Ramblings, findings, opinion and the occasional fact.

Latest: UI designers could learn from the real world.

#7: Symmetry

Everybody likes symmetry. It provides order, doesn’t need expert knowledge to recognize and promises easy access. While my German self loves this look of order, I get bored very quickly when things are so predictably arranged. 

On balance, so I have concluded, symmetry may be a bad thing.
Loved by dictators, shunned by libertarians,
the perfectly symmetrical place simply doesn’t feel right.
Symmetry is easy.
Putting a picture or a line of type smack in the centre of a page
is an easy default, aided and abetted by software
that provides guidelines to snap the element into position.
Centred arrangements in typography are predictable and static.
If they are well-done, they look decorative;
if not, they come across as authoritarian.
Symmetry is boring. 

After the First World War, artists and designers felt the need for more dynamic expression, symbolizing progress, the future. They turned to asymmetry. Some of the statements from movements such as Dada or the Futurists sounded as if asymmetric layouts were the solution to end strife and struggle. Printing pamphlets, books and posters designed according to the new rules of typography would, somehow, make the reading public ready for a new society. Centred arrangements were seen to represent the old order, a kind of typographic monarchy, with things becoming less important from the top down.

Designing plans for a city is like arranging toys, with architects playing God. The easiest thing is to place everything symmetrically, following a grid, be that made of squares or concentric circles or both. One look from above (which wasn’t so easy before aeroplanes or Google Earth) at Versailles or St Peter’s Square shows how tidy these plans are. From the ground, however, the impression ordinary people – everybody except architects – get is one of feeling small and insignificant. Which was exactly the effect both the absolute King of France and the infallible” Popes wanted to achieve. Disagreement, let alone contradiction were not options with this architecture. Hitler’s Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg also celebrated absolute symmetry, as did his and Albert Speer’s plans for post-war Berlin. Cities that need centuries to grow, ending up full and messy, did not suit the plans of the dictators who wanted to exercise and express absolute power in their lifetime. No wonder, then, that the public spaces planned and built by the likes of Louis XIV, Hitler, Stalin and Kim-Il Sung never have cafés lining them.

Now take a look at the spaces that do make us feel at home, make us want to spend time sitting in cafes and watching children play. They are all asymmetric. The Grand Place in Brussels, although rebuilt at the height of absolutist rule, is slightly curved on all sides of its rectangle. You would never know that if you stood in the middle of the large square, looking at all the grand buildings with their impressive facades. The syntax of its construction is not evident, but somehow the scale feels just right. 

The best example for a large public space with human proportions is probably the Piazza del Campo in Siena, the city’s beautiful scallop-shaped market square. Not only do the buildings follow a very weird curve around its perimeter, but the square’s floor is shaped like a shallow bath-tub. If you set out to walk towards the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico which dominates the space, you soon realise two things: it is nowhere near the centre and its entrance is a whole floor lower than the street surrounding the square. It takes a lot longer to get there from one of the cafes around the side than one first thinks, because of the way the floor is shaped and the distance is visually foreshortened by lines of stone that fan out from the tower side of the square. If you travel to all the other famous cities in Italy, you’ll soon notice that all their central squares feel comfortable because they follow the same pattern: they always dip at some point, never have a geometrically measured centre and always have a circumference that defies easy definition from a pedestrian standpoint. Why is it that the English language only has the word square” to describe these places that aren’t?

A page can also be seen as a square in the architectural sense. Its elements are letters and words, line spaces and margins instead of buildings and blocks, streets and squares”, and it is always easy to arrange them all in a predictably symmetric manner. To make a page feel approachable and eventually easy to read, these tectonic elements need to find their natural position. Language has its own rhythm, and as typography is visual language, a designer has to understand that rhythm in order to express it with black and white marks, with words and the spaces in between. Pure symmetry will hardly ever do.

#6: The Leech Effect


It’s time to face up to the reality that, when a theory’s been proven not to work, it’s time to dump it, not keep on with it just because there isn’t a new one to follow. 

