Graphic design notes #3: Vectors


A question I get asked a lot when requesting logo files is “what format do you want it in?” often followed by “is a jpeg OK?”.

I admit that jpeg files are very handy – compressed and easy to view for everybody – but what I really like is a vector file, an eps, with all its smooth lines and scaling potential.

The difference is mathematical. A vector is a description of a shape defined by geometrical primitives such as points, lines and curves. This makes it great for printing as it can be scaled up to any size without losing crispness. It also means that the file size is very low. Bitmaps however, including jpegs, are descriptions of a picture made up of coloured blocks, the number of blocks being determined by resolution, making it much less efficient and flexible.


Animation depicting the construction of a Bézier curve from six points. Sam Derbyshire

A vector can be rasterised into a bitmap file and saved at any resolution, which makes it the ideal ‘master’ logo file format. You can’t do the reverse – convert a vector file from a bitmap – unless you painstakingly redraw it or trace it in a program like Illustrator.

I generally answer the logo file format question with “an eps, please” but there is still potential for confusion. In this context an eps (Encapsulated PostScript) should be a file created in Illustrator containing vector graphics. But because it’s also technically possible to save a bitmap file, for example a jpeg, as an eps containing no vector information at all, that is quite often what I get.

A better option is to save a vector as a pdf (portable file format) that will ‘carry’ a vector file and yet still allow it to be editable as a vector file (while displaying it as a bitmap file on screen).

I’m still grateful to Dennis Crompton who took the trouble to explain this to me when I worked in the Architectural Association print studio. Looking back, I’m amazed that I hadn’t encountered this basic knowledge either as a student or later as a junior graphic designer.

I like vectors because they are clever and compact, they need more processing power to read but are tiny to store. A small shape or letterform can be made up of hundreds of Bézier curves containing complicated mathematical formulas that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend and yet the end result is simplicity itself.

Graphic design notes #2: Lorem ipsum

lorem ipsum2

I may not have an easy relationship with Lorum ipsum but, for better or worse, I cannot deny that it has been a long-term presence in my life.

I first came across this piece of jumbled Latin text as a young child in the 1970s when my grandfather, who worked as a commercial artist, used to bring me and my sisters stacks of half-used sheets of Letraset that included Lorum ipsum for use in our ‘art works’. To me, at the time, when applied to my drawings the text had the effect of instantly making them look more grown up and accomplished.

These days my feelings about Lorum ipsum are less positive. As a graphic designer I will on occasion resort to using dummy text in place of real words in a design project in progress, although I don’t particularly agree with this way of working. For me graphic design is all about content  – remove that and the design is inevitably dumbed down too. On the other hand my experience of working in graphic design is that it’s an iterative process, and I have to concede that sometimes it is the case that content and design can benefit mutually from being developed in tandem.

Lorum ipsum was first used not by designers but in the sample books of typesetters and printers. It originated in the 1500s when a printer scrambled a passage of Latin text to illustrate his typesetting skills, not wanting words with meaning to distract from the finesse of his work. The same nonsensical piece of text has been in continuous circulation ever since. In around 1980 an American academic traced the long forgotten source of the text to two passages from a work by Cicero, ‘The Extremes of Good and Evil’, which was written in 45BC.

In the 1960s, Lorum ipsum was adopted by Letraset for its sheets of dry transferable lettering, which were used extensively in the commercial art and advertising industries of the time. It went digital in 1985 when it was included as dummy text in the early desktop publishing program Pagemaker (the program also incorporated ‘Greek pictures’ or greyscale boxes in place of real images, which the computer memories of the time were unable to render). It was at this point that the practice of using Lorum ipsum as dummy – rather than display – text became widespread in graphic design. Today, it’s a feature of many web design programs too.

My problem with dummy text as it’s used today is that it sets up a trap that is all too easy for graphic designers to fall prey to: low expectations on the client side of what can and should be achieved by design. The most effective graphic design can only be achieved when the designer is able to fully engage with the content they’re working with. Lorum ipsum, however, was created for precisely the opposite reason: to prevent engagement with content.


