Culture Shift

"My cigarette is the mild cigarette, that's why Chesterfield is my favourite" - Ronald Regan

I started smoking in 1986. I was 16. Everyone smoked. My Da smoked. All my teachers smoked - in class, constantly. At 16 you could bring a note from your parents giving you permission to smoke in school. Friends smoked, brother smoked, girlfriend smoked. I started work at 18 in a local newspaper, I smoked at my desk. I could smoke on the bus to work. I could smoke on a train. I could smoke in a plane. I could smoke in a hospital. I could smoke in a bar. I could smoke in a restaurant. I could smoke in McDonalds. The Embassy World Snooker Championship was on TV. Snooker players smoked. Darts players smoked. Footballers smoked in dugouts and managers smoked on the touchline. Marlboro hung over the gantries in F1 racing, JPS, Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges plastered the cars and the drivers.
In many ways I was lucky though, at the start of the 90s smoking culture began to be dismantled. It still took me another 10 years to quit though.

In the 25 years we've spent raising the bar on access and opportunity to tobacco we have lowered the bar on our access and opportunity to use cars. We now live in a society where it's almost seen as a human right to own a car. Easy finance and a saturated 2nd hand market mean it's not just one car, 2, 3 and 4 cars isn't uncommon in some households. In most schools, student cars now outnumber those of staff in the school car park. Vehicles once used by the military now drop children off to primary schools. Children don't play outside, instead they're driven to swimming clubs, football clubs, youth clubs and driven home again - ironically because the roads are now too dangerous for children to walk or cycle. In the same 25 years the simple VW golf has become twice as heavy, twice a powerful, considerably longer and wider. The new Mini is a mini in name only.

The right tool for the right job.
"City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike.The upshot is a city that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat." - Jeremy Clarkson.

The car's a great thing. Covering long distances in short time they're an amazing invention. But they were never intended to solve the problem of short distances. They were invented to replace those long journeys where railways didn't run. Where horses still pulled carriages long distances. 100 years ago trams, buses, bikes and walking had solved the problem of transport in inner cities but somehow a car culture left unchecked has eroded these systems and turned all city and town centres into car parks and traffic jams. In a similar way car culture eroded a rural public transport system. The train network was scrapped 60 years ago and isn't coming back. We have a patchwork public transport network in rural areas - in rural communities the car is now essential.

The solution for transporting large volumes of people efficiently in inner cities is the same in 2013 as it was in 1913 - trams, buses, bikes and walking. In terms of efficiency, value for money, health benefits and environmental benefits there's a clear winner - the bike.

World class cycle infrastructure - free of charge.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein.

The current demand is for a bridge across the Lagan to the Gasworks in Belfast. In Belfast there are currently 8 bridges across the river Lagan where cycling is possible. All along a relatively short stretch of river. Most have 2 lanes some have 4 lanes. All have footpaths. They're all fairly modern and well maintained. Why do we need another bridge solely for cyclists? Why can't we claim one of the existing bridges, or a lane or two at no cost? And while we're there a few of those minor roads, currently used as 'rat-runs' where a car has no business being. We can create dedicated cycle only roads in and out of the city linking up with Greenways, towpaths at no cost. The call for more 'cycle infrastructure" is always met with "we can't afford it". But we've already paid for it - it's all in place we simply need to shift our thinking on how we allocate it. Rather than continually calling for segregation of bikes, we should rapidly integrate bikes into a ready-made infrastructure. Segregation may still be needed between Greenways and inner city but within the city centre reduced car usage should make segregation largely redundant.
One of the things you realise when living in a rural area is, there's really enough room for everyone. The density of the road network coupled with lower number of cars suddenly strikes an almost perfect balance. To do the same in inner cities we need to reduce car access in key locations. The density of roads exists but there are too many cars allowed unrestricted access.
Here's a quick one. Botanic Avenue, Dublin Road, Linenhall St should be totally car free. Scrap on-street parking in Ormeau Ave, Donegal St, Castle St and Clifton St and use the freed up space for 2 way bike lanes. Pinch a lane in Sunnyside Street and another on the Kings Bridge and instantly you have a high-speed, 10 minute network from one side of the city to the other.

