(james benedict brown) on the road

Auntie ditches another design classic

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 31 January, 2009

Back home, we are very mean to the most senior member of the Brown household, and it’s quite unfair. Just like me, he likes to watch the weather forecast, and does so religiously after the evening news bulletin every night. But he’s a victim of BBC modernisation, since the graphical presentation of the BBC weather forecast is so terrible, he can never remember what the forecast was predicting once it’s finished.

Coming up to four years ago, the BBC abandoned it’s meteorological department’s greatest asset – the ageless design classic that was the set of symbols used to adorn the television weather map. The symbols weren’t modern enough for the Beeb. and they were promptly replaced by a weather map that had no symbols, but instead a graphical simulation of what the weather might actually look like from space. The idea seemed to have been to placate young children who might have been afraid of giant black cloud symbols hovering over entire counties. At the expense of anyone with a black and white television. And while denigrating the status, size and shape of Scotland.

On Monday, the BBC will make the next bold step in insulting it’s audience. This time, there really is no hope for the classic symbols of the old BBC weather map, because the BBC Online Weather pages are being modernised royally screwed over.

Here is an example of the current, and soon to be defunct online weather forecast.


And here is the equivalent part of the new one, currently available online in beta, and live as the default for all weather forecasting from Monday 2 February.


I’ll put the next statement in a paragraph of it’s own, so that the “designer” (self-edit) who came up with the “improved” weather symbols can find it more easily than one can find Aberdeen on the distorted UK weather map.

The weather map icons have been used for more than thirty years because they worked. They are clear. They are simple. They are universal. They can be read in a millisecond. They cannot easily be confused. They can be adapted to reflect many different meterological situations with a single change, and yet retain their legibility. There is nothing wrong with a black cloud, half a sun shining out from behind it, a raindrop and a snowflake beneath it: it describes a typical Glaswegian winter’s day perfectly.


We already tolerate this (above) on our television screens, but with the courteous addition of temperature and wind speed icons. I cannot for the life of me understand this map. It may be technologically impressive, but its usefulness is one minute fraction of the old system.

Will this late night complaint be heard? Maybe. Will anyone who has the power to stop bad visual design at the BBC do anything about it?

No. Not unless a few other mouthy bloggers go on about it, of course :)


Globalisation part II: your local news goes on tour

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 August, 2008

Following his observations on the evolution in news delivery (i.e. mass redundancies of journalists) at Global Québec and my post about virtual newsroom architecture Steve Faguy makes some interesting observations about what a green screen to do for local newscasts during the regular newscaster’s vacation. If a newscaster can go on holiday and be replaced by another presenter in another province in front a greens creen, why not just get Jamie Orchard to pack a fold up green screen to take with her to Punta Cana?

The. University. Of. Sheffield. Visual. Identity. (and the missing University Challenge contestant)

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 March, 2008


It’s been a year or so since the University of Sheffield shelled out a vast (rumoured to be six figure sum) to a London-based design agency for a new visual identity. Or brand. Or look. Or whatever bull you want to call it. The fundamental core of the university’s new brand is a white box that bleeds from the extreme left of every document, webpage and even building sign. Within that white box sits the crest (unchanged, thank the lord) and the serif words “The University of Sheffield” over four lines, punctuated with a full-stop that was probably justified on the grounds of suggesting permanence, strength or some other expensive justification.

The university has gone to great lengths to ensure correct use of this new logo, with an extensive website explaining the dos and the don’ts to ensure consistency of appearance. With new the corporate look (and it is very corporate, but then a lot is in the contemporary British academic world) the university website has been re-designed, and includes the home page seen above. Every department and division has been directed to mould their pages to a new template, leaving the School of Architecture with possible the dreariest and least inspiring homepage of any design course in the country. Like the horrible Microsoft-Word-designed welcome signs that direct sixth form open day visitors to our department, tens of thousands of pounds have been spent creating a format that makes every part of the university look like the rest of it. Our old departmental page (click that link for an archived version) may have been around a few years, but at least it was distinctive, easy to navigate and suggestive of being a design-conscious school of design.

