Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Picture This!

I'm in the mood for something different on this blog. So when I stumbled on this piece from the NYT about design and government policy , I followed it up.

Actually, the piece makes a good point. Design is a powerful policy tool. We all know it, we all forget it. It's worth being reminded about.

One of my Iraqi colleagues came to work and asked me, "What does 'Click it or Ticket' mean?" That was a really great question because for 2 years, I say that sign on CA freeways and thought it was encouraging the use of cruise control. Click it and don't get a speeding ticket.

Then one day, I took a much closer look at the sign and realized that there was an off picture of a detached seat belt on it. Is it obvious to anyone else? When it takes a native 2 years to figure it out and the poor non-native can't figure it out at all, it's a bad campaign.

I am always impressed when I am France at how clear and consistent the signage it. And I have never had a problem negotiating a European Metro, or even a few of the American ones I have been on. But BART had me all confused. No maps in the stations, no clear markings in the train about where we were stopping and where we were headed. And the intercom system was so bad, I couldn't understand the driver at all. No wonder people prefer a car and GPS.

When you've had good design, you notice bad design even more! And it helps that Europeans have national design standards for roads and signs. Even the ancient Catholic Chruch new the power of images to spread information to the masses.

Recently at work, I have been focusing a lot on design and how to effectively us it in my communications with people. When you work in a place where language barriers are normal, you have to rely on the visual. And you have to be aware about cultural reactions to certain visuals and colors. And I find that more information can be imparted with tables than with text. Visuals offer instantaneous information in an abbreviated fashion. Take some of these covers from the Economist.

Nothing more needs to be said.

Design can also warp a message. We all know that you can present data in ways that exaggerates or downplays the results. See the link in the article to the Republican designed graphic of Health Care Reform. It is meant to scare.


Raised By Republicans said...

Cruise control?? LOL!

I hope you pay better attention to speed limit signs.

But yes, European signage is much more intuitive. No doubt a result of having multi-lingual driving populations.

I noticed that Washington D.C.'s metro systems signage is great. But Boston's sucks. A pet peeve of mine is bus systems that don't post schedules on every bus stop sign.

You know other examples of imagery as effective means of conveying political messages would be propaganda films. The great classic films, Alexander Nevsky and Birth of a Nation are two rather famous (or infamous) examples. Triumph of the Will is another.

Dr. S. posted a while ago about the new Transformers movie and we've talked about the movie The 300 before too. Images are effective means of communication. Absolutely.

USwest said...

Yes, but we need to get to the wider effect on policy. We've posted before on some of the Republican org charts developed in the Bush administration that were so wacked as to obscure the real policy. And the issue goes beyond signs to how you organize your communities, public transport, energy and communication grids, etc. Design goes beyond the visual to the functional. You might have the best communications net in the world, but if the design is so bad that nobody can repair it when it is broken, or understand how it works if it is attacked, then what good it is really?

BTW: Imagine seeing that CA sign at 65 Mph. Then laugh at me. I focused on the text, not the visual. The visual gives you little ot go on. If you do a image search on google for Click it or Ticket, you get a variety of signs that are much more clear.

Pombat said...

As far as that sign goes, it was the first thing I saw as the page opened, and my first thought was of seatbelts. My desk isn't going at 65mph though :-)

I agree totally that design is incredibly important. Graphs presented to illustrate policy always irritate me, because they all seem designed specifically to obscure their meanings (lack of adequate labelling, scale etc). Having said which, many statements involving numerical things presented to the public seem to be stupidly worded, and misunderstood anyway, due to a general lack of understanding of numbers (personal gripe - if your risk of something is 0.5%, that risk increasing by 50% due to action x ain't actually that much!).

That rant aside though, I am reminded of a TED talk that Spotted H showed me (and I hope to get him to find again and post on here), about urban design, and how it can so greatly influence how people feel about an area, and how people act. This links into my passion for infrastructure provision for sustainable, normal, healthy transport such as cycling & walking - I've seen many comments from people excusing their not cycling by pointing out what the roads are like where they live. And I agree with them - they're pointing at roads I wouldn't want to cycle on, and I've been turning into a bit of a lycra warrior lately!
(minus the lycra, thankfully for all)

It's something that surprised me in LA actually, was how few people I saw out and about on the sidewalks - the overall design of the city has been driven (pun intended) by the automobile, which in turn has led to everyone needing automobiles to get around, which has driven the further design of the city, right into a vicious circle (Melbourne is similar in some ways). The obvious comparison being to ancient towns in other cultures, which grew up when feet were the dominant transport mode - those towns are still very walkable.

USwest said...

Pombat makes a good point.

Design is present in many ways and I am not sure how to tackle them all. There is information design, which is all about communications. Google is great because it is sparse. Yahoo sucks because they junk up their page will all sorts of crap, just because they can and because they can make money from the ads. But its is poorly designed. Google is well designed.