If you don’t understand why countries can go bankrupt, why banks are deemed too big to fail, or why day traders make profits from goods that don’t even exist – you’re in good company. Our politicians are equally clueless. Opinions are offered from all sides, their common denominator being that nobody knows what will work or what will make the damage greater still. There is no new theory available to explain the situation, only followers of known theories. Theories never collapse under the weight of their own failure. They only collapse when a new theory comes along. While there isn’t one in sight we feel powerless. We do not like what not knowing feels like. We are no good at admitting our ignorance. For years, American Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was revered as a demi-god of financial knowledge. When in 2008 the financial markets collapsed Greenspan suddenly realised that he had been wrong and – unlike most politicians – he even admitted his failure. He told the Congressional Committee that the whole intellectual construct collapsed’. Asked whether his view of the world, his theory, had been wrong, he simply answered: Yes, precisely.’ He was referring to the theory of it being possible to steer the economy simply by controlling the amount of money in circulation. So we have it on record from a former authority that this theory does not work, and yet Western governments have been sticking with it. The only reason seems to be that no-one has offered an alternative, at least no-one with any authority. For centuries, certain financial deals had worked without there being any theory at all. Long before economists had received the Nobel Prize for working out the exact mechanism behind derivatives and other options, these were being bought and sold at the Amsterdam stock exchange during the 1600s, what the Dutch call the Golden Century’. They used most of the tricks still around today, albeit following common sense and their instincts. Easy enough, one could say, when there were only a few traders, they knew each other and news travelled at the speed of sailboats. In the 400 years since then though, things have become so complex that even traders admit that no one understands what is going on. Computer programs decide what will be a profitable deal and when to make it. The slightest hitch will throw the whole complex, interconnected machinery into chaos. We have seen that and still no one will admit that the system is not sustainable. 

This lack of admitting ignorance in view of the overwhelming evidence as to the failure of the system reminds me of the good old medical practice of bloodletting. Not because I would compare modern bankers with leeches – I wouldn’t dare! – but because that practice went on for centuries without the slightest shred of evidence that it brought any benefit to the poor patients. It was based on an ancient theory and it lasted so long because a new one hadn’t come along. Well into the 19th century letting blood was based on the humoral theory which proposed that, when the four humours – blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile – in the human body were in balance, good health was guaranteed. An imbalance in the proportions of these humours was believed to be the cause of ill health. 

Bloodletting was supposed to redress the balance. A man comes to the doctor who cuts open the artery on the patient’s lower arm and drains about a pint of blood. The man faints but will have to go through this procedure another five times, after which he lies on his bed with six deep cuts in his arms and pretty much half-dead. Now the doctor puts leeches on to the wounds which slowly suck out more blood. When they’re full until they almost burst, they are replaced by hungry new leeches. This goes on for six weeks or more until the patient is released – if he isn’t dead by then. For centuries the medical establishment had noticed that most patients did much better without having leeches administered. But they didn’t have a better theory, so they stuck with a practice that was ludicrous and outright dangerous. The humoral theory is a striking example for all theories that deal with complex systems, be it the human body, cities, war, eco-systems, companies or the financial system. We do not give up a wrong theory when it has proven to be wrong, but only when a new one has come along. That may not be rational behaviour, but it seems to be prevailing. Let’s call it the Leech Effect.

#5: The mean average

Sometime in the 60s we heard the news that now every third citizen of the world was Chinese. I remember turning around in the classroom to count the people behind me, but when I pointed my finger at them, doing the one-two-threes, they all looked just as they had done before our teacher told us that fact. I was very disappointed and haven’t believed any statistics since then. At the time I hadn’t heard the famous dictum There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”, which was – probably wrongly – attributed to Disraeli by Mark Twain.

The first thing I had to learn is that the term average” may be very familiar, but not correct. When we add the points (perhaps of a test) and then divide that sum by the total number of marks we got, we might call that the average mark. Statistically, however, this is the Mean! I still have no idea why that makes a difference, but then I never wanted to become an MBA, let alone a statistician (I can’t even pronounced that word without having three attempts at it, on average). We are all so familiar with that operation that I don’t need to spend valuable words and figures here on an example. But I have to introduce another term before I come to the practical part of this piece. This would be the Median, the middle value. If you have a list of numbers, say 9, 2, 48, 12, 15, you line them: 2, 9, 12, 15, 45, smallest to largest. As this is an odd amount of numbers, the Median is 12, the number in the middle. In an even line of numbers, you add the middle numbers and divide that sum by 2 (i.e. the mean of those two numbers).

Enter a rich man

Now for a practical example. Say you’re on a train with 49 other passengers when George Soros enters, one of the richest men on earth. How does that affect the average income of the people on that train? By a few percent? Let’s look at that example closely: Let’s presume that each of those 50 people who happen to be on the same train have an income of $67,521, which happens to be mean household income (after tax) in the USA for 2020. Add a presumed income for the additional passenger of some $250 million (I have no source for that) and the mean income for everybody on the train shoots up to $6350 and 54 cents. The expression average” makes no sense anymore at all.

