Just Browsing

Like most of us I’m spending a lot more time at home right now and my thoughts keep turning to my ‘ideal home’ – and like many others I have spent many hours on the web, browsing endless retail sites, falling in love with everything that I cannot afford and cursing at not being able to find what I want. Trying to navigate through frustrating websites developed by teams of crack UX/UI unicorns led by some creative ninja with a waxed moustache and a skateboard.

When did browsing stop being browsing? The original meaning; to survey goods for sale in a leisurely and casual way – like many terms, has been misappropriated by web jargon and is now part of a complex system of algorithms and and suggestive prompts designed to engage you in a controlled series of stages in order to influence your choices and encourage you to spend more.

People who looked at this also looked at this

Is this really a valid suggestion? Has anyone actually gone down that rabbit hole just find that the other thing that other people who looked at something, was also looked at by others who looked at something else. Does anyone care what others have looked at? Does this have any measurable effect upon the process? My guess is that it doesn’t, especially when you are looking at say, a replacement laundry basket, to be informed that the others who looked at the very same laundry basket also looked at a novelty plastic Groucho Marx glasses/nose/moustache kit. Hmm, might just come in handy.

This actually happened people. So  I thought, if Amazon’s finely tuned algorithms and bots think that this may be of interest, who am I to argue. I clicked on it and scrolled down beyond the listing.

Customers who bought this item also bought this

A rainbow flag and a pack of 10 melamine cleaning sponges. Wasn’t expecting that if I’m honest. Can’t imagine what this has to do with anything. Does anyone expect this to have any effect? Sure, wearing a Groucho Marx disguise may help to relieve the tedium of doing the laundry, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to start cleaning all the melamine surfaces as well, pride or no pride.

Thoroughly peeved by this point I decided not to buy either the laundry basket, Groucho disguise, Gay Pride flag or the melamine sponges and switched off.

A while later I happened to notice an old Habitat catalogue on my shelves and thought “that’s what browsing used to be”. Ok, it was a 1975 catalogue, so this wasn’t going to result in any purchasing, but I thought it might provide a little distraction.

What first struck me was the room sets, which were all really cool in that mid 70’s way, and filled with delightful details and occasionally, people! Now this doesn’t sound that strange but now that it is common knowledge that the entire IKEA catalogue is generated digitally and the old system of set building, staging and photographing inspirational spaces seems like a quaint folly of some dim and distant past. Ikea still include people occasionally, but again, these are edited in and made racially or culturally relevant for different international markets. Many have done away with people completely. No actual products, no actual rooms, no actual people. Just pixels.

Habitat in 1975 was somewhere else entirely. The first room set was intended to show of some snazzy modular shelving units, but I was transported back to an era when a man would come home from work and relax with his dog and a pipeful of ‘Dunwoody’s Old Shag’ in a brown tweed suit, in a room that is the epitome of brownness. I can even smell it: the tobacco, the dog, the spicy notes of Brute 33 and Brylcreem, with overcooked Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie balancing out the pervading odour of Shake’n’Vac!

It goes on with funky city apartments with spine-bending seating, moulded plastic occasional tables and the most monumental ashtray I’ve seen in years. But the details begin to draw you in. These are not products for sale in many cases, just props – and even empty spaces! I haven’t checked this out, but I am pretty certain that to CGI Ikea shelves, mantels and cubby holes are all opportunities for carefully composed products. No Disclaimers either – *for display purposes only. Dog not included. Of course not; this was 1975 and back then we didn’t expect to get the dog and all the stuff on the shelves when we bought something featured in a photo.

The product specs and colour ranges are shown as line drawings with solid fills too, which by modern standards of online retail seems to be a rather naive and hopeful way of spending quite a significant sum – £100 for a two seat sofa equates to about £800 these days.

