dyslexia, eBooks and typography

January 9th, 2012

A rather off-topic post, but hopefully of value to some fellow parents…

In summary

This is Josh. He’s ten years old. He can light up a rugby pitch, climb to about grade 5c/6a and strike a cricket ball with such Gower-like sublime beauty I get tearful. What he can’t do very well, or at least doesn’t really enjoy very much, is reading. This is far from unusual for us boys of course (many of us can’t be bothered with it until we’re in our teens as a rule) but with Josh it always seemed particularly unappealing to him. We didn’t let it worry us too much given that he is, like I said, a boy who on the whole prefers to be running and jumping rather than sitting and reading; but every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of a look on his face when he was staring at a page that suggested there was more to it than that. Watching closely you’d catch a look in his eyes that suggested he was momentarily experiencing what’s probably best described as some weirdness, and for a split second he’d have to wait for the world to right itself again.

As you’ve probably guessed we’re now coming to the conclusion that he may be slightly dyslexic. Two separate tutors have raised it over the last year so we’re convinced enough to ask the school to look into it and in the next few weeks he’s going to be assessed by the local authority. It’s probably a quite mild case but it’ll be valuable to know if we need his upcoming secondary school to give further support.

This week I realised something about one of the few books he has enjoyed reading that I think is worth sharing publicly, hence the off-topic post here.

One of the only books he’s ever really enjoyed and enthusiastically read is the series by Jeff Kinney called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. At first I put it down to the fact that he was simultaneously enthused by the movie – we got him the first one after a trip to the cinema last year – but now I realise that it’s very likely the layout and the typeface that has made the difference. He got another for Christmas and once again he’s started reading without encouragement from us or protests from him. Looking through it with him a few days ago I suddenly clocked what had been staring me in the face for months: the handwritten font.

I think dyslexia is a little different for everyone, but one aspect of it is the way it can cause letters to appear mirrored. This gets particularly confusing with letters such as d and b which are easily mirrored on the vertical axis. The video from StudioStudio, designers of what seems to be one of the few specialist font projects in this field explains it further.

Here’s a page from Diary of a Wimpy Kid:

The varied angles of the handwritten font could very well be doing a great job of reducing the mirroring problem. Also, the notebook-like design with the line under each line of text combined with the page being broken up by sketches is probably dramatically improving his ability to keep track of each sentence.

Could it be that simple for someone with a mild case? A font choice and careful layout design? If so then the opportunity to explore this in modern eBook readers such as Kindles, Kobos or iPads seems ridiculously easy. An extensive investigation about Diary of a Wimpy Kid, fonts and ebooks (i.e. 30 to 40  seconds in Google) demonstrates two things: 1) that I’m not alone in noticing this but 2) that there’s surprisingly little comment about it.

I found a couple of mentions in some forums by people noticing how their dyslexic child enjoyed the book and also a blog post from August last year from a father who made the same connections and has seen results by combining a Kindle with an overlay; but beyond that there appears to be little debate.

With the appearance of beautifully crafted reading apps such as Readmill, the step from there to an additional visual setting designed to assist dyslexia sufferers is surely very small. It would simply (?) need some varied font choices of less perfect, more varied form (guaranteed to irk the purist typographers) combined with line by line support through a staged reveal or other visual aids and perhaps even some investigations into colour choices and brightness (such as those found in palettes like Solarized). An equally intensive investigation of the app store provides a few results regarding dyslexia but they appear to focus on diagnosis or spelling assistance, rather than just reading support.

So, if you’re an app developer and you fancy looking at this more, maybe we should have a chat? Better yet, if you actually know something about dyslexia and can put my armchair/googled understanding straight that would also be much appreciated.

In the meantime, there are things that can be done to test this further and craft something at home. In an hour or so over the weekend I’d managed to create Josh another book with a similar layout approach using Proboscis’ self-publishing system bookleteer.com, some text from Project Gutenberg, a font made from my own handwriting (made using Fontifier a few years ago) and some help from a certain Mr Kipling.

We can view the online version with an iPad or on a laptop, and after some quick folding I’ll be giving him the paper copy later today (PDF link – A3 format).

If he thinks there’s any discernible difference I think it’ll be worth pursuing further, although keeping his attention with only the classics available on Gutenberg could be tricky. Let’s hope someone in the publishing world looks into this further. We’ve yet to have the formal assessment so it’s possible the results will tell us he doesn’t have the condition at all, either way it’s pretty clear from his enthusiasm for the design of Diary of a Wimpy Kid that a more child-like approach to writing and design can make a big difference to child-like eyes.

