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.
The idiot box is not so idiotic anymore.
Yesterday we watched Amir Khan's Satyamev Jayate first telecast on TV. Hopefully, many more Indians were watching too. Finally, someone woke up and made a meaningful TV series. The weaker-minded folks say they don't' want to spend their day off watching an hour and a half of the real issues of India. Such people are very reason India has so many issues to begin with. If apathy is our worse trait, Satyamev Jayate is a good poke in the right direction. It is hard to imagine someone who is not moved while watching it.
I was expecting a documentary-ish programme, but was pleasantly surprised to see it was actually a talk show hosted by Amir Khan. The last few weeks, when Satyamev was being advertised, I was wondering which issue he will cover in the first episode. After all, there is no shortage of issues in India. And they didn't let me down either. Episode 1 is Daughters are Precious, and it is the issue in India that is crying out for most attention, because it points to a seriously ill social structure. Any society that allows for lakhs of girl children to be aborted, or killed at birth, is a dangerous society. This is a symptom of a larger problem, that essentially, women are still not respected or valued in India. Although people say it is better than it used to be, it is still not what it should be. Ask any woman today, how she feels when stared at on the street, even when 'decently' dressed, or when she is groped in a crowded bus or train, or when she is paid less than a man for the same work. The increasing gang rapes, especially in Gurgaon are testimony to this wretched attitude of India towards its women.
Coming back to the show, Amir Khan shows some alarming facts. Female foeticide has risen significantly from 1981 to 2011. It occurs more in urban areas, even among the so-called educated and well-to-do families. Amir interviews some women who have been through hell, been beaten and abused for bearing a female child, have been forced through multiple abortions, but were brave enough to live through it, fight it, and come and talk about it on the show. You need to see the show to hear their stories.
The show also focuses on the positive. It tells us of change happening for the better, of journalists and activists fighting this issue daily, and of how citizens can hopefully put pressure on courts to dispense justice a little faster. Most importantly, Amir Khan tells us that it is you and me who can be the change, in our own small way. At the very least, knowledge is power, and the more people are made aware through this series, the better it is.
For the first time (I think) someone has used Indian television for a meaningful and powerful message. This medium of the idiot box, as I like to call it, is incredibly powerful, watched by millions, in rural and urban areas, and does not require one to be literate. It can affect positive change if used well, and who better to do that than Amir Khan, one of the very few in Bollywood who actually does sensible things. Instead of the ridiculous maa-bahu-saas serials, the mindless reality shows, and the demeaning and outright racist fairness creams crap, there is actually something sensible, intelligent and enlightening on Indian television. Hats off to Amir Khan. I just wish the ads of the saas-bahu serials would not air in the breaks of Satyamev Jayate. It is a cruel irony, that the source of the very issue being discussed, is being advertised. Also, hopefully, the issue of the music copyright will be sorted out soon.
Satyamev Jayate is a mantra from the ancient Mundaka Upanishad. When India gained Independence in 1947, it was established as the national motto. It means 'truth alone triumphs'. Somewhere, especially in the last ten years, it seems as if India lost all faith in her own motto. While many things have been getting better, many things have been getting worse. We have more malls, digital devices, and foreign cars, our homegrown companies are going global. But our cities are more unsafe, our rivers are horribly polluted, there is a loss of green cover, there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, increasing rape, and unimaginable scams. Maybe Satyamev Jayate will hold a mirror to us all, and enable us to see the not-so-pretty truths there.
After shifting to Pune a few months back, there has been lots of activity, which always comes with moving to a new place. Hence, no time to pay any serious attention to this blog. Blogs are like pets, they usually need constant attention ;-)
I had been trying to write more in detail about the process and experience of designing the NID First Day Cover. The project started in 2008 and finished around a year later. Hence, it required a little more of an effort to recall the entire experience. Just recently, Perch interviewed me electronically on the same topic, and the questions enabled me to give structure to my thoughts.
You can read the interview here.
