Barcamp NFP Half-dayer, November 2016

Last month I was happy to be able to host Barcamp NFP at Diabetes UK’s new home, Wells Lawrence House in Whitechapel.

It was a half-day version of a free, volunteer-run event that I have been involved in since it launched about five years ago. It’s currently led by the ex-head of digital at BHF and Unicef UK, Laila Takeh.

It’s an ‘unconference’ – an event where you turn up with ideas and questions about your work or things you want to learn about, but with no pre-planned agenda. People volunteer to run sessions and the group then agrees which sessions they want to be part of and we build a schedule for the day.

I led a session on ways of using Agile in your work, not just for technical devt but also basing your work on user needs and taking an iterative approach. My colleague Amy ran a session on digital transformation and the great work she’s doing to help make digital more of a mainstream part of what we do. Including making the media wall in our new Town Hall space work smoothly! 🙂

I attended a useful session on defining and making sense of digital engagement metrics. The holy grail is coming up with something that is really useful and helps us to reach and connect more people, and get more support. We talked about ideas for a clearer, more consistent set of metrics, their relative value, how to compare your performance over time and with peers/competitors, and how best to report and act on what you see – all in a way that non-Digital and non-Marketing people can also appreciate. I took away lots of new ideas, and the reassuring feeling that we do a lot of good things already.

We had a wide-ranging session on sharing among charities. Part of the Barcamp ethos is that it’s open to charities big or small, as well as individual activists. We talked about examples of sharing knowledge, content, tech and other resources. I made the point that we put people first but that, when a person has multiple conditions or other needs, they’re often dealing with a separate organisation or service supporting each condition and it would help that person more if we could find a more integrated, shared approach. It also struck me that bigger charities like ours have often done (and, crucially, paid for) bits of work that could serve as a model or template for smaller charities, with little or no funds, to save them reinventing the wheel. And of course we can do things like provide our brilliant venue and hospitality to make sure events like Barcamp NFP continue to help us all to help more people.

An Agile approach

I’ve been reflecting recently on how my charity, Diabetes UK, has benefited from an Agile approach. I contributed to a blog post earlier this year and then was invited to speak on the subject this month at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, as part of the Third Sector Digital Leaders programme they run jointly with the fantastic Zoe Amar. I also led a session at the Barcamp NFP half-dayer (more on that in a future post too) on the same subject.

We’re well underway with a digital maturity programme to help everyone at Diabetes UK make better use of digital and to expand and amplify what we’re able to do through digital channels; and we have recently moved office and adopted a more ‘agile’, flexible working approach – and designed our new building around it.

Adopting Agile

We’ve been using Agile as our main digital development methodology at Diabetes UK since 2012 – officially. But we were also able to adopt some of the principles a bit earlier than that, to help us solve particular problems. And we’ve been able to use an Agile approach to help the wider organisation develop their digital skills while contributing to digital projects.

Agile by stealth

I think I became aware of Agile around 2010 when we launched our online risk score. Three of the key elements seemed to be:

  • Product ownership
  • User stories
  • An incremental approach/development of minimum viable product (MVP) at each stage.

Although we didn’t have full adoption by the charity at that point, and certainly for the risk score it took a while to agree a product owner (meaning the Digital team was the de facto owner till we did), we were able to develop user stories and make incremental improvements/MVPs. I thought of this as ‘Agile by stealth’ – which worked as a way to benefit from some of the principles while we worked on getting agreement for a more official Agile approach. Because we had user stories ready and waiting, we were able to move quickly whenever small amounts of funding became available, usually through sponsorship, to make the priority improvements and put them live.

Agile in action

I took us fully Agile for digital development in 2012 (although we’ve never been truly ‘textbook’ about it – eg our developers are not in-house and the project team works on multiple projects, not just one sprint for one project at a time – but this still works really well for us and shows you can implement it in a way that suits you). An initial catalyst was having senior management who wanted to see results quickly but wanted to keep tight control over the release of budget. Agile had the big advantage of the incremental approach – which meant gradual spending for gradual, visible improvements.

It also meant we could capitalise on a bigger funding opportunity to improve the risk score – for the short term, to support an outdoor ad campaign, and, for the long term, to make it genuinely more user-friendly and effective as a tool to identify people at the highest risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and to encourage them to seek a medical diagnosis.