New Year resolution

December 29th, 2011

Some threads worth tying together…. Thingsmagazine.net recently covered the plight of MVRDV, who appear to have unwittingly (?) upset a lot of people (again) by designing a pair of towers complete with their own explosion of structure billowing out from their mid rift. Things magazine cuts through the possible conceptual justifications by suggesting Minecraft as the possible source for the low-res, pixelated aesthetic.

Others have also been noticing this aesthetic appearing with increasing regularity and attempting to interpret it. James Bridle, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Laptop and Looms event earlier this year, covers it extensively in his recent talk at Web Directions South. Beginning with a subtle critique of the imaginary society my profession portrays with our ‘render ghosts’ (a topic I gave the lightest of touches to a while ago in a comment about the spineless deference inherent in the world of Sketchup figures), he moves on to examine the representation of data in building surfaces (my emphasis):

Minecraft has a lot to answer for here. Minecraft is awesome. What’s so strange about it is the creator knew, as a small project, that he could go a long way with gameplay and interaction without worrying so much about the graphics. But people have taken to the graphics to this extraordinary degree. And again, making these things come through in the world, giving the real world the grain of the virtual.

This building I am completely dangerously obsessed with. It’s a building in East London, and I literally stumbled upon it while out walking and saw it, and I’ve been puzzling over it ever since, and frankly it’s to blame for all of this. It’s a data centre, which is incredibly significant, because if you know anything about the architecture of data centres, they’re usually very anonymous structures. They’re usually big sheds. We have this notion of the cloud, like the cloud is some magic faraway land where computing is done, and it’s not big sheds on ring roads filled with servers. The cloud is a lie. The cloud looks like sheds. And that’s a terrible thing, because the network is awesome. And yet we’ve never figured out a way to – we sort of try to hide it away and tidy it away.

Meanwhile, over on Archdaily:

 spokesman Jan Kinkker stated, “We’ve had quite a lot of calls from angry Americans saying it’s a disgrace. 9/11 was not the inspiration behind the design, the inspiration was a real cloud.”

The cloud, it would seem, is a territory fraught with dangers for the architect; be they clouds that look like sheds or, in the case of MVRDV, sheds that look like clouds.

Shocking, insensitive cock-up aside, I think I welcome MVRDV’s return to a lower resolution aesthetic. I’ve seen the opposite and it looks like this:

F1-GP Ferrari World

That’s a small part of Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. It’s a high resolution idea expressed in a CAD curve of many segments modeled on a state of the art piece of technology, ultimately built with a few low resolution sticks by some guys in a desert who haven’t seen their family for months, all so that Ferrari could host stadium size concerts in their front porch. Mind you, it at least gave me something to think about when 15 minutes later Kings of Leon came on stage and sent us all to sleep – despite the fact that the sex was supposedly on fire.

Who’s for a low resolution resolution in the New Year?


October 6th, 2011

(The Isolator found via Anne Galloway’s always brilliant tumblr)

We’ve been using 37signals products at the office for years now. I’m a big fan of their products and their philosophy. For some reason though I remained dismissive regarding the business self-help book Rework they published last year. Probably the fault of that usual suspect: ego.

A reminder on twitter from Nick Grant encouraged me to be a little more humble and give it a try. I’m glad I did;  it’s cheap, easy to digest in one or two sittings and contains a good mix of reminders about well understood truisms as well as a plenty of new ideas. Given that we’re entering an era when so much of the standard architectural service needs to be rethought, now is as good a time as any to consider how to rework work.

Some notes provided in the spirit of the ‘blog all dog-eared pages’ movement:

page 43
Draw a line in the sand: As you get going, keep in mind what you’re doing. Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or a service. You have to believe in something. You need to have a backbone.

page 62
Less mass: Embrace the idea of having less mass… Mass is increased by:

  • Long term contracts
  • Excess staff
  • Permanent decisions
  • Meetings
  • Thick process
  • Inventory (physical or mental)
  • Hardware, software and technology lock-ins
  • Long-term road maps
  • Office politics

page 88
Tone is in your fingers: In business, too many people obsess over tools, software tricks, scaling issues, fancy office space, lavish furniture, and other frivolities instead of what really matters. And what really matters is how to actually get customers and make money… Use whatever you’ve got already or can afford cheaply. Then go. It’s not the gear that matters. It’s playing what you’ve got as well as you can. Your tone is in your fingers.

page 104
Interruption is the enemy of productivity: If you’re constantly staying late and working weekends it’s not because there’s too much work to be done. It’s because you’re not getting enough done at work. And the reason is interruptions.

page 170
Build an audience: All companies have customers. Lucky companies have fans. But the most fortunate companies have audiences… So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos – whatever. Share information that’s valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience.

page 173
Out-teach your competition: Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them. Teaching probably isn’t something your competitors are even thinking about. Most businesses focus on selling or servicing, but teaching never occurs to them.

page 222
Hire great writers: If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer or whatever; their writing skills will pay off… Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.

