Friday, 20 January 2012

Crime as Forgiven by Against Me!

In 2001 Against Me! were two people, Tom Gabel and drummer Kevin Mahon. Much has been made of the evolution of Against Me!'s sound, signing to major labels and their biggest crime; success. But let's ignore that for now.

Crime was Against Me!'s first widely distributed release, originally a four track, it is now printed with an additional two tracks.

The arrangements are raw and simple; Gabel's guitar is clean, played hard and relentlessly. It struggles at times to keep up with his shouting, hoarse voice, that even when being pushed to the point when you're convinced his throat must be coming apart, seems insufficient to persuade you of all the ideas bubbling in his head.

The drumming matches beat for beat, with limited kit and sparse fills. Each hit louder for its rarity, punch given power by space.

The lyrics are self-conscious and self-important: This is our truth, this is what you should see and must understand. Balanced with vulnerability, a lack of means and no easy future to look forward to. They can't dazzle you, but they can give you what everyone needs; company, shared experience and freedom from everything but this moment. For that, for you, they're giving it everything. I Still Love You Julie opens with:

"Last night a room full of drunks sang along to the songs I never had the courage to write… given the chance I'd stay in this chorus forever. Where everything ugly in this world is sadly beautiful…"

They admit it's a scam, a temporary reprieve, but we're never going to get anything better, no permanent safety, so why pretend otherwise? Anyone trying to sell you that is a liar.

That is the core beauty of this record. It is people struggling with limited resources to express their ideas and beliefs. Not through long dialogue but in three minutes of song. Beat and rhythm matched perfectly to bring their truth to your heart, and when you're singing back at them, they've succeeded where politicians, adverts, TV and newspapers have failed to convince.

Later success made Against Me! in to traitors with parts of their original following, major label signing lost them their 'nothing to loose' invincibility and increased their fan base. When this happens early adapters always feel slighted. For their early belief they now have to share with more people, you feel less special in a huge stadium crowd.

Bands can't be the same forever, all great artists evolve. It doesn't matter if you're Henry Mattise or Led Zeppelin. It's the acid test between good and great acts; if you don't change and just repeat the same successful tricks, then you got lucky. If you try new things, make yourself vulnerable again, sometimes failing but mostly not, then you're great.

If you can't get over a band's sound changing, that's your problem, not theirs. You don't have to go to the shows or buy the new CDs. But nothing stops you from loving the old music for what it was, and sometimes they still play it.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Simple Origami Font

I made this in Inkscape after wondering if you could make a font out of a folded strip paper.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Bristol Festival

I'm overjoyed to hear that the Bristol Festival (BrisFest) has been given the go ahead by Bristol City Council to hold the 2012 festival in Ashton Court.

Last year's festival was a huge success and I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer in the week running up to the main event and help assemble the festival at the Lloyd's Amphitheatre. Apart from one person, all the people involved in BrisFest are volunteers. I felt really privileged to work with so many enthusiastic, funny and generous people who work really hard to create something they love.
I also organised and promoted a number of fundraisers in the run-up to the 2011 festival, held at Mr Wolf's, one of the festival's main sponsors.

All the acts volunteered their time as well to support the charity, raise some money, and allow it to continue its mission to promote local music, arts and culture.

To help promote the fundraisers I created a series of gig posters. Simple black and white, with the recurring outline of a wolf's face, but each created out of different constituent parts. Each of these was designed to match the bands playing that particular fundraiser. I hoped that having a consistent theme between posters would allow people to recognise the regular events. Since a number of the places that let me display the posters would recognise the event from one month to the next based only on the poster design, I felt this was quite successful.

Many of these were kindly printed for free by a friends at Hello Blue, a Bristol based art printer.

Here's hoping that BrisFest goes from strength to strength by moving to Ashton Court and I wish everyone involved the best of luck.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Helvetica: The Film

How much difference can a typeface (1) make? If it’s loud, exciting, bright and high on impact perhaps it’ll grab your attention on a poster from across the room. But what about a subtle typeface, one that’s everywhere and the very definition of neutrality?

The 2007 documentary Helvetica covers the history of the world’s most used typeface. Starting with its invention and rise across all mediums after World War II, Helvetica was the go-to weapon against all clumsy busyness in design which the International Style was fighting. It believed that being neutral would not distract from the message conveyed. It could be used anywhere for anything.

It spread across corporate identities, each more like the last. It was used on signs to give directions, warnings, rules and advice. It spoke to you in adverts, telling you in neutral and impartial voice that you want this, now, it’s the right choice.

Then in the 1970’s a backlash started to build (2). Helvetica had become the voice of command, control, and due to converging brand identities, that of all corporations. Always telling you want to do, what you wanted and where to go. While neutral, its omnipresence made it oppressive and authoritarian.