Graphic design notes #1: Full stop. Double space


I must have removed millions of double spaces in my time. Graphic design often involves working with large amounts of copy – usually received in Word format – which is flowed into a design program and then reformatted. Part of this process involves a ‘find and change’ in order to remove the extra spaces.

Removing the double spaces after full stops signals, for many a designer, a key difference between a manuscript and typeset text. But why do we do this? For me, it’s not so much because I want the block of text I’m working with to appear as a solid, discrete object and not riddled with holes (although that is true to an extent). It’s more that I want to help the reader to consume information smoothly and easily without distraction from the staccato interruptions of uneven spaces between words and sentences.

It’s not quite clear how or when they emerged as convention but double spaces after full stops were certainly specified as standard in European and American style guides from the eighteenth until the late twentieth centuries (with the exception for some reason of France).

One possible historical reason for the end of sentence double space is as a way of distinguishing from spaces used after the full stops applied to abbreviations and initials. Formal terms of address such as ‘mister’ were still common in the UK until relatively recently. Combined with the fact that the historic convention was to use full stops after abbreviations (such as Mr.) as well as after initials, this created much potential for confusion in the reader (as shown in the illustration), which the double space would help alleviate.

DSC_4941Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Siegfried Sassoon, published by Faber & Gwyer, London (1928)

In the UK in the 1950s, wide sentence spacing was progressively abandoned by the printing industry in favour of 1 or 1.5 spaces (an ‘en quad’). The typewriter, however, remained restricted to mono-spaced letterforms – only allowing for one space or two – so the continuation of the convention beyond the 1950s is in part due to the capacity of the widely available technology – the typewriter – and in part due to user choice.

What is interesting about all this is that it illuminates the complex web of relationships between people, industries and technology over time. Despite the fact that in one industry the typesetter (or designer) moved away from the use of the double space in the 1950s, in another realm the writer (or transcriber) continued to adhere to a familiar convention for more than half a century. To this day the double space is perpetuated by people who, although they may well be using the latest technology, are also bound in a human chain of education and knowledge to generations that far precede it.

There’s no doubt that technological change has a huge impact on the way we consume information – punctuation included – but the pace of change is moderated by the habits and behaviours of the people who use the technology. It’s interesting to speculate on what the longer term impact of html ­ – and the fact it can’t read double spaces – will be. Since the 1990s we’ve become accustomed to reading website and email addresses with their full stops and no space. Perhaps our insistence on any space at all between sentences is just a habit that will one day die out.

The Lost Arts

On a recent visit to the Soane Museum I made a detour to the new first floor galleries of No 12 where an exhibition of architectural drawings is on temporary display, the result of a cultural exchange between the Soane – the world’s oldest architectural museum – and the Tchoban Foundation, which was established in Berlin in 2009.

The display consists of highlights of the Foundation’s newly assembled collection of drawings, which spans from the sixteenth century to the present day, and is part of an attempt by the Foundation to engage a wider audience, and re-engage the architectural profession, with the lost art of drawing. Unfortunately the exercise is hugely hampered by poor communication design.

Works by French, German and Italian artists of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries predominate in the selection, although Russia is also well represented with drawings from the Constructivist and Stalinist eras as –  it has to be said –  is the recent work of Mr Tchoban himself. The earliest drawing in the exhibition (c.1565–75) by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau depicts in pen and ink an idealised design for a moated castle and its formal landscaping, its objectified isometric projection perhaps a practical device to inspire the wealthy to build bigger and better. In contrast a colourful watercolour from 1804 by Joseph Gandy, Soane’s favoured draughtsman, sells the design for a cenotaph in romanticised, dream-like perspective as a theatrically lit hyper real experience. A creepy curiosity is the inclusion of the design for an unblinking elevation of a Reichsstatthalter building in Linz (1943–45) by Hermann Giesler, a Nazi architect who worked on the project in close collaboration with Hitler. This can be contrasted with Stalinist architect Boris Mihailovich Iofan’s Study for the reconstruction of the city of Novorossiysk (1944), which proposes a classically inspired scheme for the port city newly liberated from German occupation. There’s also a hurried back-of-the envelope sketch by Mies van der Rohe from 1935, and a dreamy half-finished watercolour, Study of a cloud and tree, executed by the 16 year old Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1797.