Agile as a transformer

A bit later, as part of our new digital strategy, we also finally identified and agreed owners throughout the organisation for our various digital products.

This made the user stories much richer and allowed us to focus on internal users as well as external ones. It also promoted a real feeling of ownership and engagement from the owners – they felt more invested in the success of the product, more conscious of the need to be user-led, more able to get hands-on with analytics and testing, and – crucially – more likely to see the value of finding additional budget to support digital marketing for their product. To encourage engagement it’s important to demystify Agile and show that it’s not just a set of buzzwords but actually a pretty common-sense approach that puts the users first and allows you to identify, prioritise and make improvements that satisfy user needs.

Our small improvements to the risk score from 2010 to 2012 and bigger improvements in 2013 and 2014 were followed last year by the development of an electronic version of the risk score – an app – that could be used offline at our Roadshow events, where we often have no wifi access – but that could push the data to the master risk score database once we were somewhere with a connection.

The benefits of Agile were clear again: although I wasn’t involved in the app project, we had actually had the app (or rather the requirements that led to it) as one of our user stories on our backlog right from the beginning in 2010 – and this, combined with product ownership and a hands-on approach from our Prevention team, meant we could make the case for budget and get moving quickly to launch the app as an MVP, but continue to make improvements as we tested it in the field. It has greatly improved our efficiency and accuracy at capturing data and permissions, providing results (and GP referrals where needed), and providing follow-up information for all opted-in users.

Agile as an enabler

I liked the analogy my brilliant co-presenter at the Digital Leaders event, Amanda Derrick, used to describe the Agile approach – that it is an enabler, like the app her choir uses to monitor their performance and make sure everyone sings in tune. The enabler is key to success but the focus is on the outcome – what we care about – the harmonious singing.

Most recently, we as a charity have also adopted a more agile or flexible approach to how we work, allowing us to create a system and a workplace that helps us work together in a better way. This allows us to sit and work together in project teams and for sprints, as well as providing a dedicated testing room where we can run everything from user research to user acceptance testing, involved internal and external users. And it means Agile is one more aspect helping us to achieve the digital maturity I mentioned at the start of this post.

Are you using Agile?

It was great to be involved in a discussion about Agile with such an engaged group for the Digital Leaders event and I’d love to know how you use Agile, or aspire to that approach, in your own work.

Taking on the 1 Million Step Challenge to raise funds for Diabetes UK

Since the start of July this year I’ve had even more motivation to do 10,000+ steps a day and track my fitness using my Fitbit.

I’ve been taking part in Diabetes UK’s three-month fundraising event, the 1 Million Step Challenge, and there’s now a little under one month to go.

I’ve written a guest blog post for the Diabetes UK blog site – I hope you enjoy it and I would love to hear from you about how you’re getting on with your fitness challenges and tracking:

The Ministry of Nostalgia, by Owen Hatherley

I like Owen Hatherley about as much as I dislike ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and its unimaginative variations. Which is a lot. So I was very happy to find he had written a book, The Ministry of Nostalgia, on the subject of this pervasive recent symbol of what he calls “Austerity Nostalgia”, and the political history and current context of this cultural phenomenon.

I finished reading the book and started writing this post back in early June. Since then we’ve seen just over half of the electoral turnout vote for the UK to leave the EU – arguably a protest against the past six years of austerity government and yet directed at the wrong target and ultimately self-destructive.

Hatherley wrote the book, building on past writings, following a moment when he realised that “what had seemed a typically, somewhat insufferably, English phenomenon had gone completely and inescapably global” – when he saw it in a department store in Poland.

I highly recommend you read the book. One of my friends at work spotted a Guardian piece on the subject by Hatherley, that had been shared on Twitter – a comprehensive, long summary of some of the key bits from the book, to whet your appetite.

A couple of weeks later there was a great piece on the Quietus website, an interview with Hatherley in their Ten Songs strand. I love how eloquently he sums up and puts down the austerity nostalgia or austerity chic look:

“While working class culture has stayed much the same – obviously it looks different but has retained a similar interest in modernity and over-the-top sexuality – this [retro] stuff isn’t people trying to look like they’re 12. It’s guys trying to look like Biggles, and women trying to look like Bettie Page crossed with Rosie The Riveter. There are weird things that have come in that were not part of the original, like tattoos; in the 40s if you had tattoos you were a docker or a criminal. This is all borrowing random bits from a pre-pop era. You’ll have a little bit of rockabilly, but nothing beyond that. Everything stops at about 1957.

