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…

Ex Libris

I rediscovered a book in my collection that got me thinking and thought I’d share it here. I think it is an elegant example of celebrating a niche area of graphic design that has largely disappeared – bookplates. Little personalised labels that are pasted into books to identify the person, collection or library the whom the book belongs. It seems a little quaint these days, but these originated in a time when many people regarded books as precious things, and felt the need to add their distinct personal mark so that books borrowed are returned.

I love the fact that this book has its own bookplate!

Many designers, typographers and artists were commissioned to produce bookplates, including Reynolds Stone, Eric Gill, MC Escher, George Cruikshank, and even Rudyard Kipling, many of which are highly sought after by collectors.

Its a lovely book that is at odds within the world it now exists, as it looks at the history and craft of this once common but now peculiar subject of personalising book ownership. After all, we often do not really own what we buy these days, but tend to buy, rent, license, hire, subscribe, etc, and our rights to ownership end when the payments stop or the license expires. Or what we have bought is just data, an app or other digital concoction that has no actual form excepting the vehicle that it installed upon.

This is not a post claiming that “it was better in the old days” or anything like that. I’m an enthusiastic technology user and am still in awe at some of the things we consider standard today. Bring it on. What I am thinking about though is that in our digital age, as design has become increasingly intangible, what evidence will remain of our current digital design culture? This book is not just a record of an almost (but not completely) lost area of design, but an account of how bookplates were considered, collected and categorised in the first half of the 20th century.

So how will the designers of 2119 know about all the great digital work in the first part of this century? What evidence will remain of all these content rich, all-singing, all-dancing websites that are interconnected with social media apps and trend aggregators in 100 years? I’m not convinced that there will be some sort of archive of landmark websites, or an ex-app depository in 100 years. After all, if the once mighty MySpace can ‘lose’ all its content uploaded before 2016, it is not guaranteed that any other digital content will exist indefinitely. What happens when the power goes off?

I’ve never made a secret of being a book guy and don’t particularly like reading digitally, but I firmly believe that reading an ebook is better than not reading at all. But what will remain? my bookshelves contain all kinds of books; fiction, monographs, history, essays and such like, as well as all kinds of books about art, design, illustration, ideas and creativity, many of which feature landmark designs and and their creators, styles and ‘isms’, and stuff that lend visual qualities to specific time periods, geographic location or cultural events. Its the stuff that informs us and lends structure to our own work as we seek new approaches to creative solutions.

What will remain of todays digital output to inform and excite the designers of the next century? What kind of historical record will they learn from, deride and choose to ignore – as is their right?

I’ve been blogging for about 11 years now and have a fairly decent archive of my work, my thinking and general ‘how d’you do’ that many other people have found interesting, useful or just mildly diverting, and I’m quite proud to observe that what I was doing in 2013 (for example) is still generating interest today. I just don’t think it will last.

Ex Libris.

I first wrote about bookplates back in 2014 when I picked up a book in a charity shop that had this little gem which turned out to be by the legendary Edward McNight Kauffer:

Colour me pink

Each January since the dawn of the 21st century (I’ve always wanted to write that – it sounds better than since the year 2000) there has been a proclamation made by the high council of all things colour – the ‘PANTONE® Color of the Year’  whereby a mysterious coven of colour alchemists (I’m sticking with the British spelling of colour from now on) who have scoured the globe for new and exciting tones, shades and hues, and spent months deliberating, cogitating and very likely bitching about each and every one of them.

After a lengthy and protracted battle of wits, and I dare say a fair amount charm, cunning, logic and subterfuge is deployed by each of the secretive fraternity of colour, just one is chosen. One.

One single, special colour. The colour of the year! The whole year. One special colour for 365 days. Or more for the leap years. Imagine that.

For 2019 that colour is PANTONE® 16-1546 Living Coral. Oh yes. Feast your eyes on this:

Living Coral. I guess just coral wasn’t enough. Or maybe this is a political comment on global warming? Perhaps this is a subliminal prompt to remind us of the alarming rate of coral reef depletion? With experts predicting between 60-90% destruction in the next 20 years this would be a worthy cause.

But no. The only reference to actual coral comes in a couple of short lines:

“In its glorious, yet unfortunately more elusive, display beneath the sea, this vivifying and effervescent color mesmerizes the eye and mind. Lying at the center of our naturally vivid and chromatic ecosystem, PANTONE Living Coral is evocative of how coral reefs provide shelter to a diverse kaleidoscope of color.”

Oh really? Do go on. But what does the Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute have to say about this? Well, this actually:

Well that’s cleared that up then. I thought it was all getting a bit woolly and soundbitey for a moment.

Ok, maybe I’m getting a bit oversensitive here. I don’t mean to criticize PANTONE® generally, after all, where would we in the creative industries be without our precious swatches and international colour matching system? I shudder to think.

But would it have hurt PANTONE® to link up with environmental action groups and raise awareness. Maybe even donate a little from sales to help slow (and hopefully reverse) this ecological disaster? Encourage designers and their clients to get involved in environmental issues.

No it wouldn’t. This is a real opportunity to get people talking, encourage wider debate and research, and put pressure on governments to legislate against industrial fishing practices, ocean pollution and address global warming seriously. This is an opportunity lost.

I’ve added a few links at the end of this post. A Google search for ‘coral reef depletion/bleaching/conservation’ will bring up plenty more  information. Please take a little time to find out what is happening. Don’t let this happen on our watch, while we fetish over the exciting new applications of the 2019 PANTONE® Color of the Year on Pinterest.

Can we really be this glib about the state of worldwide coral reefs? Is it really more important that their colours are trending this year? Or maybe I am hoping for too much?

I know it’s only January but I expect that the exalted bureaucrats of the Pantone Colour Institute have had a couple of days off to recover and already begun their Sisyphean task to explore strange new colours, seek out new tints and new tones; to boldly go where… etc.

Maybe in 2049 the PANTONE® Color of the Year will be Dead Coral, or Bleached Coral. Just saying.

Coral Reef Conservation
United Nations Environmental Programme
Coral Guardian
Earthwatch Institute