While there’s no suggestion that this exhibition is aiming to be a comprehensive survey, without an articulated thread to bind them together the leaps in time, geography and chronology made within the display induce giddiness. On top of that the inexplicit curation means that an opportunity to explore the range of nuances that hand drawing has brought to the communication of architecture over a significant period of time is sadly under exploited. Instead the exhibition experience is of drowning in footnote-level detail, with no structure or hierarchy to guide you through the selection of drawings or to articulate the many potentially fascinating juxtapositions that are thrown up by this show. A similar problem afflicts the exhibition’s catalogue, which like that of an auction house lists in myopic detail the provenance of many of the pieces, from sale history to appearances in exhibitions elsewhere, while completely failing to engage you with the bigger picture.

If the Tchoban foundation is serious about promoting the lost art of drawing in architecture to a wider audience – or any audience at all – it is going to have to get to grips with the lost art of communication first.

The catalogue from the exhibition of drawings at the Soane Museum

Launch of Block Magazine Issue No. 3: Commerce

Layout 1

Serpentine Pavilion 2013



After a spectacularly cold and long winter in London, the 2013 Serpentine Pavilion was unveiled this week to coincide with the first real sunshine and warmth of the year in the city. This year a fractal-like pavilion designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto dazzled white and ethereal in the morning sun against a vivid backdrop of Hyde Park’s early summer greenness.

Fujimoto’s structure is 13th in a line of pavilions stretching back to 2000, when Zaha Hadid designed the first. The pavilion is the result of an annual commission, restricted to architects who have not previously built in the UK, for a temporary structure with a life-span of four months that is accessible to the public during the day and used to house sponsored private events in the evenings. The functional requirements of the brief may be minimal but the pavilion is required to capture the imagination of the public and, more specifically, the chattering classes. The client providing this relatively rare opportunity for architecture to show off its conceptual side is the Serpentine Gallery, a small but high-profile gallery for contemporary art located amongst the trees of one of the capital’s finest parks.

Sou Fujimoto is a young architect coming to international prominence on the strength of several small-scale projects in Japan in which he has experimented skilfully with the dualities of nature/artifice and inside/outside. What Fujimoto has done at the Serpentine is to impose a grid upon the natural world so that we notice it: a 400 x 400mm three-dimensional grid of 20mm welded steel sections, broken in parts to 800 x 800mm, painted white and extending in billowing, boundless climbing frame configurations from the earth to the sky. The grid is intricate, human-sized, so that from some angles the intermeshing of steel-framed cubes receding in perspective creates a dense, almost solid, impression while at other vantage points it is the spaces in between that figure.

‘Cloud-like’ was the phrase of choice to describe the project pre-realisation but in reality the structure rather hugs the ground plane, and is perhaps more evocative of the frozen moment of a swarm of insects or a flock of birds swooping low to the earth. The open grid is hollowed out internally to create a theatre-like volume within which stepped areas for sitting – or climbing – have been created by infilling horizontal surfaces of the steel frames with toughened glass. The polycarbonate discs that have been suspended in overlapping formation to create a roof of sorts seem something of an afterthought. It will be interesting to see what happens when it rains. Functionally, at least, this pavilion is undoubtedly one of the more nebulous of the series.

Overall the pavilion is both charming and conceptually valid: a thoughtful play on the interaction of digital and natural realities in the 21st century. It possesses the delightful characteristic of making the observer feel at the centre of the universe. As a viewer, all perspective emanates from your vision, the natural world is arranged sublimely so that you are at its centre, views of tree canopies and sky are framed for you alone, by your eyes.

The weather on the streets may have improved in London in recent weeks but the economic forecast remains uncertain. Despite the much-reported surge of high net worth types into the capital in recent years, ordinary Londoners – architects, say – remain highly austerity aware, conscious of wave after wave of cuts to public sector budgets that have yet to make their impact in areas such as health, housing and education.