“It’s very, very gendered. The men are very manly and the women are very womanly. And that seems to mirror official mainstream pop sexuality, much more than mid-80s Sarah Records culture did. Instead of being about muscles, it’s tattoos and moustaches, and instead of buzz cuts it’s the beard. The men’s haircuts with the shaved bits and then the bit on top: the Wilfred Owen cut, or something between Wilfred Owen and Morrissey.”

I think I started to notice this look emerging more widely in the middle of the last decade, predominantly from the more underground and fetish club scenes – certainly the rediscovery of rockabilly stylings and music, and the 1940s and 1950s mash-up of “Bettie Page crossed with Rosie the Riveter”.

But as Hatherley says, his writing is never just about aesthetics or design. The book shows Hatherley’s typically impressive depth of knowledge and opinion on the political and cultural sources, meanings and effects of this visual style, whether applied in fashion or – his most common subject – architecture.

The book is enjoyably wide-ranging, exploring – among other things – the different political and infrastructure bodies such as the Ministry of Information, the London Passenger Transport Board, the GPO Film Unit and the Empire Marketing Board, their design output and the theory and the people behind it all.

A key tenet of the book is how wrong-headed austerity nostalgia is as a concept or a social model:

“The power of keep calm and carry on’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stiff upper lip and muddling through.

“… narcissistic wallowing in fake poverty and barely coherent history as a way of avoiding any thought of how to drag ourselves out of our current, needless, and far less egalitarian version of austerity.”

“One of the best arguments for the possibility of a social democracy is the fact that one came damn close to being built between 1945 and 1979, despite its many flaws and ommissions. … I have spent much of my time as a writer attempting to rehabilitate the built environment created by this moment of social democracy.”

The author argues that success in the post-war period came from precisely the opposite of making do and nostalgia, rather that forward-looking modernism, investment and more equal distribution of wealth gave rise to the unparalleled institution of the NHS and a nationwide social housing programme. Hatherley draws interesting parallels between the political treatment of National Health Service and national housing policy, including the surprise that Nye Bevan had considered a National Housing Service as well as the NHS that did materialise. The author recognises Bevan’s achievements while also managing not to sanctify the man or ignore any of his or his government’s shortcomings.


In London, where I live, in the past year or so I had noticed that a kind of mottled golden brown facing brick seemed to be becoming the cladding of choice – unlike the context-blind coloured plastic panels and metallic detailing of much of its predecessors – but I hadn’t realised that there was political direction behind this – coming from the Mayor’s office via something called A New London Vernacular. This document set the standards for new residential developments in London, for developers to “reduce sales risk”, “reduce design and construction risk” and “enable more accurate land valuation”. Or, as Hatherley puts it:

“In other words, building brick homes and marketing them is easy to do, and became a safe option after the financial crisis. This was no time for any more experiments. In addition, the new vernacular resembled the post-war council flat that had ceased to be demonised after many of its products were rehabilitated by the austerity nostalgia industry. This was partly (mea culpa) because defences in books and articles had made them more acceptable to middle-class aesthetes.”

The ‘mea culpa’ is a nice touch, though Hatherley has always been far less than superficial in his appreciation for and promotion of Modernist design, seeing its benefit for social good, but always putting that good (and not pure aesthetics) to the fore. I feel I also benefited from some prior inside knowledge here, because of doing an Architecture degree led by very pro-Modernism tutors who introduced us to post-war social housing, set some socially responsible design projects and essays, and even brought in guest speakers such as Neave Brown. But it always felt like my little niche interest until maybe about 10 years ago, with the big Modernism exhibition at the V&A, or perhaps even earlier with programmes such as Grand Designs bringing a taste of Modernism to a much wider audience.

