We are all fallible

I don’t want to gloat over other people’s mistakes. But I can’t help but having a warm fuzzy feeling every time I spot a mistake in a graphic made by one of the major newspapers. It is a comforting reminder that people working for the global big shots like the The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, etc., are just like the rest of us.


Here’s what I found from The Times on Wednesday this week (June 19 2013), on page 41. This Business section story talks about global shipping business and its challenges. The graphic offers a combination of information including a map of core maritime shipping routes. They have decided to include bottlenecks along the routes.

Oresund2I can’t comment on the accuracy of the number data. But one very simple thing was evident to me. Øresund is definitely not in Finland! 😀 It’s a strait between Sweden and Denmark.

You might say that naturally the big players are capable of making mistakes too, it’s kind of self-evident! But it is so common to forget that simple truth and think that we “little people” from smaller countries and in smaller companies are somehow categorically different. People belittle themselves and often justify their mistakes by exaggerating the difference. “After all, we are not The Times or something,” is a common phrase.

Also, in my experience, most students have a very glamorised image of people in the big companies. They tend to put them on a pedestal. Now, I don’t mind putting people on pedestals if they earn it. But just because someone happens to be working for Company X is not enough in itself.

Many also seem to hold a view that if you keep climbing from company to company, then one day you will be in a place that is perfect. When you reach that candy mountain, you will have all the resources you have ever wished for. And you’re not going to make any mistakes anymore! 🙂

*ahem* …or you finally reach that university where bureaucracy and organisational idiocy is not going to screw up your work all the time, and the people are actually intelligent and open minded… *ahem*

People are people. No matter where they are and who they work for. And also companies are always imperfect. In the end, it’s not about finding the “golden company”, but finding the one which offers you the best compromise between benefits and responsibilities. And that will always be subjective.

Charts instead of tables please

When you are trying to get a point across using numbers, show us the point, don’t make us calculate and compare! Again it’s time to talk about the Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Yet another great reading experience which suffers from flaws in the way information is presented visually. Brian McNair’s book News and Journalism in the UK has provided me a sober and easy starting point to the inner life of British journalism.

I especially enjoyed the way McNair introduces the various sociological schools of journalism research. I think that chapter would benefit not only journalism students but also generally all students of design or communication etc. who are trying to wrap their heads around concepts like Marxist media criticism, social construction of reality, the dumbing-down of culture and so on.

My only problem lies in the tables the book contains. The 4th edition (Routledge, 2003) that I got from my library has 8 tables and I think all of them could have been made into bar charts. Or at least turn the most important numbers in them to charts. And from what I can see from the Amazon preview, the problem remains in the 5th edition.

Some of the information is so simple, that the tables are pretty sufficient. Like the one on newspaper ownership (image below). It’s ordered mostly from the biggest to the smallest and the numbers are relatively small and easy to grasp. Nevertheless, adding a chart would make it even better.

But where I really noticed the problem was where McNair makes a point through comparing numbers in a table. It’s not a major point in the book, and if you’re feeling bored you can just skip the table take McNair’s word for it. He talks about how John Birt affected BBC’s news production and popularity in the nineties:

In terms of ratings ‘Birtian’ journalism certainly appeared to make a positive impact on the British viewing public. By late 1989, for example, the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News was on occasion recording audiences of 12 million, as compared to 6 million for ITN’s News at Ten, a pattern of dominance that was repeated across the news schedule, though not usually in such stark form (see Table 5.1.). (page 107)

So, check out the table yourself (below). See how easy it is to see how the “pattern of dominance is repeated across the schedule”.

Did you get it immediately? I didn’t. Yes, of course I did get it in time. But it’s such an easy point, that when I finally did, I felt kind of cheated or bothered. “Why did I have to spend so much time and effort on such an elementary point?!” How much time did you spend on it?

Perhaps you glanced it quickly hoping to return to the text. But when it didn’t make sense immediately, you had to devote a few more glances to it. And perhaps you also had to do a kind of mental switch from understanding text, contexts and the society, to understanding abstract numbers.

There are several ways you can turn that table into a chart. The solution depends on what one wishes to emphasise, space & color constraints etc. I thought that the point was to show that the BBC’s programmes were dominating in all the different time slots, such as main news, early evening news, midday news and so on. Below you can see one solution I might propose. This version omits the precise numbers but who needs them anyway? What the reader needs here is the point that BBC’s news programmes are doing better than ITN’s, and he or she can still approximate the numbers from the bars if necessary.1

This should be in McNair 2003, page 107

Okay, in this particular case “much time and effort wasted” is relative and actually not that much. It’s not like you’re trying to understand Wittgenstein or the national budget. We are talking about few glances, a handful of seconds.

Never mind the actual time it took in seconds. What I’m talking about is that feeling you get. That even if it was not really a big effort, you are annoyed that you had to do a little more than you felt was justified or necessary.

And that’s the key point in all design. Think about badly designed handles, mugs, chairs, doors, windows. Whatever. It might be an insignificant door knob or other invaluable mundane object. But you are reminded of its clumsiness each time you touch it. It might slightly irritate you each time. Perhaps several times every day.2

And that clumsiness and irritation drags your thoughts from whatever important thing you had in your mind – your job, your children, your ongoing relationship crisis, your happiness – demanding your attention to the silly mundane object.

Design is about minimising the effort of the user. Making the user feel comfortable. That’s what some fields of design call usability, ergonomics, etc. And here we can call it information design.3

In a book the designer is bound to a two-dimensional surface. But he or she still has a vast amount of resources which can be used to maximise the usability of the page and thus minimising the effort and irritation of the reader.4

  1. I would also like to change the headline, but here I’ve kept the original one for consistency. I mean, who’s interested in “figures”?! The variable is the “audience” or “viewers”. The figures themselves are just abstract entities used to express their quantity. []
  2. This is why the difference between pc:s and Macs & iPads is so significant. If I have to use a computer constantly it should be as painless as possible, and not raise my blood pressure every 30 minutes. []
  3. Some might call it graphic design, but I’m not using it because all too often that seems to lead to worsening the usability because it tries to be expressive or artistic. Information design always aims to maximise the usability and clarity. []
  4. And don’t try saying that “maybe they didn’t have a designer”. It’s a book you’re holding. How do you think it materialised. Out of thin air? []

Shocking Japan quake images – all two thirds of them

Right now the tv is offering great footage from the earthquake in Japan. We can watch live how the tsunami waves roll in sweeping away cars and houses. We can truly sympathise with the pain the Japanese are experiencing. Unfortunately, we get to see only slightly over two thirds, about 70 percent of the vivid images.

The lower third of the image is covered by the info panels where the main information seems to be that this is BREAKING NEWS. At best this is repeated three times. Yes, the image is a composite from several sources but nevertheless we, the viewers, get to enjoy all those flat colours and texts screaming BREAKING three times instead of the actual breaking news images.

It is especially annoying in shots where the focal point of the whole composition is clearly just under the panel. In the fire images we are left looking at the smoke plumes. With the rolling waves there’s also the problem that the movement should have some space to go to.

But luckily at least it is video image. So sometimes the camera moves enough to reveal what’s really going on. And these unfortunate shots are swamped with good ones. But they create this frustrating feeling that obviously there is all this great footage and we are just teased with it.

I just wonder do the tv channels nowadays bother telling the cameramen they’re going to cover one third of the image with panels? I wonder how frustrated he or she feels if  he/she compares the original footage to what was broadcasted. And as it really is such breaking news with such vivid imagery, do we really need to see the info panels all the time?