This got me reminiscing about my formative years as a graphic designer, producing product catalogues and price lists for tools and car parts, hunched over a 45° drawing board with a set of Rotring Isograph pens and a set of french curves, making complex things look simple using only two line widths (0.35 & 0.7mm of course), creating exploded diagrams and cutaways. Then cutting Rubylith overlays for the block colours or halftone areas using a 10A scalpel blade. Every drawing kept scrupulously clean, covered with paper overlays. Yes, computer software has rendered all this obsolete, yet the nostalgia is still strong. You had to be able to do different stuff back then. No ctrl-z, just start again and get it right next time. Those who experienced this will know.

Back to the catalogue, the home office section gets to push more nostalgia buttons. I spent a great deal of time in that position in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I can still smell the Spray-mount and Cow Gum, along with the slightly pissy aroma of ageing PMT developing fluid. I am smiling as I type this and thinking that I am now officially one of those old duffers who endlessly go on about ‘the good old days’, nodding sagely while uttering ‘good times’ to anyone who might listen. Oh dear.

But look at the wonderful contents page. A lot of information clearly presented and not visually unpleasant either. UI, innit? And this is what browsing should be; here’s our stuff – have a look round. And if I hadn’t ‘just looked around’ I wouldn’t have set my heart upon this little gem – I can’t believe I’ve even reached this age without owning a pot that was specifically intended purely for dripping. You won’t find that on Amazon – I’ve tried.

Ever heard the saying ‘the family that cooks together, stays together’? Well in Habitatland ’75 they didn’t say that. I don’t know what they said, but I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t that…

The Freelance Challenge

To be read in the hushed and reverential style of a David Attenborough documentary:

It is late in the year and the threat of frost is almost upon us, but now is the season for freelance designers, fresh and seasoned alike, to preen their feathers and perform the complex and often confusing rituals of courtship that is the annual search for new partners for the forthcoming creative season.

Over the years, freelancers have altered their techniques to attract the right sort of partner, and shown great initiative in adopting and deploying new methods and technologies, whilst the object of their attention have become ever more discerning in their tastes and preferences.

For instance, 20 years ago, most freelancers were scuttling from agency to agency, carefully carting enormous black portfolios, that when opened, would shine with brilliant visual displays, carefully crafted typography and exquisite window mounting, all in the hope of attracting the attention of that most fastidious of creatures; the lesser spotted Creative Director.

The reality was that many freelancers needed to spend longer periods of time carrying these heavy loads, that many became noticeably lopsided, which became a physical identifier for the freelancer and in some circles, a badge of honour.

This was so widespread during the last half of the twentieth century that the idiom ‘as wonky as a freelancer’ came into use, but has thankfully dropped from the lexicon as time progressed.

Alas, the proportion of freelancers to creative directors was always grossly unbalanced, forcing them to become ever more creative, daring and ingenious in their approach to impressing a suitable partner.

As digital technology made actual physical portfolios obsolete, it was obvious that many freelancers would perish, but those who survived did so with the aid of the Compact Disc. Shiny, small and iridescent, the CD could show much, much more of the freelancers courtship display: where the physical portfolio with 10-15 sleeves could only just be manhandled by the average freelancer, CD’s could hold hundreds. Everything that could be included was crammed in and presented in a neat, tidy plastic box. And they could be carried around in multiples, lodged at the reception desks of agencies, hoping to be noticed in the ever growing piles of CD’s that were beginning pile up like a beaver’s dam, slowing down the flow and building up pressure.

The evolutionary process, unable to sustain the buildup in the freelance market, reacted with a spectacular dam-break, forcing millions of CD portfolios out into the deltas of obscurity, because creative directors were now interested in portfolio websites and the process began once again.

With ever increasing technological wizardry, these websites soon became overproduced and bloated with animations, movies and music too. The real things that originally attracted creative directors – ideas, intuition, concepts – became lost in a murky digital sea, full of style, technique and coding. The creative directors, themselves bloated but undernourished by the over development of technology and the lack of organic, free-range typography soon began to evolve.

Creative directors began to demand a small PDF, with just one or two quality morsels. Their tastes had matured and they now craved smaller, more rarified and exotic portions, exquisitely presented in a format that could be easily stored on file to be quickly digested later.

