Interactive signage

Public signs which react to their users – providing just the information they need, exactly when they need it – are an appealing idea, especially to interaction designers. And with embedded communication technologies such as radio frequency tagging and wireless, mobile internet connections, the emergence of fully interactive signage becomes eminently possible.

At least, it does in theory. In reality, the cost of building interaction into signs is often thought to outweigh the benefits for organisations or their users. ‘Interactive signage can be very expensive,’ says Ico Design Consultancy creative director Benjamin Tomlinson. ‘The technology is there to create them, but the cost and complexity of rollout quite often directs [a project]. It’s not a case of what’s possible, but a question of initial investment. Will the extra interaction be worth the investment?’

In many commercial situations the answer would be no. But experimental research underway at the Design Museum in London aims to put interactivity and dynamic content into what the museum’s strategic consultant Daniel Charny is calling ‘explorative signage’ – part sign, part interactive wall. ‘It’s part of a process of making the museum’s collections more accessible through signage. Although it works like an interactive kiosk, it will be in the foyer so people will see it as they come in or sit in the café, so it’s signage,’ says Charny.

This explorative signage is pioneering something of a technical first too, marrying traditional screen-printed graphics with special conductive ink technology to create active ‘buttons’ on the surface of the foyer wall. Graphic designer Lea Jagendorf’s visual scheme will be brought to electrical, interactive life under a system designed by interaction consultancy Osmotronic. When users touch the buttons they will trigger media content that will be projected onto the wall.

‘It works on two levels: it’s passive for people looking on, but it’s being controlled by people touching the wall. And while it’s interactive, it doesn’t look digital because it’s a projection rather than screen,’ explains Charny.

The system will first be used to offer visitors access to objects from the Design Museum’s collections that aren’t currently on display in the building. These digital assets include video and photographic material, as well as detailed written information. But the system could function as an information point too.

‘As it’s in the foyer they need it to be flexible, so it can be unobtrusive if other events are taking place. So we’ve designed a minimal grid of buttons, each around 5cm across, “soft-labelled” at any given moment by the projector to show what they do,’ explains Osmotronic director Matthew Falla. ‘When you’re looking at an object, pressing a button might bring up more info about the design, its client, processes or materials and so on.’

At around 4m2, it’s perhaps the scale of the projection that allows it to be considered signage, but what’s especially valuable about this approach to wall space is that the content is dynamic, rather than static. Media can come to the fore or recede, as required by the user or the venue. Along with collections content, the Design Museum wall could also provide visitor information, introductory material for groups about to view an exhibition, or even media for private functions or events.

In a project for Manchester Art Gallery, signage design consultancy Holmes Wood also employed technology to create large-scale, dynamically changing signs suspended in the building’s main atrium. ‘They can be used for daily events and promotion and then used in the evenings for corporate events, with the addition of sound. We designed the software as a bespoke solution, with templates and grids that allow it to be updated and completely managed in-house by the gallery,’ says consultancy director Alexandra Wood.

A similar system was built for auction house Christie’s by Land Design Studio and digital consultancy Clay Interactive. Using high-quality projectors and screens, wall sections at Christie’s King Street showroom in London become embedded, ‘invisible’ media spaces, playing out content on items up for auction, or information about what’s taking place in the venue and so on. According to Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins, using media in this way allows it to become part of the physical space, just as static informational signage does. ‘It’s about how to nurture spaces, how it becomes media as architecture,’ he says.

Although not interactive from a user’s point of view, the Christie’s and Manchester Art Gallery projects show how, as at the Design Museum, dynamic media, architecture and signage can start to become one and the same. ‘The architecture, hardware and software development are all happening together with the client’s content. It’s incredibly important that these are in parallel,’ adds Higgins.

The Design Museum’s interactive signage will trial throughout the summer, after which it may be extended further into the museum and its interactivity thrown open to include content generated by users of the museum’s website. ‘It’s really a first experiment at this stage, but it could be used throughout the museum as a new type of signage exhibit,’ says Charny.

This article was written for Design Week, 8 May 2008.

Profile: Osmotronic

There’s a tussle in the head of Osmotronic founder Matthew Falla between the endless, captivating possibilities of digital technologies and the lure of good old fashioned paper, card and ink. Supplied with an array of electronic gadgetry while studying interaction design at the Royal College of Art, Falla yearned for the craft of traditional printing techniques. But given access to a wealth of screen printing and letterpress facilities on the graphic design course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, he was drawn instead to the technologies of interaction design, a discipline focusing on dynamic human interactions with materials and environments rather than the static layout of graphics on paper. ‘It was typical of me to be attracted to the opposite of what I was doing,’ notes Falla, wryly.

As it transpires, the solution to this dichotomy was simply to marry the two approaches. So, a sheet of printed paper comes alive with interactive qualities, responsive to touch and the movement of a finger. Or a poster bursts into projected animations when its surface is pressed, rendered interactive thanks to the electrical conductive qualities of special screen printed inks. Titled Interaphics, these posters stem from an Osmotronic collaboration with graphic design studio Build and illustrator Danny Sangra and debuted at last year’s London Design Festival. Now, Falla is even in talks with publishers about creating the world’s first fully animated magazine cover, using digital ink technologies.

It was to explore exactly these kinds of possibilities – commercially for clients, as well as through self-generated projects – that Falla approached the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), looking for a grant to set up a business. His bid was successful and about 18 months ago Falla launched Osmotronic as part design consultancy, part vehicle for exploring how interactivity and digital media can be seamlessly embedded into non-digital, physical objects.

