Founder’s myopia

Just before Christmas, John Lanchester had a good essay in the LRB, Let us Pay, ‘on the future of the newspaper industry’. It dealt very well with the crippling expense and economics of the physical product and all that that means (something Horace Dediu also tackled late last year — ‘one wit remarked that a newspaper is nothing more than an instrument that permits the depreciation of a printing plant’).

Here’s something from Lanchester’s piece that I’d not heard before (it’s probably very well known):

In some ways, the story of text messaging is a parable for the way the net has evolved. SMS messaging was taken up by Nokia in Finland as a way of allowing engineers to communicate short, factual messages about where they were, what they were doing and how long it would take. Nokia then made the service available on their phones, since, well, there it was, so you might as well let the punters have a go. They were amazed to see the spike in data traffic which suddenly showed up. The reason: Finnish teenagers were using SMS to organise their social lives. From there, texting hasn’t looked back. Nobody decided what the purpose of SMS would be, it just evolved.

(He goes on: ‘It would be hard to deny that texting is a new thing; also hard to argue that it has fundamentally changed the world. I’d say that’s roughly where we are with the journalistic uses of the new media. Their democratising and decentralising effects have barely begun, and aren’t going to go away.’ Both he and Dediu — ‘the medium needs its Orson Welles’ — look ahead to the Murdoch online-only paper, the Daily.)

And here’s Janet Abbate on email (Inventing the Internet, pp 106–111):

Email (initially called “net notes” or simply “mail”) made an inconspicuous entry onto the ARPANET scene. Since many time sharing systems provided ways for users to send messages to others on the same computer, personal electronic mail was already a familiar concept to many ARPANET users. By mid 1971 … several ARPANET sites had begun experimenting with ideas for simple programs that would transfer a message from one computer to another and place it in a designated “mailbox” file. … Email quickly became the network’s most popular and influential service, surpassing all expectations. … From ARPA email began to spread to the rest of the military, and by 1974 “hundreds” of military groups were using the ARPANET for email …

The popularity of email was not foreseen by the ARPANET’s planners. Roberts had not included electronic email in the original blueprint for the network. In fact, in 1967 he had called the ability to send messages between users “not an important motivation for a network of scientific computers” … Yet the idea of electronic mail was not new. MIT’s CTSS computer had had a message feature as early as 1965, and mail programs were common in the time sharing computers that followed …

Why then was the popularity of email such a surprise? … The rationale for building the network had focused on providing access to computers rather than to people. … The paradigm of resource sharing may have blinded the ARPANET community to other potential uses of the network. … Email and mailing lists were crucial to creating and maintaining a feeling of community among ARPANET users. … Even more important, mailing lists allowed a virtual community to take on an identity that was more than the sum of the individuals who made it up … [providing] a way for people to “meet” and interact on the basis of shared interests, rather than relying on physical proximity …

In the process of using the network, the ARPANET community developed a new conception of what networking meant. … the network planners … did not anticipate that people would turn out to be the network’s most valued resources. Network users challenged the initial assumptions, voting with their packets by sending a huge volume of electronic mail but making relatively little use of remote hardware and software. Through grassroots innovations and thousands of individual choices, the old idea of resource sharing that had propelled the ARPANET project forward was gradually replaced by the idea of the network as a means for bringing people together. Email laid the groundwork for creating virtual communities through the network. Increasingly, people within and outside the ARPA community would come to see the ARPANET not as a computing system but rather as a communications system. Succeeding generations of networks inspired by ARPANET would be designed from the start to act as communications media. By embracing email, ARPANET users gave the network a new purpose and initiated a significant change in the theory and practice of networking.

We teach about the unexpected rise of email in our first year ICT course — adding in, for good measure, John Vittal’s 1975 addition of Reply and Forward. We also point out that no-one foresaw the appeal of SMS, but it’s lovely to be able to include that story from Finland.

And here’s something else in the same vein (again centring on our love of communication) that makes a point about invention. I’m reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and early on there’s this about the early American rural telephone companies (chapter 3):

The Independents, rooted in the farms and small towns of the West, were innovators, but of a conceptual kind, not the technical kind à la Alexander Bell. They saw a different world, in which the telephone was made cheaper and more common, a tool of mass communications, and an aid in daily life. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce, but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, ‘With a telephone in the house, comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.’