Healthy neighbourhoods

September 3rd, 2011

When planning a neighbourhood, the optimum distance from residential accommodation to nearby retail outlets is achieved by calculating the amount of time it takes to consume an ice cream whilst walking and ensuring sufficient distance is provided to complete the task and conceal the wrapper/stick; thus supporting the promotion of healthy living by allowing parents to secretly finish said ice cream before returning home to their children.


New Small Cullen

February 21st, 2011

Taking the time to write something considered and share it online is not easy, so getting reminded why it’s worth it is always welcome.  I’ve certainly appreciated all the supportive comments about my first submission to the housing blog over at bdonline.co.uk and much more importantly I’ve learnt lots in return from people sending links and sharing knowledge. The real star of that show though is undoubtedly the delightful book by FRS Yorke and Penelope Whiting: The New Small House.


The added bonus being this suitably charming cover by none other than Gordon Cullen. As a student of the mid-nineties, surrounded at the time by all the linguistic gymnastics of post structuralist decision dodging, I’ve noticed that with age my later interests appear to be an act of rebellion and I’m becoming an arch-empiricist.  Yesterday I was into linguistics, but today I’m not Saussure.

This is a fact well recorded in years gone by with entries and even the occasional sketch on Cullen that ranged from simple explorations of sections of Townscape through to more unusual assessments involving a skunk called Pepe Le Pew.

I was unimaginably flattered then to recently receive an e-mail from a reader who likened my own sketches to the work of Cullen and even more excited to discover an opportunity to share some more of his work.

Gorden Cullen sketch

Here’s Eric Osbourne describing the history of the sketch he’s been the proud owner of for years:

I have been trying to remember the firm I shared 16 Carlisle Street, London W1 with from about 1968 to 1970, I think they were called Phillip Chandos, because they were drinking in the Chandos Pub opposite the Nurse Cavell Statue, St. Martins’ Lane when the company was conceived – drinking was important to the company ethos! They use to write, design, edit and sub-contract printing for books and leaflets on various aspects of construction and architecture. The Lead Association springs to mind. Gordon Cullen was in and out all the time and very good friends of the main man (a tall guy with a long horizontal moustache and always sporting a bow tie), who had his office on the first floor. All their names are gone now but I remember Gordon would arrive at 11.00/11.30, the office manager would go down and we would hear peals of laughter. At opening time they would either go to the ‘Bath House’ pub on the corner for a ‘quick one’ which lasted until 3.00 or the Braganza, Soho Square in which case you did not see the three of them again that day. After they moved, I do remember going to their new offices in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden for a very quick drink, with accumulated post and the drawing which I had found amongst the serious piles of rubbish they had left behind. I was told I could keep it and I have treasured it every since – it’s the nearest thing I have to a William Blake/Picasso/Durer – a true masterpiece.

I don’t know whether it was commissioned for anything else or used in any publications so perhaps this is its first outing beyond Eric’s home. Thanks for taking to the time to share it with us Eric. I dream, literally, of being able to muster such line quality so effortlessly.

blogging and web rev B

February 8th, 2011

A couple of announcements:


My hope of getting back in the blogging saddle has resulted in agreeing to try the occasional entry for bdonline.co.uk and their new housing blog. I’ve kicked off by relying on some fairly classic texts for comfort and expanded on what began as a twitter message musing on the value of sculleries. You can see the results here:


I’ve no doubt the breadth of the topic will give opportunity in the future to wander into both theory and practice and I look forward to trying to weave both together. I’ll also hopefully be using it to subtly introduce other links to online content that you might not find in other mainstream media. You’ll note for example that I’ve snuck some links in to the first entry to the fantastic librarything.com

This is of course partly because of my involvement with…


Thanks to Sir Clive Sinclair, his rubber-keyed Spectrum 48k and several copies of Computer + Video Games magazine I am what the technology industry likes to call an ‘early adopter’. During the last 6 or 7 years I’ve been trying to take the geek enthusiasm (ranging from furtive activities such as mucking about late at night with the beginnings of this blog or organising flash mob assaults on Oxfam shops) into my office during the day and use it to change the Way We Work. It’s proved valuable in many ways; from public facing projects that have benefitted from the openness and agility of communicating on the web and in three dimensions, to experience with behind the scenes project management tools that we can include as part of our normal service through to just the simple ability to be able to run an office without being beholden to an IT Department or causing unnecessary overheads.