An early project called Connect Draw Remix used the conductive qualities of graphite to create a CD case ‘toy’ for mixing music, connected to a computer via USB. By drawing pencil lines on the case’s electronic ink, circuits are opened and closed, telling the software how to play the music. Anything you don’t like can be rubbed out with an eraser and ‘redrawn’. ‘The reaction to this showed me that maybe there was something in interaction with physical formats,’ says Falla. ‘It gave me the confidence to think that maybe I could build a design consultancy around these ideas. So I did some research into the printed electronics industry and approached Nesta. A lot of printed electronics technology is sitting around in R&D departments, but there are not many people looking at potential applications from a design point of view.’

Falla’s first desire was to draw people away from electronic screens and their virtual, digital content and back to the experiences of using physical, tangible objects. But in developing Osmotronic he has begun to take a more balanced approach. ‘I used to see interactivity as a hook to get people away from digital stuff by giving them some fun. But now I can see that people demand connectivity, search-ability and trace-ability all the time and it would be an inconvenience if these digital things were not there,’ he says.

Osmotronic’s current commercial projects, all based around interactivity, include the development of toy concepts for Hasbro and Android 8, signage for a London museum and marketing materials for a large property developer, the details of which Falla is keeping under wraps. He is also in discussions with mobile phone companies to develop Osmotronic’s Mobipak design, a system which again combines electronic printing with cardboard packaging, allowing users to set up their phones simply by touching printed ‘buttons’ on the pack’s surface.

Although a number of Osmotronic projects are concept developments or prototypes, it is not the one-off wow-factor projects that excite Falla, but the idea of ubiquity. And his investigation of reactive surfaces and materials leads inevitably to visions of a future where all manner of surfaces blink, flash and play out video messages, where media is ubiquitous.
‘Ever since Bladerunner I thought the idea of screens everywhere would be great, but when it comes – and it will – it could be a nightmare: shelves in Tesco winking at you constantly. But I’d love to work with flexible printed displays. It would be nice to lead by example, to perhaps influence how things are developed in a mass way. There’s an opportunity to create things that are beautiful or a joy to watch.’

This article was written for Design Week, 3 April 2008.

The joy of prototyping

Human beings are tactile, visual creatures. Given the choice, we’d rather touch and hold physical objects to find out how they work than look at representations of them on a flat screen. Material objects give us information that’s hard to discern in two dimensions, such as scale and finish, or a sense of aesthetics and ergonomics. And in the world of product design a real, tangible manifestation of what’s on the drawing board can be an essential tool to convince the client that their product is developing in the way they want it to.

Working prototypes or models not only allow designers to test and refine their blueprints, but they can also wow and excite clients and consumers ahead of a final launch to market. To whet the appetite in just this way, Nissan Design Europe used UK company Ogle Models and Prototypes to create a Nissan Micra convertible car that would showcase its Colour & Concept designs to the International Motor Show 2007 in Frankfurt. Machine tooling was used to produce bumpers from a model board and prototype headlamps from solid acrylic, while grills were created using selective laser sintering (SLS), an ‘additive’ process of rapid prototyping that builds models from thin layers of powder. The result was the creation, in ten weeks, of a kind of composite car, half fully manufactured frame, half prototype re-trim.

Dyson designers and engineers also use SLS prototypes to assess the form of a final product. The DC24 vacuum cleaner, released this month [March], needed to be smaller than a full sized Dyson, but with the same capabilities. So designers used SLS models to make sure the scaling was right, parts fit together correctly and that the machine was durable.

Colour is another a powerful element in any design and adding colour to a prototype or model can make a huge difference to a client’s perception of how the final design is going to look. Clothing company Timberland uses 3D colour ‘printing’ as part of its rapid prototyping cycle to turn out ‘innumerable iterations and variations [so] the designers and marketing managers can really be sure the product is what Timberland is expecting,’ says Timberland CAD manager for footwear Toby Ringdahl. Reebok’s DMX Shear trainer was also developed using 3D colour printing, achieving a realistic prototype remarkably similar to the finished product.

More technical design and engineering challenges can also be overcome through prototype testing. In creating a first-to-market fully-enclosed ‘petal actuator’ aerosol for cosmetics brand Dove, Seymourpowell had to develop a single working piece which combined a soft-rubber moulding and more solid polypropylene plastic, while also ensuring the aerosol button was easy to use. From a user’s point of view, the resulting button is soft, tactile and sensory, with no visible split lines between the materials. ‘This needed a lot of difficult prototyping to get it to work,’ says Seymourpowell creative director Adrian Caroen.

Another way of exploring how products might look and function is through conceptual visualisation. Although perhaps not strictly prototyping, companies such as Intel and Nokia are using models, animations and CGI (computer-generated imagery) techniques to explore visions of futuristic products emerging from new technologies. Nokia’s ‘organic’ Morph concepts, for example, are visualisations stemming from the company’s ongoing research into nanotechnology. Intel meanwhile has worked with Ideo to explore how mobile technologies might influence and tap into changing lifestyles, presenting the ideas and mock-up products in a series of short videos.

The selection of projects here shows how prototyping is instrumental in exploring, testing and reviewing designers’ ideas. Whether aesthetic, mechanical or conceptual, prototypes are a vital aspect of product design and engineering processes and they demand a wide range of techniques. It’s not unlikely that designers will call on the traditional craftsmanship of skilled model makers one minute, while turning to embrace the dizzying prospects of rapid manufacturing the next.

This article was written for Design Week, 11 April 2008.

Two become one

Any takers for an afternoon out at the local archives? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But replace “archives” with “museum” and it is a different prospect altogether.