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another. Obviously there was no privacy, but there were benefits to communal telephony other than secure person-to-person communications. Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances. …

And so, while the Bell Company may have invented the telephone, it clearly didn’t perceive the full spectrum of its uses. This is such a common affliction that we might name it “founder’s myopia”. Again and again in the development of technology, full appreciation of an invention’s potential importance falls to others—not necessarily technical geniuses themsleves—who develop it in ways that the inventor never dreamed of. The phenomenon is hardly mystical: the inventor, after all, is but one person, with his own blind spots, while there are millions, if not billions, of others with eyes to see new uses that had been right under the inventor’s nose. … it was simple farmers in the early 1900s who pioneered the  use of the phone line for broadcasting long before the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s.


from ‘Nonobject’, Branko Lukić

— from Nonobject, Branko Lukić & Barry Katz

Telling the difference between constraints and the limits we impose on ourselves (or accept — compromises?). We surely need to be continually shaken out of ourselves in order to assess and reassess that one.

Nothing that shakes us should be spurned, be it ever so small.

Bonding with the reader

Another cardboard package, but without the Amazon name. And inside:

'Tree of Codes'

What a pleasure to find a book wrapped and presented like this. Visual Editions.

'Tree of Codes'

'Tree of Codes'

From the publisher’s microsite for the book: ‘With the story literally carved out of another book, Tree of Codes has a different die-cut on every single page. Telling the haunting story of “an enormous last day of life”, it is a book that looks every bit like it feels: unlike anything else.’

'Tree of Codes'

'Tree of Codes'

If you’ve not yet looked inside a copy for yourself, you can read more about it, take a peek at the publisher's photo set on Flickr or watch this video by Jonathan Safran Foer — ‘I hope the Tree of Codes in some ways contributes to this conversation that we’re now having about what’s possible with literature and what’s possible with paper’:

I use Amazon a lot for books. With Amazon, I’m in the world of the utilitarian and the books I get often bear all the marks of having been handled with a complete lack of interest in the object, the thing itself.

The experience of buying, receiving, opening, reading and learning about Tree of Codes is another thing entirely. (It makes me think — again! — about what a book is for and what you can do with one, what publishers are for and the varying reasons why you might want to follow their work. And … paper!) Few publishers have ever sent me a book presented with as much care and love.

I was nervous, trying to video flicking through the book, lest my thumb caught on the paper and snagged or tore it. But what a pleasure to handle this:

Never finished, rarely simple

Last week, at a user meeting held by Firefly, Andy Reid, our Network Manager, and I spoke about the way the St Paul’s website has been developed over the last couple of years. A summary road map may be of interest to friends and to colleagues in other schools, and this is a story that certainly feeds in to some topical issues.


In brief and in diary form, with a few notes at the end, the work to date:

  • Summer term 2008. Discussions going on over some months about how we could improve our site are brought to a head. We draw up a short list of prospective designers and agencies with whom we might want to work. Small, in-house group formed for website development, including me, Andy, John Barlow (webmaster-to-be of Colet Court’s site — Colet’s our junior school), our Director of Studies and Deputy Head, and the Heads of both schools. Work of the short-listed companies reviewed; two companies invited to meet with us. Initial feedback indicates our existing site has lots of scope for improvement: visual design could be much more interesting and the information architecture needs attention. Beginning of summer holiday, Clearleft selected: they have the track record of achievement and the range of in-house expertise we need. At this stage, we are clear a good, local design service could give our site a face-lift for 10K; a top agency, working from and focused on user experience, might cost anywhere from 15–20 up to 40K, depending on the work required/requested. To keep these sums in perspective, we compare the cost of a prospectus and annual information booklet over a four year period (the probable life of a new web design before it might need to be overhauled extensively).
  • September–December 2008. Planning and research. User research (involving: selection and recruitment of suitable user volunteers; testing of feedback about existing site; subsequent testing and feedback about new site); competitive analysis; content analysis (spreadsheets of content and pages); creation of personas. Workshop: Clearleft learn about St Paul’s, uncover much more about our goals for the redesign and what we think makes us distinctive; we all consider how the site will develop over time. Here’s a shot of some of our affinity diagram work (KJ Method) — this ‘helps groups reach consensus on what the most important aspects of a product should be’*:
    Affinity diagram work

    We discover personas: ‘research-based documents that describe typical users. … they get people talking about user experience and how to design a website for customers’*. Profiles built of key users, leading to creation of user stories, in turn leading to compilation of a feature-and-function list which, in turn, means we can better deliberate priorities and cost implications. User experience design phase: card sorts (users reveal how they group topics: ‘card sorting can help you understand how users form relationships between concepts and allow you to create a shared vocabulary from the results’*), the understanding of the journeys users (will) make through our site. Information architecture work leads to a new site map and we receive a spreadsheet of how the old content and structure map to the new, along with the final site map. First meeting with professional copy writer. Initial work on copy, including interviewing pupils.