Let’s take the same 49 people and put them on a bus. Then enters the fattest bloke in Britain (The Sun)” who weighs in at 980 pounds, or 444.5 kg for us metric people. How much does our average weight go up? A few percent only? Yes, if the average was 75kg without the man from Ipswich, his added bulk brings it to a mere 80kg. 

Never cross a river that has an average depth of one meter”, 

says Nassim Taleb, an essayist who runs a website www​.fooled​byran​dom​ness​.com and who offers similar examples to the ones above. That river can be only a few centimeters shallow over long stretches but turn into a fast water, ten meters deep in its middle. The average disguises the distribution and you would drown.

The world is becoming too complex to be explained in simple terms like averages of test marks. How many visits does an average website have? There is no such thing; a few gigantic sites like Google or Facebook attract the bulk of all traffic while billions of the rest share whatever little is left. Extremes dominate the distribution and the concept of average makes no sense anymore.

What is the average bonus of a banker? When between 5 or 8% of all men in the US have admitted to being homosexual, there should be at least 75 of them in the National Football League with its 1500 or more players. How many people live in an average town? What is an average war? Do you measure the length of the conflict or the amount of victims? Is there such a thing as average weather? The average UV radiation on a normal summer’s day is perfectly harmless. If you, however, spend all your summer in a dark office in front of a screen and then fly to a Greek island to lie in the sun for a week, you’ll have a problem although your average exposure to UV light has been less than that of somebody who spends a lot of his time outside. 

Can you measure the average success of a marketing campaign? And is there such a thing as an average marketing campaign? How many fires are there on average in your part of the country? All it needs is one to burn your house to the ground, but luckily, the insurance company will also look at the average likelihood when they work out your premium. (Houses do burn down, I had it happen to me, against all odds. And I wasn’t insured because I thought such an event highly unlikely.) Would you advise your kids to become actors because a few stars make millions per movie? Millions of actors, on the other hand, wait tables. The average income would look quite good, the chances to get there do not.

Average means below best

As the examples demonstrate, we should be very careful when it comes to using the word average” or mean” to explain anything. As long as average is used in the colloquial sense of below best”, we know what to make of it. But in cases where a few extremes dominate, the average means nothing.

#4: Language is currency

You cannot not communicate.

Language has its own currency in various continents and cultures. Working across its barriers offers an insight into the importance of communication as a tool for business and identity. As you, dear reader, may have gathered from the occasional Teutonic harshness and less-than-subtle tone, I write this in a foreign language. Foreign to me, that is. Writing in a foreign language comes with a few caveats: I cannot make references to local – in my case German – politics, nor local sports, and I certainly can’t make puns that translate seamlessly into English. Communication across languages and, thus, cultures, is more of a problem than people who have never had to speak or understand anything other than their mother tongue can imagine. Having to forego certain puns only hurts my ego, but failing to be understood across language barriers can have serious consequences for institutions and companies alike. The first question is what language to use when speaking or writing to people from other countries. English has been the lingua franca of international business for a few decades, but not forever. Diplomats and Post Office administrations around the world used French as their common language well into the 20th century. An example of which can still be seen on diplomatic number plates: CD’ stands for Corps Diplomatique. Before the First World War, most scientific publications were written in German. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity in German, his native language. Likewise Max Planck, considered the founder of quantum physics, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen is still known in Germany for his discovery of the eponimous rays, which became known as x-rays to the rest of the world, Röntgenstrahlen in Germany. This is not only an early example of clever branding, but also the result of his name being impossible to spell on non-German typewriters in 1901, when he received the first ever Nobel Prize in Physics. To non-German readers he is known as Roentgen. 

Which ancient site did Heinrich Schliemann excavate in 1873? He called it Troja (pronounced Traw-yah in English), you know it as Troy. The Greeks called it Troia, as did the Romans. Today, the site is in Turkey and called Truva. So what is its exact name? Many places have different names in different languages. München is also known as Munich or Monaco de Baviera, Vienna is Wien in German, Vienne in French and Wenen in Dutch. Do you know where Mailand is? It has two football clubs: Inter and AC. Why is it Milan in English but Milano in Italian? Does anybody know a place called Aix-la-Chapelle? It is where Karl der Große was crowned in 800 AD, aka Charlemagne, although at that time French did not exist as a language. Latin was the official lingua franca of governments at the time, and he went by the name Carolus Magnus. Today that city is Aachen, or Aken in Dutch. All this may be confusing, but not dangerous. No international crisis will break out over confusing these names. 