Allied with ‘Right to Buy’ and ‘Buy to Let’ allowing people to buy up ex-council properties cheaply for inflated resale or rental values:

“The new appreciation of the buildings, based on their quality and ‘character’, meant that their original purpose had to be destroyed. … The irony of this is so gigantic, and so gross, that it feels almost too bloody obvious to point out, but apparently we must. In Britain today we are living through exactly the kind of housing crisis for which council housing was invented in the first place, at exactly the same time as we’re alternately fetishising and privatising its remnants. From substandard speculative housing to runaway inflation of mortgages and rents, from resurrected Rachmanism to houses in garden sheds and garages, from empty flats in the north to neo-Victorian overcrowding in the south, from a forced exodus due to unemployment in one city through to a forced exodus due to house prices and rents in another, we face a massive problem for which, once, the solution was the building of well-designed, well-considered, well-planned modernist buildings, often erected on the ashes of the shoddily-designed, unplanned, badly made, profit-driven housing of the past. Instead, what is actually happening is that we’re transforming the surviving fragments of that solution into one of the main contributors to the problem, as social housing becomes the new front line of gentrification, and the architect-designed modernist flat the new loft conversion.”

I hope you read the book and I’d be really interested to know what you think of it. Here are a couple more reviews:

Jon Day, The Guardian, 21 January 2016

Alexander Larman, The Observer, 7 February 2016

The World of Charles & Ray Eames

I visited this exhibition at the Barbican last month and I’d really recommend it – it’s on until 14 February. It’s a big show across two floors so worth allowing a couple of hours at least. These were some of my highlights.

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were American designers working from the 1930s to the 1980s. Most people with an interest in design, and Modernist design especially, will have heard of the Eameses’ eponymous chair designs, and I also knew of their domestic architecture. What I hadn’t realised before was quite how varied their careers had been. (I had also never seen a photo of the couple until I visited the show – I’d always envisaged them as somehow both looking a bit like Le Corbusier but I was wrong apart from perhaps the fondness for bow-ties.) The exhibition gave a good impression of their personal and professional relationship with each other.

The exhibition was a wide-ranging one, reflecting the length and diversity of their careers. The Eames Office also has a website, the Eames Official Site, that showcases their designs in the many categories they worked in.

Splints to chairs

Battlefield splints

What seems to be their breakthrough product was something I found unexpected – leg splints for soldiers during World War II, produced by bonding and curving wood veneers using resin glue, heat and pressure. The exhibition explained this completely new design was more effective at holding and protecting the limb and therefore allowing it to heal – very much the definition of design as a solution to a problem rather than purely an aesthetic. Having found an effective solution, the armed forces ordered more splints in huge volumes and this appeared to really kickstart the Eameses’ career. And the production method would also be applied to some of their signature chair designs.

Eames chairs

Unsurprisingly a few rooms of the exhibition are given over to the designers’ chairs and other furniture. So many of the chairs are genuine design icons and it’s unsurprising they (and their derivatives) became ubiquitous in offices, schools and public buildings, considering their simplicity, modernity, strength and relative ease of mass-manufacture. Some of the chairs and lounge furniture did include more padding, more leather and more bulk but the simpler mass-market chairs were among their most accessible designs. In the room showcasing a wide range of chairs there’s a quote from the architect Alison Smithson, who said the Eameses’ DKR wire chair of 1951 was “a message of hope from another planet”.

Case Study House no. 8 (Eames House) & Case Study House no. 9 (Entenza House)

The Case Study Houses were designs for post-war residential architecture, commissioned from leading contemporary architects by ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazine in the US as model designs for modern houses. Not all of the designs were built, but two that were are designed by Charles Eames – the first (no. 8) with Ray Eames, and the second (no. 9) with Eero Saarinen – both built in 1949.

Eames House, 1949

Case Study House no. 8 was designed by the Eameses, they moved in as soon as it was built and they lived there all their lives. Alison and Peter Smithson said the Eames House “is architecture as a direct result of a way of life” and it does reflect a way of living embodied by its designers themselves. The Wikipedia entry for the Eames House sums it up:

“Unusual for such an avant-garde design, the Eames Case Study No. 8 house was a thoroughly lived-in, usable, and well-loved home. Many icons of the modern movement are depicted as stark, barren spaces devoid of human use, but photographs and motion pictures of the Eames house reveal a richly decorated, almost cluttered space full of thousands of books, art objects, artifacts, and charming knick-knacks as well as dozens of projects in various states of completion. The Eames’ gracious live-work lifestyle continues to be an influential model.”

This kind of Modernism is the antithesis to the stark, minimal box and in its lightness, texture and more industrial qualities I also see it prefiguring some of the High-Tech Modernism of the second half of the 20th Century.

The Eameses were said to have fallen for the location, in the Pacific Palisades district of Los Angeles, California, when the Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen originally accepted the commission for the eighth Case Study House. The site is where a copse of trees ends in a line before dipping down to a meadow, and the architects’ abandoned first design was for a ‘bridge house’ that projected out from the tree line over the meadow.