  • December 2008–January 2009. Usability and testing. Wireframes (‘A wireframe is a low-detail representation of an interface. It omits colour, image detail and other visual design specifics, providing instead a simple inventory of what’s on the page and how it should be laid out’*) built for key pages, providing clear guidelines for both design and build and a platform for usability testing. Usability tests lead to further refinement of the wireframes. This phase brings together the needs of the users with the goals of the school and proceeds iteratively. In this way, we can create and refine a site with a cohesive look and feel.
  • February–July 2009. Final wireframes. Final sitemap and old-to-new content maps. Visual design (developed by James Bates): intensive work and development of concept, coupled with intensive photographic work. Final design proofs. Completed front-end build: HTML/CSS templates (pattern portfolio) delivered.
  • Summer holiday–September 2009. Software development: Firefly, our existing content management system, is developed considerably to provide for the new site. Intensive back-end integration also undertaken in-house.
  • Autumn half-term 2009. First version of site launched, privately. Steep learning curve for all. Further developments to Firefly and continued extensive in-house development of back-end integration with databases in our MIS (iSAMS). Photographic work continues, including new aerial shots.
  • Late Autumn 2009–Spring 2010. Full revision of copy and completion of most new photographic work.
  • April–May 2010. Feedback from Clearleft about our implementation as we go, leading to changes in our methods or Firefly or both. Launch.
  • June–July 2010. Enhancement of copy and photography (this never stops). Completion of videos for 16+ entry.
  • August–September 2010. Revision of homepage image and small-screen optimisation.

(School holidays prolong the re-design process and one of the challenges is managing the project over these gaps. Things gets easier as we near completion, but in the earlier stages the full group of people involved does need to be available for key decisions to be reached collectively. Added to this, we are developing two sites, St Paul’s and Colet Court.)


This has been the largest and most collaborative project I’ve been involved in, engaging the attention, time and skills of a distributed group of professional designers, our home team, our photographer, software developers and others over many months. The work of so many people was critical to the project’s success. (Communicating with and coordinating this distributed team went on through meetings, via email and Basecamp, and by phone.) I am grateful to all our team (mentioned above), and also for the indispensable work of our in-house developers, Simon and Zar, who oversee much of the back-end integration. Great thanks is owed to Jonathan Player, our photographer — unstinting in his efforts to get the shots we need. Clearleft’s work speaks for itself and they have been endlessly helpful, creative and astute. Hugely experienced, they have guided and grown this project every step of the way. At Firefly, Joe Mathewson, in particular, has done extensive work in developing Firefly’s capabilities. He was immensely patient as we bombed him with feature requests and bug reports.

Cennydd was Clearleft’s project and UX lead and his book (quoted above*), Undercover User Experience Design, is subtitled, ‘Learn how to do great UX work with tiny budgets, no time and limited support’. That alone should make schools buy a copy. It’s on my desk now and comes highly recommended.

Finally, we’ve all learned a lot more about CSS and HTML. If you want to explore things further, there’s Andy Budd’s (Clearleft), CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions. Jeremy’s (also Clearleft) new book, HTML5 for Web Designers, makes a complex thing seem alluringly approachable.


At the Oxford Firefly meeting, I said that the small-screen optimisation we asked Clearleft to effect is a first step as we think about the life of a site in an increasingly small-screen-accessed, “mobile”-accessed world. As Jeremy has put it, ‘The choice is not between using media queries and creating a dedicated mobile site; the choice is between using media queries and doing nothing at all’. Jeremy’s set out his thinking about responsive design in a number of very recent posts on his blog: A responsive mind; Delivering Sorrow; Responsive refresh; Responsive enhancement.

Last week, James Pearce picked up on this work and the responsive design initiative, and both Cennydd’s and Jeremy’s comments there, along with some other, excellent contributions (eg, Max Flanigan: ‘whilst CSS media queries may not represent a single revelational panacea for mobile, they do represent a step in the right direction. One that if taken more often can be iterated further’), repay thoughtful attention. We knew we weren’t trying to build a mobile site, and we’re well aware that media does not simply equal context.

St Paul’s is unique in my experience in having not one but two full-time, in-house developers on its IT team. Most schools I know don’t have one, and where they do have someone it’s almost invariably a talented individual who programs and develops in his or her spare time. Factor in the budgets schools can throw at this and the difficulties of developing a separate mobile site might seem insurmountable. All the same, we need to be thinking about these issues and, as I’ve said to James privately, it’s very useful to have his mobile-centric take on where we are now and what additional, cost-effective, smaller changes might help.

