT key and you’ll be right. If your image doesn’t quite fit, try cropping it, rather than squishing or stretching it.

Why does this matter? Because distorted images, like spelling errors, distract people from your message. It also looks unprofessional.

 

What are friends for?

emily gould
Emily Gould at the Brooklyn book festival

 

In a previous post I mentioned a book by Emily Gould that I was planning to read called Friendship, so I thought I’d report back and say that I did read this book and it was quite different to what I expected, but very enjoyable.

Written for a target audience of thirty-somethings, it explores the friendship between two women who are caught up in their own lives and in trying to make their way in the world. They are trying to work out what they really want and what they really stand for. Ultimately it’s about the choices we all make and how much we truly value our friendships.

It’s both funny and sad in places, and it made me think a lot about my friends and whether or not I’ve been a good friend. I’m sure that I’ve probably failed on a few occasions, but the lovely thing about real friends is that forgive you when you fail and they accept you for who you are.

My friends are incredibly important to me, so if any of you are reading this blog, this message is for you. Thanks for being part of my life.

I’m not sure how this post fits with the general theme of this blog, but they say that if you want to improve your writing, you should read well-written books and this book certainly fits into that category. It’s a nice read.

Something’s coming between us

I’m becoming more and more of a podcast fan. One of my current favourites is Note to Self. It explores the impact of technology on our lives and how we can make smart choices about technology.

This morning on my walk to work I listened to an interview with Sherry Turkle, a sociologist, educator and psychologist, who has just written a book called Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age 

This is not a negative book, but it does ask some interesting questions about how technology, and smart phones especially, are impacting on our relationships.

One interesting fact is that when two people are having a conversation and there is a phone on the table in between them it will impact on the level of empathy between the two people, even if it’s switched to silent. Turkle says that this is the case even if the phone is in the periphery of your vision. The phone is a visual reminder that someone is not fully focused on you and what you are saying. It’s competing for the owners attention, even when it’s not ringing.

I noticed this yesterday when some lovely friends were visiting. One person’s phone vibrated very quietly and very frequently the whole time she was there and although she never once looked at it, I felt it was demanding her attention in a seductive and insistent way. I really wanted to take it off the table and pop it in her handbag, but I felt that my response was a bit childish or maybe old fashioned. Now I know that my reaction was completely normal which makes me feel better.

I’m as bad as the next person with checking my phone, but to be honest I have all of my notifications turned off so it’s not always seeking my attention. I just don’t think I’d get any work done if my phone was pinging all day. I don’t think I’m strong enough to resist peeking, so for me it’s better to have the notifications turned off.

I have two questions for you..

Firstly, do you ever put your phone away – completely out of sight and out of mind? Or is your phone always on and usually within reach

Secondly, do you have any great podcasts that you’d like to share?

Let me know, I’d love to hear what you think.

 

 

Learn new skills for next to nothing

English: Writer Emily Gould at the 2009 Brookl...
English: Writer Emily Gould at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many places to find inspiration and learn new things that are either free or very inexpensive. If you are interested in digital design, writing, illustration or crafty things, you can sign up for a three month trial at Skillshare for about $2. If you decide that you like it and can afford it, you can sign up for a monthly fee of about $10 US which seems pretty reasonable to me. You get unlimited access to all the courses for the monthly fee so if you have lots of time (which I don’t) you could entertain yourself and learn heaps for a relatively small amount of money. A pretty good deal I think. If only I had more spare time!

Because I’m interested in writing, I’ve enrolled in course about writing personal essays that I’m really enjoying. The classes consist of a series of short videos which are nicely presented and not too didactic. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m back at school. The course leader is Emily Gould and she just sort of chats about different ways to approach writing personal essays, but she also gives some good concrete examples which is helpful. She’s pretty famous apparently but I haven’t been able to track down a copy of her book of personal essays in my local library as yet. I know that I’m a cheapskate, but they do have a copy of her latest book on order which is called Friendship, so I’m looking forward to reading that when it comes in. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve finished it. Apart from discussing her own approach, she also recommends other writers and in particular another essay called ‘the last photograph of cat‘ which I have every intention of reading, except that it sounds incredibly sad. I’ve got that one on hold for now but I’m hoping to be brave enough to read it soon. Perhaps you could read it for me and let me know what you think? In the meantime I had better start writing my own personal essay and stop putting it off.

 

Never stop learning

cropped-shutterstock_463036362.jpgWhen I started this blog many years ago my focus was on explaining the principles of design in plain English. I had just enrolled in a graphic design degree and I was really at the start of my learning journey in relation to design. I didn’t actually finish that degree, but it didn’t matter as I wasn’t planning to be a graphic designer and I already have quite a few degrees, so it wasn’t as if I needed another qualification.

My motivation was that I was developing presentations and I felt that my design skills were lacking. The subjects I completed were pretty good and helped me to understand all of the basic principles of design. It all fed my ongoing interest in clarity and communication. I still feel a bit bad about ditching the course, but on the bright side I’ve never for one moment stopped learning. In my view there’s nothing better than learning new things. Continue reading “Never stop learning”