When instead Ray and Charles designed what would become their own home, one of the key changes was moving the whole house up and just behind the line of trees, softening its impact on the site, leaving the meadow untouched and the house enveloped in greenery. It’s a brilliant solution and one of my favourite house designs.

Entenza House, 1949

Before this exhibition I hadn’t realised the Eameses had designed a second Case Study House, no. 9 – this one was for the publisher of ‘Arts and Architecture’ magazine, John Entenza. It was interesting to see how they responded to a completely different brief for what was a neighbouring house built in the same year.

Here the house was designed to be more private, on one storey instead of two and with the steel frame concealed behind wall panels instead of expressed. The design is inward-focused, with a layout encircling a central study that has no external windows, in contrast to the Eames House which opens itself up to its surroundings and welcomes in the light and the experience of the surroundings.

IBM Pavilion,  New York World’s Fair, 1964

It seems amazing to think this piece of expo architecture and design is over 50 years old now. The brief from IBM was to show how computers could be used for all kinds of problem solving and to try to relate this to everyday life rather than making computing seem like something remote, removed or even scary.

This was achieved by what must at the time have been a breathtaking visitor experience housed inside an ovoid pavilion on legs, featuring interactive exhibitions below the egg-shaped theatre – the centrepiece was an audio-visual performance in the theatre where the ‘People Wall’ seating grandstand lifted you up into position in the auditorium above, like a kind of fairground ride. The design also featured language, signage and other design elements borrowed from fairgrounds and carnivals to try to put the cutting-edge concepts in a more familiar context but also to express the wonder, optimism and delight of what was being shared.

Other highlights

Musical Tower

This tower was a design they made for their office – essentially a vertical glockenspiel, with keys like rungs of a ladder set at angles within a column several metres high – dropping a ball in through the top would send it zigzagging down within and creating a tune as it went. The Eameses sometimes asked new employees to rearrange the keys to make a new tune, as a kind of gentle initiation rite.

It is mentioned in Michael Neault’s 2008 blog post on the Eameses, reproduced on the Eames Office website:

“Charles was once asked by the Royal College of Art in London to create a documentary about 901 Washington Boulevard — the headquarters and workshop of the Eames Office. Within the workshop was an integrated space that had darkrooms, cutting rooms, a theatre, a kitchen and a woodshop — basically everything the Eames’ needed to work self-sufficiently. It was also outfitted with an unusual musical invention. Charles & Ray crafted a musical tower made from metal tone bars, not unlike those you might find on a glockenspiel. They assembled the bars vertically, braced by a chute, so that when you dropped a ball into the tower, it would play a music-box-like melody. It was a fitting musical accompaniment for the space.”

Revell Toy House, 1959

It’s a pity this design and prototype for a toy house by the Eameses never went into production – it could have provided so much fun for some lucky children in the 1960s. I’m a sucker for toys and models of Modernist architecture and it was lovely to see even the Eameses’ furniture designs reproduced faithfully at this small scale.

Design Q&A, 1972

Powers of Ten, 1977

Tintin and the Digital Age

Ligne Claire, Hergé and Tintin

I’ve liked the Tintin books by Hergé (the pen name of the Belgian storyteller Georges Remi) since I was given a copy of a double edition – Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon – for Christmas when I was about 10, and read it in one sitting that new year’s eve.

As a child I used to love finding copies of other adventures in the local library and occasionally having new copies of my own. I’d always read other comic books, mostly American, but Tintin especially appealed because of the artwork, in the Ligne Claire style, as well as the longer-form content than the smaller, shorter, ad-filled American comics.

The style of the artwork still appeals but as I grew up I realised some of the shortcomings of the stories – issues of colonialism, racial stereotypes (especially in the early adventures) and lack of female characters – partly attributable to the period when they were created, spanning roughly the middle 50 years of the 20th century.

This tribute on the Comics Alliance website, marking the character’s recent birthday, perfectly sums up the mixed feelings many people have towards the character, the stories and their author.

