It must suck to be a designer at Lenovo

Apple laptops compared with Lenovo's

Spotted on Twitter. You’d think Lenovo would have followed what happened to Samsung when they pulled this cheap stunt.

And it is cheap. You might be an Apple hater but I dare you to defend this as in anyway a positive contribution to design, the user experience, or in any way innovative.

Remember when your parents bought you a ‘Walkman’ and it turned out to be a cheap knockoff that made everyone laugh at you?

That’ll be the people who get given this, that will.

I’m assuming Lenovo employ designers, rather than photocopier operators. In which case, this must be a pretty soul destroying way to make a living. ‘Want to be creative? Forget it. Copy this.’ 

Ten inspiring pieces of music 3: Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Elgar wrote The Dream of Gerontius in 1899/1900, a setting of the poem by Cardinal (now Saint) Newman. By the time he wrote it, Elgar had gained something of a reputation internationally, especially for his choral works, and this was a commission for the Birmingham Triennial Festival. It was completed only three months before the premiere and, famously, the choir and orchestra found it difficult to master. The conductor, Hans Richter, only got his copy of the score the day before the first rehearsal. Consequently the first performance was a failure. But, unusually, critics heard something audiences did not and after its London premiere three years later it quickly became established as one of the core repertoire items in British choral tradition.

Why do I find it inspirational?

I was raised a Catholic and though it’s all very dormant now, there’s something about Gerontius that gets the incense flowing again. It took me a long time to ‘get’ the work, and Elgar generally. This was the first piece of classical music where I tried the technique of basically just listening to it over and over again and now I can follow every ebb and flow of it. If you’re wanting to give it a go, do what I did and listen to the first half repeatedly. The opening introduction (below) is a masterpiece of orchestral writing, and just about every main theme Elgar uses is in there. (It’s quite Wagnerian in that sense – Elgar had recently discovered Wagner before writing Gerontius, and it shows).

Seriously – just listen to this:

But the subject matter is not what I find particularly inspiring, unlike Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which was my first choice in this series of posts. It is, simply, the music which is some of the most powerful and sublime you’ll hear.

Most performances tend to play up the drama, particularly the demons’ chorus. My favourite recording is, as with the Mahler, by Simon Rattle and the CBSO and chorus. Gramophone, if I remember correctly, criticised it for its lack of drama and pure focus on the music. That’s why I like it: the drama is inherent in the text and the detached approach to that seems to breathe new life in to a work that can, in the wrong hands, be almost a pantomime.

Click on the image to buy it for the bargain price of £6.99!

The extract at the top of this post is the emotional high point of it all, the ‘Praise to the Holiest’ chorus. I’m really doing a disservice by letting you hear it without the long sustained build up to it, which makes the eventual outburst all the more emotional. But as I said about the Mahler, if you don’t like this there’s something wrong with you…

And here’s the demons’ chorus for you…

Fun fact: I was in the audience for the Proms performance in the top video…

Why car makers still produce life size clay models

A clay model in progress 

A fascinating look behind the scenes of automotive design by Michael Wayland (Associated Press), and the return of making models out of clay after a flirtation with technology.

Twenty-five years ago, as milling and computer-aided design programs transformed the design process, it seemed clay modelers would be all but extinct. Bean counters saw the new technologies as a way to shorten the design process and cut costs. Modeling But carmakers found they were turning out lackluster vehicles due to a lack of hands-on interaction and being unable to effectively evaluate styling.

Read the full story here

Ten inspiring pieces of music 2: Vaughan Williams – Tallis Fantasia

Today’s inspiring piece is rather well-known: The Tallis Fantasia by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It’s based on a theme by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis and was written with Gloucester Cathedral in mind, where it was premiered in 1910. There are three string sections, a full-sized string orchestra, a single desk from each section, and finally a string quartet. Ideally, they should be positioned at a distance from one another with the space itself acting as a fourth instrument.

It’s a contemplative piece and, if you get the chance to see the score, deceptively very simple. It’s a piece that depends for its success on the performance. The video above is by Sir Andrew Davies conducting the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the original venue of Gloucester Cathedral is probably the best recording of the piece I’ve heard.

What do I find inspirational about it? It’s a piece that clears my mind. Depending on your mood it’s either sad or uplifting, restful or agitated.

Give it a go – this isn’t a piece to listen to in the background but one to focus on and follow each line.

I’ll be honest, it’s a piece that took a while to gel with me and I’ll probably choose more by this composer for my other ten pieces. Like Shostakovich, who’ll appear at least once, he was an acquired taste for me but one I can’t shake. This is a great introduction to his music but if you want more then try the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. I may be choosing something from one of those, or his huge First Symphony, later.

If you’d like a good recording of the Fantasia, then the same forces as in the video above – though not, sadly, the same performance – are available for less than a fiver along with the Sixth Symphony (which you’ll recognise when you hear it) and The Lark Ascending (which is the best evocation of an English summer you’ll hear).

Ten inspiring pieces of music 1: Mahler’s 2nd Symphony

I’ve been asked on Facebook to nominate a piece of ‘inspirational’ music each day for ten days. I’d been thinking about doing something like this here anyway so here goes.

My first piece is the finale from Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, ‘The Resurrection’. The symphony as a whole is an hour and a half long and takes you on quite an emotional journey, all of which ends suddenly in the hushed quiet of an unaccompanied choir singing about your imminent death and eventual resurrection.

Why do I find it inspirational? Well just listen to the end and you’ll see – or hear – why.

You can’t come away from this feeling anything but uplifted – but you have to go through all the emotions to get there. The choir starts off mournful, almost inaudible – but by the end you’ve got the massed choir and orchestra ringing in your ears.