The way forward is going to take some thinking about. My ha’p’worth:

  • I'm seeing some rapidly changing behaviour around devices and their use. Just look at how things have developed since we first commissioned Clearleft in 2008 to do the re-design! Every day, there’s evidence of the greater and greater use of “mobile” devices (very notably, iPads, of course, so often sighted around London, on tube and train) and what we know of how these then get used in the home tells us that the shift away from desktops is now very significant. Whereas even recently “mobile” devices did seem to mean ‘a few moments’ of use in a busy life, this is no longer an adequate summary of how they’re being used.
  • Moreover, one of the fascinating things about the iPad is the way it makes a computer a social thing. Evidence of this came in very soon after its arrival. Here’s a scene I see now a lot, but this was back in June, in one of our main desktop-provisioned rooms:

    iPad social 

    And it’s not just around games, of course: the easy, intimate, sociable way we can gather around that screen with its 178° viewing angle … Once experienced in class, you realise things have changed. A decision as important as private education may be served better in some ways via a shared iPad than via a desktop — one person sitting at it and others having to stop what they’re doing and come and stand behind the viewer in order to have any part in the experience.
    So the context and manner of “mobile” use is changing very fast for us (we’re of course London-centric). “Mobile” is often noticeably immersive now, not simply briefly dipped into, and also often shared.
  • Another complication, as Jeremy points out in a comment to James’s post, ‘Large screen size does not equate to large bandwidth’, nor small to small.
  • There’s the difficulty of who the site is for (primarily). If we prioritise the “delivery” of news or calendar for a mobile device, will the primary audience be best served (remembering the rapidly changing patterns of user behaviour)? And how well will users adapt to changes in navigation?
  • And finally, how many taps/clicks from the homepage is too many to get to a phone number? It’s currently one.

Interesting days. Perhaps, as James says (in the comments to his post), ‘There will soon be a time when mobile users are be considered first, and their sedentary brethren as an afterthought. One day, I think the desktop browser will be the trade-off!’. Right now, for a few hours of work, the media query approach is a very good option to take and then run with. The paint has barely begun to dry on the small-screen optimisation of our site. In its short life, it's yielded delight and pleasure. Inevitably, it involves compromises and we're very interested in the UX considerations, the context of use and user.


Over the summer, I was re-reading some of Brian Eno’s essays and thinking again how what he said in a Wired interview (with Kevin Kelly) in 1995 about things not being finished really fits our times. It’s rather out of context here, but it works for me now when I think about building a site:

The right word is “unfinished.” Think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished.

Recently, I saw Chris Messina tweeted this:

Chris Messina tweet 19 Sept 10 That chimed, too, and made me think back to Dan Hill’s telling comment about the birth of Monocle (2007):

… it’s both thrilling and sobering to see how the creative and industrial process of making a magazine has been honed to streamlined effectiveness, given a few hundred years’ practice. Sobering, as it makes new media seem a clumsy, gauche ingenue.

So it gave me real pleasure, when I was thinking about writing this, to read again,

The launch or redesign of a website is the beginning of the story, not the end. We provide ongoing support, analysis and strategy towards improving and adding to existing functionality based on real world use. — Clearleft

Our attention is now turned, as it should be, to building and developing the site further, to thinking responsively ( :) ) about small screens and mobile users and to enhancing as much as we can (within the constraints of budget, competing claims and available time) the experience of people using our site.

‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write ... I shall never overtake myself’

I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term … the pattern becomes clear. — Tom Armitage, ‘Telling Stories’ (Reboot 8, Copenhagen, 2006) (pdf)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months paring and pruning, trying to focus more closely on the things which really matter to me. I’ve got something to put down here soon about attention and curation, but before this new year runs away with me and everything, yet again, tilts Tristram Shandy–wards, I thought I might look back, sum up, take stock (a bit).

Here’s something I wrote for our annual school magazine about last year’s talks. (It goes over some of what I’ve written about here during 2009–2010 and I’ve given the links, in square brackets, where that’s the case.) It's very … potted.

ICT Talks 2009–10

This year, our talks continued to cross disciplines. We kicked off with Andy Huntington (RCA graduate, designer, musician) on interaction design [see 20.9.2009 entry]. In Digital Ground (MIT, 2004), Malcolm McCullough set out how interaction design ‘studies how people deal with technology — and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century’. Andy, who has worked on interactive objects and experiences for clients from the BBC and the Science Museum to Nokia and the Bartlett School of Architecture, talked us through tapTap (‘The system is built up of individual knock boxes. Each box has its own memory and is completely self-contained. As you tap on the top of a box, the box waits for a few seconds and then taps back what it has heard. If you want more you add another box, and another, and another, tap, tap, tap’) and Beatbox (‘a physical programmable drum machine’). Later in the autumn we were delighted to welcome Usman Haque, architect and co-founder of Pachube (‘store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world’):

Usman Haque

The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other. We no longer think of architecture as static and immutable; instead we see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant. Our projects explore some of this territory. — Haque Design + Research

Playing with tapTap and Beatbox, thinking how objects are now interacting with us through the internet, reflecting on how we can use Pachube … Ubiquitous computing has well and truly arrived and, as McCullough foresaw, educators need to address interaction design as a matter of urgency.