For many, the idea of archives is likely to evoke images of dusty books, manuscripts and tomes written in archaic English. Museums, on the other hand, boast comparatively dramatic collections of vehicles, guns, beautiful garments and shrunken heads, to pluck a few at random.

But despite the perception, there is undoubtedly increasing enthusiasm for using archive material and perhaps even piquing the public’s interest in self-generated research.

The British Library has recently acquired the archive of playwright Harold Pinter for £1.1m, including manuscripts, letters, photographs and sound recordings. A temporary exhibition of a small selection of this material opened in January and the complete archive is being catalogued for general access by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the National Trust for Scotland is putting together plans and funding for a £17m Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which will feature an archive of the poet’s manuscripts and artefacts.

Although such celebrity collections may have an innate allure, the general picture of archives as reams of recondite annals is essentially correct; that, of course, is the purpose and nature of record keeping.

Yet letters, scrolls, manuscripts and other documents can be the very point of origin for some of the great stories of history. In a way that no object could ever quite convey, a letter from Charles Darwin to publisher John Murray, written in 1859, represents the seeds of the science of evolution, as Darwin set out in On the Origin of the Species, published by Murray the same year.

And the letter itself provides a wonderful detail – a glimpse of Darwin’s uncertainty about the work. “I have done my best, but whether it will succeed, I cannot say,” he writes.

Such material is a vital part of the story, perfect for building narrative in a Darwin exhibition and supporting the display of relevant museum objects. But at the John Murray Archive in Edinburgh, the National Library of Scotland has gone a step further and made the letters themselves the centrepiece of the exhibition.

Designed by Event Communications, the permanent display taps in to the 150,000-strong archive of material spanning literature, science, politics, travel and exploration.

“The archive is usually not the star of the show [in an exhibition],” says Eithne Owens, interpreter at Event Communications. “It is often just a little illustrative document in a case. But you can turn it around so that the 3-D objects tell the story of the manuscript – so that they support it, rather than the other way around. The manuscript is the thing that changed the world. The original will always hold its own excitement and magic.”

The John Murray Archive was developed with an £18m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), but few other archives are likely to receive such generous investment.

Local authority archive services are non-statutory and “many are underfunded and at risk”, says Justin Cavernelis-Frost, the head of archive policy at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). In any case, a vast quantity of archive material lies outside the public realm, beyond the reach of local authority services.

When Renaissance in the Regions brought central government cash in to revitalise regional museums, there was talk of a similar scheme for archives. An Archives Task Force was established in 2002 and undertook a major analysis of the sector, culminating in a range of recommendations published in 2004 as Listening to the Past, Speaking to the Future.

“The taskforce recommendations are still current, but very little is happening, and I want to breathe some new life back into it,” says René Kinzett, who was recently appointed the head of public affairs at the National Council on Archives, a body that works with the National Archives in Kew (home to government records), the MLA and other relevant organisations to provide a voice for the archives community. “The ultimate aim is to create a central, digital UK gateway for archives, but at the moment, we are nowhere near that.”

One problem is that there has been very little cash, and funding has declined in real terms over the past decade. Between 2001 and 2006, when the central government’s financial support for museums rose, funding for archives via the MLA was about £300,000 a year. In 2007-08, the MLA will invest £250,000 on Action for Archives, a regional and national programme of support and development.

“The MLA has been hampered in the past by a lack of clarity from government about its remit for archives and the need for explicit recognition that archives are an equal, but under-resourced, part of our national heritage,” admits Cavernelis-Frost.

Better engagement with the public about the wealth of archives is high on the wish list. “We have got to look more at the customer experience,” says Kinzett. “Materials should all be online in one place, with source information, so that you can go and see the original. People don’t care where information comes from – museums or archives.”

Much of museums’ own archives are often neglected or laying in storage. Digitisation and the internet are obvious routes to easier and wider access, although scanning documents is time consuming.

There are also more low-tech options to promote content – Owens at Event says the John Murray Archive’s theatrical exhibition is more 19th century than 21st: “More museums and libraries are saying, ‘We have an archive, but what can we do?’ Access is increasingly something you hear people talk about, but two-dimensional material is among the most difficult to display.”

Heather Romaine is archives project manager at the National Motor Museum in Brockenhurst, and also leads the Sharing Skills Archive Project, a programme set up in the south-east to give training to museums professionals on better care and use of their archive material.

Funded by the MLA South East, the project developed last year into the Archives in Museums Subject Specialist Network to deliver the scheme nationally. It demonstrates ways to tap into general audiences with popular subjects such as family or local history, or how to link material to the national curriculum for teachers.

“The major issue for archives is time,” says Romaine. “They get put away and forgotten, even though they can tell you a lot about the objects in your collection, often acquired with the archived information. There needs to be more awareness in museums that their archives can supplement their displays a lot.”

At the British Postal Museum and Archive, the focus is on merging the museum’s object collection with archival material. As an integrated service since the closure of the National Postal Museum 10 years ago, it is one of the only museum and archive collections that is successfully integrated and co-managed, claims Adrian Steel, its acting head of archives.

“The public do not see the divide between the two,” he says. “They don’t care whether something has been curated or archived. But there is usually a big difference in the presentation. An archive has a catalogue which people can search and the item is retrieved, but without any context. In museums, material is selected and given context and interpretation.”

Steel believes that it is beneficial for staff to regard the two collections as part of a single resource internally, even though they are managed using separate professional standards.

“It is very important that each side remembers the other is there,” he adds. “The typical culture is to start with objects, but the archive can bring a lot too. This approach has helped our interpretation across all our media, as well.”

