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January 2008

Comics are in everything

Welcoming Jack Schulze to St Paul's a week ago was the realisation of a long-held wish: it is, of course, an understatement to say that Jack and Matt continually surprise and delight, prompting and pushing us on to think about, to see things in new ways.

At Interesting2007 (start at the bottom of that page, with a possible date for your diary), Jack gave a fantastic (and warmly received) talk on comics. (I blogged about Interesting here.) When we cooked up the idea of Jack coming in to talk to some of our students, I really wanted comics in the frame. Anyone who knows Jack knows how comics — their design, their playfulness — inform his work as designer.

Jack's and Matt's design work is a challenge in a number of ways. For UK schools (perhaps for a long time — but certainly now) there's far too little in the curriculum that prepares you for how they think and work. I can imagine how even the diverse influences that inform their work might seem at first bewildering, even unassimilable. Since Jack spoke here, what's struck me is how all who heard him seem to have got hold of something (and haven't readily let go) and, in some cases, seem to have understood him whole and from the start — great for any speaker/teacher to feel this quick rush of comprehension at an intuitive (I'm-on-this-wavelength) level.

Some of our students may find it helpful if I pull together some links here for the different parts of Jack's talk. In order of appearance, then: 

1) Lab-Grown Meat, 2005:

a kangaroo steak with some pickled onions 

While at the RCA, Jack took part in a brief run by Tony Dunne on the industrial future of food and lab-grown meat (a staple of the newspaper columns in 2005). This presentation comes from a two week exploration that also involved the making of replica origami food, as shown in the slides.

From Dunne’s original brief: Scientists are developing methods of growing meat in labs using animal cells. This area of research, called In Vitro-Cultured Meat Production raises all sorts of complex issues about the meaning of food, our relationship to animals (and nature), human values and behaviours, and even taboos. [...] The purpose of the project is to explore how design can be used as a medium to draw attention to the social, cultural and ethical implications of ‘cultured meat’.

2) Metal phone (Nokia Personalisation), 2005. This link takes you to all the postings about the project; you can start with Overview:

We’re working with practitioners of a number of different crafts to explore how their materials affect the mobile phone. We’re experimenting with the short-run manufacturing techniques available in small workshops and on desktops to look at, for example, the impact of Rapid Form Prototyping on phone housing.

3) Olinda, 2007:

For the past month we’ve been working on the feasibility of Olinda, a DAB digital radio prototype for the BBC (for non-UK readers: DAB is the local digital radio standard, getting traction globally). That stage is almost over now - oh and yes, it’s feasible - so now’s a good time to talk. 

Olinda puts three ideas into practice: 

  • Radios can look better than the regular ‘kitchen radio’ devices. Radios can have novel interfaces that make the whole life-cycle of listening easier. At short runs, wood is more economic as plastic, so we’re using a strong bamboo ply. And forget preset buttons: Olinda monitors your listening habits so switching between two stations is the simplest possible action, with no configuration step. 
  • This can be radio for the Facebook generation. Built-in wifi connects to the internet and uses a social ‘now listening’ site the BBC already have built. Now a small number of your friends are represented on the device: A light comes on, your friend is listening; press a button and you tune in to listen to the same programme. 
  • If an API works to make websites adaptive, participative with the developer community, and have more appropriate interfaces, a hardware API should work just as well. Modular hardware is achievable, so the friends functionality will be its own component operating through a documented, open, hardware API running over serial.

What Olinda isn’t is a far-future concept piece or a smoke-and-mirrors prototype. There’s no hidden Mac Mini–it’s a standalone, fully operational, social, digital radio.

The hardware API link above is well worth following. I'd also recommend Jack's three posts: Drawing Olinda, Olinda interface drawings, Olinda connections

4) Comics

Jack blogged his Interesting talk here — and lists the comics and authors he admires most. The slides of his talk are here. The wonderful Will Burtin image (drawn from a rifle manual) can be found in Burtin vs. Ellis/Williams, where Jack discusses it in relation to one of my all-time favourite images — page 5 of Desolation Jones #1 by Warren Ellis and J H Williams III. Warren Ellis has written about this image on his blog, quoting from the original script:

Pic 1: Surreal moment: Jones looks out the passenger-side window and there’s a thick RED LINE taking the place of the road, running alongside them – a massively magnified version of the kind of line that describes roads on maps.