Once more, freelancers responded as if in a symbiotic relationship evolving in perfect tempo, and PDF’s were attached to the emails of more creative directors than ever before. But just as millions of PDF attachments were being flung around the mailboxes of creative directors all over the world, many remained hungry, their carefully composed PDF’s featuring just the very best morsels of their portfolio never reaching their intended audience, but automatically filtered and stored in a special pouch known as ‘the file,’ where many PDF’s went in but few came out again.

The freelancers annual ritual will continue, but the creative directors, in their remoteness, will continue to devise new and more frustrating methods to thwart them. The circle of life.

…Cue music. Roll end credits.

Ok, so I got a bit dramatic just then, but I thought that this was a good way to illustrate the situation many freelancers are in; they need to make direct contact with creative directors – after all, it’s people who get hired, not their portfolios, so that initial contact is vital in order to make an impression.

It’s getting harder to speak to creative directors. They are protected behind a number of firewalls, starting with the portfolio email to an anonymous email account. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find out who works where and get their email address, but even if you send a personal email directly to them you are not guaranteed of a response.

I recently made a number of small printed portfolios, all personalised to specific people and agencies. These were carefully handbound and packaged to provide something physical and show some good old-school non-digital skills, and mailed out through the old snail mail service. Not one single person responded, even with a standard ‘thanks but we’ll keep you on file’ email. Firewall 1

I followed up a few days later with an email to each one, reminding them of my postal portfolio and asked for a good time for me to call for a quick chat. Again, nothing. Firewall 2

The following week I called each one. Here are some of the more common scenarios that played out.

It generally begins like this…

Me: “Hello, could I speak to (creative director?)”
Receptionist: “Who shall I say is calling?”
Me: I give my name and explain that I am a prospective freelancer following up on earlier communications with (creative director).
Receptionist: “One moment please”


and then this type of thing begins:

Receptionist: “Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m afraid (creative director) is unavailable/in a meeting/not at his desk/is out of the office right now (etc).
Me: “That’s ok; could you tell me when would be a good time to call back?”


Receptionist: “If this is about freelance work you need to send an email with a portfolio attached.”
Me: “I have already sent (creative director) a physical portfolio in the mail and I’m just giving them a call to make actual contact with them. Is there a good time I could call back and speak with them?”


Receptionist: “You could email them directly. Do you have their email address?”
Me: “I have already emailed them. I understand that they are very busy, but is there a good time I could call back and speak with them?”

You get the idea. Firewall 3

I didn’t manage to get any further than the receptionist. Every. Single. Time.

Not one of them offered any other times to call, or gave me even an impression that someone may get back in touch. All but one reiterated the ‘send an email with an portfolio to this address’ line. I was even told by one that if they (creative director) hadn’t responded to an actual portfolio or the email communication already that I should accept that as a response. Nice.

It’s always been tricky getting a foot in the door as a freelancer. I accept that. It gets trickier when you can’t find the door. Can’t there be a better way than this?


Exhibition Preparation

With the ‘Flatlands’ exhibition opening on Saturday, its been all hands to the pumps, planning, prepping and hanging at Greyfiars Artspace this week, with a little more to do tomorrow. The vinyl lettering for the window was installed yesterday and looking good against the reflection of the Greyfriars Tower.

There has been much measuring, levelling, considering and squinting through half closed eyes going on in order to get everything just right, all accompanied by Nick’s amazing silent whistling – honestly!

Getting everything measured out, level and marked up really brought out my OCD!

While elsewhere, things were a little less organised!

And finally, in a blast from the past, I actually put some old Letraset to use! Ah the memories…

Our opening event is tomorrow between 4 and 6pm – pop along if you can make it!

On reading books

For the first few years of blogging I posted up a monthly list of the books I had read and a playlist of music that had formed the soundtrack to each month, but eventually stopped. To some, that would indicate that I have given up reading and adopted a more monkish silent order, but nothing could be further from the truth. I continue to read (and reread) a wide variety of real, physical books – no ebooks for me – I spend enough time staring at a screen as it is!  So books are a welcome, tactile object that are comforting and easier on my eye (alas, my reading glasses are much stronger than they used to be!)