Knowing isn't enough
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” Leonardo da Vinci.

Knowing tobacco was a killer for decades wasn't enough. I was 100% clear of consequences but still willingly bought into the smoking culture. Putting stickers on fag packets didn't work. TV commercials didn't work. Poster campaigns didn't work. Only when access and opportunity to cigarettes began to be restricted did the shift begin. I stopped smoking because i knew it was affecting my health, but crucially, it began costing too much and I couldn't smoke in all the places I used to.

Knowing that cars are a problem in towns and cities isn't enough. Painted lines and kerb stones without a cultural shift isn't enough. Painted lines and kerbs is the equivalent of putting a 'smoking kills' on fag packets, it's not persuading drivers out of their cars. As we did with tobacco we must do with cars, continue to tell people it's not good to use a car for every journey but we need to start restricting access, parking and raise prices.

When governments crunched the numbers, smoking was costing the NHS more than it was raking in in tobacco tax. If we can start boiling it down to 'value for money' then the argument and the culture shift will start.

Making cultural shifts.
So what measures do you introduce to start making the shift?

• Transport should be de-centralised and devolved to local authorites, it's not a one size fits all solution.
• Local authorities must produce a 5 year plan to reduce car usage in agreed areas and be forced to implement it.
• Proper, clean, extensive, reliable trams in Belfast, subsidised by expensive in-town parking and metered residential parking.
• Smart working from home. Victorian work practices that worked for industrial factories aren't applicable in a modern connected world. Over 30% of jobs in NI are in the Public Sector with the vast majority based in greater Belfast accounting for a lot of traffic each day. All the technology is in place to reduce the need to be in the office every day, can we start using it?
• No on-street parking in the "centres" of cities towns and villages.
• Cheap multi storey car parks just outside an agreed zone linking to, trams, bus and cycle network - "park and ride".
• Limited, very expensive multi storey car parking slightly further in, want to take your car into the city centre? You'll have to pay.
• Pay for parking in residential areas (residents with cars get a pass) - no more parking outside a strangers house all day without paying (visit the Holy Lands, Stranmills, Ormeau etc for examples).
• Visible bike culture - on street bike parking, stands outside shops, bars, cafés, pubs etc.
• Higher fuel costs in cities, lower fuel costs in rural areas.
• Trains/trams/buses that can take lots of bikes, at any time of day. Proper, covered, secure free bike parks at all stations
• Congestion tax.
• Park and ride (bus) at every motorway exit.
• More affordable, accessible car hire schemes - I don't need a car every day of the week.
• Bike hire at key locations - Universtiry, Titanic, City Hall, Waterfront etc.
• 20mph within all towns and cities.
• 50mph speed limit on all minor roads.
• 80mph on motorways - this is where the car works, free it up and compensate for lowered speed limits elsewhere.

I realise it all sounds very radical but these are measures employed in other parts of the world.

How will we know the shift has happened?
We'll know the shift has happened when we can say some of the following.

• I remember being able to park on the street close by the City Hall for £1 an hour
• I remember being able to park outside a complete stranger's house all day - free
• I remember being able to drive straight through the city centre, anytime day or night - free
• I remember being able to take the car to school and park in the staff car park
• I remember being able to drive at 30mph through residential streets and past primary schools
• I remember being able to drive any size of car, anywhere, at any time without any restrictions
• I remember being able to own as many cars as I wanted
• I remember when you rarely saw a bike in the city centre
• I remember when Government announced rising car sales as a good thing
• I remember we used to own a car

Written on: June 22 2013
Filed under
: bikes : design : urban :

right notes, wrong order.

I mentioned over in the scrapbook Liberty Blue article about having all the right elements but sometimes in the wrong order. I'm not telling anyone's granny how to suck eggs, it's just a case in point.

I recently was asked to join Executive Edits as part of their 'photography staff'. It's not a paying job, I don't normally get involved in spec work, but there are some interesting people involved in the Picture Book section. It's going to remain quite small and focused, there are good opportunities for collaboration and it looks like fun with very little pressure.