Woodhorn Northumberland Museum and Archives is another example where the two resources are more explicitly brought together. Under a masterplan by Haley Sharpe Design, the site’s £10m HLF-funded project integrated the county archives, local studies collection, colliery museum and historic building complex into a visitor attraction.

The venue picked up a 2007 Design Business Association Design Effectiveness award after more than doubling its visitor targets following the redevelopment. The number of visits to the archives jumped from 207 to 862 a month, with about 4,000 people now registered to use the facility.

“There is probably huge unrealised potential in properly merging the local museum, local archive and local-studies library,” says Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association.

“Even when they are in the same building, they seem to operate separately in the experience they offer visitors. But I think there is a renewed interest in bringing them together.”

This article was written for Museums Journal, March 2008.

What’s in store at Terminal 5?

A retail experience – its design and integration – has been embedded in the long gestation of London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 from the very early stages. A retail designer was always present when architectural concepts were being tested, as was Nick Ziebland, retail strategy director for T5 at BAA, the airport’s owner. The project, claims Ziebland, has not only created a more coherent environment at T5 itself, but will also act as a process blueprint for the further development of Heathrow and BAA’s other airports in the UK.

The importance of retail for BAA is manifest. In the last nine months of 2006, retail income across its UK airports was almost £500m. In the vast, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners-designed T5 building, 22 000m2 of floor space is dedicated to shops, food and drink for its exclusively British Airways passengers.

But, refuting claims that T5 is essentially a giant shopping mall, Ziebland insists that the percentage of retail space is ‘quite small’. An exact figure is hard to pin down, because it depends on which zones of the building you include as the ‘whole’. Nonetheless, Ziebland defends the scheme. ‘Retail has not extended walking distances, there is no bottleneck. There are matrices of flow, but you don’t have to walk past any particular shops,’ he says.

Size matters aside, the retail offer is specifically designed to give passengers something a little special. ‘All the retailers had to make proposals to us with innovations in their concept designs or service. We made this quite explicit. In order to make T5 different, we’re looking for everyone to do something that’s not quite the same as what you’ve seen before,’ explains Ziebland.

As well as encouraging innovation in its tenant brands, BAA has influenced the overall design with strict material quality and environmental standards, says Paul Elms, retail account director at Sheridan & Co, the consultancy which designed Sisley’s retail unit. BAA also maintains control over the public spaces outside the retail units. ‘A lot of work went into framing the bulkhead above the stores, which is up-lit. There are no extending or bus-stop signs because the space curves, with a clear delineation between retail and public space. The shops are on your way, not in your way,’ says Ziebland.

The collaboration between the T5 design team, the architects and BAA Retail marks out T5 as a benchmark for future developments, says BAA design director David Bartlett. ‘There is a common understanding of the passenger journey across arrivals and departures, where people have different practical and emotional needs at different stages. And it’s about integrating the retail at these different stages, as well as with the architecture. We’ve very carefully balanced what’s land-side and air-side,’ he says.

Moving air-side, the space divides into two main internationaldeparture lounge squares, each with its own character. The north square is informed by such adjectives as ‘high energy, upbeat and young’, taking Times Square as a design metaphor. The south square adopts the cues of a hotel lobby, with wood and leather. Each square sits under a ‘theatrical’ lighting scheme that complements its character, says Bartlett. The key retail and food brands are located accordingly, and the two squares are connected by a ‘high street’ of stores.

Bartlett likens the management of the T5 building to the staging of a production at London’s National Theatre, with terminal as theatre, floor plates as stages and the various environments acting as dynamic sets within. ‘T5 is an enabler to start, and sets a benchmark. We’ve reviewed all the retail design guidelines and we’ve done everything we can to integrate retail with the passenger journey, from the beginning to the end,’ he says.

This article was written for Design Week, 27 February 2008.

Less corporate by design

 

When it comes to choosing products and services, there is no denying that, at present, small is good. The days of a special and exclusive consumer trust in megabrands are all but gone, especially in the food and drink sector. We no longer look to the likes of Heinz, Kellogg and Wall’s for aspirational purchases, but to the homespun delights of Mrs Massey’s (for sauces) and Debbie & Andrew’s (for sausages). To avoid shovelling more cash into the coffers of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, shoppers with the time and money may well visit the local farmers’ market for some straight-from-the-field goodness that cuts out the middle corporation.

This trend has been developing for some time, and is part of a host of gradually shifting attitudes toward health, the environment, ethical trading, community and consumerism. We may not be quite ready for ‘no logo’, but perhaps ‘little logo’ will do nicely. It is these small, entrepreneurial brands that have adopted a style and tone of presentation in their marketing that is often both colloquial and premium, friendly and luxurious, and in which packaging design plays a crucial role.

The visual and written languages of brands such as Darling Spuds, Dorset Cereals and Munchy Seeds have been developed by designers who realise that it is the very smallness (or apparent smallness) of the business that is its selling point. ‘When you read our packs, you are talking directly to us’ is effectively what the Elmwood-designed Debbie & Andrew’s packaging says. Compare this with the website of global food business Kerry Group, owner of Wall’s sausages, which on its homepage displays the company’s latest share price.

‘One obvious difference of smaller enterprises is that they are often owner-managed – one person with a single vision – and are not subject to the endless processes and approval systems of bigger companies’, says Martin Grimer, creative director at Blue Marlin Brand Design. ‘As a result, many of them are more creative in their marketing strategies and approach to choosing their media channels and developing executions within them.’