Then there is industrial design. The focus since about the 1908s has been on quantity not quality, on production not design. Get the stuff out there cheap, and fast. Every year you must release a vehicle change! So you ended up with GM cars where nothing changes really bit a new radiator grill or something. And the money that you used redesigning htat grill could have been put to better use elsewhere. You get kitchen gadgets that you use once, and then never touch again. You get cookie cutter, commuter homes, poorly built, one on top of the other and far from city centers.

And urban planning, which is different from design, but that goes with it, is probably the really hot topic now and that Pombat mentions. I was looking at historic photos of my hometown recently. And while the downtown didn't change in terms of layout, it did in terms of design. At one point, they added false fronts to several buildings to make them look slick and modern for the 1950s. Now, they have tried to go back to the original look and they have bricked the sidewalks to encourage a sense of quaint, safe, ambiance. Of course, this cost a lot of money and many of the stores are still empty. I say, the turn the down town into one big outdoor mall, like they do in Palo Alto, or Santana Row in San Jose, and give up on the idea that you can have street front parking and little nothing stores. Put in a new theatre and draw the traffic rather than building new centers in other parts of town.

Lately, there seems to be an open movement where design and planning are about engineering our lifestyles. If you want people to ride bikes, design a community that incentivizes that type of behavior. If you don't want people to drive poorly, design roads and signs to encourage better driving. One favorite in my part of California is to build a small freeway to bypass a town, and then put 3 stop lights on it at 5 mile intervals, or to build a short freeway on ramp that also serves as an off ramp. Hello!

But, with our change in attitude, and our focus on less spending, we may start putting more value on quality rather than quantity, and that means design.

USwest said...

oops, I meant since about the 1980's te focus has been on quantity not quality, on production not design.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I just think "click it or ticket" is one of the stupidest slogans ever. I was not confused about its meaning, but seriously. Getting a ticket pisses everyone off because almost everyone feels that they are unfairly singled out when the cops ticket you, and that's almost always true. In a line of ten speeding cars, one gets the ticket. Same with stop signs etc. Phrasing this in terms of "getting a ticket" as opposed to, say, "obeying the law" or "saving your life" is dumb, dumb, dumb. Imagine an anti-smoking campaign with the slogan "people who smoke will get nagged to stop."

Most states say something like "seatbelts save lives, and it's the law!"

The graphic is also ridiculous because seatbelts are semi-circles, not circles.

Good graphic design communicates very effectively. USWest is right that this is also a vital POLITICAL skill that liberals often mess up. See the No on 8 campaign for everything you need to know about that! Yes was all about kids and families, why not no?

The Law Talking Guy said...

Obama's people did a great job with the O logos. Bright, sunny, patriotic, and new-seeming. They had some screwups too, like that phony presidential seal they had to ditch real fast.

Dr. Strangelove said...

The LAPD has a campaign to inform drivers about the risk of someone breaking into your car and stealing things--or as they call it, the risk of BFMV (Burglary From a Motor Vehicle). Their slogan, "Leave it, Lose it," is terrible. At first glance it appears to be a cheerful exhortation to cast away unnecessary things, rather than the conditional warning: If you leave it, then you will lose it. "It" being the things in your car.

I wish I could find a link to their signs, as they are so bad. It's not just the bad grammar and misspellings, but the content is negligible. The bullet point lists on the signs offer helpful advice to questions such as, "What is a BFMV?" and they urge you to park in a well-lit place, preferably in a gated garage if at all possible. Amusingly, the reason we have these signs in the well-lit, gated garage beneath our condo is that someone took advantage of the illumination and privacy to break into ten cars over the past year or so--including mine and my husband's.

What the signs really ought to say is: "WARNING! Cars parked here may be broken into or stolen, and the LAPD won't do shit about it except to put up these signs." But I can see why that didn't make it out of the graphics department... Not punchy enough, perhaps.

Dr. Strangelove said...

The most famous recent example of bad design is the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System. The threat levels of "Low" and "Severe" which bookend the scale are the only level named sensibly. They are also given sensible color codes: green and red respectively. Of course, this being a bureaucratic scale, we are never ever at either the lowest or highest levels. We are in one of the three middle levels--and those are just strange. Quickly now, without looking at the color codes, rank the three middle threat levels in order of increasing danger--their names in alphabetical order being Elevated, Guarded, and High. Then try to guess the colors. Place your guesses then take a look! Did you get it right?

For a bonus point, try to guess which level we are at now. You know, it would be a lot more fun if they used the heat levels from salsa. Just imagine: "Watch out! We're at threat level Picante!"

The Law Talking Guy said...

The purpose of the DHS rating system was pure fearmongering. Be afraid. Be very afraid. All the time. I mean, were we ever going to publicly say there was a "low threat" of terrorism? Imagine if you're in charge, you say that, and we suffer an attack.

