Happy New Year! 2016 is here, and with it the usual well-meaning resolutions of
‘exercise more’, ‘wake up early’, and so on. Besides these, I’ve realized that I’ve been lazy about blogging for the better part of 2015. My last blog post was in mid-May (pathetic!). It’s quite easy and far too tempting to just forget that one has a blog. Some of the hiccups I’ve faced in maintaining a blog:
So now in 2016, I’m going to hopefully resolve all of the above by writing short (150 words at the most) posts, once a week, on a book I’ve read or am reading. This way, I don’t have to wrack my brains for a topic. Since I love reading, and love encouraging others to read, why not dedicate this blog to just that?
The books we see in Indian bookstores are mainstream. My cousin — a middle-school English teacher in Mumbai — has introduced me to some fantastic literature in the last two years. I’ve suggested these books to other friends, who have absolutely loved them. These books are well known abroad, but are not easily available in India (most of them are on Flipkart, but aren’t cheap as they are foreign editions). We readers felt that it’s a real tragedy that the typical Indian bookshelf has to be so limited.
So here’s to reading new books in the new year!
Today I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. A lovely, moving film, based on a short story by James Thurber. It touches many topics, directly and indirectly. Millions of people spend their lives behind a desk, never striking out on their own, never taking a risk, living lives of soul-crushing anonymity. But that’s not the issue I’m talking about. No ma’am. The movie shows the death the printed version of Life magazine. From Life in paper, it becomes Life dot com. Behind that not-so-smooth transition, many lives (pun unintended) are turned upside down by the heartless, relentless march of technology. It takes many people to make a magazine, or for that matter, any published material. Most people never understand the pain, handwork and joy that go into creating something, especially something that will be printed. Because print has an air of finality. It can’t be coded to make a correction later. There is no option to upload a new file. Written in ink equals written in stone.
Because of print’s highly demanding nature, there are many different people, each a vital performer, involved in the art of printing and publishing. Did you ever guess that there is someone like Walter Mitty, sitting in his dark room of negatives, sifting through hundreds of little images? He knows them like old friends. There is someone who colour corrects, sharpens and touches up every single image you see in any publication worth its ink. There is someone who composes the pages for print on the offset machine. Each of these people are small cogs in the larger machine. Individuals with expert, specialised knowledge. Unless you work directly with them, there is no access to that amazing tradition and well of knowledge. They never get much credit. The magazine always stands between them and the viewer, like a wall.
I’m not bemoaning the rise of digital media, far from it. I love the internet, and all the information, entertainment and cat videos it houses. I’m only wondering if we are losing a entire generation of people, and with them, the knowledge and skill they had, for all time. That knowledge is of no use to us, for sure, but their stories deserve to be told. Walter Mitty tells us one such story. You can see Life online, with more photographs than ever before. But if you hold a Life magazine in your hands, you will see so much more. Behind each image, you can see a quiet person, staring at photographs for hours, checking their quality, so that you gasp wow!, and turn the page.
Two brothers, and their travels and travails as they move across America, are well captured by Patrick DeWitt in The Sisters Brothers, a runner-up for this year's Booker Prize (The Booker Prize finally went to Julian Barnes). These two contrasting characters are on their way to loot and kill, but their experiences change them, build them and burn them.
Told in the first person, by the younger (and relatively milder) brother, The Sisters Brothers is captivating right from the start. The writer's descriptive power builds up vivid images of the wild, wild West. One can see the filth, smell the blood, the bullets, the dust, and come face-to-face with the ugly and wretched characters all integral to the plot. DeWitt uses simple language, nothing complex here, and even the thoughts of people are simple, direct and in-your-face. One experiences the hard, tough life, made easy only by regular alcohol consumption and the occasional woman. The brothers are two hardened killers (especially the elder one), moving from desolate town to desolate town. They have no one in the world they can trust but one another. Despite their constant bickering and contrasting natures, or perhaps because of it, they grow closer over time. Even in the most hardened person, there is still a thread of humanity. The main story is made interesting by little diversions and sub-narratives. One of these involves Tub, the old, faithful horse that carries the younger brother. Tub has a severely infected eye, yet he plods on. Ultimately he meets his end. The brother's attachment to Tub, and his unwillingness to really give up on him, is bound to pull on the reader's heartstrings.
The author launches into 2 or 3 'dream' descriptions, which masquerade as 'Intermissions'. These seem boring and meaningless, as they don't seem to add anything real to the book. Apart from this, there is little to criticize in The Sisters Brothers. The brothers' bizarre adventures give a real picture of an uncivilized place, uncouth people, the Gold Rush, and the desperate greed that accompanied it. But more that the physical things, it is the subtle description of the intangible that is truly gripping. The love-hate relationship shared by the brothers is apparent in their dialogues, which are by turn both nasty and entertaining. One's love and longing for home, and the desire to leave the bad life and be a better person, is strongly contrasted by the other's complete disdain for a civilized and decent life. Unexpected events however, change both of them, and in the end their natures undergo a transformation. Each becomes more like the other. The cold-blooded murderer becomes subdued. The soft-hearted sentimentalist becomes ruthless and calculating, for one last kill.