But when it comes to Romanisation, things get quite political. Is it the Koran or the Qu’ran? Al-Qaeda, al-Qaida or al-Qa’ida? Mumbai or Bombay, Peking or Beijing? In 1972 the United Nations published a standard document for the Romanisation of languages that are not written in the Latin alphabet. There are rules for transliterating Arabic, Hebrew, Khmer and other languages into English. But what about those people who don’t know how to pronounce English? If you write Al Jazeera, a German would need to read Al Dschazirah. The j-sound is pronounced like a y’, and a double-e is just an e’ as in red, or read, or bed. Even some English movies have subtitles in the US – not just those with Scottish or Geordie protagonists, but also those with Cockney dialogues, as in the 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Younger people in the Netherlands and Scandinavia tend to speak English with an American accent; they grew up watching TV series and movies from Hollywood. Dutch friends of my generation can quote the complete Dead Parrot sketch from Monty Python because that is what they watched in the Seventies. In Germany, Italy, Spain, and many countries outside Europe, foreign movies are dubbed with the local language, but for smaller countries that isn’t worthwhile. People from smaller countries on the fringe of Europe are even prepared to give up the correct spelling of their names. Göran has to be content with Goran – the Internet does not like umlauts or other accents – or even with being called John, the English equivalent of that name. Johns in other countries could be Johannes, Hannes, Hans, Iannis, Jannis, Jean or Giovanni. My name is Erik, which should be pronounced Eh-rick, with a long e’, as in dead but longer. I used to protest other pronunciations, but I’ve given up.

Call me Eric, as long as you spell it with a k’.

No accents in the English language

#3: The first sentence is the most difficult one…

It was a dark and stormy night when the worst first line was written. Now the future’s bright: we have the technology to create as much meaningless corporate codswallop as we want.

Once I know what topic I want to (or have to) write about, the most critical decision becomes inevitable: how to begin? No evening class in Creative Writing, no journalism course fails to mention how important the first sentence is for the impression a text makes upon the unprepared reader. Norbert Miller, a German literary historian, published a collection of essays about what he called this radical decision’. The first sentence compresses the infinite space for reflection into a finite object, settling on one version out of a multitude of variations and possible strategies. Consider these alternatives: It was a dark and stormy night.’ and One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’ The first example is by the Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who thus began his Paul Clifford. The second is, of course, from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. After a beginning like this, you know Kafka’s novel is not going to be light reading, while Bulwer-Lytton’s turn of phrase does not bode well if you’re looking for world literature. Its author gave his name to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. The team describes itself thus: The contest receives thousands of entries each year, and every summer our Panel of Undistinguished Judges convenes to select winners and dishonorable mentions for such categories as Purpose Prose and Vile Puns.”

An earlier winner, Professor Sue Fondrie from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, wrote: Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories’. If you spend any time reading press releases, this style of writing won’t surprise you, even though the topics may be less personal. Mixing as many unrelated metaphors as possible into one statement seems to be considered a high art in those circles.

Many trades have developed their own style of templated writing. You can actually find bullshit generators online that provide ready-made statements, such as this from arty​bol​locks​.com: My work explores the relationship between acquired synesthesia and emotional memories. With influences as diverse as Nietzsche and Roy Lichtenstein, new synergies are crafted from both.’ If that isn’t good (or bad) enough for your purpose, there are alternatives: My work explores the relationship between the tyranny of ageing and skateboard ethics. With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and John Lennon, new combinations are generated from both simple and complex meanings.’ Increasing levels of complexity, cliché and incomprehensibility are on offer. I am sure that there are bullshit generators for architects and designers somewhere. I haven’t bothered to look for them yet for fear of being infected. 

Before one even gets to the first sentence, though, potential readers have to pass another obstacle: the title of the book. While the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest encourages people to write original lines just for the contest, the Bookseller / Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, commonly known as the Diagram Prize, is a humorous literary award that has been made annually since 2000. The winner is decided by a public vote on the Bookseller’s website. The very first award in 1978 went to a publication by the University of Tokyo Press about medical studies using laboratory mice with inhibited immune systems, accordingly but somewhat surprisingly titled Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice”.

The 2000 winner delighted with High Performance Stiffened Structures”, published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Then there’s Highlights in the History of Concrete”, by CC Stanley, published by the British Cement Association. It stormed the Oddest Title in 1994.