Tintin at Somerset House

So I was interested to visit the ‘Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece’ exhibition at Somerset House in London and to attend a related panel discussion there on ‘Tintin and the Digital Age’:

“Despite being nearly 90 years old Hergé’s masterpiece Tintin is thriving in the digital age. A distinguished panel including eminent ‘Tintinologist’ Michael Farr, together with Yves Février, Simon Doyle and Paul Gravett debate why Tintin’s legacy has such power to endure and influence the current generation of graphic artists and is still so beloved by families who have grown up in an age where the computer is king.”

Michael Farr

I’ve read various books by and interviews with Michael Farr about Tintin so it was nice to hear from the author in person. On and off over the past few years I’ve read all the Tintin books in chronological order, the first time I’ve done so, each time first reading the chapter about each adventure in Farr’s Tintin: The Complete Companion. (I also strongly recommend Tintin: Hergé and his Creation by Harry Thompson – one of the best texts about Tintin and Herge.)

Farr had met Hergé several times and he started by saying that Hergé liked technology and would have approved of Tintin’s move into digital formats. (He recounted how Hergé proudly once showed him his new stereo system, complete with Wharfdale speakers.)

He explained that one of Hergé’s colleagues at his studio, Bob De Moor, felt that Tintin wouldn’t endure beyond five years after Hergé’s death in 1983 – because Tintin’s creator left specific instructions not to continue the stories without him (“I am Tintin”), famously leaving the final adventure Tintin and Alph-Art unfinished just at the moment the hero is covered in plastic by the art-world villain – an eternal cliffhanger. But despite that pessimistic prediction and no complete new Tintin adventures since 1976, the books have sold 200m+ copies and been translated into 90 languages – the latter, Farr said, being key to their enduring success.

New digital editions

Farr explained how the Tintin books have been made into new digital editions with new translations by him. The modern-day translations have none of the restrictions placed on the original translations into English, which included no swearing or references to religion, and the digital format with more flexible typesetting allows for more space for a more faithful, longer translation from the original more extensive French text. The frequent close-ups of newspaper reports about Tintin’s exploits also benefit from more space as well as, Farr said, his own journalist’s eye for how a news story would be written.

Farr also said that his new translations for digital are able to be fairer representations of the original text content. Farr addressed the regular criticism of Hergé’s books (especially the early stories) as racist by saying this was an unfair accusation, showing in the new translations that Hergé highlighted how badly colonialists at the time spoke to people of other races, using offensive terms that were allowed to be reinstated for these editions. Farr also noted that by Tintin’s third adventure, Tintin in America (which is often seen as the first acceptable adventure after the discredited Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo with their crude political naivety, patronising colonialism and racial stereotypes) Hergé was overcoming his earlier naivety and already bringing more social awareness and themes of social justice to his works, such as his highlighting of how Native Americans were being displaced.

Other advantages of the digital format, meanwhile, were said to include better colours, more faithfully reflecting the originals than recent reprints have, with Farr noting how exceptional Hergé was at lighting his images set at dawn or twilight; and that digital lets you zoom in to every frame and shows how much detail Hergé always put in, such as in one view of an audience where even the people sitting right at the back had clearly delineated features.

Yves Février

Yves Février is in charge of the digital output from Moulinsart, the organisation that manages the works of Herge, as well as the official Tintin website and Hergé Museum.

He spoke about how the Tintin app is being redeveloped to provide five types of interactive media:

  • digital editions of the Adventures of Tintin albums
  • audio content (including radio plays and audio description)
  • digital editions of books of theory about Hergé and his creations (including those written by Michael Farr)
  • computer games
  • TV/cinema content (including documentaries and animated adventures).

I wasn’t familiar with the Tintin app before the lecture but it appears at the moment that in the English-language edition you can access all of the albums, as well as translations into French and Dutch, but not the other four types of media content (except for that which is available via a link that pulls through the content from the website).

But the plans for the app are to provide a richer experience, allowing better resolution and truer colours for the albums, and the ability to zoom into panels and to toggle between languages (where previously you would only be able to access different languages separately in individual translated editions) – as well as additional audio and video content alongside theoretical and critical commentary. Where possible it seemed the audio versions of stories could be listened to in sync with reading and viewing the corresponding album.

Paul Gravett

I knew of Paul Gravett initially because of Tintin – as I had come across his excellent piece Hergé and the Clear Line on his website some time ago.

He gave an interesting perspective on how comics in general are adapting to a digital world and had some questions himself as a Tintin fan about how the stories might make use of these developments.

