Saturday, 14 June 2014

Great Creatives Don't Fight Feedback

Most creatives are not good at receiving feedback. Quite the opposite in fact. They’ve learned to resist feedback, believing that it’s a part of their job to be “misunderstood” and to fight the “suits”. They dig in their heals to defend their ideas. 
And there’s something to be said for this approach. We have to be ready to fight for new ideas because there are so many people who will challenge anything new. Take Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, for example. He mocked the iPhone when it was first launched because it didn’t have a tiny plastic keyboard like all the other smartphones of the time. His lack of vision cost his company the smartphone market, and ultimately cost him his job. If Apple had listened to people like Ballmer, there would be no iPhone.
So resisting feedback is an important part of every creative’s job. But the very best creatives don’t always resist feedback. Great creatives actively seek out feedback, but the difference is that they’ve learned how to do it effectively, so that it helps them to nurture their ideas, rather than knock them down. There are five key stages to generating this kind of constructive feedback.

1. Who to ask
Great feedback scrutinises our ideas from an entirely new angle, and reveals strengths and weaknesses that we were not previously aware of. In other words, it addresses our “blind spots”: the aspects of our work that we are unaware of and can’t see for ourselves.
While we all have our own unique perspective on the world, those closest to us like friends and colleagues tend to share similar points of view. So to address our blind spots we unusually need to look beyond our immediate circle of acquaintances to find the right people to ask for feedback. To do this, we may need to leverage our extended network: a friend of a friend who you’ve never spoken to before may be exactly the right person.
It can be very valuable to get feedback from people with specialist knowledge in the area you’re working in, but it’s also important to get feedback from people with absolutely no specialist knowledge, since they provide an entirely fresh perspective, untarnished by industry norms and preconceptions.
Of course, trusted friends can provide great feedback too, but consider carefully how and why you trust them. If you trust them to always say positive things and provide emotional support, then that’s all very nice, but it means they’re not going to provide the kind of candid, useful creative feedback you really need. Instead, choose the kind of friends that always give you honest feedback, even when they know it may not be what you want to hear.

2. How to ask
Most creative work is developed in response to a brief, so it’s tempting to show someone your brief first, and then show your solution. While this is a perfectly valid approach, it does have some drawbacks. 
Firstly, the brief may be wrong. A factual error, a strategic error, some bias or presupposition in the brief may have lead you in the wrong direction. In this case it may have a similar influence upon the person giving you feedback. Better to get them to look at your work and tell you what they assume the brief must have been.
A second, equally important issue is that your target audience will not have the benefit of reading the brief first. They will react to your ideas instantly, intuitively and without first being prepared. They won’t think “well that’s OK considering what the brief was”. If you get feedback from people who have first read the brief, you may miss out on this immediate “gut” reaction.
So, if the person you’re seeking feedback from is in any way representative of the target audience, it may be better to just present them with your idea without having them read the brief first. In fact, without any preamble or explanation whatsoever. If it’s a design, just show them the design and see what happens. If it’s a game, let them play the game! If it’s a song, just shut up and let them listen.

