November 2007 Archives

diverse by design

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Recently I was in an uncomfortable situation. Or rather, I responded uncomfortably to the inner movies that play in my head when faced with a situation bearing deep implications. The two are different, really; it could all be in my head. The situation- while reviewing some public information images, I noticed that all of the students in all of the photos appeared to be young, white, healthy, and male.

The obvious problem is the lack of representation of a diverse student population. We'll adjust that so there is a truly diverse representation; but therein is my problem. On one hand, showing a diverse group is good for many reasons. On the other, it's bad for one- it may be false advertising. With that thought, the movies of wealthy white men in suits start playing in my head and they're all saying that we should artificially slant the images or I should use Photoshop to "diversify" the images we have. It's their motive that makes me uncomfortable. Do they want to deceive a fund giving populace into thinking we're more diverse than we are? Or do they want to correct a shortcoming by openly trying to attract a more diverse group? I'm not sure, and my tendency is to be very suspicious of wealthy men in suits.

So the issue is this: as designers, do we artificially misrepresent our university's diversity or not? Is it good? Is it bad? Is the intention important? ...and what is the real intention? I think the images should be diverse, but they should be honest and we shouldn't have to struggle to get them. They should be easily found and truly representative. If you read this, let me know what you think. I've watched these inner movies for twenty years, and I'd love to have a different perspective.

Signage at Penn State

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The specs used for signs on campus isn't really a topic of much general interest. I've searched several times and sent notes of inquiry to University Publications and OPP. I never managed to get the information I wanted- the information that I knew had to be available.

Pollock Building signage.This morning I found a reference to "OPP Sign Standards" in a PDF about Classroom and Technology design requirements. I did a search on that exact name and found another PDF with all of the information that I wanted. It's called The Penn State Signage Standards Manual. There are several sections and 130 pages. A nice addition to a collection of resources that includes The Editorial Style Guide and GURU

The University numbers rooms counterclockwise from the main entrance on the first floor. There's a standard for how to handle gaps and non-assignable spaces. Tedious stuff, really- but applicable if you want to do a floor map with cubicle labels. For interior signs, Penn State uses Helvetica Medium, Bold and Bold Condensed. For what must be exterior signage though the section is unlabeled, Penn State uses Univers Condensed and Condensed Bold as well as ITC Fenice-a serif face. Deep Ribbon is a face used with a proprietary sign making system.

Whether you plan on playing the game or breaking the rules, it's always good to know the standard expectations.

Management style

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In the early 80's I was totally rocked by Tom Peter's book In Search of Excellence. Since then, I've enjoyed other buzz books that are used to decorate the book shelves of young execs: Good to Great... Seven Habits... Leadership Moment... Before trying to master the Five Levels of Influence, though, I had an epiphany. I'd considered these books intriguing and uplifting, but the phrase, "management style" had come to signify two things: manipulation and deceit.

Temple Grandin, a woman with extreme powers of visualization, redesigned the pens, corridors and ramps of a slaughter house to make the journey to the killing floor more peaceful. My thought here is that she might have suggested telling the pigs that it was an "opportunity". I've heard the term frequently in similar contexts. I'm embarrassed by that sort of talk; it means someone thinks I'm so far beneath them that I'd believe it and they're so far above me, they need to apply controls. How degrading.

There are places that require managers. McDonalds trains a large number of first time workers and requires a system of managers to pull that off. Walmart may need managers as well. Places with a time clock frequently need managers to ride heard on people who are just putting in time while waiting to be some place else.

Here in academe though there needs to be a different model. Intelligent, motivated faculty have a system called the tenure system: over the course of a lengthy probationary period new faculty prove (or sadly don't prove) that they'll work in Penn State's best interest. They are then given a good bit of freedom to do so. Their individuality is allowed-even encouraged- to be part of their contribution.

As staff in academe, we don't have tenure but do have a different model implied by the term "exempt." In this context, exempt means that Penn State is exempt from paying that staff person overtime. It's simple-exempt staff can't work overtime; it's impossible to work more than expected. The implication to me is that if a staff person is "exempt", they have passed a probationary period in which Penn State gained assurance the staff person will continue to work selflessly in Penn State's best interest. They have intelligence, a sense of commitment, and a selfless vision of what their own contribution can be. And it all exists in an atmosphere of both selfless dedication and personal creativity.