Also in the autumn, Adrian Hon came to talk about his games company, Six to Start [see 30.9.2009 entry]. He began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the striking role now played in our lives by online text. The main part of his talk focused on We Tell Stories — a project developed for Penguin: ‘six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks’. Adrian, who left a career in neuroscience to co-found Six to Start with his brother, sets great store by narrative: ‘Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves’. His ambition for games is, indeed, remarkable: ‘Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world. … It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities.’

Professor Chris Frith, FRS, talked about how our brain generates emotions and thoughts and he was followed soon afterwards by Professor James Paul Gee, the distinguished American scholar, on games and learning. In his book, Making up the Mind [see 22.9.2009 entry], Frith argues that, ‘on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating’. In Gee’s thought, the world of a complex game mirrors the functioning of the mind: ‘We run videogames in our heads’ [see 30.10.2009 entry]. At the heart of his critical understanding of games is the idea of situated meanings and their role in learning. Games are about problem-solving. Today’s problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. Today, we must be able to work way beyond standard skills, learning how to be part of a cross-functional team — a very high order skill common to play in many games.

Another theme this year has been how we are living in a time when information is becoming more accessible. We welcomed Timo Hannay, publishing director of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing, to talk about open science and in March we had the opportunity to hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [see 22.3.2010 entry]. Timo spoke about the nature of early scientific publishing and the rise of the expensive (and therefore relatively inaccessible) specialist journal. He explained projects he has helped to develop at Nature, including Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists, Nature Network (a social network for scientists) and Nature Precedings (‘a platform for sharing new and preliminary findings with colleagues on a global scale’). Jimmy, arriving straight from Heathrow, spoke to a packed hall on the origins, vision and role of Wikipedia. One thing to emerge from this very well-received talk: about 80% of the students present had edited Wikipedia. Next day at a Guardian conference for heads of media, the same question from Jimmy revealed that only about 30% of that audience had edited the online encyclopaedia.

Another highlight of the year was the chance to hear Stewart Brand and Brian Eno talk about the Long Now and Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand & Brian Eno
The idea of the active intellectual is very important, Brand said, and we’re very pleased that St Paul’s is the first school in the UK to join the Long Now and engage with its commitment to long-term thinking and sustainable living. This takes us neatly back to Pachube and the way we interact with technology. The future requires that the young grow up learning about the history of technology, of man’s long journey of inventiveness in manipulating nature and of the possibilities, for good and ill, that lie in this relationship we have with our world.


One of the things which brightened up our Christmas holiday was the arrival on 23 December of these datadecs:


(After years of large trees both real and, recently and unappealingly, fake, we were given this wee-but-living tree. As one of our sons said, ‘Not so much minimalist as miniature’. Give it time.)



A lovely present: many thanks to Russell, Tom and Ben at RIG, and to Andy — who writes,

For Christmas 2009 the Really Interesting Group wanted to create a a gift comprising a series of 4 unique decorations based on each recipient’s use of the Flickr, Dopplr, and Twitter. Having used a couple of the software APIs they were thinking about using (flickr and dopplr) and with experience of rapid prototyping we worked together to turn the data into something physical. … Three of the four Datadecs are laser cut and one is rapid formed. For the laser cutting I developed a series of Processing sketches to generate cutting paths and the snowmen were generated using RhinoScript.

As Phil summarises it:

The snowman’s head size represents the number of followers I have on Twitter. The cloud and its rain represent my year’s trips on Dopplr. The blue shape shows the apertures of my photos on Flickr. And the red shape is the amount of music I played during the year, got from

More about these datadecs and their making in Andy’s post, and see, too, RIG’s page about them, Twitter mentions and Flickr tagged photos.

Very struck by these. Julian Bleecker: ‘this association between things materialized and things quantified is really significant’.

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tapTap and Beatbox

A very great pleasure last Thursday lunchtime to welcome Andy Huntington to St Paul's — to talk about his work as an interaction designer and artist. Part of a strand in our talks that seeks to show how computing is now intimately involved with the creative arts as well as the sciences, Andy’s talk both explained the background to his approach and interests and gave plenty of opportunity for hands-on engagement, focusing on tapTap and Beatbox, as the pictures show.


tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox

Experiencing the shared delight and pleasure in the room when tapTap left the realm of talked-about-concept and leapt into life under Andy’s hands was just great. Toy + game + interaction + music. Play and enthusiasm.

