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Back when I was in architecture school, about one million years ago, one of our tutors – I can’t remember but I think it was the brilliant Malcolm Parry – used to delight in taking us on site visits to semi-famous, or at least distinguished buildings; and then guiding us as fast as he could to an example of what he called the “Oh, Shit.”

The “Oh, Shit” was his short-hand for the condition of best-laid plans meeting reality.

When all the drawings, sections, detailed drawings and meticulous sourcing in the world clash with odd corners of the physical world, weather, materials and not least the vagaries of human labour.

It’s what Bryan Boyer calls the “Matter Battle”. He puts it beautifully:

One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any medium of physical matter.

Here’s a prime example of an “Oh, Shit” – on 10 Hills Place by Amanda Levete (which I wrote a little bit about here).

10 Hills Place

Malcolm held that the mark of a great architect or designer was not that there were no “Oh Shits” – he saw it as fundamental natural law that there would be – but how the designer resolved it.

How tasty the lemonade made when the team are handed lemons.

This came to mind when I read the recent article on The Register about the launch of BBC News Online, 15 years ago (!) last month.

I have a bit-part in the article:

Matt Jones’ design team had come up with a set of HTML layouts that followed best practice guidelines, but nobody was wedded to the styling, which made use of putty-like beiges and greys.

The BBC at the time was going through a corporate rebranding exercise, which involved commissioning a new logo from design agency Lambie Nairn. The BBC had used sloping letters for its logo, with few variations, since 1962. Lambie Nairn straightened the characters, and changed the font to Gill Sans, and the letters looked better on computer screens. The new logo had yet to be unveiled to the public, and only be made public on 4 October in 1997. Everyone was ordered to work with the WPP-owned branding agency. So rather reluctantly, the News Online team sent their templates to Lambie Nairn with the invitation to “reimagine” them.

Almost overnight, a junior working at the agency, who had no web layout experience, sent back a new set of designs. “Mike, Bob and I looked at them and thought these were so much better,” said Karas.

Without kicking up a fuss, Jones set to work rewriting the news website’s HTML, even though this meant revising every template in the system. Jones would become creative director after the site’s launch, giving News Online a clean, simple and consistent look, and some clever and subtle touches. Even today, the first News Online pages look clean and modern – one of the few websites from 1997 that hasn’t dated – and look better than their contemporary versions.

A few inaccuracies in this – the chap described as “a junior at the agency” who came up with the Lambie-Nairn proposals was an excellent fellow Welshman called Gareth Mapp, who was in fact a senior designer there at the time, but he came from a print and moving image design background, with no experience of the web. This wasn’t unusual back in 1997.

Also, we’d been working on layout/visual proposals with a small design agency called Sunbather that I’d worked at previously, who were soon to be acquired by Razorfish . Mike Bennett (now of Oil Studios) continued to work with me in the aftermath of the Lambie-Nairn U-Turn to resolve the designs a little more. The brilliant Pete Lane, Sam Urqhart and Jude Robinson really then made the miracle happen turning them into HTML and other front-end code.

Anyway.

This was the “Oh, Shit”.

bbc_demo

Matt Karas remembers me and him sitting in the BBC Canteen, overlooking the fabled Blue Peter Garden – the statue of Petra the dog staring at us judgmentally, while we re-drew every template of every page of the site by hand to figure out how we could make it work.

We had 48 hours from the time the designs from Lambie Nairn came in and Bob Eggington/Mike Smartt approving them, and the deadline for getting the html ready to keep the site on track for launch.

Committing to the new designs, and throwing away the months of work we had done was hard.

But we all felt the “Oh Shit.”

We all felt that the new direction was the right direction.

I think recognising this – when there is a path from a crisis that involves risk but rewards you hugely – with something you wouldn’t have imagined, is at the very heart of design. It’s certainly an incredible feeling when it works, when the judo-flip flows just so, and you end up somewhere brilliant.

That’s something the team at BBC News did 15 years ago – a team I’m really proud to have been a part of.

Just finished watching Julian Temple’s film about Ray Davies and The Kinks: “Imaginary Man”.