3. How to receive
Asking for feedback is not the same thing as receiving feedback. If your response to every piece of feedback starts with “yes but…” then you probably have not actually listened to the feedback at all. Instead, you’re focusing on how to defend your ideas. If you are serious about getting feedback, then the only response that is required when you receive it is “thank you”. After all, the feedback is what it it is, whether you like it or not. And arguing with it won’t change that.
To maximise the value of the feedback that you are receiving, you should make yourself receptive to it on every level. Kids at school are taught “whole body listening”. They are expected to be quiet, stop fidgeting, face the teacher, look, listen and think. As adults, we don’t have teachers to force us to pay attention in this way, but if we really want to receive high quality feedback, this is exactly how we should be.
Note that whole body listening is not just about hearing - it’s about seeing too. Consider the body language, the expression and the physical state of the person giving you feedback - this non-verbal communication is also a part of their feedback to you.
As adults, we think we know a lot of things. And this belief can often prevent us from learning. Since the purpose of feedback is to reveal our blind spots by getting feedback from a different perspective, the fact is that we know nothing. What may be true for us looking from our perspective may not be true from someone else's perspective. If we’re constantly trying to compare perspectives, we’re not really paying attention to the perspective of the person we’re receiving feedback from. Instead, before receiving feedback, we need to empty our minds of all our presuppositions so that we can adopt a “know nothing” state. This is a state of genuine curiosity, where we want to understand someone else's perspective by receiving all of their feedback faithfully and without judgement.
A final important point on receiving creative feedback: always ask for more. People are sometimes not comfortable with giving feedback. They may be anxious about hurting our feelings, for example. So they may be withholding some of their most important feedback, for fear of offending. To help and encourage them to fully share all of their feedback, it’s worth repeating back exactly what you heard, using their words. This demonstrates that you are really listening to them carefully, and without judgement. And that your are open to receiving more feedback. It should give them the confidence to continue. So then, if you say “and what else is there about that,” you might receive more candid and valuable feedback. On some occasions, the “what else” question prompts more than the person giving feedback even realised they had to offer. The “presupposition” that there is more feedback helps them to dig deeper.

4. How to evaluate
Once you’ve received the feedback and listened to it without judgement, the time finally comes to evaluate it. A great creative doesn’t necessarily take on board all the feedback that they receive. That does not mean that the feedback is not valid. All feedback is valid, because it’s true for the person who is giving it. If you ask someone their opinion, they give it to you. That’s there opinion, whether you like it or not.
So the purpose of the evaluation stage is not to decide whether the feedback is correct. The purpose is to decide which feedback you are going to address. After all, you can’t please everyone. The feedback you have received may be contradictory. And ultimately, it’s your project - other people have given you feedback, but it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with it.
It’s important to differentiate the types of feedback that you have received. Some feedback will focus on problems, while others will focus on solutions. Oddly, in this context, the problem feedback is usually more valuable than the solution feedback. That’s because there are usually many different solutions to a single problem. When someone precisely diagnoses a problem for you, they give you the freedom to solve it your way. And since most creative endeavours involve many different interdependent parts, the best solutions are often not directly related to the problem.
Time usually plays are part in this process. Especially when the feedback is not what you’d wanted to hear. It can take days, weeks and sometimes even months to process this type of feedback and decide on a way forward. 

5. How to respond
Far from being a sign of indecision, the ability to change your mind is in fact the hallmark of the truly rare breed. A great creative. Someone whose ego is no so fragile that it overrides their creative judgement.
Admitting that our creative work is wrong can be very difficult, because we tend to identify with it very personally. A rejection of our creative work can feel like a rejection of us personally, because we put so much of our own personal style and taste into it. So how do great creatives change their mind and move on so effortlessly? 
The answer is simple. While they are passionate about their ideas, they also maintain a certain distance from them. By remaining detached from our ideas, we become much more open to changing our minds. If you choose to own the problem, rather than owning your creative work, then it becomes easy to change your mind and go with someone else's idea, if that provides a better solution to your problem.
If you don’t recall the last time you changed your mind about something, perhaps its time you started listening more closely to feedback.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Momentum versus direction - why some organisations don't innovate

When we’re moving forward with a project, it provides us with reassurance. It feels like we’re heading somewhere, and from this we tend to infer that we’re heading in the right direction.

But this confuses momentum with direction.

In his book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar, argues that it’s essential for their movie directors to have a direction, even if it’s not necessarily the right one. A director must maintain the confidence of his crew, and in this sense, going somewhere is better than going nowhere. It’s a matter of leadership.

But what if that confidence is misplaced? What if your project is moving rapidly in the wrong direction? All the team moral in the world is not going to save a project if you’re building the wrong thing.

The risks are compounded in a business context, where a team left idle is a waste of money. As their manager, the business demands that you give them something to occupy them. Fast. So should you begin a project before you know exactly where you’re going, or should you wait for inspiration and risk wasting time and money?