Lots of good feedback about this talk. Thanks, Andy.

We hope to be doing some follow-up, inter-disciplinary work with Andy.

Colin Banks

In the same graveyard, beside the Grigsons, lies Colin Banks, son-in-law to Geoffrey Grigson.

Colin Banks

The gravestone is the work of Incisive Letterwork:

Colin Banks bought our dual text slate ‘Inceptis Gravibus’ at our exhibition The Ground Beneath our Feet in 2000. He had apparently had his eye on it since the Spirit of the Letter show at the Crafts Council in 1989.

We first met his wife Caroline when we went to fix the slate on their garden wall in Blackheath, memorably for us, in the pouring rain. We were really honoured to see it there as we had long been admirers of Colin’s typographic work.

After Colin died Caroline contacted us to discuss the possibility of making his headstone. He is buried in the churchyard at Broad Town in Wiltshire next to their daughter Frances whose greenslate headstone had been carved at the Kindersley studio. Caroline wanted a companion stone but not a facsimile. This meant taking into account the proportion of the stone, tall and narrow, and the overall feeling and spirit of the place and Frances’s memorial. When we delivered the stone to the church rain was again bucketing down.

In 2006 Caroline asked us to carve a stone for her mother, Geoffrey Grigson’s first wife Frances, who is buried in the churchyard at Pelynt in Cornwall. Caroline’s grandfather is buried close by and his memorial was carved by Eric Gill. She suggested that we use the same stone, Delabole slate, and the same shaped top to imply the family relationship. Many years previously Colin himself had made a preliminary drawing for this stone. Caroline felt she would like something of its flavour to be expressed here and provided a copy of his original drawing for us to look at. We used his lettering style but made it bolder for carving purposes. The layout was started from scratch. After trying to make the stone look like Gill’s and not succeeding because of the wording, it almost inevitably grew into a tall and narrow memorial. We simplified the top and used a carved line to echo the moulding on the Gill stone. In the end the relationship was there and the stone has a contemporary look rather than being a copy of something from the earlier part of the twentieth century. On seeing the stone in place Caroline wrote to say that Colin would have approved. — Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling: Threads of lettering 

The Independent’s obituary placed Colin Banks in that disciplined tradition of designers, ‘a craftsman schooled in hot metal type’, opposed to ‘quick-fix tactics’, ‘greatly influenced by the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose principle typographers were stonemasons’: ‘His death does not so much bring down a curtain on an evocative era of well-crafted British graphics but serves to remind us of the continuing relevance of typographic standards and social compassion in design today’.

It was in a printing class at Maidstone that he met his future business partner, John Miles. "We took up typography," recalls Miles, "because we thought we'd make the world a better place. There was a huge amount of idealism in the early 1950s and Colin was very idealistic indeed." … Banks made many trips to India, working with local agencies on schemes for rural sanitation, cooking, schooling and low-cost artificial limb manufacture, always ready for the next challenge, always eager to show how design can be a force for good. He also lectured widely in Eastern Bloc countries before access was easy.’

Three years ago, my neighbour, formerly the printer at Libanus Press, moved to Cornwall and asked me if I’d like to buy a large book (folio) he no longer had room for, London’s Handwriting. The book was the work of Colin Banks (I knew very little about him then), honouring the work of Edward Johnston, and subtitled, ‘The development of Edward Johnston’s Underground Railway Block-Letter’. I still haven’t really digested this monument of a book, very beautiful in itself and the result of such evident attention, passionate knowledge and close observation. I love the simple dignity of Wikipedia’s current opening to Johnston’s entry: ‘Edward Johnston, CBE (11 February 1872 – 26 November 1944) was a British craftsman’ … Johnston would surely have admired the craftsmanship of London’s Handwriting.

The book bears an epigraph from Firmin Didot, ‘the punch-cutter in 1783 of the first true ‘modern’ face Roman type’:

For we must not confine ourselves to perfecting the art in the sphere of luxury … but rather we ought always make it serve the public good.

Colin Banks must have invested so much in London’s Handwriting. For one thing, his love for his subject is so clear: ‘The wider importance of Edward Johnston’s work is based on his single-handed rediscovery of the medieval techniques involved in writing with a broad-nibbed reed pen. … His book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (1906) became the vade-mecum for all future letterers and typographers.’

He touched many future designers by a laying-on of hands from generation to generation: we are all his children. This unbroken human chain was all the more important as his philosophy of his work was not collected together and published until 1986, forty-two years after his death. This philosophy is exerting considerable pull on the current revival and interest in crafts and deserves a separate study.

We lingered in the churchyard that afternoon, talking and thinking about what these people have come to mean to us, and about this place.