Selflessness and individuality is a difficult mix. A team may require different things of different members; from each according to their own abilities. Someone may need to track notes. Someone may need to create a timeline. All, though, are intelligent, and self-directed. None should require management. Those who are inexperienced require mentors, not managers. Any staff requiring management just don't belong.

With such a plan, there will be healthy disagreement; it needs to be openly discussed. If it's due to ignorance, it needs to be corrected with fact sharing. If it's a difference of opinion, discussion should move intelligent and selfless team members forward to understanding. Open doors, open attitudes, no secrets, no rhetoric, and no managerial "handling". Ever.

The design brief; first things first.So what does this all have to do with design? Actually no more nor less than it has to do with any of our work: The more clearly the work is defined, the easier it is to execute. The clearer the direction, the less "management" as a solution seems warranted. Be clear about what the work is going to be, create a path of adequate communication, involve capable colleagues. Coming up short in any of these in our environment implies something is being concealed: the work isn't clear, there's no communication, the wrong talent is involved.

It's not just design work that needs a design brief. All of us do. We need less management and better communication. The very best management style is no management style. The best team is a team of goal oriented colleagues doing what each does best, working towards a defined goal.



Photoshop plugin
brings HD Photo
to Mac OS
When JPEG2000 came out, I read about it and got the plugins for Photoshop, but ended up never really using them. There was no support in browsers, and few people cared about the added capabilities to include text and metadata. PNG was becoming the new standard to follow for web images.

Then last July the Joint Photographic Experts Group (the JPEG standard writers and maintainers...) had a press release called JPEG 2000 Digital Cinema Successes and Proposed Standardization of JPEG XR In it they discussed the- what turns out being limited- success of the JPEG2000 standard. Improved quality, Photoshop and browser plugins aside, the thing never caught on and looks like it'll die in all venues save one- motion: JPEG2000 was extended to include digital cinema and for that it's catching on. JPEG2000 for images will more than likely be canned in favor of JPEG XR (extended range). The proposed new standard is designed for upcoming digital cameras, is based on technology introduced by Microsoft in its Windows Media Format and is currently known as HD Photo. Windows Vista supports it.

I'm posting about it here because the news release mentioned that there would be discussion of the new standard at the group's meeting in Japan on November 12-16. That meeting is taking place now, and the Microsoft HD Photo format has become a new standard called JPEG XR.

And with the new standard, there's a Photoshop plugin available for Mac OS. That's new. The version for Windows has been around for a while since Vista supports the format natively. But browsers don't. And the plugin creates HD Photo Beta format (.wdp) images, not JPEG XR.

The results of using the plugin in Photoshop CS3 on a Mac aren't earth shaking. The option isn't available in the "Save for Web" dialog (which makes sense since the web has no use for HD Photo yet...) but in the standard "Save" dialog, you can choose HD Photo. You get an initial dialog that lets you select a level of compression similar to JPEG. There's an "Advanced Settings" option available that I'll need to explore before I can do anything with it beyond making a screen capture. I opened a RAW file, cropped it to a small size and tried saving it several ways. As a "60" quality JPEG from the "Save for Web" dialog I got a 28,587 byte file with no color profile or gamma embedded. As a "6" quality JPEG from Photoshop's "Save" dialog I got a 49,911 byte file that's bigger because of an attached color profile. Finally, saved as an HD Photo (.wdp) from the standard "Save" dialog I got a 44,298 byte file that looks very much like the JPEG with a profile, though I can't see it in a browser. The file size is a bit smaller, and on close inspection, the JPEG fragment "squares" are much smaller and more diffuse. Blocks of tone are smoother.

One more thing: along with the new standard is a new color space. It's called ScRGB, it's been built in to Windows Vista, and it extends the sRGB standard. You can read about the new standard in a PDF from the International Electrotechnical Commission. c/net has a good ScRGB article, too. It looks like the extended space, more color than the eye can see, will be part of our design futures.

You can download the three test files in a zip archive and look at them yourself.

A brief addition: I saved the original Photoshop file as a lossless PNG and a lossless WDP. I dragged each onto the original as separate layers, and zooming in to 3200% I could see no differences among the three. The PNG is 307,664 bytes while the WDP is 290,548 bytes. That's almost 17K. Hopefully, Adobe and Apple will see that resistance is futile.

Also of note: The lossless version of the HD Photo format supports Alpha channels, but not transparency. That means any transparent pixels will be filled in with default white when the file is re-examined. PNG actually supports 8-bit transparency.

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