Just finished proofreading somebody's Diploma (thesis) document. I don't have any right to divulge the topic and the details of it, but part of it was about the development of language, script and how we read letters and words. There is still no really conclusive theory on how language developed. Was it to express emotion, need, signal danger, or for the purpose of trade? Who knows. We don't really know how or why humans started making intelligent sounds and then giving signs to the sounds they made. This was a huge evolutionary leap. Animals too have complex language and communication systems, but human language has developed to an abstract system of signs.
The letter A is just a notion of the sound it represents. The 'A' could well be a square or circle instead of A. At some point in our long and convoluted history somebody decided we needed signs to communicate. And that was the beginning of script. Many scripts developed out of a need to keep accounts for trade purposes. Stringing these signs together in various groups led to the formation of words and sentences. We never really read every letter in a word, we just read the word as a group. Reading is as much about pictures as it is about words, because at the end of the day, words are pictures. When someone asks the spelling of the word, one may actually see the word in their head, and know that if it 'looks' wrong, the spelling is wrong. I know, for instance, the i must come after the e, by the image in my head. If e is before i, my brain recognizes it is visually wrong. It doesn't spell wrongly, it looks wrong. It is easier to know spelling when you visualize it.
The images of letters that we know today have developed over thousands of years. We have accepted them as much as we have accepted the noses on our faces. Language (especially one's mother tongue) seems to be hard-wired in us. There is very little effort required in thinking or talking in one's mother tongue. We all learnt language at such a tender age, we usually cannot recollect anything to do with the process. It probably wasn't very hard, or we would have vivid memories of it. Learning a second language however, usually proves harder. Most people remember struggling, or at least making more efforts with Hindi, Marathi, English, French or any other language that they learned a little later. Between the ages of approximately 2 to 6, the 'language window' in little human brains is wide open, more than it will ever be in life again. Between these years, children can effortlessly pick up 3 or 4 languages being spoken around them.
No one (or very few) will question why A looks the way it does. Why can it not look like X, or a circle? World over, the speakers of a language have a general, unspoken agreement over the form of letters. Adding or removing a letter from a language is like adding or removing a limb. Generations may pass before people realise the loss of a letter, or even a matra. And by then it may be too late to bring it back. Most people may ask, what's the big deal in the loss of a letter, the language is simply evolving. That may be the case, but the loss is still very real. A letter may not have a tangible value, but it carries a wealth of information, symbology, history, culture and identity with it. Adding a letter is also serious business. First, the need for a new letter needs to be strongly felt by most people. How will people know what a new letter means, unless it is told to them repeatedly? Somehow, words are easily dropped from and added to any working language, but letters, not so easily. The loss of languages is a very real threat to culture and diversity world over.
We are illiterate when we look at ancient scripts. The Indus Valley script still has the world flummoxed after thousands of years. Changes in scripts have occurred over millennia, often for very down-to-earth reasons. For instance, Gujarati lost the line on top of the letters that Devnagari has simply because the Gujaratis are predominantly a business and trading community, and the loss of the line enabled them to write faster for maintaining accounts and lists. Similarly, a thousand years from now our alphabet may be completely different.
We form the language we speak, but it also forms us.
I'm really grateful to advertisers and sponsors for letting us get glimpses of movies and programmes on TV between the hours of advertising. Besides being thoroughly entertaining, brainwashing and mind-numbing, ads provide some real insights into mainstream culture. There are some ads on TV that are genuinely good, humourous and make their point. But a good amount of Indian advertising presumes people will believe anything, such as:
1) Indian roads are smooth, wide, empty surrounded by greenery, beautiful and India looks like a first world country.You can race your bike/car on them as much as you like. And super hot girls in mini skirts fill petrol at the petrol pumps.
2) It is really important that you be fair, so every company makes a 'fairness' cream. Nowadays even men need fairness creams, and smoothening face gels, so that they don't feel left in the dark, quite literally. In a country of beautiful, brown complexion, it is now extremely important to look like a super-white cartridge sheet. The 'brightness' option on Photoshop has never been misused to such effect.
3) As soon as you are born, you start ageing, so you must start using an anti-aging cream when you are around ten. Or heaven help you, you will look twenty by the time you are err.. twenty.
4) Your existing mobile phone is never good enough for you, even if you just bought it. Make sure you upgrade asap. Otherwise how will you get all those cool friends?