DeWitt is a master of description, and even with numerous details, he never bores you needlessly. It's not easy to make a reader imagine a place they have never seen, but he pulls it of with ease. His characters are unique and quirky, with twisted minds, but good intentions too. They are, in a word, very human, and fallible. Psychologically, they are extremely interesting. What goes on in the killer's mind? Does he ever regret his life? Does he really think that his killings are justified? Can he ever really escape his past and make a fresh start? How long can a person kill for money? Someone who doesn't squirm while shooting a man clean in the face, has qualms when it comes to killing a horse. Everyone gets attached to something, even if it is an animal.
The quick pace, and descriptions that hold nothing back make this book like a Western movie playing across the pages. Sometimes, I even found myself reading in a Western accent. Blood flies, eyes are gouged out, guns are drawn and chemicals gorily eat away gold prospectors, while the two brothers stick together through it all.
17–19 December 2010
National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India
The last weekend was an interesting and informative one with the 14th conference of Vision Plus being held for the first time in a developing country, and whats more, right on home ground! Yes, it was organised by IIDj (Institute for Information Design Japan) and the NID (National Institute of Design) played host making it a great experience for all. There were numerous speakers from all over the globe and India, and the topics were diverse, ranging from mobile technology, to signage, to interfaces, to medicine packaging, to rural communication. There were eye-opening discussions, and I came away re-thinking the entire role of graphic design, and the growing importance of information design. Too many things around us, in fact the very important things around us are badly or inappropriately designed. It is an irony that we live in world where the Nike logo and packaging will be perfectly designed, but your bank form will be a test of patience and eyesight. Millions are spent on communication that will sell, but too little is invested in communication that will aid.
Overall, some of the things I came away with are:
1) Text is as important as design (yay!). This was something I personally had felt since a long time, since I joined NID. The words that are forming part of your communication, be it online, in a leaflet, or on a strip of Crocin are important. Because people WILL read. They won't get the information they need just from admiring your pretty fonts. Re-writing the text, and re-structuring the text is as important, and in fact the first stage in providing a solution. Good design is not enough when the text itself is confusing or unclear. Of course good design really, really helps in communication, once the text is coherent.
This was reaffirmed time and again in Vision Plus, especially by certain presenters such as Karel van der Waarde and Alex Tyers. Karel can der Waarde showed us how medicine packaging is mostly unreadable, and inaccessible even in Europe (surprise surprise!). Often pamphlets or some kind of literature is handed out with medicines in Europe, and these are hard to read. Even the text itself is confusing. Medicines have numerous complexities and layers such as one can't consume a certain drug if one has one of the ten conditions mentioned. This is often where text appears to repeat itself or get redundant.
2) Intuition is not enough. Too often designers tend to think that they know best, but as designers we have to go out there and understand users time and again. When we think something will work, we are just taking a personal stand point, and are missing out on hundreds of voices and opinions which may provide some enlightening insights. Design is not about personal choice and preference.
3) Research—design balance. A great question put forward by Karel van der Waarde (I think) in the end was how much should we as designers research, where do we draw the line, how do we walk that fine line of research and design? As Professor Ranjan (of NID) summed up, there is evidence-based design and design-based evidence, and they both are on two sides of a river, which needs to be bridged.
4) Design is focussed on what looks good rather that what works. Many people expressed this point, among them Jay Rutherford and Alex Tyers. Jay Rutherford rightly said that a standardly educated graphic designer tends to worry about how it will look rather than how it will work. This is the crux of the problem and the reason we encounter so much lousy design around us today. Most people (including many designers in India) think that if it looks beautiful its enough, even if the user can't read the 9pt type. This fascination with tiny typography actually rules out a huge reader base of forty-plus people, and those with weak eyesight. This can be accepted in a fashion magazine but not on heart medication, or insurance policies.
5) Design as a term is changing meaning daily. Today design may be enabling users to create their own solutions through workshops or other means. It could be helping people create their own tools to improve their life. Design is no longer 'giving' a 'solution'. Problems are being solved in new ways everyday.
6) You can't parachute into another culture to 'give' design solutions and parachute out. Jay Rutherford pointed out that too often Western designers think they can land in developing countries, tell people what to do, and leave. This, according to him, is a bad way of doing things. And I agree. Its not that Western designers cannot help developing countries, but they need to first spend months if not years in understanding the context, as it is so different and varied. An audience member rightly summed it up as 'we have to understand that we don't understand everything about other cultures'.