Anyhow, when I visited the Picture Book section I got quite annoyed that each time I chose a new photograph, I had to pull the scroll bar down to see it. A simple slide show would solve this, but simpler still would be a rearrangement of that huge masthead. It's a whopping 450px until you hit any content. I'm all in favour of some negative space but not to the detriment of the user experience.

So here's a quick before and after. All the same elements remain, they've just been re-arranged to cut out 150px from the head and pull the crucial content up the page a bit.

The current Executive Edits home page />

This (above) is how the Picture Book page looks on my 17" iMac. Now, as much as I'd like a 27", for now I'm stuck with the 17". But with more content being viewed on laptops and iPads, especially for a site like Executive Edits, then I think it's even more important to get the content up the page faster.

A revised version of the Executive Edits home page />

I think the important elements are more focused. The identity is where it should be, top-left with the strapline pulled in underneath. The ragged right sub-navigation again pulled in close with the blurb and adverts on the side.

This is just a quick 10 minute re-shuffle and I hope/know no-one takes offense, but it shows if you put the right notes in the right order, you can have a more focused masthead and still retain a lot of white space.

Written on: July 14 2010
Filed under
: design :

joesf čapek

Going through the book shelf again. Just a small gardening book that I picked up years ago for a few pence, again for the illustrations more that the prose. It's only now, after gardening for a number of years that I fully appreciate the text.

This beautiful book (160pp) was created by the Čapek brothers, Karel and Josef. Rather than a serious manual about what and how to plant, it's a humorous look at what it takes to be a gardener. You'll find no insightful tips and hints on pruning and planting but if you've gardened for any length of time, you'll see yourself among the pages. The prose is perfectly illustrated by Josek Čapek, painter, writer and poet and, strangely enough, inventor of the word 'Robot', from the Czech, 'Robota', meaning 'drudgery' or 'slave labour'.

The book was written in 1929 shortly before the Nazis came to power.


The illustrations, over 50 of them, are simple, playful, full of life and perfectly match the text.


Written in 1929, translated into English in 1931 and published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Museum Street, London.
Both brothers were fiercely anti Nazi and very outspoken. Josef died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

© Karel Čapek, Josef Čapek.

Written on: November 25 2009
Filed under
: design :

charley harper

“When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don't see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures”. Charles Harper.

I was a regular at Anderson's Auctions at the back of Linenhall Street, Belfast. I was after a lamp or an ashtray, or maybe it was a chair or that sauna I bought, I can't really remember but the lot also included a box of fusty medical books. They were mostly about forensic pathology and came from an old doctor's surgery.

They sat in my flat for a year or so, I was afraid to touch them. The thought of all those Victorian diseases pressed gently between the pages, ready to spring on some milky-skinned, soft, 20th century Irish man meant they were bound for the "long finger". A house move forced my hand. With the fingernails of index finger and thumb I clawed my way through the text books, dropping them one by one in a black bin liner. Before you accuse me of book burning/binning, don't bother because I don't care. I wasn't about to unleash the Black Death on an already war torn Belfast.

At the bottom of the pile was this gem, Betty Crocker's Dinner For Two Cook Book. A gem for a number of reasons. Its spiral-bound, handwritten type and simple sketches make it look like Betty Draper's dairy. The title hints to a culture moving away from family focused life. The war and rationing have ended. People are affluent, the world's gone high tech and children aren't the focus at mealtimes or any other time for that matter. In fact, children aren't mentioned at all in this book.

There's a great “exotic” section on “Foreign Lands”, I can almost hear Martin Denny playing on the phonogram in glorious High Fidelity Stereo and what's that… mmmmm mmmmm, it's the Ham and Bananas Hollandaise browning gently under the grill. Just enough time for another Scotch and some avocado dip.

Good Cook Knows
©charley harper good cook knows

Aside from all that, I held onto the book because of the illustrations. It's simply stuffed full of the freshest, most imaginative, effortless illustration you're likely to come across. It's an inspiration every time I pick it up. The book doesn't inspire you to cook, it inspires you to draw.

It's still readily available and a 1st edition has become pretty collectable. I put this down to Harper's illustrations rather than any ground breaking culinary achievement. As chance would have it, mine is a First Edition, First Print. Auctions!