At Pixar, Catmull explains that they solve this dilemma by encouraging their directors to "fail early". The argument is that you can always adjust your direction once you have set off, as you learn.

And of course this is true, to a point. To be creative, you need the freedom to experiment and evolve your ideas as a project progresses. But innovation is about more than creativity. These kinds of course corrections are great for incremental refinement of existing concepts. But they rarely lead to anything entirely new… to something innovative.

In a software project I once worked on, I was asked to design a button, where I didn’t believe that one was required. When I questioned it, I was told that this type of software always had a button there, and that it was not within the scope of this “sprint” (a two week project cycle) to challenge things at that level. The trouble was that there never had been such an opportunity. We had started building things before we’d had a chance to consider the big picture or challenge any conventions, because we were following the “Scrum” project management methodology, which favours iterative, incremental development over a traditional sequential approach.

Innovation is about taking a totally new direction. Not making minor course corrections to a familiar route. Organisations that insist on maintaining momentum rarely innovate, because they never give themselves an opportunity to stop and plan an entirely new journey.

In other words, when you confuse momentum and direction, you also risk mistaking incremental refinement for genuine innovation.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

How our words shape our experience, and why diets don’t work

Have you ever noticed how the words you use to describe an experience eventually replace your actual memories of that experience? For example, I ran the New York Marathon last year. When I got back home, people asked me how it was, so I described it to them. After I told the story a few times, it became fine-tuned, and I settled on the most interesting bits to tell people, and the best words to use to describe those bits.  Eventually, this description became so well rehearsed that whenever I think of the New York Marathon, I think of my edited description, rather than the actual experience.

In other words, the words I used to describe the experience became a shorthand for that experience. Rather than digging out loads of memories, my brain is somehow taking a shortcut and playing the edited highlights instead.

The trouble is that these edited highlights are not just a shortened version of events - they are skewed in the particular way that I had chosen to relate the experience to my friends. For example, I left out the boring bits. I downplayed some of the agony. I focussed more on the fun and excitement.

So the words we use to describe our experience not only become a shorthand for that experience, but they can start to define and shape the experience as well. This happens not only to our memories of the past, but to our experience of the present as well.

And that is why the language we use when talking about our experience, behaviour and goals is so important. Take these phrases commonly repeated by people watching their weight:

  • “I’ve been good, I deserve a treat”
  • “I’m not allowed to eat that”
  • “I can’t eat that, I’ve been too naughty this week already"

What do these statements have in common? They’re all childish language, implying the existence of a parental figure who allows and forbids certain foods, rewarding good behaviour with treats and punishing bad behaviour. The funny thing is, in most cases, this parental figure does not actually exist. It’s just a metaphor.

But how does this metaphor operate and what impact does it have upon people who use it? A parent is, of course, responsible for what their child eats. So an adult using parent-child language when talking about their diet is metaphorically relinquishing responsibility for their own eating choices. And this in turn can have serious consequences for their attempts to reach their target body weight.

Metaphors aside, unless you really are a child, then you and you alone are responsible for the choices you make about what you eat. No one else forces you to eat anything. It’s not McDonald’s fault if you eat junk food. And it’s not the fault of an international conspiracy if you consume sugary snacks and drinks full of high fructose corn syrup. You make all those choices yourself.

And it’s not naughty for you to eat calorie dense food, anymore than you’re being good when you eat healthily. Because ultimately you’re in charge, and you experience the consequences of your actions. No one else. Something is only “naughty” if there is a parent figure to tell you off. And something is only a “treat” if there is someone to reward you for “good” behaviour. And there is no such person.

I was discussing this with a friend recently who wants to lose weight. I explained how I choose to eat chocolate on one day a week, because that balances my love for chocolate with my desire to maintain low body fat. She said that was my treat day, and when I explained it was not a treat, she just laughed and said I was “playing with words”. To her it did not matter what I called it.

And of course, I am playing with words, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. In my New York Marathon example, I showed how the words I used to tell my story not only became a shorthand for that experience, but they came to define and shape my recollections of the experience itself.