Towards the Broad Town White Horse


Notes (for next time) …

It won my affection very early on: cosmopolitan, easy-going, alive with street life and cafés, art and music. It felt simultaneously safe and louche — and very, very European. History was obvious in nearly every street we walked. The area we were living in and exploring, Kreuzberg and its neighbourhood, is relatively poor and lacks pretension. It was easy to unwind there — and this despite that always present sense of the past and its burdens. A worldly city, urbane, accommodating, with a thin crust between the day-to-day and the life underground that is the past or the lot of the marginal. (The lobby area to our local U-Bahn always had one, sometimes two, much-the-worse-for-wear guys making little attempt to hide their role as drug peddlers: taking written and spoken messages hurriedly passed to them by people coming off a train or based in or near the station, like someone out of The Wire they would read or listen, rush off — or nod and carry on mumbling to the U-Bahn passengers as they flowed out of the station.)

Safe and louche, then, but with a whiff of something more just off-stage, somewhere over there …

Volkspark Hasenheide

We came home to tales of systematic car burning: Berlin's luxury car arsonists - Boing Boing. More here. And here.

So what have I taken away this first time round? Far, far less fraught than London (I could probably live in Berlin, but London would exhaust me) and with none of Paris’ self-satisfaction, it’s still re-creating itself after so many decades of the most traumatic history. Cranes are everywhere, buildings are going up, coming down, being re-purposed or awaiting their time. There’s a wealth of cultural life and diversity and much evident (relative) poverty. It’s a strikingly student-centric city and a place where ideas still matter and are actually … discussed. (How refreshing.)

We rented a flat a stone’s throw, we discovered, from Blu’s work:


I found a couple of videos of these being created:

(Blu; Blu in Berlin, 2008, here and here; JR.)

The NYT has a 2008 piece about Berlin graffiti, One Wall Down, Thousands to Paint (and they have a video, Graffiti in Berlin, here):

The city’s skyline might be defined by a Sputnik-era TV tower, bombed-out churches and the ghost of a certain wall that once split the German capital. But its streetscape is largely molded by graffiti. … The roots of graffiti culture can be traced back to West Berlin in the early 1980s, when the American-occupied sector was the reluctant melting pot of anarchist punks, Turkish immigrants and West German draft resisters. Kreuzberg, a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, blossomed particularly well, with miles of wall space and little police scrutiny.

We walked a lot. Not because of the S-Bahn drama (my thanks to Chris and Paul, through delicious, for these links, there to greet me when we arrived :) — Economist, The Local, World Socialist Web Site) but because we enjoy that: it lets you get to grips with a city at a level of intimacy that matters. I thought I knew about the wall, but the reality of it (the 43.7-kilometres, the path it took, its utter centrality) is quite staggering. Lots to choose from on the web: “Berlin's official Internet site”, Berlin International, was useful — Where was the Wall?; The Wall inside the city; Aerial views of the Wall from 1989.

1989, Brandenburg Gate

Talking with friends and then placing the divided city in the divided Germanies (‘to a West Berliner, everywhere was East’) took us mentally to the Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing:

The Border checkpoint Helmstedt–Marienborn (German: Grenzübergang Helmstedt-Marienborn), called Grenzübergangsstelle Marienborn (GÜSt) (border crossing Marienborn) by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was the largest and most important border crossing on the inner German border during the division of Germany. Due to its geographical location, allowing for the shortest land route between West Germany and West Berlin, most transit traffic to and from West Berlin was handled by the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing. Most travel routes from West Germany to East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia also used this crossing. The border crossing existed from 1945 to 1990 and was situated near the East German village of Marienborn at the edge of the Lappwald. The crossing interrupted the Bundesautobahn 2 between the junctions Helmstedt-Ost and Ostingersleben.

View Larger Map

Back in 2004, we drove to Krakow. One day, I’d like to drive to Berlin, taking the Helmstedt–Marienborn route. Driving these very non-UK distances, crossing land fought over and carved up, again and again, brings home the history.

Amongst other things, we saw the Stasi Museum. The building, numbingly dull, drained the joy from that particular afternoon. If it had been fiction, it could have been laughed off (I heard someone else say, ‘This is all like James Bond’), and it took us a while to fathom the reality behind this:

Yes, the Stasi Had a Giant Smell Register of Dissidents.

I was 10 when George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, an event which made enough impact on me then for this to pull me up short:

At the Stasi Museum 

Back home, I was delighted to hear again Tom Bower’s 1980s documentary about Blake:

For 18 years, Blake served as a trusted and senior MI6 officer. But secretly, in 1952, he became a double agent, betraying MI6 operations and personnel to the KGB. Over the course of nine years, at a critical period of the Cold War, he destroyed most of MI6's activities in Eastern Europe. 'I don't know what I handed over', he admitted, 'because it was so much'.

