January 19, 2010

Turning old popular science into kid's clothing

Earlier today, Roy Greenslade posted a short piece on his Guardian's media blog about what he dubbed a 'new revenue stream' for magazine publishing. 108-year-old US science magazine Popular Mechanics has sold off a load of its old cover images to Old Navy (part of Gap) to be used on children's tshirts.

I think this is FASCINATING. Firstly, I was amused by Greenslade's slightly sardonic take on it as a matter of new media business models. Arguably, Popular Mechanics and its ilk have particular competition fromWired and other similar electronics-orientated publications, but ALL magazines are suffering in the age of the web. We consume media differently these days, as well as technology. Faced with a 21st century 'crisis' in the magazine business, publishers have decided to cash in on the nostalgia market. Still, I think the history of technology issue (in terms of the content of the magazine, not just media tech) is a really key aspect of this story.

I was also interested to see that it was kid's clothing that are going to carry the images. It seems weird, perhaps, that the market is a generation who were born nearly 100 years after some of these covers were first published (more to the point, it's a fair few decades before the parents who buy the tshirts were born). Arguably, there is something particularly youthful about this sort of tech-nostalgia A sense of youthful enthusiasm for technology, even when the youths pictured would, today, be OAPs.

Follow Greenslade's link to larger coverage of the story, over at the New York Times' media blog, and we can see that the publishers want to 'revive the days when children dreamed that flying cars were just around the corner'. Note, it was children who were dreaming: surely the magazines were produced for adults, or at least a multi-generational audience? (I don't actually know much about the history of this magazine... I am just guessing). It's noticeable that there is a lot of this sort of tech-nostalgia in kid's culture already. Phillip Reeve, anyone?

The NYT post also quotes the publisher as saying that the T-shirts represent a revival of efforts to interest children in mechanics. This is, I'm sure, nothing but PR fluff. However, I do think it is interesting to see the selling of tshirts articulated in connection to science education. For one thing it reflects the history of technology issue I flagged up at the start - kids' media is largely designed around the use of technology today, rather than building, understanding, making and controlling it (at least that's what colleagues researching kids science fiction tell me).

Glancing at some examples in the huge (and addictive...) gallery of Popular Mechanics covers, I found this one from December 1925 which really reminded me of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's also worth noting the reference in this cover, from February 1939, to 'Davy Jones Locker' (not exactly kids books, but a story we associate with kids nonetheless), and the use of images of families too.

October 21, 2009

Open access, research in advertising and the politics of climate change campaigns

UPDATE: see this post.

Have you seen the new advert from the government's ACT ON CO2 campaign? A lot of people have. It premiered during Coronation Street on the 9th October, and quickly prompted a slew of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ad is called ‘bedtime stories’ and features a chap reading a picture-book to his wide-eyed young daughter: 'There was once a land where the weather was very, very strange. There were awful heatwaves in some parts, and in others, terrible storms and floods'. This is illustrated with animated picture-book animal characters drowning and crying with starvation. The man goes on 'The grownups realised they had to do something [...] maybe they could save the land for the children.' The girl looks a little scared. 'Is there a happy ending?' she asks, biting her lip and looking expectantly up at her father. The voice-over answers them both: 'It's up to us how the story ends. See what you can do. Search online for ACT ON CO2'.

Cue complaints about scaring children, over hyping climate change and/ or being the wrong approach to cutting CO2 emissions. Glance quickly at the Daily Mail and one might even imagine the Labour party had been drowning puppies in the name of environmentalism. One American climate change sceptic news site actually likened the project to Hitler Youth (I’m not linking to either of these sources, I stumbled across them through googlenews easily enough. If you’re really interested, so can you).

I followed this fuss over to the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) press release for the campaign. Interestingly, this starts not with a reference to the advert, but the line: 'Research published today from the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveals that over 50% of people questioned don’t believe climate change will affect them and only 1 in 5 (18%) respondents think that climate change will take effect during their children’s lifetime'. It goes on to state that over 55 year olds are least concerned than the under 24's and 74% of people would take immediate action to change their lifestyle now if they knew that climate change would affect their children’s lives.

Fascinating stuff. I'd love to see this research in more detail. I looked around the press release: all I found was a link to the advert, not even contact details for a press officer and certainly no reference to where this research had been published. I clicked ‘contact us’ to try to track down more. After a good ten minutes of ping-pong between the DECC and the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, during which I spoke to two very kind and helpful, but ultimately confused and frustrated telephonists and repeatedly listened a computer voice asking me if I wanted to report a dead bird or learn more about bluetongue, I was spoke to someone who gave me a direct line of someone who had an email address of someone who could pass my message onto to someone who could deal with it. The process was rather maze-like, but reasonably quick.