We now seem to be mid-swing again on the popularity pendulum, with camps of designers still for or against its use and some readopting it. Using it in new ways, not set in the wide open plains of primary colours it was made for, but chopping it up, moving it, breaking the words into pieces, compressing and using it in more dynamic ways.

The reaction against overuse of a popular fashion is predictable. People become tired of seeing the same idea repeated and it looses its impact and freshness. Things which appear different in a monoculture are attractive just because they aren’t what is commonly used.

But this wasn’t the main reasons given for the reaction against Helvetica. Instead it was driven by what it had come to be associated with: corporations, authority and control. By constantly being employed in corporate identities, street signs, tax forms etc, became infused with the negative aspects of its use. What was employed purely because it was neutral, now appeared not be neutral anymore, but the minion of oppressive and controlling powers.

There is something slightly inconsistent about this line of argument. If you accept that helvetica’s popularity arouse because of its neutrality, because it can be employed anywhere and because it doesn’t distort the meaning that is written in it, then it’s hard to later pin an association on to it, without having to claim that exactly what made it popular is also partially false.

Perhaps it was more its own neutrality that led to a decline in popularity. If you can project any meaning into it, and people were looking for a lackey of authority, then helvetica becomes an easy anti-establishment target. Its neutrality means you can project your fears onto it without resistance. Suddenly you see it everywhere and it’s watching you. It’s telling you what do. If you’re worried about being bossed around or watched, what better to support your paranoia than something that can’t answer back and is everywhere?

The film is a great exploration of the meaning a font can take on and well worth watching. One item that felt a little missing was a comparison to other fonts, something that could have helped explain to the uninitiated just what makes it so special. A few minutes of film explaining to the uninitiated how it looks different to other common fonts would have been a great help.

A brief intro, and to see some of the people that appear in Helvetica, there is a great little PBS Arts short film on Typography.

(1) A ‘font’ is a subset of a typeface, but at a specific size and or font-family (bold, regular, italic etc). So ‘12-point Helvetica’ and ‘11-point Helvetica’ are two different fonts, but the same typeface. Back when printing was done with bits of metal this was a very important distinction so you didn’t accidentally painstakingly arrange a page in the wrong blocks. Now with infinitely scalable digital typography font and typeface have become mostly synonymous.
(2) The most famous is a 1976 article from the Village Voice by Leslie Savan titled “This Typeface is Changing Your Life”.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Flying Off Course

While Flying Off Course by Rigas Doganis is classic text on the subject of airline finance and marketing actually reading through Flying Off Course is hard work.

From this 2010 published fourth edition of the book Doganis' expertise on the subject is clear, even without knowing of his impressive experience to back it up.

I've learnt a few details about how airline economics tend to work, or not, as is sadly often the case. This book brought all the different elements together in a well structured manner, covering: route restrictions, airline costs, demand forecasting and product planning. It gives a very complete picture with plenty of real world examples.

While the contents was strong the writing style is often difficult to cope with. Sentences are long and unwieldy, covering too much ground without pause or adding too much detail in one go.
In many places it is also repetitive, with details from previous paragraphs reiterated needlessly. Such as in '5.8.3 Methods of Finance' when "…but governments have been loath to put in more capital to finance aircraft purchases,…" is followed two paragraphs later with "Most governments have been loath to put more equity capital into their airlines". Mostly the repetition is not as verbatim, but in many places the book feels as if it could have been made half as long while keeping all the details.

Most of the data in tables is well laid out but in some cases an additional graphic would also have been nice. There are a few graphs, and even a pie chart in the section on airline cost break downs, a few more graphics to quickly see the trends of the details given in the tables would be helpful.
In total the book feels somewhat under-edited and that no-one was challenging Doganis to be more concise. This would have helped to make details clearer in the more dense and sometimes convoluted writing used.

In the end the key messages from the book are clear:

  1. That historically airlines have not faired very well financially is due to an over supply of capacity in the market.
  2. Over-supply is mainly a result of airlines being able to easily and cheaply add more aircraft to their fleets. This is compounded by failing airlines not leaving the market, either through Chapter 11 restructuring or government intervention.

This situation doesn't look like it'll end anytime soon. Poor matching of supply to demand means that most airlines will continue to struggle to make significant profits as they try and fill spare seats.
The additional difficulty for airlines is that it's hard to differentiate your product with that of anyone else, especially if you're flying the same aircraft. To most passengers a seat is a seat, especially on short-haul flights, so the choice mostly comes down to which one is cheapest.

While this might seem like a sad state of affairs, it does mean that for the flying public, ticket prices will remain reasonable and be affected mostly by the change in fuel price and taxes.