Moreover, smaller companies are able to embed the brand values of their products in their corporate tone of voice, according to Magnus Willis, founding partner of branding consultancy Sparkler. ‘It is a branding process that works inside out. Starting with an analysis and appreciation of a corporate culture and the vision of the owners, rather than an analysis of what the competition is up to, is increasingly the way to go,’ he says.

Nick Gray, managing director of retail marketing agency Live & Breathe, believes that this kind of cultural difference can be particularly beneficial to the design process. ‘The approach of smaller enterprises is different from corporations, and that affects the creative output,’ he says. ‘There is normally a clear vision that is easier to filter through to the end product. It is not design by committee, not the lowest common denominator, so they are more able to take risks.’

Such small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are abundant, and not just in the food and drink sectors. Of the UK’s 4.5m business enterprises, 99% fall into this category, accounting for more than half of the UK’s business turnover of about £2,600bn. Of these, 95% are micro businesses with 20 or fewer employees.

For examples, one need look no further than the husband and wife team behind Munchy Seeds and Salty Dog crisps. Opportunities for design agencies to tap into these small-scale, entrepreneurial businesses are rife. Although the budgets are often small, some agencies are even setting up ‘creative contracts’, which give them a stake in these businesses and, consequently, a vested interest in their success.

In fact, it seems that smaller budgets often lead to more creative packaging solutions. ‘Start-ups and SMEs see how powerful design is, and they are not afraid to use it,’ says Richard Hill, creative director at Lloyd Northover. ‘These business owners have grown up with the ability to do it themselves and see the possibility of self-authorship.’ Jon Davies, managing director of branding and design agency Holmes & Marchant, agrees. ‘SMEs have less to spend on traditional advertising, so they need to invest their limited budget wisely and ensure that all the communication is consistent, impactful, memorable, recognisable and outstanding,’ he says. ‘Packaging is the centrepoint of this, and every aspect of it should play a part in telling the brand’s story of difference.’

The shift of focus toward packaging design is partly due to broader changes in marketing media, claims Jeremy Haines, director of Salty Dog’s design agency Haines McGregor.

‘In the grocery sector, there was a time when brands saw marketing as a measure of how much money they could spend on advertising,’ he says. Now, the packaging is being asked to work harder. Brands, especially smaller ones, have created a greater number of touchpoints around customers’ encounters with the brand.

It is not merely smaller companies using packaging as a primary communications medium, but this shift away from above-the-line advertising puts SMEs on a more level playing field. This is where the flexibility and innovation of a small business can come to the fore.

Start-up enterprise The Filthy Food Company appointed design agency Elmwood to help it develop a range of indulgent desserts. ‘Our original brief to Elmwood was very woolly in terms of what we wanted to achieve, but I wanted to work through the brand creation together, and we looked at a gap in the market to define the brand,’ explains Simon Smith, founder of Filthy Food. ‘As we became more confident about where we were going, it became easier to invest a bit more.’ Packaging for the range, which is now stocked in Sainsbury’s, plays on the idea of illicit indulgence, with phrases such as ‘disgracefully smooth’ and ‘dressed to kill’.

Perhaps more common in the SME food and drink sector are branding and copywriting that emphasise wholesomeness, provenance and personable proprietors. Here, corporate copy style is eschewed in favour of a more personal approach.

‘We take delicious things and add some more delicious things’ chirrups Dorset Cereals’ unbleached cardboard pack, for example. ‘This looks like it comes from the farm gate, not the factory. It alludes to a product that is hand-generated rather than manufactured,’ says Hill. Salty Dog packs, meanwhile,  aim to offer reassurance on the products’ provenance. ‘We make sure all our potatoes are of the highest pedigree,’ they read. ‘They are handcooked in sunflower oil for extra bite, and then seasoned with deliciously feisty flavours.’

This type of friendly tone and design pays dividends for many brands. ‘SME brands have a voice, an openness and an honesty,’ says Davies. The questions remains, however, as to whether it is becoming harder for them to stand out from the crowd in a post-Innocent Drinks world?

‘There can be a scepticism about peeling back the [corporate] layers and all the stuff about history and provenance, but there is still a lot of demand for it,’ adds Haines.  ‘Many people are not yet that cynical, although it may be coming.’

Peggy Connor, head of design at the AAR, is less optimistic. ‘In many cases, there is not much content, just a chatty voice. Someone led and a lot of people followed, and now there is so much of this imagery used that consumers simply cannot trust the language any more.’

Whether shoppers will come to distrust this approach remains to be seen. Designers’ use of such short stories on packaging to engage consumers has certainly brightened up the grocery shelves, but the real test will be whether agencies can continue to produce stories that consumers want to see, read and, ultimately, put into their trolleys.

This article was written for Marketing, 26 February 2008.

Grey aesthetics

Old people are younger than they used to be. It’s oxymoronic of course, but this little aphorism sums up how a generational shift has formed a 50-plus demographic with a much keener sense of design and aspiration than the one before it. Today’s older people are astute, discerning and demanding consumers of products and services, with huge combined purchasing power.

Although it’s not news that populations are ageing and the 50+ have money to spend, domestic appliances manufacturers have been slow, or unwilling, to take older consumers’ needs into account when designing mainstream products. Instead, this group is often tackled separately, if at all, through specialist, targeted products often tightly focused on specific disabilities. To convince manufacturers of the great commercial opportunities of more inclusive design, a symposium at this year’s Domotechnica – the household appliance trade fair – will focus two days of debate on the 50-plus market.