And this happens with my experiences in the present as well. The language I use to describe what I choose to eat has a profound impact on my diet. By avoiding framing my choices in parent-child metaphors, and instead focusing on how I proactively balance my different priorities to work out what is the right thing for me to eat, I’m shaping my experience in real time, and equipping myself with the self efficacy that I need to stick to my goals.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Using “Save As…” to navigate the creative maze

Developing creative ideas is not a steady linear progression of refining ideas to make something gradually better and better. Quite the opposite, in fact. The creative process is something more akin to a navigating a maze. If you mentally prepare yourself for a few wrong turns at the start, you’re more likely to reach the end.

The creative process is an emotional journey, because you’re looking for what “feels” right. There are no absolute rights and wrongs - you’re ultimately drawing on your own personal aesthetic judgement to determine the right approach.

And this is why being creative can be so emotionally draining. In his recent book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios, explains how important it is to remember that you are not your ideas. Creatives should not take criticism of their work personally. But this is easier said than done, because in a sense, your ideas are you, or at least, an extension of you.

Parents often take criticism of their children very personally because they know they share the same DNA. It is much the same with our creative ideas. We pour our personality, our humour, our sense of identity into our ideas. Their quirks are our quirks. Their shortcoming are our shortcomings. But of course, Ed Catmull is right. As personal as our ideas may be, If we identify too closely with them, we may become blind to their shortcomings, and they can lead us down a blind alley as a result.

And that brings us back to our maze. As you navigate a maze, you have a sense of where the exit is. But while many paths appear to be heading in the right direction, most will lead you round in circles, or to a dead end. That dead end may be so tantalisingly close to the exit, that you can even see it. But as close as the exit may be, you’re going to need to do a lot of backtracking to return to the correct path.

Whatever you’re working on creatively, it’s never just a single idea. Any creative endeavour is comprised of many different synergistic ideas. And even if most of these ideas are great, it takes just one bad one to let the whole thing down. That’s because each idea builds upon the last. In the same way, navigating a maze involves many choices of which path to take, and an early wrong turn can undermine every subsequent decision you make. That’s why, even as you get close to the exit, you may never actually reach it.

Ideally, when we make such a wrong turn, we quickly recognise what we’ve done and turn back before we invest too much time pursuing the wrong path. But of course, it’s not that easy, not only because the path initially looks like a promising one, but also because two traps its easy to get caught in: emotional investment and confirmation bias.

The longer you spend pursuing one particular path, the more emotionally invested you become in that path. When I was a designer, I’d often spend an entire day trying to make a layout work, and getting nowhere. The next morning, I’d go into work and pick up where I left off. Rather than trying a new approach, I’d continue trying to make the old approach work, because otherwise I’d have to acknowledge that I’d wasted the whole previous day in a blind alley.

The most famous example of this is what has become known as Concorde fallacy. The French and British governments invested in fortune in developing the worlds first and only supersonic passenger aircraft - even after it become clear that it would go massively over budget and never be commercially viable. The problem was that they had invested so much in it that it became politically impossible to write off these sunk costs.

Similarly, when we’re building our creative work on top of conceptually flawed foundations, we’ll sometimes do anything we can to avoid acknowledging this to ourselves because it means we’ve wasted a lot of time. And this is where confirmation bias kicks in. This is our naturally tendency to notice all the evidence that supports our point of view, and ignore all other evidence to the contrary. 

This is like reaching a dead end in the maze, but refusing to turn back because you can see the exit over the wall, even though on some level you know the path you’re on will never actually take you there.

So what is the solution?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that creativity is a process of exploration, and as such it is not only inevitable that you’ll take a few wrong turns. It is also absolutely necessary. If you don’t allow yourself to take wrong turns, you’ll end up with writers block or blank canvas syndrome, where you become immobilised and incapable of embarking on a creative undertaking.

So wrong turns are in fact a part of the journey. Something to be anticipated, and even enjoyed. After all, a little detour can be scenic and fun. The trick is not to waste too much time on them, and to be able to quickly retrace your steps and get back onto the right path.