But that’s the not biggest mistake. The biggest mistake is commissioning a design firm to create an entire design package and set of rules that doesn’t work consistently. Take the homepage screen-grab above. Promoting tonight’s episode of University Challenge, the university has delightfully cropped Phil Smith, the team’s valuable fourth member, out of the picture.

I emailed the team responsible for managing the home page to remind them that it wasn’t particularly sincere of them to leave Phil propping up the garish link boxes on the homepage. Their responce:

Thanks for your comments on the current homepage feature. I agree that
ideally we would have wanted all 4 contestants in the frame. However,
regrettably the image is not one of our own and was supplied to us by
the programme. Moreover, the Marketing department no longer employs
in-house graphic designers and there are limitations on manipulating
images that appear due to the way the home web page has been set up
within the content management system. We therefore had to make a
decision on whether to include the image or leave it out altogether.
Ultimately, we believed that it was much better to include the feature
celebrating Sheffield’s success, albeit that the image is not ideal. I
hope you agree.

You might have guessed that I don’t agree. But then I don’t agree with the university spending a fortune on a badly designed and inflexible visual identity package, especially if it means we no longer employ and nurture our own graphic designers. All I can do is complain loudly, blog with ferocity and retreat to the university’s only design based faculty. Not that you’d know we were design driven from our awful website.

Channel 4’s identity: from screen to street

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 March, 2008

On the very last day of 2004, Channel 4 Television (the UK’s fourth terrestrial broadcaster, just a few months younger than myself) re-freshed and re-launched its on-screen package of identity trails and stings. Harking back to the innovative computer-generated colliding and dispersing logo that introduced the channel to the nation in 1982, a series of surreal idents was created that showed the Channel 4 logo appearing and disappearing as the camera panned or moved through a super-realistic series of urban or rural environments. Quite often the camera took a very humanistic point of view, from behind the wheel of a moving car, or at eye level moving along the access balcony of a council housing estate. For my convenience and your entertainment, a kind Youtuber has montaged some of them into the video above.

A week or two ago, I pondered what it actually meant for Canadian newscaster Kevin Newman to move his news anchor’s desk and studio all the way from Vancouver to Ottawa, while keeping the production team in Vancouver and the Ottawa studio a virtual environment that edited in the obligatory view of the Canadian parliament onto a green screen behind him. Being in the nation’s capital was obviously a selling point, but what does it really mean if the off-screen environment can be manipulated to suggest a different location electronically?

On a similar strand of exploration between the virtual television built environment and the actual built environment is a new sculpture by Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner. Titchner has been commissioned to design a temporary structure outside Channel 4’s London headquarters on Horseferry Road (an expressionistic and tectonic building designed in the early nineties by Richard Rogers with Ove Arup). The structure contains a booth in which members of the public can record segments for a ‘talkback’ programme, recalling the channel’s earlier show Right to Reply. Stand across the street from Channel 4 HQ at the adjacent bus stop, and you have a perfect view of the logo.

But take a walk down the street towards the River Thames and Tate Britain…

…and the logo fragments, revealing the steps into the recording booth (wheelchair pedestrians can record their own segment from a camera mounted lower down in the structure).

Arrive level with the elevators on the Horseferry Road side of the building, and the entire sculpture has been rendered illegible.

The steel form of the sculpture has flat screen televisions mounted on it at different heights to rebroadcast the material recorded in the booth (just don’t expect to hear anything that anyone is saying). The steel has been painted in the same shade of rust red/brown of the exposed structure of the Channel 4 building. From certain angles it seems as though the structure is emerging from the building itself.

The sculpture is in-situ for a couple of months. No word yet, regrettably, on whether Channel 4 will dare leave the comfortable confines of the capital to bring the talk back box to other cities and regions, but watch this space.