Current 09/2009

All fired up and ready to go!

A sort of chanting that is used to bring large crowds in a mood of exaltation to make them follow one particular goal in blind faith, creating a docile unbreakable human bond.

Political speeches have always made use, more or less, of this tactic. All the same, this speech left me flabbergasted, because I saw the same man delivering two days before one of the finest speeches of his career about precisely the same, politically and emotionally complex, subject. That early version was a masterpiece of intellectual and political insight, performed by probably one of the best political orators in history. It was hard to believe that the same message could be delivered by the same man in two such different ways. The shock was felt deeper because the President was on the last occasion casually dressed in an open collar shirt with rolled up sleeves in an apparent attempt to imitate his predecessor - one of the less gifted political orators in history.




I guess my astonishment was also heightened by the fact that 'All fired up and ready to go' is effectively not translatable in another language. And it is still quite unimaginable that a Dutch politician would deliver a speech in such a way, it would be a hilarious prospect, despite the fact that both the Dutch language and public demeanor have been heavily influenced by the US.

There is also the aspect of the quality of public communication. Populism is on the rise everywhere. Political decision-making seems to be moving into the direction of solely depending on irrational instincts. Communication experts seem to be keen on limiting the decision making process to this playground, which is more effective for manipulating the public and it matches with persuasion tactics used in advertising. Nonetheless, it is painful to see that even the most gifted orators cannot survive politically on their unique skills. Or can they? I do not know, but I think that bowing too low to the current trend in populism comes at a high price. Courting everyone leaves you lonely.


The Power of Visualising Data

Humans are special in the sense that we can recreate reality and use this as a tool for better understanding and more efficient action.


Visualising data
The self portrait of Nigel Holmes.


More and more, we visualise data because of its power to provide insight and certainly because of its power to persuade. Graphic designers (information architects) are involved in visualising data, but the major breakthroughs in this field were not done by designers. Florence Nightingale produced while nursing hospitalised soldiers, diagrams that proved that laying down in a hospital bed was even more lethal for the soldiers during the First World War than fighting on the battle field - while this was the bloodiest war ever. Otto Neurath became a sort of Godfather of visualising data originally working at a city housing department in Vienna. The statistician Edward Tufte became a world famous writer about 'infographics'. Our ex-AGI member Richard Saul Wurman is trained as an architect but his love for visualising data turned him into an extremely efficient and successful publisher of all kinds of data books, and he also founded the still popular 'TED' conferences. Only Nigel Holmes is the exception, he is both an innovator of infographics as well as a graphic designer.


Visualising data2
Hans Rosling is the latest star in visualising data.


One of the latest stars in the field of visualising data is Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of International Health. He is director of the Gapminder Foundation that developed the Trendanalyser software. Hans Rosling recognises and demonstrates in his talks the considerable power of animated infographics. Diagrammatic statistics have become indispensable tools in our society because of their power to explain and to persuade - and because most science and commerce cannot do without any longer. However, statistics are very tricky tools. It is extremely simple to lie convincingly with statistics. Statisticians do not disagree, they only claim to their defense that it is even easier to lie without.

Gapminder site

Lecture Hans Rosling

Lecture Hans Rosling


Service Providers

They make it sound as if it's a social call; somebody interested in my well-being. Soon you discover that they want to sell you something. At first, these callers seem to be well trained until you discover that all of them are absolutely clueless about the details of what they're selling. That doesn't seem to matter much because most buyers seem to be equally clueless about the true nature of their purchases. The match is seamless. The sales pitches have almost no informative aspect; it's all about an attempt to let the buyer make an impulsive buying decision. Having any moral consideration on the seller's side is a serious handicap, they are paid according to amount of deals they make. Critical insight on the buyer's end is also not helpful to close a deal, so old people are the most suitable victims, they cannot resist the persuasion of the sales person: 'it seemed such a nice person on the phone'. My mom has bought a lot of useless rubbish this way. We had to return it all. The phone became a bit of a creepy devise in her experience.