Perhaps not surprisingly much of the discourse in architecture here at the moment relates to these pressing social concerns: what can be done, for instance, about the chronic dearth of affordable housing, let alone subsidised housing, in the capital? What can be done about the demise of high streets across the UK, the victims of out-of-town shopping malls, leaving hollowed-out impoverished communities? Increasingly, it seems, architects here are questioning at a fairly fundamental level the economics and polices around development. In this context it inevitably becomes a little more difficult to fully engage with the conceptual experiments going on at the Serpentine Pavilion: it has no roof, it provides little shelter from the elements, what is it for? It is a shame that the delicate and subtle thinking behind Fujimoto’s pavilion is somewhat drowned out by the clamouring of blunt realities in this economic climate.

Asparagus for sale


Passing a vegetable stall this week I was struck by its neat standing rows of bunched asparagus and particularly by the smart white paper sleeves that contained each bundle, which seemed instantly to set them apart from the plastic shrouded supermarket asparagus offerings. I had to buy some.

Unwrapping the bundle at home I again admired the sleeve and its design: there was nothing extraneous on the label, none of that idealised rural imagery so common in food packaging today that speaks far too much of the hard sell. Instead the deep green stems reaching out of their paper base had been allowed to sell themselves. The wording on the label was largely restricted to the facts: ‘NORFOLK COUNTY CHOICE’ ‘ASPARAGUS GROWERS ASSOCIATION’. I was also told the name of the farmers (W.O & P.O Jolly of Roudham Farm). The statement ‘Fresh from the grower’ was as far as this label allowed itself to venture towards persuasion. I liked the visual hierarchy introduced through the simple use of coloured text but most of all I liked the expanse of white paper stock – gloss to repel moisture – and the avoidance of full ink coverage just for the sake of it.

Once unravelled and laid flat, I was struck by the strange shape of the label. It took me a while to fathom the reason for this: the bottom edge had been chamfered at both corners in order to allow the base of the sleeve to sit flat when wrapped around the asparagus, forming the slightly conical shape that holds the bundle firm. At first I thought the wrap might have been pre-guillotined or even die-cut into this strange shape but then I realised it was more likely that the cuts were made as part of the assembly process, with the wrap being positioned around the base of the stalks and the whole bundle then being guillotined to a sharp, clean finish.

Another aspect of the label that interested me were the cooking instructions printed on it: to prepare and cook by the boiling method the advised timing was ‘approximately 10 minutes’ for asparagus placed in a tall covered pan with only the tips left unsubmerged in water. For the conventional taste of today that is at the very least 3–4 minutes too long, making me wonder how long ago the wrap had been printed. An unscientific snap survey of my cookery books shelves revealed the following history of asparagus cooking times:

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845): 20­–25 minutes

Mrs Beeton, Household Management (mid-1920s edition): 20 minutes

Elizabeth David, Summer Cooking (1955): 15–30 minutes, depending on size

Jane Grigson, English Food (1974): 20–40 minutes (covered in a tall pan standing in one inch of boiling water)

Delia Smith in 1978: 8–12 minutes

Delia Smith in 1993: 4–6 minutes

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2009: 4–8 mins, depending on thickness

To bring myself fully up to date I also checked the British Asparagus website; they were advising a cooking time of 3–6 minutes.

Judging from the above (and turning a blind eye to the website address clearly printed on the packaging) I very much enjoy the notion that the asparagus wrap was designed and printed in Norfolk sometime around 1980. But regardless of vintage, it remains a very effective piece of design. I’m sure the asparagus tasted better for it.

Crit Club #1 (part of Night School at the AA)

Last week I attended the first Crit Club at the Architectural Association, part of a new Night School initiative being directed by Sam Jacob. The crit posed a question to the architects presenting: what can be done about the post-retail town centre? In other words what do architects think they can do to help tackle the dying high street and its boarded up shops?

The ‘crit’ is an integral part of architectural education, a format which – as long as a certain standard of discourse is attained – has the potential to offer as much to onlookers as to participants. With its panel of experts, aspiring talent and opinionated audience it’s a bit like a reality TV format. You can learn a lot, watching a crit, but on top of that there’s plenty of scope for humour. And then there’s the compelling cringe-factor.

The discourse at this crit was at professional, rather than student, level. The panel consisted of developers Nick Johnson and Martyn Evans, FT journalist Claer Barrett and architect/educator Sam Jacob. The architects presenting schemes were Christophe Egret, David Kohn, Holly Lewis of We Made That and Tom Holbrook of 5th Studio.