‘We’re not talking about producing products for handicapped or very elderly people specifically, but better design for everybody,’ says Martina Koepp, managing director of the German Society for Gerontological Technology and a speaker at Symposium 50+. ‘Manufacturer interest in inclusive design is rising – and it has to. This is a very interesting group; they’ve consumed their whole life, have high buying power, a high share of real estate and a willingness to invest in the quality of their environment and products.’

As we age our faculties deteriorate. But unlike previous older generations who, recalling a time before the welfare state, were often happy with any help or attention they received, today’s 50-plus consumer is accustomed to great choice and is unlikely to buy products focused on age or ability. ‘Older people don’t want to be targeted or stigmatised; they want to be part of a continuum,’ says Rama Gheerawo, a research fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, home of inclusive design at the Royal College of Art. ‘We design with aspirations in mind as much as disabilities and we talk about a multigenerational approach, especially in the household, where there may be up to four generations.’

HHRC graduates worked with BT to develop a concept telephone that connects the ‘digitally excluded’ (typically older people) to broadband, without a computer. The TwoTone Phone acts as a normal cordless phone on one side and a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone on the other. The VoIP mode has no screen, but six large buttons on which users can write the names of their contacts. These buttons turn orange if the person is online and available and flash if they call. The phone also connects to a television to allow video calls via the TV screen.

‘Mostly, inclusive design ideas come from research rather than commercial projects, but it is becoming of greater interest to commercial parties and is creeping into design briefs slowly, especially from Japan,’ says Mike Woods, creative director at product design consultancy Tangerine and host of an inclusive design workshop at the Nikkei Design Innovation Forum in Japan last year. Andy Davey, founder of TKO Design, also cites Japan: ‘It is at the centre of usability issues due to the substantial ageing population. Olympus, for instance, is always trying to create imaging products such as digital cameras that are less complex.’

But attention also needs to be turned to more quotidian domestic appliances, says Alison Wright, managing director of Easy Living Home, a consultancy specialising in inclusive design for the home. She believes there’s still a long way to go before domestic products start to meet inclusive design principles. ‘Very few manufacturers consider an inclusive design process and very few even realise it’s an ageing market,’ she says. Even those products that do address universal issues often do so coincidentally, as a result of ‘funky’ or aspirational designs, adds Wright.

Zanussi and Siemens, for example, have each developed a fridge in which all the drawers slide out, allowing access to the very back of the shelf. ‘This is useful to everyone, but one wheelchair user was especially delighted because he couldn’t normally bend any lower to see inside,’ says Wright. And a Siemens worktop hob aligns the plates side by side rather than in a square, so users need not lean across steaming pans or bend under an extractor to reach to the back. ‘But even here they’ve missed the final five per cent because the hob controls are low contrast and hard to read,’ observes Wright.

Screen displays are a black spot for many people. Poor contrast, small type and narrow angles of view all blight easy use, especially for those with poor sight. Woods recalls the long-standing joke that nobody can ever successfully programme a video recorder: complex menus, tiny buttons and a requirement to get down on your hands and knees do not make for a user-friendly experience. Tangerine designed the Sky+ set-top box, which saw off all such problems with its one button record. Although a high-tech gadget, Sky+ is easier for everyone, but it’s especially beneficial to older people living alone who are unable to programme a VCR, notes Woods.

‘There’s nothing special about these well-designed products. They’re good for handicapped people, good for children, good for everybody,’ says Koepp.

This article was written for Design Week, 13 February 2008.

A sense of place

Municipal museums of local history are, from childhood memory at least, oddly eclectic places. Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham in the mid-1980s seemed an unfathomable platter of paintings, porcelain and furniture all presided over by an imposing taxidermy lion. Although objects in this strange menagerie appeared, through ten-year-old eyes, to be connected by little other than their bygone nature, was the museum really a random assortment of objects or had I just missed the story?

This recollection perhaps captures some of the challenges peculiar to local museums: how to make coherent and relevant exhibitions from often very disparate stories and objects, potentially collected across huge spans of history. What stories to tell and how to tell them. Given the chance to launch or redevelop a local history museum, curators, designers and local authorities are re-approaching these questions as they attempt to build engaging and locally relevant spaces that are suitable for contemporary audiences.

The Lightbox arts centre and museum opened in Woking earlier this year under a scheme which presents only those stories that are unique to the town. ‘Very early on we knew we didn’t want it to be chronological, but thematic,’ says Lightbox director Marilyn Scott. ‘Basically, not much happened here for a long time, so it didn’t make sense to force the displays to follow a timeline. So we gave the designers, Real Studios, lots of pretty raw material and they had to make sense of it. It was important that we started with these stories so that the content is strong and locally relevant. And it was a way of editing: if the same things happened elsewhere, they’re not in here.’

Like Woking, every town and region has its own peculiarities and narratives. But in their museums it is often the major – and national – historical themes that are represented. Some believe this has led to repetition – the same stories told in the same order, and with similar exhibition designs countrywide. Imagine the timeline winding from early land formation through the historical peaks of Romans, Tudors, Victorians, World War II and so on, where the town is merely a local case study of the broader picture.

‘I think that most local authority museums are driven by their collections, not what’s of interest to the user,’ says Alex Sydney, former deputy head of Libraries, Arts & Heritage at Brent Council – where he worked on the redevelopment of Brent Museum – and now head of Projects & Performance, East Territory at English Heritage. ‘If the Romans happened to be in your town, which they were in many, there will be some archaeological relics so they’re going to be in the museum. The same for the Tudors, and so on. And then you’ve already fixed your stories before you’ve even decided what it is you want to say.’