When Company Comes
© charley harper when company comes

Good and Easy Diners
© charley harper good and easy diners

Setting the Table
© charley harper setting the table

Kitchen for Two
© charley harper kitchen for two

American Favourites
© charley harper american favourites

See lots more Harper illsutarions over at the flickr group.

Written on: August 17 2009
Filed under
: design :

face value

They're bloody everywhere, lying on the floor, stuffed in jam jars, down the sofa, in the ashtray of the car, even lying on the feckin' pavement, once upon a time money stood for something.

I'm not big on money, don't get me wrong, I worry about it as much as the next man but it's not the sort of thing to get me excited. On the other had it always got my Dad's heart going, not earning and spending it, but collecting it, sorting it, grading it. His brother Paddy owned a butcher shop in Carrickmore, he'd regularly go through his week's takings and sort out the wheat form the chaff, paying him like for like. At cattle markets and Ceili halls he'd spot the odd gem and throw it in the tin when he got home. Recently he decided to cash in his chips and see if it amounted to a hill of beans.

Down in the shed there's boxes, tins, jars, bags all filled with coins, possibly 20,000 or more. He randomly pulls out a round tin about 15cm high with a few hundred coins. They we're all old Irish coins from before decimalisaiton. The "old money" stayed in circulation along with the newly decimalised coins right up until the Irish Republic joined the Euro. Both Irish and British coins contained precious metal up until the mid 1940s, so for that reason alone they're collectable. I hadn't seen the coins for years, but it was almost like seeing them for the first time. No heads of state, adventurers, explorers, leaders and ground breaking scientists, a simple Irish Harp on one side and a humble farmyard animal on the other.

irish coins

Of all the coins he'd collected I found these the most interesting as they represented a nation attempting to establish some form of new global brand, one its citizens could (a) identify with and (b) accept. Ireland was still raw from civil war, the famine was only 60 years past and 600 years of British occupation had begun to recede. The new money had to tread carefully and avoid rubbing anyone's nose in it while at the same time represent the entire nation.
Beyond symbolising monetary values, the new currency must easily translate the nations values abroad, this was a time when coinage was truly the mark of a nation.

I dug a bit further and found a committee was established to design and mint a new currency and the man charged with finding a suitable design for the new currency was none other than W.B. Yeats. Yeats chaired a committee, commissioning a number of artists to produce samples for the coins. Ironically it was an englishman who won, Percy Metcalfe and the Royal Mint in England forged the coins.

The Irish Harp was to feature on the reverse and common farmyard animals on the face. The animals would be embraced by the entire nation, symbolising the importance of agriculture, especially in wake of the famine, still very much in living memory.

From the humble woodcock, sow and piglets and hen and chicks, an everyday sight in Irish homes at the time, through to the salmon, bull and horse, not surprisingly on the coins of higher value. They're all beautiful pieces of art, well worth collecting not only as coins but a reminder of how far a country traveled and how its values have changed in less that 100 years. Which got us thinking, if Ireland were to mint a new set of coins, what might they look like… ?

Written on: April 10 2009
Filed under
: design :


As I embark on this new venture I'm presented with a world of possibilities. Every font under the sun, every colour imaginable, gifs, jpegs, pngs of anything I care to think of. Instead I'll temper my excitement, stick to my guns, and knuckle down for fear of another dressing down.

I left school at 18, Margaret Thatcher was still in power and Northern Ireland was not big on opportunity. I took a years training/apprenticeship at a local newspaper. Lunch, always extended, usually included alcohol before sauntering back to the office where the atmosphere was, well… laid back.  Everyone smoked at their desk, constantly. Work was a bit slap dash, law suits occurred frequently. It no longer exists, I think that speaks volumes. It was however a solid training ground and most of the people who went through it are still working in some related field.

They had the first real useable computers I’d seen, with a mouse and a GUI. It was light years away from sitting typing lines of code on a Commodore. Not only that but a laser printer spat out exactly what you saw on the screen. Most of the time it was even better than you saw on the screen as screen fonts back then were chronic. It sounds common place now but it was stunning. People sat at pasteboards (cut and paste…) with scalpels, cutting up galleys of type spewed out of the laser printer, pasting them down with prit for that week’s press. Spot colour, for that was all there was, was achieved by printing out sections onto acetate and pasting that over portions of advertising so the printer knew what to put on the ‘colour’ plate. There was no colour on the monitor, or the software (pagemaker) nor the printer for that matter, it was extremely limited in comparison to existing technology, but it was cheaper and more exciting!