Several of the schemes presented were street-scene enhancement type projects commissioned by local authorities, perhaps with the aid of centralised funding. Others were residential developments with ground floor spaces that a more enlightened type of developer was trying to bring to life. Both types of scheme tended to involve elements of consultation and community engagement in some form. Most but not all of the schemes were in or close to London. None was in the North.

It was interesting to see how the different architectural generations responded to the question. Christophe Egret, the most experienced of the presenters, painted beautiful word-pictures of a vision for living. David Kohn, a younger architect, was highly engaged with the reality of a specific set of circumstances, a brief and the client. Holly Lewis, also a young architect, was firmly focused on the process and outcomes of engaging communities with their spaces. Tom Holbrook, middling in the age context, wanted to embark on a more fundamental conversation about the origins of the funding mechanisms of development.

One of the developers on the panel made the point, in relation to a street enhancement project, that it seemed wrong to ask an architect to design the setting for a series of events without also getting them to curate the programme. No-one except the architect in the spotlight seemed to disagree with this at the time. Thinking about that afterwards, it seemed that what I had witnessed at that point in the crit is perhaps symptomatic of what’s happening to architecture in the wider world: an unravelling of boundaries so that it’s increasingly difficult for not only the architect but everyone else to define where the role of the architect begins and ends. This could be a good thing, or it could not. It seems there’s lot up for grabs in architecture at the moment.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if a second series of Crit Club inverted the roles so that the developers were questioned by the architects.



Planning post-war London in Stalag Luft III

This is one of the posters painted by our maternal grandfather when he was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany (now in Poland) during the second world war. The poster advertises a lecture in the camp’s theatre. The County of London Plan referred to is presumably Patrick Abercrombie and John Henry Forshaw’s Plan, which was published in 1943 in anticipation of the reconstruction that would be needed when the war ended. Our grandfather must have carried the poster with him on the long march when his camp was evacuated in retreat from advancing Russian forces in January 1945.

Paper, ink and paint were in short supply in the camp, arriving in occasional Red Cross parcels. Projects such as this poster were also a cover for the forgeries he would be working on at the same time, which would be hidden underneath the ‘legitimate’ project whenever a guard came in to sight. The forged documents were provided to those attempting escape.

Self-healing at the Serpentine

Was fortunate to attend another excellent Arup Penguin Pool event last night. The themed events, which take place at Arup locations worldwide, are orchestrated to promote cross-disciplinary conversations and seed future collaborations. They are also for fun, though. The venue this time was Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s 2012 Serpentine Pavilion (Arup has engineered every Pavilion since the first in 2000). The theme: ‘self-healing materials’.

What on earth are self-healing materials?

In the spongey cork dell of the pavilion, materials scientist Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and director of the Institute of Making, explained that there is a lot to be learnt from the the basic building block of the natural world – the single cell. Cork, for example, is a natural, cellular material that is self-generating in as far as the cork tree keeps growing the stuff after a layer is harvested. Miodownik described how understanding of natural cellular structures with their self-healing, self-organising capacities is being transferred to investigations into materials – even structures – with inherent healing capacities.

And not all of this is as far off as one might think: self-healing concrete, for instance, is almost a reality. By incorporating a specific bacteria into the mix as well as starch for it to feed on, the concrete is able to self-heal as the bacteria migrate towards fissures and excrete calcites to, in effect, bridge the gaps. This technology is at full-scale prototype testing stage. It’s looking as if damaged material can regain 90% of its original strength.

Another approach to self-healing concrete that is being researched involves the inclusion a form of liquid resin that remains dormant within capsules until stress or shock cause the capsules to break open and perform like a clotting agent in a one-off healing action. Or what about a hybrid approach where engineers create ‘scaffolds’ for structures that are seeded with organisms so that they gradually build themselves?

‘But hold on’, says Stuart Smith of Arup, ‘We get two months to design the engineering of a pavilion and six weeks for the build. Can this be made to work with our real, human, timescales?’

‘Bamboo?’ responds Miodownik, undaunted, ‘It grows like the clappers.’