Just another weblog

Constraints and creativity

I love a good paradox.

I’ve been reading Mark Boulton’s excellent book on designing for the web, which I’ll review when I get a chance.  I was struck by his insistence that constraints (using a grid, using the standard sequence of point sizes for type, designing in shades of grey) enhance creativity rather than diminish it.

Unbridled freedom, the awesome terror of a blank piece of paper, is almost guaranteed to bring about writer’s block (or painter’s or whatever). I suspect that’s one of the main reasons we love to create rules.

Next time you feel your well of creativity drying up, impose some arbitrary rules on yourself—suddenly you’re working to a brief, and the results will flow again.

When it comes to photography, some of my favourite tricks are:

  • Use only 1 prime lens (or set your zoom once and leave it). Now you have to think about composition and viewpoint much more carefully. You’ll also learn to love the wide apertures and quick focusing.
  • Do everything manually. Get back to basics: focus, and set shutter speed and aperture, manually instead of trusting your camera. The extreme version of this is to take out an old “manual-everything” camera and use the sunny-16 rule. Might seem weird, but I guarantee you’ll learn more about light doing that than you ever will with £1,000 worth of DSLR.
  • Shoot only black and white, in camera. This forces you to think about light and tone instead of colour, which will do your shots a world of good. Learn to see the world black and white.

Often it’s too much choice, not too little, that hampers our creativity. Find ways to limit your options and you’ll be amazed what you come up with, and how much you learn along the way.


Filed under: photography, , ,

The quotable Seth Godin

I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes some bloggers, tweeters, and sundry other social media mavens so popular. Apart from some obvious tricks, such as being Stephen Fry, what can we mortals do to emulate them?

Without resorting to devious SEO tactics, the best way is clearly to have good content. But I think it needs to be a certain type of content. Reading through my work blog the other day I discovered that, although I’m quite proud of the points I’m making, there are very few pithy, quotable, lines.

Contrast that with Seth Godin, whose blog posts never fail to make me want to quote them, tweet them, and send them to everyone I know. It’s all about making a point (often a well-established point) in a pithy, “sticky”, quotable way. He has a knack for making me think “yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say”. God I hate him.

The lesson for me, and most bloggers,  is to keep working at quality content but also learn how to package ideas like a marketing genius. We can’t all be Seth, but I suspect we should try. In many ways we have less to learn from what he says than from how he says it.

Filed under: Blogging, , ,

Lux – a

So I’m finally making some progress on my typeface project. I’ve decided, wisely or not, to start with the lowercase a—a tricky letter if my sources are to be believed. Why? Because it seems to me to be one of the letters that is crucial to setting the tone and character of a typeface.

I knew that I wanted a typeface with an old style feel, so I started by playing around with a calligraphy pen to get a feel for the shapes and angles.


I liked the thick-thin contrast, but clearly that would have to be toned down a bit for a usable text face. I also liked the spiky tail and the sharp angle at the top. Time to start doodling in the Moleskine:
Hmm. Not great, but I think I know where I’m trying to go—just my drawing skills letting me down.

Next I took the last sketch, scanned it in and starting smoothing it out in the Gimp. When I was reasonable happy I autotraced it in Illustrator, then imported it into Typetool for some tinkering.

Having spent the next week moving editing points backwards and forwards I fear this is going to take the rest of my life to get right. Oh well. Here is my latest effort, still very very rough:

Filed under: Typography, , ,

More “Words in Their Hands”

Some more scans from “Words in their hands”.



not one of all the uncanny controlling-devices has even a flicker of the expressiveness of the human hand

Caster operator

Caster operator

lifting that one particular ‘matrix’ (intaglio master-letter)
out of that row in the loosened matrix row

Filed under: Typography, , , , ,

Words in their hands

I just have to post some scans from a wonderful book I picked up a little while ago in a second hand bookshop. It’s called “Words in their hands” and is a limited edition book produced for “friends” of the Cambridge University Press at Christmas.

It combines beautiful photographs (and my scans really don’t do them justice) by Walter Nurnberg with quirky little descriptions by Beatrice Warde. This is the photo facing the title page:

Facing page

Facing page

And here is the illustration for the Compositor, with the epigram by Warde reading

literally ‘touching type’ and unconsciously revealing the preciousness of what the type hands forward



The whole book is just wonderful. Over time I may scan some more of the pictures, which really give a sense of the artisanship that went into producing books the old-fashioned way.

Filed under: Typography, , , , ,

Essential free software

It’s pretty much de rigeur to post lists on your blog. Especially lists of free and open source software. I’m going to make it a very personal list of the free software I could not live without.

The obvious:

  • Ubuntu (OS) – the linux distro your mum can use—it’s perfect for me. Easy to use with plenty of power under the hood when I feel like braving the terminal.
  • Firefox (crossplatform) – yes it’s the best browser (I believe). More to the point it’s a platform that allows you to radically improve your experience on the web, and your productivity. Add-ons like Firebug, the web developer toolbar, mouse gestures, Adblock, NoScript and Stumbleupon are what I really miss when I’m forced to use another browser.
  • (crossplatform) – will it replace Microsoft Office? Not in the workplace any time soon, but it’s great at home. Personally I slightly prefer the word processor to Word, but I can’t really get on with the spreadsheet or the slideware.
  • GIMP (crossplatform) – not quite a Photoshop replacement, but not far off. Both its promoters and detractors tend to exaggerate, but it more than meets the needs of an amateur photographer like me.
  • Audacity (crossplatform) – great audio editing software. Massively over-specced for my needs, but does the job nicely.