The technical developments in telecommunications have changed our lives in the past 50 years. At the beginning, changes happened gradually, today, technological developments turn things upside down regularly. To give an example: my mom in Amsterdam can have a relatively expensive brief phone conversation with her friend living in Australia while their grand-children being in the same locations can have a visual teleconference the whole day (or month) for free. Companies (or their subsidiaries) now offer identical products for a bizar variety of prices and conditions that keep on changing all the time. Customers are expected to be extremely alert to respond to these changes and quickly move from one opportunity to the next. A trustful, loyal - often aging - customer has become a monument of stupidity, a cash cow and an object of the staff's scorn, especially the young ones. What used to be enduring uneventful business relationships with utility companies or banks have become memberships of a fight club.

To be honest, I was a bit shocked to learn about these new circumstances but there is no other way than to join the new paradigm, so I decided to end the longtime business relationships I had with both my Dutch and French telecom service providers at the same time. I had never dealt with other providers in my life, both companies were originally the state monopolies delivering all telecom services. The change has been an interesting experience.




'Technology is the key strategic driver', is the prophecy of most Corporate Executive Officers (CEOs). This statement doesn't necessarily mean that CEOs understand what they're saying, but it has become a leading principle in the businesses they are supposed to manage. When it comes to technology only very, very, very few (and only in a specific age range) know what they're talking about, all the pretentious rest is led by vague bell sounds in the distance. Customers have to try to find at least a bit of a sensible path in this jungle of ignorance. A call centre has become pivotal in all our lives. No move in life any longer without contacts with call centres. In my youth, I really enjoyed watching the theatre performances of plays by Ionesco and Beckett, today one cannot avoid active participation in such plays. Calling a call centre is an entrance to the time consuming world of organised misunderstanding; a paid participation in a ballet of nonsense, no dancing skills required on either side. I assumed that the staff of call centres had minimal knowledge about the subject matter, that has been a painful misunderstanding on my part. A skillful person in a call centre can work in any call centre. Call centres are best to be seen as a first aid for those desperately lost in the labyrinth of technology. Not of any help whatsoever to find a way out, but an assistance to reduce hyperventilation when hopelessly stuck. The truth or simple logic are not valuable currencies in call centres. There is no incentive to solve your problem. The basic idea is that call centres must prevent customers from jumping out of the window, because they would lose a paying customer in that event. The first priority in 'customer care' is to work on your mood and not on your problem. Bizarre as it is, this makes sense in a way. In our society of plenty maybe our mood is our only remaining concern.

In technological terms, the change I wished was to use the existing telephone cables as carriers of signals that made use of the facilities of the internet (please do not ask why this is considerably cheaper and faster). It included basically a change of the type of modems i used in order to receive and send digital data and to create a wireless network at my own place to connect the devices i wished to use. Participation in whatever type of network has always been a territory that nerds will see that it never will be easy to do. To them it is a bit like trespassing their digital territory, you should be happy to make it alive to the other side on your own. In France, after more than a month of attempts, I still have not what should be there. However, I was cut off immediately from all existing services after a business relationship of 13 years. Even that needed a melange of many calls, internet messages and sending registered mail, but the new provider hasn't delivered yet of what was promised although it already took money from my account. France has a peculiar relationship with modern communication technology. (France Télécom has to deal with an extraordinary suicide rate of their staff). Emails are rarely answered. All direct contacts between customers and big organisations are organised very clumsily. Sensible use of graphic interfaces is not well understood. Just look at any French website and signage program. Everything is fine if you know in advance where you want to be, but please don't look at the graphics. That is why everywhere in France there are little businesses who help everyone through the labyrinth of big organisations. You have to know where to find these people by asking acquaintances, one cannot do without the good old direct (verbal) contact in France.

In the Low Lands things went a bit different, my equipment was installed by a independent company sending a person with the typical behaviour and looks - pale, puffy and hyper - that people have who deal with computers and networks all the time. The connection didn't work in first instance but I had a working connection within 24 hours for a part installed by myself. Adding my printer to the wireless network took me another three days. In the end, simple instruction email from the printer company solved my problem.

I have the impression that the do-it-yourself phase in our economy is on its way out. To perform an installation one may receive a device with heaps of accessories and thick manuals. It's better not to touch any of these things, unless you're seeking a new hobby. Ask a professional to do the installation for you. This approach is no guarantee that it will be done in time or properly, therefore plan these type of changes during holidays. One need a lot of provisions today to make your service provider do what it said it would do.