This highlights a tussle that can develop between curatorial and educational objectives. Galleries are often the result of the curator’s wish to get everything on display, presented with the academic historian’s objective and chronological mapping of events. But does this put the shackles on what can be told? ‘Generally collections are pulled together over years from all sorts of different sources. So you might have a dentist’s chair, a three-piece suite and so on. How on earth do you pull this together into stories? I don’t think you should try to weave narrative around objects that don’t have a story or personality,’ says Alistair McCaw, director of Real Studios.

Graham Black, an interpretation consultant and academic at Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Museum and Heritage Management, also believes that museums can move beyond conventional notions of the collection in order to revitalise displays and audience engagement. ‘It’s not always about collections of 3D objects. There are other ways of telling stories. Museums can bring emotion, but historians are usually attempting to be objective and authoritative,’ he says.

It turns out that Clifton Park Museum underwent its own £3m redevelopment programme a couple of years ago, rethinking the approach to object displays and local relevance. While running this project Steve Blackbourn, principal officer for museums, galleries and heritage at Rotherham Council, also found some divergence between the education team and the curators. ‘We attempted to create “running themes” throughout the displays, but this takes great skill to achieve and requires staff to have a detailed knowledge of their audiences and the ability to think laterally. This isn’t always easy as curators don’t necessarily have the skills or personalities to achieve it,’ he claims.

And it’s the designers who sometimes bridge this space between curator and audience development staff, helping to translate collection material into stories in a 3-dimensional space, adds Blackbourn. But this can bring its own problems. There are a relatively small number of design consultancies able to carry out exhibition design and construction, a combined service often sought by local authorities wanting to control costs and accountability. In many cases, this has led to the same stories being presented by the same sets of designers.

‘I do think local museums rely too much on a narrow range of design ideas – death by graphic panel – and could be more imaginative and creative. We need to try and move away from “book on wall” approaches,’ says Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association. Hedley Swain, head of museum policy at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, agrees that there is a need for more risk-taking designs in the sector. ‘Local authorities tend to go for the big, established design consultancies, where you get a safer output. But maybe we should be going to young or small creative businesses for something more radical,’ he says. ‘At the moment there’s a tension between using lots of similar designs, which can slightly sanitise a space, and the loss of something more unusual. The places we really remember are ones like Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum.’

Perhaps the onus is on museum staff, rather than design consultancies, to ensure that designs are distinctive and relevant. ‘I very strongly think that museum personnel have to do more to establish what kind of visitor experience they want and then lead designers. There’s no doubt that design can become shop-fitting and I don’t think museum people know enough to brief designers,’ says Black. Blackbourn also feels that museum directors need to take more control: ‘If you want something unique to your local area, [as a museum director] you have to lead it – not your curators or designers, or you’ll end up with a house style.’

But a number of people believe that the local history museum sector is changing more broadly anyway, in ways that could well lead to greater individuality. Shaking off their inheritance as Victorian institutions of middle class taste, local museums are being revitalised by the influence of multicultural populations and a focus on collaboration with community groups. When Brent Museum in North London was redeveloped and relocated to Willesden Green Library in 2006, the challenge was to become relevant to a population that has changed dramatically over the past 50 years due to immigration.

The use of personal stories and community contributions are central to Brent Museum’s permanent exhibition, giving around 300 contributors ‘a sense of ownership’ of the museum, according to Sydney. But also significant at Brent is the way it tackles the contentious and disparaging aspects of its recent history. The exhibition’s thematic approach, also designed by Real Studios, demanded some coverage of the borough’s sometime notoriety as a centre of gun crime, for example. The political and curatorial dilemmas stemming from this subject are very much the lot of any local museum wishing to tackle serious community issues.

‘It’s a very sensitive issue and we had to work closely with the council on presenting it. Also, gun crime is about real people, not objects. The objects are only there if they relate to real people. I’m sure this is outside most curators’ comfort zones, but if you’re working in a community you’ll be working with issues not familiar to you. And if local history museums are to evolve and continue to be relevant to people they need to tackle these issues,’ says Sydney.

Both Cardiff and Leeds are currently developing new city museums with design consultancy Redman Design. When Leeds opens next summer, a whole floor will be dedicated to the story of the city. Involving the community in its creation is a major objective, says John Roles, head of museums and galleries for Leeds Council. ‘We are trying to involve local people and not just in a tokenistic way. There is generally much more community involvement now [by local museums]. It represents a change in attitude – less about experts telling you things,’ says Roles.

Ideas about the museum’s role and position in the community are very much on the agenda too. The 2010 General Conference of the International Council of Museums is titled Museums and Harmonious Society. ‘It’s a time when serious money is going into museums of local, regional and national identity,’ says Black. ‘And what’s happening at the local level is potentially the most exciting, as it’s where all the different voices of a community can come together.’

This article was written for Museums Journal, February 2008.

Intelligent buildings

In any traditional model of working life we’re likely to spend up to a third of our waking hours in an office. Yet a British Council for Offices survey this year finds that more than 40 per cent of us are dissatisfied with our workplaces. It’s a problem that can have unwanted effects on any business, from lowered morale or creativity to higher staff turnover and absenteeism. Creating an effective and comfortable working environment is therefore an investment rather than a cost. But with mobile technologies and a shifting work-life balance breaking up the traditional working model in any case, how should we begin to conceive and design the workplace of the future?

Just before Christmas a multidisciplinary team of designers, architects, engineers and universities presented the first results from a forward-looking piece of research into how technology might begin to answer this question. The study, called Building Awareness for Enhanced Workplace Performance, or BOP, received £1m of funding from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board, a £1bn-plus fund to promote technology and innovation in business.