It’s incredibly tender toward it’s subject – which is at once Ray, his music, the band – and London.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

The Turner-esque, painterly imagery alternates with more graphic compositions of Davies’ peregrinations around North London.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

It’s a series of psychographic sketches, punctuated by Kinks songs – in archive footage, in cover versions and most affectingly perhaps, hummed, sung and stumbled through by Davies as he strolls.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

He’s cast by the film as a flawed-heir to Blake – wandering London, inventing his own sung-systems rather than be enslaved by another man’s.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

This blog goes into far more detail and appreciation.

If you can hunt it down online do.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

If only to revel in London as Temple and Davies do.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

My thanks to both of them.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

Gates' telescope

While this might be a typically hilarious technocratic and somewhat bloodless statement by Bill Gates, you have to admire the project itself:

‘”LSST is truly an internet telescope which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it. [It is] a shared resource for all humanity – the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe,” he said.’

Gates gives $10m, Charles Simonyi gives 20$m. Various other software billionaires are exploring the human genome, or building space programmes.

In the past I’ve somewhat facetiously wondered what would happen if the BBC used it’s annual billions to move into space exploration, creating entertainments as spin-off.

A question I asked Max and Jack in the pub before Christmas was – what if these ‘exploratory billionaires’ made a land-grab for the public-service broadcaster’s territory instead?

Gates after all already owns Corbis etc., Google is mapping and measuring the Earth constantly for representation. While these are definitely for-profit enterprises, what if Larry and Sergey et al decided not to settle for just Google Earth but go after “Planet Earth” also?

If Google decided to beat the BBC’s Natural History Unit at it’s own game, what would be the result?

What if they decided to devote technology, money, phd’s and determination to mapping, recording, simulating, visualising and telling stories of the natural world with data rather than film. A kind of Quokka-for-nature, might be one possible outcome I guess.

What if they offered all of the data and assets they gather to scientists, students, schoolkids, storytellers with an open license? What if they gave it to games developers, educators, exhibitions to be used in playful, interactive, engaging ways?

Currently in the domain of natural history, there are efforts to build a ‘commons of content’ such as ARKive that are, pretty good, (although the Terms of Service are not exactly inviting) but you can’t help thinking if someone of the GOOG mindset and resource-base got their hands on it, it would be truly, literally awe-inspiring.

I guess the thrust of my question is what happens when software people with serious resources behind them get very, very serious about what’s traditionally seen as the preserve of ‘content’ or ‘editorial’.

Often at ‘content companies’, especially notable public-service broadcasters (ahem) – the great teams taking technical, systemic approaches to knowledge are indulged and somewhat encouraged at early stages, but if there is a spark of promise then ‘of course someone editorial will be brought in’ above them.

This does not often end well.

The troubling thought, that even in core areas of expertise with glorious heritage such as natural history, we’ll see that public-service broadcasters can, and will get dis-intermediated in a world where data is played with as much as stories are told.

Based on the rise of ‘exploratory philanthopy’ that aims to create “a shared resource for all humanity” as evidenced in quotes like Gate’s above, this might not be a bad thing…

I’m sitting typing this the day after my last day at Nokia.

I’ve got about a week before I start back at the BBC, where I’ll be working in the “Vision” department with content creators and commissioners investigating and demonstrating (I hope) how better to use the internet to help deepen/broaden the stories being told and worlds being built.

I’ve worked at the BBC before – done a couple of tours in fact, but not worked with the storytellers before.

Exciting stuff.

That’s going to be four days a week and on the fifth day… Well, I’ve been working in my spare time since January on Dopplr with Mr. Biddulph and the other dopplristas and I’m very happy to be having some more time to spend whittling that with him.

After 12 years working on digital stuff for other people it feels amazing to do something so directly and get such direct feedback from people using something you helped make. Very stressful but highly-recommended. I’ll be writing more about Dopplr over at blog.dopplr.com.

Also, I’m hoping to get some other neglected things up-and-running again, like this place. More drawing and also I hope some teaching. By which, of course, I mean learning… as in, if you have to tell people what you think, you have to listen hard and think harder – which is learning!

Uh.

If you see what I mean.

So if anyone has a gig teaching who would indulge me in coming along to crit/tutor/talk – let me know!

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