More, and more links, at Stasimuseum Berlin - Stasi headquarters.

We didn’t go to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the main remand prison for those detained by the Stasi. I think we should go to these places but, although it didn’t reduce me to tears (unlike the information centre at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), the Stasi Museum was life-sapping enough for this brief stay.

We did go to the Soviet War Memorial, about which I’ve made various notes on Flickr. Immense, and immensely moving (7,000 men). Much to learn here.

Memo to self: dig out a copy of Deyan Sudjic's book The Edifice Complex and read the chapter Geoff Manaugh rates, ‘The Long March to the Leader's Desk’. (And is that red marble story true?)

Museum island, of course, and lots to explore another time. Google Maps for Berlin is not keeping up with the pace of change: the map of the area around the Palast der Republik, that area between Schloßplatz and the Lustgarten, confused me. Thanks again to Chris for the link which explained all — Brokedown Palast, a 2006 film about the Palast der Republik by Clockwise Media:

How best to respect, or remember, the past and move on?

CCTV sign, Frankfurter Allee            View across Frankfurter Allee to Karl-Marx-Allee: "a monumental socialist boulevard built by the young GDR between 1952 and 1960" (Wikipedia)

In a spot which has become subsumed into a rather tawdry, touristy area, the outdoor exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie does a good job of bringing the history to life:

Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986  Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986. Friedrichstraße

The New National Gallery has been given over (until 22 November) to an exhibition, Dream Images, of surrealist and early American abstract expressionist works in the private collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. From the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin site:

The Pietzsch Collection ranks as one of the internationally most significant collections of Surrealist art, with principle works by André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, as well as numerous works by other artists more broadly connected to the Surrealist movement. A second important core aspect to the collection lies in works by the Abstract Expressionists in America, whose art movement rose directly from the roots of Surrealism to flourish in the New York of the nineteen-fifties. Works by important figures who have since become legends in their own right, such as Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman are all represented in the collection together with works by the great Mexicans Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

FT review is online.

I was particularly taken by the fragments of ‘Capricorn’ (1948), included near casts of the complete piece:

ernst_capricorn  (from

From The Burlington Magazine:

In an interview with Patrick Waldberg he [Ernst] announced with refreshing candour: 'Painting is like chess: you have to give your whole mind to it. You live in a state of concentration that is almost unbearable. But with sculpture I can relax. I enjoy it, the way that I enjoyed making sandcastles on the beach when I was a boy'.

From the LA Times:

His sculptural tableau, "Capricorn," incorporated various ethnographic influences visible in exaggerated body proportions and serenely simplified faces. But the piece also was uniquely an Ernst creation, a paean to impromptu inspiration. Everything was pieced together from cement casts of odds and ends: milk cartons cast and piled on top of each other to make the king's scepter (also reminiscent of Brancusi's undulating "Endless Column"), eggshells for the queen's downcast eyes, a cello (harking back to Cubist still lifes) for her body. Like most of his other sculptures from the '30s and '40s, this piece was seldom seen publicly until it was cast in bronze years later (in this case, in a slightly different form). … The sensibility that informed these large and small three-dimensional works was the same puckish, deliberately irrational and willfully inventive spirit that earlier led Ernst to make collages of bizarre encounters (based on illustrations clipped from magazines), fantasy drawings based on rubbings ( frottages ) from pieces of wood, leaves and other materials, and dreamlike paintings. What we tend to forget is that these sculptures also represented a revolutionary way of viewing the human body, beyond traditional Western representations of ideal or actual human figures. During the first few decades of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Ernst and others dared to raise the curtain that separated polite, normative behavior from secret and "forbidden" thoughts and actions.

The photo of Ernst and Dorothea Tanning with the sculpture (in Sedona, Arizona) is terrific:


One reviewer commented:

This is a truly historic exhibition, not only because it marks a rare example of the activities, against the odds, of two sophisticated post-war German collectors, but mainly because it represents the transition of great modernist art from Europe to the USA and in so doing commemorates the incalculable damage the Nazis managed to effect upon Germany and Europe, and almost on the rest of the world, too, and finally because it represents the triumph of artistic creativity over totalitarian orthodoxy.

I’d like (almost) to end on this note of play and creativity triumphant.


Berlin, a city emergent, the contours of its past so evident, its new form not yet settled. In Berlin, I was very much aware of a living history and of living in history. Leszek Kolakowski died last month and these much cited words of his came back to me many times during our time in Berlin: ‘We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are’.

My photos are online.

leaving Berlin: dawn at the Hauptbahnhof

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