Over the next few years the technology got better, faster and more colourful and I’d built up a bit of experience and also a lot of bad habits. Probably the worst habit was thinking I’d nothing more to learn, (that and putting 2 spaces after a full point).

By the mid 90s I’d found myself in the production room for the country’s school examination papers. The room was full of older men in various stages of retirement, myopia and alcoholism, crouched over pasteboards ticking, marking, scribbling, conferring, referencing, cutting and gluing. After a quick briefing where I was told “we use one font, no colour and a strict house style”, I thought “Holy shit, I’m back on square one”. I was lead to a Mac, Quark Xpress 3.0 and handed my first piece of work, type setting a straightforward marking scheme from handwritten manuscript. Simple, I thought, it’s all looks like Times New Roman so off I go bashing away. By the end of the day I’d done what I’d considered a reasonably good job, gave it a quick proof, stuck it in a job bag and went home. The next afternoon it arrived back like a bloody suicide note, red ink from header to footer, covered in hieroglyphics that made no sense. I prayed for the hole to open up. It didn’t. I sat there, staring at the bloody mess. I took a deep breath, admited I was floundering and went and spoke to “Big Eddy” Haughey, one of the older gents who sat opposite me.

”All the oul fellas are proof readers” said Eddy. Some had done it their whole lives, 40 years in some cases. Others had been typesetters in the 60s and 70s using phototypesetting and couple started life in newspapers using linotypes, technology dating back to Victorian times. They’d all worked at the Universities Press producing scientific encyclopedia, but had been slung on the scrap heap by youngsters who could operate a computer and a spell checker. I’d never thought of proofing as an actual trade, more an option on the “Edit” menu.

I showed him my copy like I used to show my mother a cut knee after riding a bike with no hands into a wall… intense pain with acute embarrassment. He looked down his nose, through his glasses and over his huge stomach at the red mess on his board. He sniffed and coughed. I flinched and winced. He pursed his lips and sucked in a room full of air and finally said… “it’s not too bad kid”. I exhaled a room full of air. He opened his drawer pulled out the style guide and a copy of the British Standard of Proof Readers Marks. He explained what the markup symbols meant and page by page I realised how little I knew about typography, about anything really. The difference between a forward slash and a solidus, an apostrophe and a prime, inches and quote marks, faux bold and Times Bold and on and on it went page after page. Every missing millimetre of indent, extra character space and typo was highlighted.  Every toner blotch, paper crease and tea stain was a visual dressing down. Absolutely nothing got through the net because nothing could afford to. He finally said “listen kid, we don’t do fancy shit here, just keep it 10on12 and you’ll be just fine”. “10 what on 12 what” I said. “10 point body on a 12 point leading”, he said.

15 years later and I’m wrestling with HTML, CSS and Expression Engine. The words body, markup and stylesheet still mean much the same thing, leading has become line height, tracking is letter-spacing, ems have replaced points so I suppose it’s true, the more things change the more they stay the same. It’s laborious in comparison to print technologies, but it’s cheaper and more exciting. So I’ll keep it simple, keep it 10on12, metaphorically speaking.  You don’t have to be fancy to be effective. You don’t have to decorate to communicate, stick to the basics, keep it simple and remember, experience usually trumps youth everytime.

Written on: April 01 2009
Filed under
: design :

The density of the road network coupled with lower number of cars suddenly strikes an almost perfect balance.

I'm all in favour of some negative space but not to the detriment of the user experience.

The illustrations, over 50 of them, are simple, playful, full of life and spot on.

I can almost hear Martin Denny playing on the phonogram in glorious High Fidelity Stereo…

the man charged with finding a suitable design for the new currency was none other than W.B. Yeats.

it arrived back like a bloody suicide note, red ink from header to footer, covered in hieroglyphics that made no sense.

in a nutshell

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