There are many was to solve this problem, but one I’ve found to be consistently effective is “Save As…” Most software offers a save as command, enabling you to create a new version of a document based upon the current version. When you Save As, you preserve the current version, and have a new version to work with.

Keeping a previous version of your work, makes it feel less risking to start experimenting again, freeing yourself from the constrains of emotional investment. It’s like leaving a breadcrumb trail in the maze, so you can retrace your steps. By saving as, and then working on a copy, you feel free to delete and amend substantially, knowing you can always retrace your steps and get back to where you were if it doesn’t work out.

When I “save as” on a creative project, I always believe at the time that I’m going to need to return to the earlier version, and yet in practice I rarely do. Over the years, I’ve learned to manage myself in this way - effectively playing a little mind game on myself.

Save as… may seem like a fairly unimportant feature in most software packages, hidden away under the file menu.  But used in the right way, it’s one of the most powerful tools in the creative toolbox. One that is sure to lead you out of the most challenging creatives mazes.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

iWatch, the quantified self and the worried well

(image via 9to5Mac)

It seems almost inevitable that Apple will launch an iWatch later this year, and most pundits agree that “the quantified self” will be the main theme of this new device. An emerging tech trend, the quantified self connects wearable devices with online services to provide continuous monitoring of a user's health and fitness.

This new category has seen some growth, with devices such as Nike’s Fuel Band, Jawbone’s Up and Fitbit generating plenty of press coverage and modest sales. But as with tablets and smart phones before, Apple’s entry into the nascent category could redefine its purpose and massively broaden its appeal.

I’ve been involved in health and fitness tech for many years, both as a user (tracking my runs on Nike+) and as a developer (I co-created Reps & Sets, the gym logging app for iPhone). So I know from personal experience the tremendous potential that exists for using technology to support people in their health and fitness goals. 

But there’s something about quantified self products that troubles me. We often lazily bundle “health and fitness” into a single phase, but they are in fact two distinct things. After all, you wouldn’t get medical advice from a personal trainer any more than you'd ask your doctor to help improve your bench press.

Quantified self products cross the line from fitness to health, and in so doing, they pander to the “worried well”: those whose only symptom of illness is their anxiety that they may be sick. Oddly, as medical science has improved our health, this anxiety has steadily risen.

Be careful what you measure

As any self help book will tell you, it’s best to focus on what you want, rather than on what you don’t want. Fitness tracking products focus on positive goals. The best ones highlight our achievements and progress, providing us with encouragement and motivation to continue.

Quantified self products, on the other hand, medicalise us, tracking metrics such as blood sugar and blood pressure. These kinds of data may provide insights to qualified medical professionals, but will offer little meaning to the average user. Instead, they encourage us to anxiously obsess over inconsequential fluctuations in our body’s normal functioning.

In other words, the quantified self encourages us to look for problems rather than to look for progress.

Looking for problems can create problems

There are two main problems with this. The first is false positives. Health screening can be a highly effective intervention, but it doesn’t always follow that we should screen for every possible kind of sickness. Some types of screening result in high levels of false positives - where a healthy patient may be told they are sick and undergo unnecessary, unpleasant and sometimes risky treatment. Ultimately, scientists must study the data to determine whether the benefits of the screening for a particular disease outweigh these risks. 

No such determination is made with quantified self products. Instead, healthy individuals are subjected to endless ongoing tests for no apparent purpose, and presented with results that they are not qualified to interpret.

The second problem is the vicious circle - the kind of negative feedback loop you can get into when you obsess about your health. The anxieties created by worrying about non-existant health problems can result to very real stress-related health problems. As a result, the worried well may over time become the worried unwell.

Track your fitness gains, not your health problems

As a former cancer patient, I know what it’s like to have every aspect of your health monitored. Chemotherapy is not fun. But fortunately for me it was effective. Now I choose to focus upon the benefits of successful treatment, by pushing my body as far as it can go in terms of my fitness. And that’s what I choose to measure: the progress of my fitness.

