Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Beware. Be Very Ware: Neither West Nor East Monolithic

There’s an interesting piece by Chinese born graphic designer Yang Liu (sometimes spelled Liu Young) now appearing in emails and blogs everywhere. You can find the whole message by googling Liu Young and it is on many blogs including but it is not on her own website I give just one example here.

Apparently the images in this message are taken from an exhibition called Ost Trifft West (“East Meets West”) she made at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May-June 2007 and express visually the differences between east and west. At first sight it looks very interesting and very clever, but if you have not yet mastered intercultural differences then I recommend that you beware. Be very ware!

Yang lives in Germany and this clearly colors her perception of European culture. In the visual reproduced here you see that punctuality in China is not so precise, while in Europe, it is much more rigid. Actually this may be true in Germany but it is certainly not true in southern Europe or South America.

And this underscores an important point: neither the west nor the east is monolithic. There are some things that tend to be similar, but to group all westerners into one category is very misleading. There are huge differences even between countries that are neighbors – like France and Germany – never mind places that are further apart. And Asia, too, is not as uniform as people expect. Just going small distances can often mean quite visible changes in culture. Just try driving over the causeway from Singapore into Malaysia or even crossing the ├śresundsbron between southern Sweden and Denmark.

So these images are more useful as a starting point for discussion of cultural differences than a practical guide for travelers, unless, of course, you are headed for Germany. But for all other purposes never forget that even short distances bring evident differences in culture.

From a communications perspective, though, there is another lesson in Ms Yang’s work: it is an excellent example of a simple viral message. Her images have spread across the globe and lead the curious to check out her portfolio, which is actually quite interesting. People in need of a logo could do worse than give her a call.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

First Catch Your Problem -- A Good Solution to the Wrong Problem is Not a Solution

In 2006 newspapers reported* on the results of a study to determine the best way to load passengers onto an airplane. In the study they tested various strategies: a free for all; boarding the back rows first and so on. Their conclusion was that the fastest way of boarding passengers was to board first window seats, then middle seats, then aisle seats. Not surprisingly they chose not to adopt this ruthless technique.

All of this is very interesting but the problem is not how to get the passengers onto the plane faster but how to get more time for the boarding. Perhaps you could speed up boarding by using a slide instead of a walkway and by hiring ex-marine instructors to shout encouraging words. But commonsense – actually a very rare commodity – should tell you that passengers will never board much faster, whatever you do.

But why do they need to get on faster anyway? Between the last passengers of one flight disembarking and the first passenger of the next boarding there is always a long delay. Presumably this is needed to clean the plane, fuel it, sniff out the bombs and kill all the dangerous bugs. But if this can be done faster then there is more time to get the passengers on board and you can complete the boarding on time without stressing the poor passengers. In other words, instead of researching how passengers can be made more efficient they should be studying ways to make the turnaround staff quicker, either through innovation, better equipment or more effective management.

The solution-to-wrong-problem scenario is common also in communications. What is sometimes described as poor communications is actually just a symptom of this approach.

There is for example a mentality that sees putting up signs as a solution to problems. I once stayed at the Quebec November Hotel (not the real name) somewhere in England where there was a neatly made sign on the lift/elevator saying that it was broken. There were also carefully crafted notices explaining that the vending machines were broken.

After several days all the signs were still there but there were no signs of any attempt to repair anything. There is even a meticulously made sign on the front desk explaining that the charity collection box is no longer left on the counter because it had been stolen and that if you want to give to the local orphans you must ask the staff. Instead of spending time writing and printing neat signs someone should be actually fixing the problems.

* “All aboard with a little help from Einstein”, The Guardian, 27 July 2006,

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Og Fat Mystery; Using Abbreviations Sensibly

Browsing in a supermarket today I saw a packet of crackers I had never seen before. Checking the labeling I saw a reassuring “baked in a nut free facility” (you definitely don’t want nuts baking your crackers) but I saw a worryingly long list of ingredients. The list didn’t seem to include anything obviously dangerous, but on the front of the box there was a note that it contained trans fat. Worse, reading more carefully I saw that it contained “og trans fat”. I had no idea what “og” meant but og fat doesn’t sound like something you want inside you. But then I suddenly realized that what the anonymous cracker box copy writer intended to say was that it contained zero grams of trans fat. Aaaaaah!

If the copy writer intended to mean “contains no trans fat”, then I would respectfully suggest writing exactly that: “contains no trans fat”. Reasonable alternatives might include “trans fat free” or “contains zero trans fat”. If you wanted to put a more positive spin you could try “contains only healthy fats” or something like that.

“0g” as an abbreviation for “nothing” is a very poor alternative. I understand that abbreviations have a useful role to play in communications, but there is no point in using “0G” when the word it replaces – “no” – is exactly the same length and much clearer. In addition, because it includes a number that can be mistaken as a letter it is doubly confusing. A pedant might also question the need for a unit at all when the value is zero -- there is, after all, no difference between zero grams and zero ounces -- but it does emphasis that the quantity is zero and this is acceptable in a non-scientific context.

There are some simple rules that careful writers apply when using abbreviations. First of all, never use an abbreviation when it is not really necessary -- which I believe is the case here. Second, never use an abbreviation containing an ambiguous mixture of letters and numbers such as 5/S, 1/I or 0/O. Finally, if you have to use an abbreviation then make sure that at least once it is spelled out in full unless it is one of those things that really everyone knows – and test this on a few people first to make sure.

To be fair there is also an "og" symbol, which is much more effective because of the way the human eye-brain system works. The reason is that the brain can match symbols seen on the box with previously stored images very quickly. But this does not excuse the use of og in the copy.