Mr. Rutherford explained how information design in India is such a complex thing. Take the domain of road signage. Presently they are haphazard, and inconsistent. There is no system in short. We actually need city signage in three languages — Hindi, English and the local language. Now again, which order should they be in, and how large each should be is a matter of debate. Mr. Rutherford had a very keen observation about our Indian airports which set me thinking. He noticed, while in Bangalore airport, that the English signage was much larger than the Hindi and Kannada signage which immediately followed it. He was wondering why this was, and indeed it is strange that our own local languages have secondary importance. Probably we are one of the very few countries in the world to do that. Is it the colonial hangover? Is it because most people who can afford air travel are also predominantly English readers?
7) Culture and context are everything. Lakshmi Murthy and Tarun Deep Girdher showed us how important understanding a local culture is. And how rural India is a different world, of which we urban designers know naught. In rural India, the simplest of devices can work most effectively. I especially loved Lakshmi Murthy's solution for the pregnant women in rural Rajasthan. These women do not eat a proper diet during pregnancy because of many myths and habits. Women often eat last, and they eat left-overs. They sometimes believe things such as the baby needs space to grow, so don't fill that space with food, and so on. After educating the women on the importance of food, she has a simple tool to remind them to eat a well-rounded meal. She shows them an Indian flag, the tricolour. One can lift each colour strip to see the pictures of food below. For example, under the orange band there are all orange foods, under the white all white foods, and under green the green foods. This reminds women if 'have they eaten all the colours today?' This was information design at its best. A simple solution, easy to create, replicate, relate to and understand.
8) Can there be universal icons? Most probably not, precisely because of the above point. We may take some symbols for granted, such as the tick and the cross, which most of the educated world recognizes as right and wrong, or do and don't. Tarun and Lakshmi showed us how, in rural India however, the cross is seen as two bamboo sticks, or a kind of stand used in rural India. The object represented below the 'cross' maybe perceived by a rural audience as being placed on the stand. What's more, the tick mark maybe seen as a hatha-walla lota, a utensil used to serve water in India. So icons are not as powerful as designers like to think. In fact, they can add to confusion. In a very different context, Alex Tyers reaffirmed this same point. Even in Australia, a more homogeneous society, icons can be perceived differently by different people, and so he has not used them in some of his work where communication is effectively achieved through good typography. Users spend more time trying to figure out your icon, or worse, they interpret it wrongly.
9) Typo, typo, typo. Strangely, a lot of designers are averse to typography, and I have heard a lot of industrial designers comment on how it is over-hyped. Actually, one doesn't notice typography unless it's really bad, and then it's mostly too late. Good typography aids design much more than even I imagined. And this point was reflected in many people's presentations. Alex Tyers showed us a lot of work, which used typography effectively for really good communication. He started the presentation with 'You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.' Barack Obama said this regarding something else, but it applies to design as well. Some important points that Tyers brought up were (and I am quoting his presentation here)
a) To use a design effectively, a person must be able to see how to use the information it contains. In other words, the design should aid the user in finding what she/he wants.
b)Think of design as a series of tasks a person must be able to perform rather than layout, typography and aesthetics. This is specially true for graphic designers, as too often we focus strongly on the latter and forget about what the user will need. I experienced exactly this while doing the Parsee book as well. It helps when you think 'What will the user want to do/read first?'
c) The tasks relate to navigation, attention, and reading comprehension.
d) People can visualise how to use information when
— It is all located in one place
— It is structured around tasks
— It is in the order that people would use it
e) This approach must be backed by
— Writing information to support tasks
— Typsetting that provides distinct voices for different people. This is really useful way to think about type. Often I struggled with the 'what font should I use for this?' syndrome. To imagine your text as having a voice is a great tool. What is it doing, giving an order, asking a question, pointing you some place, or providing an answer?
— Editing out any distraction on areas that have a visualizing function (back to the universal icons point)
10) Is the design liberating? And finally, it was Shilpa Das who asked if the design is liberating for disabled people. This is a very valid point, and it can apply to design in general too. Sometimes design hampers us, and what was meant to aid, becomes a hindrance and a source of frustration. She said we have to 'listen to disabled people's voices'. We have to listen to everyone's voices, especially those of the disabled, women, children and the elderly.
All in all, I learnt a lot from the various presenters, and have only noted things most pertinent to the field I work in. Unfortunately I missed part of day one, and was not able to attend each presentation. Have some videos which I will be posting soon.
Information design is crucial, and has new challenges in a culture as diverse as India.
Many thanks and congratulations to Rupesh Vyas, Andreas Schneider and the entire Vision Plus team.