Of course, my health is more important to me than my split times on a marathon. That’s why I still go for regular checkups at my hospital, who do all kinds of tests. But I prefer to leave the quantification of my health to qualified medical professionals who I trust.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

What’s going on inside your helmet? - Quarterbacks, coaches and patterns of success

The pressure on a quarterback in an American football game is hard to imagine. They alone are responsible for passing the ball by throwing it long distances across the field. And the longer they wait before making a pass, the greater the chance they'll be tackled to the ground. But they don’t face this responsibility alone. Inside every NFL quarterback’s helmet is an earpiece so they can receive instructions from their coach. It’s the coach’s responsibility to call the plays, deciding what the quarterback and offensive team will do on each down.

The coach may call for some some long and difficult passes, and if the quarterback fails to complete a few, he might start to panic. Perhaps the negative self-talk sets in, as the defence starts to undermine his self confidence. Typically in this situation, a coach will give his quarterback a couple of easy passes to calm him down.

If you’re not a quarterback, you probably don’t wear an earpiece for your coach to whisper instructions to you as you work. But perhaps you should.

A good creative professional needs to be both the quarterback and the coach. Throwing a beautiful pass is a bit like coming up with a great new idea, or solving a particularly difficult creative problem. The more challenging the task, the higher the risk of failure.

If you’ve spent a lot of time on a creative problem, and you haven’t come up with any great solutions what would your coach tell you to do? He’d give you a couple of easy tasks to do, so you can get your confidence back. In other words, he’d want you to put that difficult brief to one side for a while and have some fun.

It’s easy to get into patterns of failure, and it’s equally easy to get back into patterns of success, once we become aware of what’s happening. When a quarterback throws a series of incomplete passes, his confidence is undermined, and he get’s into a pattern of failure where his performance suffers. By getting him to throw some easy passes instead, the pattern of failure is broken and a new pattern of success is established. Then it’s time to attempt more challenging passes.

Whether creative professionals are working in groups or as individuals, these same patterns emerge. Often accompanied by negative self talk. In a group, you can actually hear the negative talk set in, as people start to focus on the problem state, rationalising why they can’t solve the brief, and in the process demotivating each other and limiting the group’s potential for success.

The solution is always to put the task to one side, do something easier, and come back to the original task when you’re back in a pattern of success. It often helps to “sleep on it” and come back to the brief with a fresh mind the following morning. Or to approach it from a different context, when you’re in a more relaxed mindset. (I often find that I do some of my best creative thinking in the shower).

But what if there isn’t time? 

Managing a creative agency, an issue I frequently encounter is the expectation that if we have quoted 2 days for a team to work on a creative brief, then the client can expect the job to be turned around in 2 days. I would usually insist on at least a week. Clients often don’t like this because they imagine that their work is being held in a queue and not prioritised. But the truth is quite the opposite.

If you agree to turn around two days of creative work in two days, then you haven’t given yourself any time to put the brief to one side and work on something easier. And you’re potentially compromising the quality of your creative response as a result.

The answer is to share some of this with your client. Explain your creative process to them. And if they still won’t give you the turnaround time that you need, you should seriously consider finding smarter clients to work for.


After all, it’s a question of how good you want to be. Do you want to be known for “quick and dirty” jobs, where you churn through average work at high speed, or do you want to be known for creative excellence, that clients are willing to wait for and pay more for?

Friday, 21 March 2014

Leaky and ambiguous icons

I've created many icons over the years. So I know from personal experience just how difficult they can be to design.

The objective of icon design is usually to produce the simplest possible image that unambiguously communicates a concept. Sometimes that concept is a thing: like a folder or a trash can; sometimes it's an action: like swiping a card or summoning a nurse.

There are two reasons why icons should be as simple as possible:
  1. they are less cluttered and work in small sizes;
  2. they are less likely it is to "leak" unintended messages.
The first reason is self explanatory. The second is worth exploring in more detail. As an example, take a look at this icon I found in a hospital. The purpose of the button is to summon a nurse. The icon doesn't attempt to convey the action of summoning. Instead, it shows a picture of a nurse. But is that all the icon is communicating?