The slightly less obvious:

  • Inkscape (crossplatform) – useful vector graphics editor, with SVG as its native format. It may not be an Illustrator replacement, but it’s being actively developed, and has come on leaps and bounds since I first used it three or four years ago. More than enough for my needs.
  • VLC Media Player (crossplatform) – if there’s a theme in this list it’s for small applications that do one thing extremely well. This is the perfect example—portable, easy to use, comprehensive codec support, it just works.
  • 7 Zip (Windows) – great little compression/archive package. Free, integrates into the shell nicely, and supports a wider range of archive and encryption formats than the archive manager built into the shell.
  • f-spot (Gnome) – excellent photo management software for Linux, with basic editing built in. Supports Flickr and Picasa uploading, amongst others.
  • Notepad++ (Windows) – my favourite text editor for coding. Has all the features you want (like syntax highlighting, regular expressions etc.) without them getting in your way.
  • Filezilla (crossplatform) – great FTP client.
  • Foxit reader (Windows) – a superb replacement PDF reader, small portable and fast. Using this is SO much nicer than Adobe’s bloatware.
  • Password Safe (Windows) – started by the legendary Bruce Schneier, this is a handy little application which securely stores your passwords and related details, protected by a master password.
  • Irfanview (Windows) – small, fast image viewer. Also has nice features like the ability to package a slideshow as a standalone .exe file.
  • Rawshooter – sadly now defunct since Adobe bought Pixmantec. I’ve yet to find a real replacement for this.

The, frankly and undeservedly, obscure:

  • celtx (crossplatform) – stunningly good “media pre-production” software. Even if you just see it as screenwriting software I think this is better than any of the commercial packages I’ve played with…plus it has useful web-based backup and collaboration tools. Marvellous.
  • Mozilla Ubiquity (crossplatform) – I believe this is a glimpse into the future of web browsers. A natural language command line to perform common web tasks (searching, translating, defining, tweeting etc.) in the browser. Try it – you might love it.
  • EasyPeasy (OS) – formerly UbuntuEEE, this is Ubuntu customised for netbooks. Using it has transformed my experience on my Asus EEE. Highly recommended.
  • Q10 (Windows) – ultra-minimalist, portable writing app. A full-screen text editor with a highly customisable appearance, but very little in the way of distractions. Encourages you to get on with writing.
  • ToDoList (Windows) – much more powerful than you might think at first glance. For me the perfect cross between a to do list and project management software.

I think it’s interesting to compare this with the astonishingly short list of commerical software I couldn’t live without:

  • NeatImage (Windows & Mac OSX) – easy to use, powerful and flexible. This is the best noise-reduction software I’ve used, and it costs a measly €25.
  • PTGui (Windows & Mac OSX) – frontend to Panorama Tools, a programme that helps automate the tedious process of stiching photos together to make a panorama. Does what it does very well, though not cheap at €79.
  • Typetool (Windows and Mac OSX) – sorry but Fontforge is just not fun to use. Typetool is a nice compromise for those of us that can’t justify the cost of Fontlab (its professional sibling). At $99 it’s hardly a rip-off for what is a capable and polished product.

There are so few reasons to pay for software these days…except your conscience. I try to donate, where possible, to the developers who create the applications I can’t live without.

Given time more and more open source applications will overtake their commercial rivals in features and functionality. I think that’s a much better future than torrenting a cracked version of Photoshop, laden with malware.

Filed under: Lists, Open source, Software

Is this really too much to ask?

I know exactly what I want from an MP3 player. I have a couple of hundred quid burning a hole in my pocket for the manufacturer that ticks all the boxes. At the moment Apple come closest, but no one offers what I want.

The list is very simple:

  • Reasonable filetype support (MP3, AAC, ideally OGG)
  • A fairly large hard drive (min. 40GB, 60+ would be nice)
  • A small form factor because…
  • …a small screen

Let me just underline the importance of the last one. I just want to listen to music, I don’t want to watch movies on a shitty iPod screen. Does anyone, really? I can’t believe the Dark Knight is really that much fun on a miniscule (even if pretty) screen, listening with earbuds in the back of the bus.

All the “audiophiles” who drone on and on about the iPod’s inferior sound quality are missing the point that there is NO portable device designed for listening to music on. The Cowons et al have screens that are even bigger than the bloody iPod. It drives me up the wall.

If Apple built a 40GB Nano I would buy it like a shot…until then I’m going to have to go on steaming with rage. Why is the world obsessed with devices that do everything badly? I like gadgets that do one thing well—I want a phone that’s a phone, a camera that takes usable pictures, and an audio player that’s designed for playing music. Grr.

Filed under: Rants, , ,

Project 1: Lux

One thing I’ve decided to use this blog for is to document the creation of my first typeface. Bit by bit, letter by letter, I’ll be posting updates as the font—which I’m calling “Lux”—comes along.

I’ll post everything I can, as long as it seems interesting. My aim is to document the entire process from initial sketches through to setting up kerning pairs, including all the redesigning along the way. Hopefully it’ll serve to show the evolution of an idea—for me if no one else.

As soon as Lux is getting towards usable I’ll be posting it here as a free download.

Filed under: Typography, , ,

Yet another blog

So, just as blogging fades into a distant memory of pre-lifestreaming nostalgia, I’ve decided to start one up. Maybe my mum’ll read it?

Filed under: Blogging