The First Line is difficult. So is the ending.

What is almost as difficult as starting a text is finishing it. At the end, you are supposed to offer some closure, like answering the rhetorical question posed in the first paragraph; revealing an unexpected answer to a problem that your article had discovered, or at least wrapping up your ramblings with a phrase that would make punters happy about just having grown older by ten minutes reading it without immediate danger to their health. There could even be a conclusion that would add lasting benefit to all that intellectual activity. This time, I got to 800 words or so rather cheaply: a quarter are quotes. To get maximum benefit from reading this, you should look online for bullshit detectors and humorous literary awards. If nothing else, it’ll help against the dreaded Fear of the First Line: you can always do better than this. Chosen from over 4500 entries, the winner of the XXXIXth Lyttoniad is Stu Duval of Auckland, New Zealand:
A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare.“

#2: How to start a project

Skizze Berlin

Like everybody else, I usually have more to do than even a 36-hour day will fit in. I always scribble stuff on bits of papers, and sometimes even make lists. That may not qualify as drawing” in the professional sense, but even a few marks on paper can signify a beginning.

Drawing is the greatest means of communication for architects and designers with or without a brief. Getting the ideas on to paper is another matter, but a foolproof strategy for designing does exist. When Le Corbusier designed’ the Cabanon in 45 minutes, what exactly did he do? Did he scribble a complete building – plan, elevation and section – on to the back of that proverbial envelope? Or was it just a doodle that was then deciphered and translated by assistants who were familiar with the master’s handwriting? We all know that a quick sketch can be both the beginning of a process or the end of it. It all depends on what you call designing’. Does it only happen while actually working on paper or screen, or does a problem, a brief, or a project leech itself to the inside of your head without you even knowing it’s there? And then come out, fully developed as a building, a painting, a chair, a lamp, or a book cover? For myself, I have identified five distinct strategies to start designing. (They apply to writing as well.)

Need the car washed, emails answered, receipts filed? When the deadline already casts a long shadow on your conscience, you suddenly feel the urgent need to tidy up all those loose ends. You can only sit down to work when everything is tidy, in your mind and on your desk. I have to go through this phase every time. By now, I recognize it and use it to actually finish all these little annoying tasks that keep piling up.

Our brain is an amazing tool: unlimited capacity, works at the speed of light and is incredibly flexible. Unfortunately the problem is never lack of capacity but retrieval. We know it’s in there, but cannot find it. Just sitting down (after having cleaned up the desk, of course) and putting your mind to a problem for a few minutes is an amazing experience that we hardly ever allow ourselves to enjoy. If you do not look at emails, switch off the phone, keep your door and the books on your desk closed, you’d be surprised how quickly you start getting things sorted, in your head at least.

After a few minutes of plain old pondering the issue at hand, it can be useful to start making marks on paper. Not necessarily proper mind maps or floor plans, but anything that will still be visible a day later. Picturing thoughts, even if you cannot draw at all, is amazingly effective, especially if you have to remember what you thought about a day later or communicate it to someone else. You can buy expensive software to help with this, but I find that the time spent mastering the learning curve of a new application would be better applied to learning to sketch simple little drawings. Everybody – especially clients – loves a designer who can actually draw. As a type designer I am loathe to admit that a picture does sometimes say more than a thousand words.

Knowledge is good, and looking around for signs of other intelligent solutions to a similar task may help. Gathering background facts also builds confidence and may help convince a client. Looking at too many annuals full of other peoples’ work can be dangerous though: you either get totally discouraged because everybody else’s stuff looks so good, or you – inadvertently, of course – imitate something, often later, when you think you cannot recall anything you’ve seen.

This is an ongoing activity. I do not know one designer, writer or architect who doesn’t keep things that are interesting’. That doesn’t always have to amount to a complete collection of Braun hi-fi equipment from 1957 until today, as in my case, but anything that you could not throw away at the time survived for a good reason: it spoke to you. If you can make your collection bring back that original inspiration, you can trigger parts of your brain that may have encountered the same problem before, even without knowing it at the time. All these strategies work. One after the other, if not in the order mentioned above, but more often than not concurrently. We carry a design brief around with us all the time, not just during the hours we can actually charge a client. It just needs the right moment to manifest itself. That’s why Le Corbusier probably knew exactly what he wanted to do when he took out his pen. 

What these anecdotes fail to mention, however, is that after the first strike of genius, most of us have to spend much, much longer getting scribbles made into plans, ideas turned into prose and proposals into commissions.