I see several other messages in this icon:
  • Nurses are women
  • Nurses are slim and totter around on pin-like legs
  • Nurses wear figure hugging clothes with short skirts
  • Nurses carry items like drinks
  • Nurses wear old-fashioned clothes, or it is appropriate to be nostalgic about when they did.
...and there are doubtless many more. The presuppositions and cultural context of the designer are leaking out of the icon. In this case, the ideas leaked are so far from today's social norms that I believe the hospital should consider changing the buttons. A cost that would have been entirely unnecessary if the icon had been a bell, for example.

But while too much information can be a problem, an icon can also be over-simplified to the point at which its meaning becomes ambiguous. Take this icon for Transport for London's Oyster Card readers, for example.

Oyster Cards are the RFID-based contactless ticket system used on the London Underground and busses. The icon indicates where passengers should "touch in" and "touch out" to start and end their journey at the ticket barriers. The only action required by the user it to place their card against the reader. Perhaps the icon is intended to show a card touching against the circular reader. But instead, many passengers interpret the circular shape as a swoosh, suggesting they should wave their card around in circles. 

The problem is that this rotating motion confuses the RFID sensor, resulting in a delay in reading the card, which often causes passengers to wave the card in even more vigorous circles, making a read almost impossible.

This can be very frustrating to observe if you are stuck behind a card waver at the ticket barrier. Given that this icon is now used throughout the city's transport system, millions of man-hours have presumably been wasted in this way. At who knows what cost.

The meaning of any communication is ultimately how it is interpreted by the recipient. The recipient is never wrong - a misinterpretation is always the responsibility of the communicator. Great icons unambiguously communicate a message. And to do this, they have to be incredibly simple - eliminating extraneous elements, while maintaining sufficient detail to make their meaning explicit. Finding just the right amount of simplicity is not a simple task. But when designers do this hard work, they make it easier for users.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The skin I live in: a 7 year journey

As my latest round of cancer treatment is coming to an end, it has prompted me to reflect upon the mind-body journey I’ve been on.

I’d had rashes all over my body for many years, without realising I had cancer. But in 2007, I found a big lump in my groin, went to the doctors and was diagnosed with cutaneous t-cell lymphoma with mycosis fungoides - a kind of skin cancer.

At that time, I was overweight, unhealthy, stressed and depressed. Cancer seemed like the last straw.

The doctors wanted photos of my rashes, so I was taken to the medical photographer. Standing half naked, with my arms out stretched, my gut hanging over my boxer shorts and my skin covered in lesions, flaking away onto the floor as he took pictures, I felt ashamed.

Four cycles of chemo later, the tumours in my lymph nodes were gone, but the rashes remained and continued to deteriorate over subsequent years.

While my skin was getting worse, my health was otherwise improving. I’d never done any exercise in my life before. But the experience of going through cancer treatment had inspired me to get fit, so I started running and weight lifting. I became very interested in fitness and I even became qualified as a personal trainer.

But by 2013, my skin had worsened so much that I was starting to look like the Singing Detective. I was shedding the top layer of my skin like a snake and I had to stop running because it was just too painful to move. For the second time in my life, it seemed like things were coming to a gloomy end.

Fortunately, however, I was referred to a new consultant who prescribed photo-chemotherapy: a combination of drugs and ultraviolet light treatment. (Essentially high-tech sun beds). Treatment has given me a deep, even, all over tan. It’s the first time I’ve ever enjoyed a side effect of cancer treatment. And more importantly, it has worked. My skin is looking better than it has done in over 15 years.

I’ve now got just one more week of treatment to go. My cancer in remission, my skin has cleared up, and my hard work at the gym is finally starting to pay off. Who knows what the future has in store, but right now, this is a pretty special moment for me.

I'm now looking forward to going on holiday to Greece in May with my partner, Martin. It will be nice, for a change, not to feel ashamed of my skin on the beach, and it will give me chance to top up that tan.