In an attempt to get a better understanding of the conditions of a workplace, BOP uses pervasive computing, where devices are embedded into ordinary activities without users even necessarily knowing they are there. Built into the fabric of the building, these wireless network devices monitor the state of individual rooms, gathering information on temperature, noise, air pressure, humidity, light and even human presence. According to Duncan Wilson, a futurist at engineering firm and BOP partner Arup, there are commercial benefits to be gained from applying pervasive computing technologies to the design of working environments. ‘The wireless sensor network offers the potential to understand which factors affect work performance and how people feel about and interact with the building,’ he says.

Installed at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Arup in London, the sensors provide a continuous reading of environmental conditions, which are then fed back to workers via a live ticker tape designed by interaction consultancy Artificial Tourism. This information is then connected with how people in the office are actually feeling through interactive installations designed by Maoworks. The consultancy developed a number of user feedback devices, including a simple Yes/No floor-mat onto which users step to register their response to workplace-related questions shown on an adjacent screen.

Stuart Jones, a designer and senior research fellow in Interaction Design at CSM, believes that this type of information can help to create better working environments. ‘This kind of tool would support those organisations that do want to change, because it gives you the means to understand what’s going on. Then you can start to change whatever will be beneficial,’ he claims.

Perhaps our offices need this kind of scrutiny. Unlike most other areas of business, a building’s performance is seldom monitored from the user’s point of view, says Wilson. ‘In the sector of building design there’s a huge void between feedback from the consumer and how the product [office] is performing. This is not the case in other industries such as automotive and retail.’

BOP organisers claim the research is the first of its type in the world. Its approach to understanding how spaces function and people relate to them may inform the design of more adaptable workplaces in the future, suitable for mobile workers and fluid roles. According to Frank Duffy, founder of office design consultancy DEGW, this is exactly what’s required. ‘We need buildings that can learn, with the capacity to accommodate change. It is better to do this with interior design than with architecture, which is fixed in a 50-year time scale. We need more choice, more complexity and more diversity,’ he says.

This article was written for Design Week, 3 January 2008.

Balancing tricks

Anyone familiar with the world of typographic design will know that it’s an art form for the obsessive. And the obsession lies, along with the devil, deeply in the detail. Tuning and balancing each element of each character in a set – their ascenders and descenders, shoulders and spines – is not for the faint-hearted. Add to the bargain the likely demand for multiple language support and the task of creating a harmonious set of letterforms is, to the outsider at least, somewhat daunting.

It’s a frustration, then, that despite the sterling efforts of type designers to control every detail of a font set, proliferating publishing platforms still lack a standard system to determine how characters will be displayed on screen. PCs, Macs, web browsers, PDAs, mobile phones – the list goes on – all carry type that publishers need to be reproduced to the highest possible standard of legibility and design. But huge variations in font size, reading environments and users mean that achieving top quality and consistency across platforms can be a challenge. To make matters more complicated, the way that a character’s original outline shape is converted into pixels for display on a screen is determined by software called a rasterizer – and, you guessed it, different systems use different rasterisers.

‘There isn’t a single decent, proper display standard that takes advantage of all the good technologies which are emerging, and the majority of fonts are not designed to be optimum on all platforms. This means that you end up with a narrower set of available fonts at the highest quality,’ explains Bruno Maag, director of type design studio Dalton Maag.

When it comes to displaying fonts on a screen, the art (and difficulties) lie in the process of hinting: a set of instructions from the designer which tell a font how to behave at various sizes. If a system can’t read these instructions, then it might ‘auto-hint’ the letters. But with the devil in the detail, this doesn’t necessarily lead to optimal legibility. ‘Auto-hinting takes care of the worst case of display problems, but for high quality publishing fonts need to be hinted by hand for all the display types they’ll be used on, which can be costly,’ explains Maag.

Research Studios designer Luke Prowse, designer of The Times newspaper’s headline font Times Modern, believes that the degree of control over type is set by the commitment of the client. ‘Specific use requires specific modification of the base brand style. But like anything, it depends on timeframes, cost and how responsible the client is. The Guardian is an example where the type family works across all the paper’s requirements – headlines, body text, race results and so on.’

Towards the end of last year, the picture arguably became even more complicated with the US launch of the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle eBook readers. Using ‘electronic paper’ and a display technology developed by eInk, these handheld screens claim to deliver an experience akin to reading from paper, coupled with the benefits of digital storage. eInk itself is tiny black and white ink particles, charged negatively and positively and embedded in the screen ‘paper’. An electric current then causes black or white particles to rise to the top and display on screen as characters. Although purportedly more pleasant to read, eInk particles still function as pixels, meaning the letterforms are determined by a particular rasterizer.

But with newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal already delivering eBook editions alongside newsprint and online versions, it’s clear that publishers should consider the complexities of porting typography across platforms. And it’s not just publishers: BMW wanted to take its Dalton Maag-designed typeface into the car’s interior screens, but found that the Freetype rasterizer it uses cannot read the hinting instructions without an extra licence from Apple, which has patented certain processes. Complexities and proprietary squabbles abound.

So what to do? Allan Haley, director of words and letters at Monotype Imaging, sounds a final word of caution when it comes to the myriad platforms. Type designers, he says, should focus on the requirements of the typeface, rather than its display process. ‘If you design for a particular technology, the technology will change and your design will have problems in the future. The best thing you can do is create the best design for the [client’s] application and then the technology will make it perform.’

This article was written for Design Week, 7 February 2008.

Museums, writing, design and photography scott(at)scottbillings.co.uk @sbeebee / 07859 825 496