Pic 3: AERIAL SHOT: The car is small in this shot, and it’s driving down a red line that describes a road, and now the rest of the map, of greater LA, is visible all around it… 

Warren Ellis 


Look at the way the red line connects the sequence. The line morphs between road markings, Indiana Jones style aerial map views and back to the light trails from the vehicle. Williams guides your eye through the page, setting the page’s pace and rhythm. Optically it is very clever, it deals with how your eye scans at speed and also stitches the cue into the content of the panels. …

Burtin and Williams both use letters and images, in a sequence, on the page, and expect them to be read in two different ways: First in overview and then in detail. They deal with arrangement, pace and rhythm with the same sensitivity and same language. 

Comics are in everything.

Finally, Jack spoke about the work of Shintaro Kago

Mr. Kago is what you’d call an ero-guro artist — that is, he specializes in bizarre and oftentimes disturbing manga with a hefty amount of blood, nudity, gore and violence. Don’t let this discourage you: I think what I find most interesting is the way he challenges paneling conventions. The idea of paneling in comics is to find the most ideal way to lead the eye of the reader in order to communicate a story. Mr. Kago pushes this to the limit. In his work “Abstraction”, Mr. Kago even goes a step further by integrating his experimentation with panels into the story in itself by making it a part of the plot. Read Or Die Weblog

image image  


My thanks to Jack for a wonderful talk. Here are a couple of bonus leads for all who came to hear him:

Warren Ellis » A Useful Quote:

“Science fiction is a way of thinking about things.” – Frederik Pohl 

Which may seem like a small notion. But it’s possibly the best working definition of sf I’ve yet come across, insofar as it does the crucial business of inviting the body in front of you to consider sf as a tool with which to understand the contemporary world.

The Pinocchio Theory » Sex + Love With Robots:

More precisely, SF (and nonfiction futuristic speculation as well) is a tool with which to understand those aspects of the contemporary world that are unfinished, still in process, and therefore (as it were) redolent of futurity. SF and futurism are vital and necessary, because they make us stop and look at the changes going on all around us, breaking with the “rear-view-mirrorism” (as Marshall McLuhan called it) that otherwise characterizes the way we tend to look at the world. That’s why I find it indispensable to read people like Bruce Sterling, Jamais Cascio, Charles Stross, Warren Ellis, and so on. The line between science fiction and futurist speculation is an extremely thin one (and some of the people on my list, most notably Sterling, explicitly do both). Extrapolating the future is necessarily a fiction-making activity; but we can’t understand the present, or be ready for the future, unless we go beyond empirical fact and turn to fiction.

Life in hypertext

My laptop needed some repair work. Limping by on a school machine during the day was made more than bearable by having the use of an iPod touch the rest of the time and access to an N810. None of these are my own. Of the three, the iPod touch is a revelation — so easy to use, the Gmail interface is (as of now) outstanding and surfing the web on it is often a joy. I don't yet know the N810 well enough to comment about it, but one thing that lets the iPod touch down is the laboriousness of entering text. I look forward to putting the N810's keyboard through its paces, but somehow I doubt it will prove as comfortable to use as the E70's thumb keyboard. The E70 is simply the best device I've ever owned for texting.

As ever when my laptop's down, I learn things. One thing I learned this time: wireless, mobile computing is getting pretty enjoyable all of a sudden. Like everyone else, I now want to try the Asus EEE. These are all devices we need to trial in school.

Meanwhile …

William Gibson (my bold):

One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody's going to google everything in the text. So people--and this happened to me with Pattern Recognition--would find my footprints so to speak: well, he got this from here, and this information is on this site.

(Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine — 1998, pdf: "Google is designed to provide higher quality search so as the Web continues to grow rapidly, information can be found easily. In order to accomplish this Google makes heavy use of hypertextual information consisting of link structure and link [anchor] text. Google also uses proximity and font information. … The analysis of link structure via PageRank allows Google to evaluate the quality of web pages. The use of link text as a description of what the link points to helps the search engine return relevant [and to some degree high quality] results. Finally, the use of proximity information helps increase relevance a great deal for many queries.")

II  Adam Greenfield:

… the book is an obsolete mediation between two different hypertext systems. For everything essential is found on the page of the researcher who writes it, and the reader who studies it assimilates it into his or her own blog.