There should be only one alert "special alert" that is triggered on rare occasions. The next step is sounding the claxons.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Come on... You don't like threat level picante? :-)

I think there was a genuinely useful intent--to coordinate government readiness--but it got all mixed up in the fearmongering you rightly describe, LTG. I think the weather service has it right with three levels: normal, watch/alert, and warning. This is not far from what you said. Normal is, well, normal. Color it green. Then there's yellow for the intermediate heightened watch. Then red warning for imminent danger.

Come to think of it, that's the Star Trek system. Hmmm...

Raised By Republicans said...

Given that the threat is mainly from South-Central Asia I recommend a more appropriate threat code:

Normal: "Threat Level Naan"
Elevated: "Threat Level Tandori"
Guarded: "Threat Level Curry"
High: "Threat Level Vindaloo"

It would be very panic inducing to have DHS officers running around the airport shouting "VINDALOO! VINDALOO!" with frightened looks on their faces.

Of course, it might be a bit confusing but it sure would be fun!

The Law Talking Guy said...

Yes, RBR, but of course they wouldn't use the names. It woudl be acronyms. So it would be "We've got a TLV going on right now people." Or a longer acronym. The best military or quasi-military acronomyms are those that actually contain more syllables (i.e., take longer to say) than the real English words. Consider whether IED is actually shorter than "roadside bomb" (it's not - it's got three stressed syllables as compared to two). Or whether DWI is shorter than "drunk driving." (It's not - 5 syllables rather than 3). Or whether it is faster to say "HOV lane" (east coast) or "Carpool lane". Aitch-oh-vee is three sylabbles, Carpool is two. HOV, for those not aware, means "high occupancy vehicle." And you have to pronounce it "HAH ocyupincy VEE-hikkel"

But I digress.

The other problem with "click it or ticket" is that policemen don't give tickets for not wearing seatbelts. Peace officers issue citations for failure to employ safety belts or, worse, for improper decoupling of a "shoulder harness and lap belt." Maybe we change the graphic to read "Copulation or citation."

Most will never get the joke anyway.

Pombat said...

Actually LTG, threat levels are one of the few things *not* generally reduced to acronyms/abbreviations, unlike so many other TLAs (three letter acronyms...). But anyhow.

I liked piccante Dr.S. And have to disagree with using Indian foods as threat levels, since they're not really exactly where the threat is coming from (I do love the image of airport officers running around screaming VINDALOO! though, that's fantastic), plus they're all really really tasty. Since I have no real idea of what *is* eaten in the more specific threat areas (yeah, some Indian-ish foods will be in there I guess, but still, curry being one of my national dishes*, I'm honour-bound to defend it, even if that defence is spurious and dripping**), I'd like to suggest Italian as the language for all future threat level tags, simply because it's such a great language to sound panickstricken in. And all formal disciplinary actions should be taken in German, because it's simply the best language for telling people off in.

*the other two are fish'n'chips, and stodge. Stodge is not to be mistaken with stodge of course, that undesirable non-descript 'food' found in other countries. No, in the UK, stodge is a very specific, tasty, and warming comfort food group, perfect for winter, and involving suet, and either bits of animals that Yanks & Aussies don't seem to eat that much (steak & kidney pudding anyone?) or amusingly named custard-slathered puddings that are light on the tongue and brickish on the stomach. It's great.

**as opposed to watertight

Dr. Strangelove said...

Oh, I just love the idea of the TSA security folks running around the airport yelling, "VINDALOO! VINDALOO!" Even better than Picante.

"I'd like to suggest Italian as the language for all future threat level tags, simply because it's such a great language to sound panickstricken in."

Lowest level: (shrugs) eh!
Medium level: Mamma mia!
Highest level: Mamma mia! (thwack oneself on forehead)

Pombat said...

Ahhh, but you forget Dr.S - it would be more like:

Lowest level: (shrug) eh! Ciao bella! Ciao ciao! (noise of moped starting) Ciao, bella, (chat up woman)
Medium level: Mamma mia! (noisy conversation about soccer, much gesticulation, call to mama to make sure she's ok)
Highest level: MAMMA Mia! (thwack, followed by ten minute torrent of completely incomprehensible Italian, and inadvertent rendering unconscious of colleague due to gesticulation)


Raised By Republicans said...

But now you guys are designing threat levels for Italians. We haven't had in trouble from the Red Brigades in years.

Speaking of TLA's...

The Law Talking Guy said...

The problem with designing threat levels for Afghanistan/Pakistan is that there are only so many variations on goat curry or shish kebabs you can make.

Afghan food is exactly what you would expect - halfway between persian and Indian.

I think we should use only foods mentioned in the Simpson's episode where they eat takeout from the Afghan restaurant.

"You take your kafta bi sanya and dip it in the labna.
Mmm, that's good labna."

Labna, of course, is labneh - same eaten throughout the Levant.