He spoke about how various comic-book apps such as Comixology are dealing with panels versus a whole-page view as part of a viewing experience that might happen on screens as small as a smartphone or as large as a tablet. He gave the example of how Korean comics – Manhwa – are incredibly popular and have adapted for single column vertical scrolling on digital devices, as well as including occasional gifs within the artwork along with using phone vibrations to add physical effects to enhance things such as explosions.

He hoped that the digital editions of Tintin albums might allow viewers to peel back layers of the artwork, for example to show the parts of images obscured by speech bubbles, but Michael Farr suggested that in Herge’s case at least the speech bubbles were designed and drawn as part of one panel rather than overlaid later.

Simon Doyle

Simone Doyle, the founder of the fan website, next gave a nice presentation about how the internet has been able to provide a platform to bring fans of many subjects such as Tintin together, across international borders. The Tintinologist website itself is run by three people living in three different countries/timezones, and it allowed people to talk about Tintin, Hergé and the stories, as well as asking and answering each other’s questions.

One of the questions he was sometimes asked was how stories written largely in the middle 50 years of the 20th Century could still be relevant and engaging to all ages today, especially to children. People wondered whether there was anything new to enjoy in such longstanding and well-read stories. He answered that by giving one example of a young child who had asked a question through the Tintinologist site – in one of the adventures, in a scene set in a desert, one of the characters is able to knock out another character using a tree branch. You even hear the branch being broken off from a tree through an off-panel sound effect. And yet the young boy had been the first to ask, in a desert bare of any greenery, where did he find the tree? A decades-old mystery that may never be solved!

Final discussions, video clips and audience questions

The lecture was packed with interesting insights but was keeping to a tight schedule so only allowed a brief wrap-up at the end, with Yves Février drawing parallels between the ‘7eme art’ of cinema and the ‘9eme art’ of ‘bandes dessinées’ (the European comic-book albums such as Tintin).

He explained how Hergé used cinematic viewpoints such as the high shot, for example when Tintin is seen from above scaling the exterior of a skyscraper in Tintin in America (one of my favourite panels from the stories); as well as employing panoramas, zooms, depth of field and, in one famous scene from a desert-set adventure, the illusion of movement. Here Février suggested that the five figures shown were actually intended to be one figure, whereas Farr (in his Complete Companion) says that they are five individuals but cleverly arrayed to suggest the stages of movement. I think Farr’s interpretation is subtler and seems more likely, as it wasn’t characteristic of Ligne Claire art to show the stages of motion of characters by showing multiple echoes of a single character in a single panel. But I also like the fact that the artwork is still open to these differences of interpretation.

Fevrier ended by showing some nice archive clips of different Tintin films and animations before Farr opened the discussion up to the audience for a couple of questions. These included some questions about the cost, especially of the potential 3D printing of Tintin figurines that was mentioned earlier by Février. As always the issue was about quality against affordability – but Février did also say that such digital developments made Tintin merchandise potentially more accessible in countries such as Argentina where large-scale licensing deals were not possible for economic reasons.

Something I would like to know about the Tintin app was, having read the adventures alternately with their background histories in Farr’s Companion, whether there was the potential to combine some of these commentaries within the reading experience of the albums, to create a more seamless experience of the two, in a similar way to the commentary and extras available on Blu-ray or DVD. I’ll wait with interest to see whether this will become another step for Tintin in the digital age.



Fitbit, the Quantified Self and behaviour change

My step-by-step guide…

I was introduced to the concept of the Quantified Self in 2013 – a combination of a presentation by a colleague and a BBC Horizon programme called ‘Monitor Me’.

My connection with mHealth goes back a bit further, to when we at Diabetes UK developed a smartphone app called Diabetes UK Tracker, based on extensive user and market research, from 2010 to 2011.

But I didn’t really start tracking my fitness myself until two years ago this month, when I attended an event on behaviour change run by Alcohol Concern but covering a wide spectrum of behaviour change research, programmes and digital tools.

There was a prize for the most engaged participant and I was delighted when my live tweeting and sharing of photos led to me being chosen as the winner.

My prize was a Fitbit Zip. A simple pedometer that clips to your clothing. I had tried phone-based pedometer apps before but the main issue was always how quickly they drained the battery, as well as doubting how well they could really measure our steps, especially when not always on your person.

The Fitbit Zip links via Bluetooth to an app on your smartphone and you simply have to tap it (usually a few times, quite hard) to activate the sync.

To be continued …