Afterlife with Stephen McCarthy

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Today we had a talk from Stephen McCarthy who graduated from university in 2007, worked for various design agencies before completing a Masters in Iconography and Pictograms.  He is currently head of the design department for government digital services. McCarthy  works a lot on communicating to the public through the website. The website is not finished and never will be, he has to adjusts the things he does for the way people react and respond to the design. 

McCarthy began to talk about the history of graphic design and how designer like Harry Beck who designed the London underground map, The Design Research Room best known for the British rail identity, Tom Eckersley who created UK government ministry of labour posters and Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir who designed the instantly recognisable road signs; have all inspired the world of design. Margaret Calvert Jock Kinneir used the typeface ‘Transport’ when design the road signs. New Transport is a sans serif font and has two different weights, this is also a font the use. They only use one font as the website has to be consistent throughout the government digital services, it is a neutral font which makes it easy to read. He recommended reading The Crystal Goblet by Beatrice Warde 1932: which an essay on typography that I will research into.

Design in government today currently employs around 300 designers that are spread out across the UK. They work in multi disciplinary teams which is something that we have started to do in field. This is interesting to hear that how we are currently working will potentially be the way we will be working in the future. They work collaboratively and blog about ideas and designs, this is also what we are also doing. Before starting at CSAD I had never blogged before so I feel like by blogging this is giving us a chance to practice on how we may be connected with employ(ers/ees). In government digital services, graphic design is involved the whole way through a design process, this is different to traditional graphic design. As usually the research and idea’s are done and sent to a graphic designer to put together and make it ‘look pretty’. I like the way that this is not done as working multi-disciplinary and being part of the design process can expand on idea’s. McCarthy also said how all employers in the design department know how to code. This worried me slightly as I do not know how to code! Although he said that coming out of university he didn’t know how to code and he learnt after he graduated. Because of this I want to start to try to understand and teach myself how to code as technology is developing so quickly this is important.

Graphic design is all about understanding, the design should be invisible and shouldn’t get in the way of the information. The elements of the page should have a clear purpose and have no distractions. What must it do? Is the most important question you must keep asking yourself.

Grids give a design structure and can show a clear hierarchy. First they use typography and white space to think about the hierarchy then use the grid system to lay it out. White space is important it enhances clarity, legibility and readability. Hierarchy helps the user know what to read first and the importance of information. To make a piece of text more readable they use 75 characters max on a line and in bitesize chunks. They need to respect peoples time and not wasting it with a big chunk of text so this is a way of doing that.

Affordance is the properties of an object on how it can and can’t be used. For example don’t have a ‘click this button’. The information and icons need to be clear enough so the user knows exactly what to do without being told. Icons should always have a purpose, they can work well as imagery or an instruction rather than decoration.

Design Principle

  • Start with the needs of the user not the government needs as the users are the ones that this information needs to become clear to.
  • Only do your job, don’t try to do more jobs as there are other people that work in that area, this can make the design process run more smoothly.
  • They try to make the websites as simple as they can as it is for everyone not a specific target audience – their wifi may be slow, could be dyslexic, poor eyesight etc
  • They build digital services not websites, the user has to concentrate on the information being delivered.
  • Be consistent not uniform – it should have a similar style with all the services the user is interacting with.
  • Understand context – whether the user is mobile, iPad, or desktop.
  • Design for a mobile first as it is easier to design for a small area and expand onto a larger screen rather than trying to shrink down a design.
  • Iterate; iterate again – keep improving and making it better.
  • Keep asking why and remember the big picture.
  • Make things open, make things better!

Design Employers

McCarthy said that he has a graphic design background but in the company he would put himself as more an interaction designer or a graphic designer.

  • Service designers – designing services, looking at back end process, and how efficient the different services are and how it’s processed.
  • Interaction designers – the details, when the user should put in their login, refine the journey for the user.
  • Graphic designers – content and interaction design, the hierarchy, layout and communicating to the information etc.
  • Content designers – writers, editors, filtering complex words for readers to understand.


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