I have noticed that I am talking about reading more often these days. Not just the act of reading – emails, twitter and facebook feeds etc, or even online articles which are usually kept deliberately short, or even mainstream magazines which all seem to be lists, pull-quotes and advertising these days, like we are incapable of engaging with anything that would require us to stop and concentrate for a while, or challenge us, surprise us or amaze us.

Some of the books I read have not been ‘easy readers’ and have had me frequently reaching for the iPad to google something or use the dictionary (which my children find very amusing because of it’s quaintness). For many, this is too much like hard work and is, I suspect, the primary reason for the popularity of Dan Brown and others of his ilk. Still, it’s better to read any book than not read at all. But me, I like a challenge.

I enjoy expanding my general knowledge and learning new stuff. I like to be taken away by a story and engage with their characters, their emotions and experiences, to walk their streets and fight their fights. I have been transported around the world (and sometimes far from it) and travelled through time, from the stone age to several millenniums beyond now. Some books were so good I didn’t want to leave and have since re read many times to return to what have now become familiar places and am able to notice new things within the story, a bit like someone who takes their holidays in the same place every year and who enjoys the familiarity, but instantly notices what has changed since the last visit.

A good story should leave us with something. Even if it is the frustration of having finished it and can’t start reading a new one because you are still mentally or emotionally connected to it. I’m sure the germans have a good word for that.

The books themselves and the stories they contain are only the physical part of the experience. It is how we as individuals engage with them that increases their value. It is a little like alchemy; the books themselves are the raw materials, the letters printed on each page their DNA, and we are the cauldron in which these base elements are combined. It is our imaginations that have the capacity to transmute them from the language of the author and create the ‘gold’ that is the experience of a good book.

Warning: this next sections sounds like I’m a whining old fart.

So why is it that ever fewer people read books these days? Especially young people – there, I’ve said it! This is not a tirade on the young, just a lament on the decline of reading for pleasure. Its not surprising though, as there are so many other distractions competing for attention, especially the smartphone and all its technical wizardry.

The problem I see with this is that whilst the smartphone offers a myriad of opportunities to occupy your time, much of what is found there is reduced to bullet points, lists and memes, liberally interspersed with pictures of cute kittens of course, as well as everyones own opinion, whether you like it or not. We have almost unlimited access to the worlds knowledge at our fingertips. Learning, literature, music, film, bullshit – all available.

And herein lies the problem; with all this information easily available almost anywhere, for many people there is little use for retaining any of it, and this worries me quite a lot. With reading – not just skim reading, but reading books – any books, factual or fiction – requires the reader to engage with the information they read and allows opportunities for broader perspectives, comparative responses and intellectual stimulus. It can develop our own emotional and intellectual viewpoints, question our convictions or confuse us on previously held understandings.

This allows us to actually own the stuff we read. The more we read, the more connections we make, whether we recognise it or not. I have had the pleasure of experiencing that wonderful moment when reading, that something else read previously made more sense, or even joined up several unrelated threads gained over many years that suddenly throws the switch on a eureka moment on a particular subject. Thats a great feeling. I’m sure the germans have a good word for that too.

So what may become of us after several generations where list-reading, meme liking, gossip flinging and first page googling are the norm? I’m not certain, but I’m sure it has already begun and the zombie apocalypse is already upon us. But instead of ravaged corpses shuffling around with arms outstretch murmuring “brains, delicious brains”, I’m already seeing once ordinary people shuffling around staring at their palms murmuring “memes, more memes” and ‘just one more kitten Gif and I’ll stop”.

And on that note, I will switch off and go finish my book.

PS. If anyone is interested, I’m re-reading José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ – a brilliant story by one of the worlds very best writers. He’s not an easy read, but well worth the effort…

PPS. I’m also listening to Black Slipper on a daily basis…

A Lesson Learned

This website was very recently hacked. At least it makes a change from international banks, government departments and national security weapons systems. I’m still struggling to comprehend why anyone would bother with my little corner of the interweb, I mean, there’s nothing of value to steal here. I could think of more productive and interesting places to hack.