The reply itself was, I think, pretty rubbish though:

Timely research was carried out just prior to the launch of the new ACT ON CO2 campaign – with over 1000 people responding to a Yougov survey – the results of which included the 52% figure.

This survey carried out was developed with earlier creative development research in mind that had been carried out by DECC which tested the chosen creative route for the campaign. Unfortunately, we are not able to publish this set of research findings.

The results of the survey which you saw in our press notice for the launch of the campaign included all of the topline results so there isn’t really anything you haven’t seen already.

So, it appears that the publication of research which the press release is ostensibly about was, in fact, the bullet point summary provided by the press release itself. How very postmodern.

The cynical sociologist in me suspects this 'timely research' (conducted days before the ad's launch) is just window dressing. Costuming a press release to look like a notification of research, rather than the ad-for-an-ad it really is, lends the project some credibility and provides content which, at least at face value, is slightly more newsworthy than what's going to be on telly during Corrie's commercial break. It is nothing more than a '9 out of 10 cats prefer' marketing exercise; a shampoo-advert ‘science bit’.

Moreover, such stats on social research rhetorically appeal to another idea UK government marketing teams seem to be recently enamored by: the public are influenced much more by each other than any message you might put up on the telly. Read in the newspaper that 74% of the population feel similarly to you, and the experience of watching the advert becomes attached to a bit of social context; the desire to save those puppies is given a small sense of social movement. Again, this is all '9 out of 10 cat prefer' stuff.

This may well be a very unfair analysis. I can’t tell: the details of the research aren't available.

This is research which is about public opinion, it is publicly funded and used to justify the use of further public funding of making and distributing of a (controversial) advert. Arguably, by any of those criteria alone, it should be publicly available. In Open Access Week and everything.

I want to emphasise that I’m largely on the side of ACT ON CO2. I even quite like large parts of the advert. However, if we’re not transparent in our own campaigning style, how on Earth can we successfully critique the rhetoric of our opponents?

April 21, 2009

Matt Whyman on children and technology

I recently interviewed the author Matt Whyman for the Write Away website. He's been a virtual agony uncle for AOL from their early days, and now writes teen fiction, including a series about the hacker Carl Hobbs. I asked him about his stand on children's use of technology and he had some very interesting things to say.
Here's a link to the pdf -

November 11, 2008

Maps and landscape: the work of Ronald Lampitt

The work of the little-known illustrator Ronald Lampitt is featured in this post on Diaphania, the blog of my colleague David Woodward at Reading. David refers to an earlier post on English Buildings which is also of interest, and not only for its gem of a throwaway comment about Horrible Histories near the end (take note Alice)!

Back to the focus of the post, Lampitt's 1948 children's book The map that came to life, published by OUP. You can see the whole book in spreads here, which gives you a good idea of the structure of the story as well as the layout.


The volume opens with images of the map two children will follow on their walk, and most spreads thereafter see small text blocks enveloped by a sprawling bucolic landscape. The bird's eye 'near view' is close enough to pull the reader in, and small segments of the original map are set into the text, allowing readers to compare the 'real' landscape with the abstract language of maps.


The close-up above shows the flat areas of colour and crayon-like texture of the drawing. This suggests Lampitt may have used lithography, perhaps with an intermediary textured substrate for the rough effect. It is really beautifully done, simple and effortless in its appearance.

David points out that Lampitt also worked on the Ladybird book Understanding maps (1967), as well as this wonderful illustration of an ideal city -- you'll notice a legend which points you to all they key elements, pieced together from buildings and monuments around the world! Fabulous. The dramatic natural landscape imposes itself in this illustration. It is on par with the built environment, as it is in The map that came to life.

October 6, 2006

And now, the periodic table in oil paints

Alice's post about Brainiac reminded me of the scores of other kids' shows that specialise in make-based learning, by showing experiments, recipes or art projects of varying quality and educational value… (I should note that Brainiac claims the exact opposite, that we are not supposed to imitate their stunts.)
It got me thinking about a project I will teach at Reading in mid-November, which I am still working on, but which will broadly involve design for science instruction, for active learning. It will involve information design and book design, to create 'book-like objects' demonstrating scientific principles through experiment or activity.
Through thinking about the possibilities for this project, it occured to me that drawing is an under-developed resource in this genre. Why not use drawing, which requires re-iteration of knowledge, to teach? So many basic concepts in the sciences are inherently visual. Drawing, for example, a close-up of an animal cell, or a cross-section of the earth with layers, or an atom… this seems to have some potential, by involving readers through curiosity for the subject or a penchant for drawing. Similarly, it would be nice to see some of these TV shows bridge the gap between science and the use of 'art' in make-based learning: illustration, painting, and other media.