Trust me. If you’re not moved by this there’s something wrong with you. Turn it up. (If you want to skip to the bit where it all pays off, it starts around 14 minutes in, but that’s like skipping the main course to get to the pudding.)

Never fails.

Click the image below to purchase my favourite recording of this, by Simon Rattle and the CBSO. I was fortunate enough to hear him conduct this in Birmingham about 15 years ago. It’s a great work, and a great performance.

Every web designer – and publisher – should read this


Every web designer and site owner needs to read this article by John Allsop on the epidemic of website bloat. To sum up:

There is only one honest measure of web performance: the time from when you click a link to when you’ve finished skipping the last ad.

Everything else is bullshit.


Web designers! It’s not all your fault.

You work your heart out to create a nice site, optimized for performance. You spend the design process trying to anticipate the user’s needs and line their path with rose petals.

Then, after all this work is done, your client makes you shit all over your hard work by adding tracking scripts and ads that you have no control over, whose origin and content will be decided at the moment the page loads in the user’s browser, and whose entire purpose is to break your design and distract the user from whatever they came to the site to do.

The user’s experience of your site is dominated by hostile elements out of your control.

It’s a rather revealing article (actually the transcript of a talk, the video of which is here).

When I started out in web design, before it had even got past the ‘it’s just a fad’ phase, a big part of the job was squeezing images until they sat on the border between small enough that a typical modem would download them in less than five seconds, but not so compressed that they looked awful. Nowadays, I admit, I don’t bother with that just assuming that everyone’s on broadband or a decent mobile plan.

But all that is moot anyway given that the biggest culprit in page bloat is advertising and tracking. The reason for this is simple, but shocking.

Accepted practice today is for ad space to be auctioned at page load time. The actual ads (along with all their javascript surveillance infrastructure) are pulled in by the browser after the content elements are in place.

In terms of user experience, this is like a salesman arriving at a party after it has already started, demanding that the music be turned off, and setting up their little Tupperware table stand to harass your guests. It ruins the vibe.

So to reiterate. Page designers, writers and even site owners don’t know what their site will look like because ads are sold and positioned when the page is viewed. In print journalism, ad space is sold in a way that means the publisher knows what the finished publication will look like. From the advertisers’ point of view that makes a lot of sense. You don’t want your ad for a car to go next to a feature article on the wonders of cycling (and neither does the writer).

Imagine what server-side ad layout would mean for designers. You would actually know what your pages are going to look like. You could load assets in a sane order. You could avoid serving random malware.

Giant animations would no longer helicopter in at page load time, destroying your layout and making your users hate you.

This isn’t just ‘dodgy’ sites either.

Here’s a grab from The Guardian just now after I disabled my ad blocker.

Guardian page

Notice two things. Firstly, a window popped up asking me to update Flash. Why? Because The Guardian serves ads using Flash, despite having run several articles about the security risks posed by Flash.

Secondly, the ad on the right is for clothes retailer Namshi. I’ve never heard of them, they appear to be an Arabian company that doesn’t trade in the UK, and I’m a bloke so how well-spent was that ad budget?

Is it any wonder I block the ads? They’re annoying and completely irrelevant to me. Now I link to a lot of Guardian articles here, so am I being a bit of a hypocrite? No – I pay an annual fee for The Guardian iOS app and I read via that rather than the web. But in The Guardian’s case I pay as much not to see ads as much as I pay for the journalism – and the fact there’s something wrong with that is down to the business model, not me.

The only question for publishers is whether to get ahead of this and reap the benefits, or circle down the drain with everybody else.

I’ve said this in other posts – the great debate last year about ad blockers seemed to think that readers were being devious in blocking ads when in fact the issue really was the shit that made people want to.

I mean things like this:

Bad web ad

I’ve seen ads like that on prestigious websites. It’s not just the clickbait places.

Advertising in magazines and newspapers, on the radio and TV and in cinemas doesn’t track the reader, listener or viewer. There’s no reason it needs to on the web. And with a few exceptions ads in old media tend to be well-executed and well thought out. I can’t remember the last time anyone got excited about the latest web ad in the same way they do for, say, the annual John Lewis Christmas ad.

Content providers should sell advertising space directly, or use an old-fashioned agency to do it for them. And they should take responsibility for what’s in the ads. The number of links I’ve clicked on recently where the screen has been filled with an ad with no design, no context, just a link to something I’m really not interested in… more often than not I close the page. Whatever was there is not so interesting I’m prepared to be visually assaulted and robbed at the same time.

Running ads like this, abdicating editorial responsibility to an algorithm, devalues your brand. If you think what you’re producing is good enough that you should be paid for it, then either find a business model that allows you to charge your visitors, or use your impressions and demographics to sell ads to relevant people (Jon Gruber makes a living doing just that).

Don’t sell your users, or more importantly, their location, their sexual preferences, and their recent search history (which might just be an indicator of their sexual preferences anyway). And let’s get back to the days when web pages were crafted to load as quickly as possible without starting up your laptop’s fan just to autoplay an ad for a shoe shop in Dubai.

How to draw… with charcoal

How to draw with charcoal Children s books The Guardian

A great overview in The Guardian of how illustrator PJ Lynch works in charcoals. Made me want to give it a go.

From smudging techniques to dramatic use of white chalk, Irish illustrator PJ Lynch has some useful tips on how to make great drawings using charcoal

See the full tutorial here – it’s not exhaustive by any means, but it gives you an idea. I’d never come across the tip to start on grey. Why did no one ever tell me that?