The Era of Opportunism

Creating professional opportunities, other than by working hard, were not considered as potential learning options during my design education.




Boy, things have changed. And in many ways rightfully so, but are creating professional opportunities - never mind the profession - now the most important skill to be educated in? Design education is a bit of a peculiar activity, since about three quarters of the design graduates will never work as a designer and of the ones who do, half of them never went to a design school. A production line with this type of manufacturing output would never stay in business for too long. But things are different in the business of selling a design education. Although the investment in a design education can not be considered a sensible one by any measure, design schools still flourish. I guess a lot of the design students see a design education as the easiest way to get a (university) degree and make daddy (and later, human resources) happy. It's the only - rather opportunistic - motivation that makes sense. Running a design school is one of the most lucrative design related activities. Design schools market themselves no differently than L'Oréal makeup does, for instance. Until recently, the most posh and American and British design educations were competing on which design institute could ask for the highest student tuition. Price is a very interesting marketing tool. Amsterdam is now trying to establish a real designers manufacturing plant, mostly running on foreign students. Obviously, the Dutch have to compete on price and at the same time see their degrees recognised by the Anglo-Saxon degree system monopoly. Confronted with the rather poor output of design educations, a Dutch design teacher remarked that a design education is also a broad and generally valuable type of education. Matters must have changed dramatically since the last time I checked.

For the few who wish to pursue a design career seriously after obtaining a design degree, nothing is really evident other than the need to look frantically for professional opportunities. That is today a complicated business on itself - the world is choked with competition looking for opportunities. Proper networking can consume a big chunk of your day and the minimum required level of media exposure (everybody is a broadcaster today) and work documentation (everybody is a publisher today) at the beginning of any design career is now way bigger than the level only a few well established designers of my generation acquired at the closure of their careers. The resumé of an ambitious 24 years old contains now more memorable events than that of my mother including the three generations before her. Undershooting this rather ambitious level is not well received. A bit further down in one's design career one should be able to claim to have at least won 'numerous design awards' and items of your work have to be part of the major museum design collections. Anything less would feel a bit embarrassingly sorry.

The shift from building on a reputation separate from doing one's professional work has an American/British origin. The professional level of PR and marketing techniques in these countries has been the world's top for the longest time. Somehow, this kind of interest became deeply imbedded in their societies. 'Window dressing' and 'Keeping up appearances' are a favourite British past time. The Americans favour a slightly more agressive - if not disturbing - variation of exploring and exploiting the particularities of human relations in business and social settings. American entertainment prefers to portray the extremes of human opportunistic behaviour. Many families were almost hooked to watching tv sitcoms that would go on for years telling the endless story of an American family dynasty in the pursuit of individual gain. All the members of the family without any exception were apparently seriously mentally ill, without being diagnosed as such. The current version of this kind of entertainment exposing the extremes of opportunism no longer needs actors or a screenplay. 'Reality tv', with the help of surveillance cameras, shows people who are brought into a caged environment and are busy with mentally demolishing each other to the ground while fighting over a perverse incentive. A bit like some psychologists are studying the behaviour of rats in a laboratory setting. American business tycoons have made famous quotes to express their views on the world of business opportunities these days, like ' Have lunch or be lunch', or 'Only the paranoid will survive'. The business of politics has always been the art of make believe; the heaven of opportunism, but the current media with the help of armies of 'spin doctors' have further sophisticated the art. Now reaching a level where facts have become trivialities. The retreat out of reality has become common place. The majority of the electorate have effectively lost a minimal understanding of which policy would work in their own interest. A defining part of the voters is now completely programmed to respond solely to stimulants of the reptile section of their brains.

Working on the effect of impressions can be extremely powerful and a very efficient tool for making deals. Maybe marketing and PR techniques have become too good for their own sake, because they have created a culture with rather short satisfaction spans: the most exciting thing that can happen to you in a life dedicated to looking for opportunities, is actually finding one and then start looking for the next.



Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

Clément Vauchez work updates

Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

Alexandre Dimos work updates

Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

Yu Guang work updates

Yu Guang has updated their work, see it here.

Alan Chan work updates

Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

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