5) You really haven't arrived till you have a fancy new bathroom, that is probably bigger than your living room.
6) Hair colour is very important, almost as crucial as face colour. But in hair colour, darker is better, and you should really start hiding those grey strands at sixteen.
7) There is really a lot to be said about hair, and yours is not strong enough until you can tie it to the front bumper of a truck, and pull the truck along. To do that, you need to only use a Long and Strong Shampoo, because as we all know, it's so normal to be using your extra long hair to pull automobiles along the road.
8) While on the topic of our crowning glories, there are now enough shampoos. conditioners, detanglers and hair products to keep Rapunzel busy for the rest of her life. There is stuff for long hair, straight hair, curly hair, falling hair, dry hair, sticky hair, thin hair, thick hair, no hair, dandruffy hair, coloured hair, white hair, and split ends, because you're worth it.
Most important, when you don't have a real concept to sell a product or service, or you can't find its distinctive advantage, just make any member of the Indian Cricket Team endorse the thing. This will ensure that half the nation will at least blindly watch the commercial, and not flick channels. They might even purchase that product. If a cricketer is telling you that you need it, then you need it, whether it is a fancy car, cooking oil, or hair conditioner. When in doubt, always fall back on our boys in blue.
Back in the day, ads were created to let you know about the real function or advantage of the product. They were direct, simple and more honest. With increasing production, choice and consumerism, today they have to all compete with numerous others in the market. So now it's more about lifestyle, experience, brand and how important it is just to purchase it. What you already have is never good enough, famous enough, or beautiful enough. We are victims of the Ad Age. You need more, even if you really don't need more. The next time you are watching the idiot box, make sure you don't become the idiot in front of it.
Now I haven't done many sites, but the amount of misconceptions out there are astounding. Here's a few.
1) A site can be done in a day: Yes a few sites can perhaps be done in a day, but don't expect anything great. A website is not a blog.
2) No one reads: This is a classy one, one of the oldest in the book, and is genuinely and tragically believed by several designers too. That's why a lot of content out there sounds like blah blah blah. People can't really get solid information and facts from blue rectangles, moving stars, or purple stripes. Even photographs have their limitations, that's why they come with that little thing called captions. Words matter. And if you think they don't, you may have to eat your words. They aren't even that tasty.
3) Only look and feel matters: The term look and feel is frequently applied to any kind of visual design. This is like applying band-aids to cure jaundice. It just doesn't work. If the design is weak, all the surface cosmetics just won't help. And websites run way deeper than the page you see.
4) Interactive is cool, hep and in: Interactive is a word that should be banned (more on banned words later), along with other terms such as look and feel, cutting-edge, innovation and creative. These words have become as generic as 'nice' and 'good'. These poor words meant something once, in a glorious past, but now their value has dimished, and they are joining the ranks of 'jargon'. Interactive could mean anything. You and me talking is interactive. Interactive site may not equal functional site. ("This site is Awesome! But I've been looking for the Home page since yesterday.")
5) Flash is best: Steve Jobs doesn't use Flash in any Apple products. That says it all. Still looking for more proof? It makes things slow, provides pointless animations, and doesn't really have any function online. Out of 1000 websites using Flash, only one really probably needed it. It also looks like the website was created in 1742. BCE. ("I designed this site when Rameses II was building pyramid 3.")
6) Everyone uses the internet now: That's in a world where 'everyone' is 22 years old, wears Levis and eats at Subway. Thankfully, we don't live there yet. The real world has many forty-plus people who are not completely comfortable with the internet. Many small-town people may not be using it everyday. The worst mistake a designer can make is to assume everyone is just like them. Internet users are like underwear users. They can be anyone, anywhere, and you got to make something that is comfortable for all of them, however diverse they are.
7) Crack the home page and you are done: That's why the web is littered with home pages that are ornate, flashy, 'interactive', non-functional and look nothing like the other pages of the site. Inside pages need to be as functional and friendly as the home page. A home page needs to reflect the rest of the site without charging at you and knocking you flat with 1200 links. Or knocking you down with nothingness.