No real damage was done. No nasty malware or spyware, destructive viruses or trojan horses. Nope. Just one blog post deleted and replaced with a message. Instead of my post on radiogram dial graphics, I now had:

Well! After a brief moment of mild panic, I quickly searched online for this white hat hacker and learned something new. My mysterious white hat hacker (who I shall refer to as WHH from now on) is not a dangerous lone maverick, out to wreak mild panic on unsuspecting freelance designers across the globe, but a collective term that has been adopted to describe a particular group of hackers. This nomenclature is directly lifted from the old movie westerns, where the good guys always wore white hats and the bad guys, well, you’ve probably worked it out now.

Wikipedia (the only only reference that can be used in these matters) describes these people as ‘ethical hackers’ – my favourite oxymoron of 2017 so far. So who are they? By day, they are hard working, mild mannered computer security experts, but by night are mysterious interweb ghosts, skulking around the back entrances to our websites, looking for vulnerable points of entry, so that they can gain access to your, well, whatever it is you have there. They even have logos! (no – don’t go looking for them – it will only encourage them!)

They don’t do anything with it though. They just leave you a message telling you that your security can be comprised by a professional hacker and that you ought to do something about it. Please update your security.

Whilst I am genuinely relieved that my WHH didn’t load me up with an apocalyptic virus or redirected my domain to a Thai ladyboy agency (or any other you may think of!), I was left with a weird feeling of having been mildly violated, like someone taking a sip of coffee from my cup, or reading my book over my shoulder. Nothing dramatic you understand, just a general unease that still continues.

Ethical hacking. Gaining unauthorised access in order to demonstrate how easy it is for a professional hacker to gain access. Please update your security. “Don’t thank me Ma’am, I’m just doing my job.” Really?

This would be considered ethical if I had contacted an online security specialist and booked someone to test out my security. This is a valuable service that should be supported and applauded. By its very nature, hacking is not ethical. Neither is smashing someones front door down to show them how easy it would be for a professional housebreaker to gain entry. Please update your security.

Now I’ve updated WordPress and added more security measures I feel like I ought to say thank you to my WHH but I don’t think I can. I didn’t ask for this, and I don’t think that the blog of a freelance graphic designer is high on the target list of the Black Hat hackers – I’m sure they have far better places to hack and can cause much more mayhem elsewhere to be bothered about me. I would not be at all surprised if I get hacked again – after all, professional hackers will always get through eventually. If multinational banks and governments can get hacked – and they are with alarming regularity – I doubt that there are any (affordable) domestic or commercial packages out there that will protect individuals any better.

This whole black hat/white hat thing is just a little bit pathetic. Like a lot of other things that have emerged from the internet, names are always adopted that are far more ‘sexy’ than the realities they represent; surfing, ripping and burning are only names for looking, extracting and writing after all. If you refer to yourself as a white hat hacker, this does not make you into a chisel jawed hero fighting on the side of the little guy. You are just a hacker and your motives are irrelevant, whichever colour hat you wish to identify with.

Has anyone else experienced this? Or worse? Feel free to share you experiences…


Oh hello – I’m Christopher Skinner. You may remember me from films such as “I was a Teenage Graphic Designer”, “Honey, I Shrunk the Logo” and “Four Fonts and a Drop Shadow” but more likely you know me from my original blog www.lestaret.wordpress.com! (this opening line really only works if read out loud in the style of Troy McLure from The Simpsons)

Well, if one thing is for sure, 2017 will bring about a whole bunch of changes, and that goes the same for my blogging habits. Firstly, as you have probably gathered by now, I’m retiring the .wordpress blog – only retiring though – I’m leaving everything where it is for posterity and restarting over here, and with every intention to get back blogging regularly. So gird up your loins, update your favourites and prepare yourself for much of the same!

Happy New Year!