I really love working on materials aimed at kindergarten to grade nine students. These are the years of wonder when all the coolest things you will ever learn about are new to you. Dinosaurs, planets, weather and volcanoes are insuperable discoveries inspiring awe that you are unlikely to feel later when learning about the third-person singular present subjunctive or tax reductions on depreciable property. What can ever measure up to the discovery that there were tyrannosaurs?

Working on school materials gives me a feeling like I had long years ago when “How Clouds Work” was a world-expanding idea to me.

The Solar System

Solar System Grade Nine
Solar System Grade Nine
Solar System Grade Seven
Solar System Grade Seven

These two solar systems were drawn for the same client, Nelson Canada, for two different grade levels. The top figure is for a grade nine text. The bottom figure is for a grade seven text. As you can see the amount of information and the complexity is increased greatly over two grade levels. In particular the grade 9 illustration shows the orbits of the bodies with far greater accuracy.

How to show the planet’s orbits when rendering the solar system is always a problem. If the entire disc of the solar system is shown in proportion (below right), then not only do all the bodies, including the sun, appear as tiny dots, the entire set of inner-planet orbits appears too small to show any detail. The diagram below on the left shows the inner-planet orbits in relation to that of Jupiter. Below and on the right, the orbits of all the planets are shown with the inner planet orbits tiny in proportion.

Inner and Outer Planetary Orbits Showing Proportions
Inner and Outer Planetary Orbits Showing Proportions

Therefore all solar system diagrams involve a compromise between accuracy and readability that can be determined by looking at the content the figure is intended to illustrate.

So Far, So Good

I am getting along really well with WordPress. Last week I knew nothing about it. This morning I got the permissions issues sorted, at least enough so the blog works. Now I am successfully posting content. I give WordPress top marks as I cannot think of a bad thing to say about it. It is supported by some of the best documentation I have ever read and seems intuitive even to someone who had to look up quite a bit of the jargon. It really seems like a great product. Thanks WordPress.

Down the road unifying the theme with my website design will be a learning experience. I think I came across some of the documentation already so that looks hopeful.

So far, so good.

The Bridge Metaphor

You find yourself about to cross a bridge. The bridge spans a deep canyon. A sign on the approach to the bridge informs you that the architect was as little concerned with, engineering as a great many designers are with sound document creation . . . Will you cross the bridge? It looks like a bridge, after all. But what will happen if the architect felt that precise dimensions were not his responsibility? The bridge ends might not meet in the middle. For that matter, what if the architect was not all that interested in materials and figured that cardboard and hemp would do just as well as, say, reinforced concrete and structural steel? It indeed looks very like a bridge – a beautiful, arching, graceful bridge, in a very interesting colour. It is, however, starting to rain and the cardboard looks to be getting wet.

When I started working about twenty years ago, the technology that is used in graphic design studios today was in its infancy. This technology changed almost every aspect of workflow, which became as unlike that of a pre-computer studio as it could be. This presented problems.

The technical experience and customary working process of many senior people who had been in traditional studios for decades became irrelevant. Their aesthetic skills may have been intact, but they no longer understood how their concept would or could be realized. The stat-camera they were so familiar with was gone. There were no rough paste-ups, galleys, marker renderings or comped type. They did not have the skills or working vocabulary to do or to direct computer work, so their ability to interact with projects was significantly compromised. They could jump on the learning curve, and many did. However, many more blundered ahead and produced work that required extensive alteration and correction to be useful.

Junior designers, entering the field with computer skills, were often saddled with this task, pigeonholed in a way that was very difficult to escape. Juniors who a decade before would have been mentored by more experienced designers found themselves explaining why the direction they were being given was inappropriate. They found themselves instructing the very people they should have been learning their trade from. How could resentment not arise from such a situation?

Where once there was a ladder of junior, intermediate and senior designers, everyone ascending according to talents and ambition, there appeared a two-class system of creative and technical people. The former were seemingly above technical considerations in their stratosphere of ideas, and the latter were not taken seriously for their creative abilities because, by definition, anyone who had technical skills could not be creative. This is where my bridge metaphor comes from. It was like choosing an architect with no technical appreciation over one with extensive engineering skill precisely because the former didn’t know what he was doing.

Add to this that many people entered “desktop publishing” with no design skill set whatever. Companies that decided the operation of a machine was a menial task would grab a handful of their clerical staff and send them on a ten-week course to become desktop publishers. These people were particularly ineffective at dragging studios into the 21st century. Senior designers who lacked the technical vocabulary to do or direct computerized design were directing DTPs who may themselves have understood the basics of operating Quark XPress, but lacked the design skills to understand what they were being directed to do.

In these circumstances, what passed for design or art direction usually resolved a minimum of the design requirements. And what happened in production amounted to what carpenters call back-framing: trying to make a comprehensive design based on the existing pseudo-design. Since the artists doing this were either junior designers or not designers at all, and since neither was benefiting from effective guidance, the quality of their work largely depended on what they could figure out for themselves.

This situation produced a lot of problematic work. For years, much of what film houses and printers did was to correct and adjust artwork in client files just to make it possible to RIP the jobs.

Computerization revolutionized graphic design, and revolutions are messy. And yet, a messy transition period between an old order and a new should come to a conclusion. Two decades later, some of the most fundamentally awful design and production documents I have ever worked with were recent. Why?

There has never been a “clean start” since the introduction of computerized design and production. Designers drag along work practices and bad habits acquired years ago. They have all evolved their own standards, giving rise to the notion, excusing inconsistency, that “everyone has their own way of doing things.” No surprise, then, when it is difficult to prescribe sound work practices or distinguish bad ones. And yet we should.

When we do not produce sound comprehensive designs and documents that are easy to work with, there is a toll in time, money and peace of mind. No one wants to be the architect of little disasters, and we can do better.

Getting Started 01

This is my first real post. If I don’t accidentally set fire to my WordPress directory in some metaphorical way then it might remain here. Today I have solved the mystery of .htaccess files. Well to be honest I can’t say that I understand them exactly. They seem to be a list of security exceptions. What I can say is the one in my WordPress directory is not causing any problems and I seem to have enabled “Pretty Permalinks.” Now I am going to try to figure out catagories.