What’s perhaps been most surprising about these past few years is how long I kept feeling like an early adopter. We’re a conservative bunch in the construction sector it would seem and encounters with fellow geeks were few and far between. This is particularly odd given how obsessed us architects tend to be about concepts of technique or process, making us prime targets for the Getting Things Done philosophy found in many of the online tools available. Our interest in craft and production combined with, say, a predilection for pretentious graphic design and a pedantically chosen font would also suggest we’d be suckers for offshoots in this digital territory like, let’s say, Moo business cards. Yet for years I could cause an embarrassing amount of fuss at a meeting by pulling one out of my pocket and explaining that it was the simple connection of an image sharing site, short run, print-on-demand services and web 2.0 user generated content principles. Admittedly, we’ve adopted blogging and twitter with gusto in the last 4 or 5 years but then we always did like to Go On A Bit (see aforementioned BD blog entry) and frankly, there’s more possible with Web 2.0 Revision B than that.

This is changing however and meanwhile, like a scene from an episode of Heroes, others like me have been gathering to share the powers invested in them by their binary mutated DNA sequence, forming crack squads of digital communication experts ready to infiltrate the-

OK, enough with the uncharacteristic and fairly unattractive hyperbole. I’m allowing myself such melodrama because it’s with no small amount of pride that I highlight tomorrow night’s event at the Building Centre in London.

After several years of be2camp events around the country, the network’s founders will be announcing the results of the nominations and voting at be2awards.com. Those listed, along with many of the folks who came along to support at past be2camp sessions will have given their time and knowledge free at events like the ones I’ve been involved in organising in Birmingham for the last two years. Whilst the meetings and unconferences may not have reached a mainstream audience in the construction sector yet, we know that much has been learnt, shared and developed by all of us who’ve been able to take part.

So, it’ll be a worthwhile celebration. Please do register on the site and come along and join us during the afternoon. Alternatively, just keep your eye on twitter for the most important category of all: Nearest Public House.

Merry Christmas

December 26th, 2010

lone sledger, originally uploaded by eversion.

Hoping your Christmas involved sufficient sledging.

for our pleasure and interest

December 2nd, 2010

Blogging like it’s 2004. That’s the answer it seems. In which case I should return to my habit of just lazily scanning cool stuff and putting it on flickr. So, for no better reason than a desire to share some beautiful illustrations, I give you the 1961 Ladybird guide to London:




The authorities of the airport are pleased to see us, and they have arranged everything for our pleasure and interest. We can but refreshments or a full meal. For children who are not above old-fashioned means of transport, they have pony-rides and a miniature railway. There is even a sand-pit for the very young. But the great thrill is the aeroplanes; huge and graceful, immensely powerful and so beautiful to watch.


Never mind the carbon emissions and the extra runway rubbish: huge and graceful, immensely powerful and so beautiful to watch. Oof.

With thanks to Kinver Village book fair. More to come.

fabric first

November 30th, 2010

Perhaps it’s because I’ve just finished listening to McCloud’s (Sennett referencing) lecture on the importance of craftsmanship, or the exhaustively comprehensive work of Joseph Little I’ve just been reading on condensation in walls, or even just the day to day experience that gives one cause for concern over trade skills; but either way it’s hard not to find the AECB’s statement on carbon reduction attractive:

“So the AECB team looking at this is recommends that the carbon compliance level is set at 10-12 kgCO2/m2.a, for all dwelling types. The reasoning behind this is, that this level can be achieved with a highly efficient house heated with gas/lpg, without being forced to add in PVs, biomass or other bolt-ons.

The 10-12 kgCO2/m2.a level equates to an ’emissions reduction’ from 2006 building regulations of about 50%. It recognises that the additional reduction we need as a nation is much easier to afford with large-scale offsite renewable plant, than on-site. So the idea is that the remaining carbon reductions to achieve the “zero carbon” target will be via “allowable solutions”, allowing the developer to invest in nation-wide offsite renewable generation, giving us all the best value for the developer’s money.”

I’d better go and catch up with their closing their ‘Closing The Gap’ (PDF) paper.

more evocative

November 28th, 2010

Catching up on Radio 3’s Front Row earlier today (whilst twittering about a weak spot for religious imagery), I found this simple but valuable observation on the diary form that reminded of the way I felt in the first week of signing up for twitter 4 years ago. It also goes some way to explain the attraction of services like Twournal.

There weren’t many diaries, only at odd moments in my life did I try to keep a diary … the ones I kept as a teenager tend to be completely ridiculous, my opinons are so self-important and ill informed. What I should have done is simply wrote down: ‘Got up at half past seven, had my breakfast, was at school by such and such a time…’, and that would have been really quite interesting.

Actually, as the diaries got on as I got older the length of the diary entries shrink and they turn into something more like engagement diaries, and some of those entries that simply say ’10 o’clock: coffee with so and so, 3 o’clock tutorial…’, turn out to be much more evocative than the long essays. I see those things and whole days come back into my head.

Playwright and novelist Michael Frayn talks to Mark Lawson about his childhood and career, in the light of a newly-published memoir about his father.