A Glimpse of Gongga

A glimpse of Gongga Shan is said to be so rare that it is worth twenty years of meditation. I was lucky enough to view Gongga on a blue sunny day, twenty years ago. The peak now features on my home page so I get a virtual glimpse each time I edit my blog. Gongga sits in the Ganzi Autonomous Tibetan Province in Western Sichuan, on the border with Tibet. We visited before the main road to Lhasa had been built, when the foothills we explored were less accessible. Even so, one of the locals, Wang Dun was proud owner of a Shropshire tea towel. 

Our itinerary began in Chengdu, where we boarded a small coach for a two day ride to Kanding. Built at 2800m along the banks of a ferocious river, Kanding's the main administrative centre for the province. A short walk from Kanding's centre is the Bhuddist temple on Pao Ma Shan (Horse race hill). Trees bushes and steps of the path up to the temple are adorned with prayer flags made from cloth or paper and bearing mantras. It's believed that they are repeated as they're blown by the wind. A set of stone steps lead up to the hill's summit passing a line of gold prayer wheels. An open air amphitheatre at the top of the hill makes a great picnic spot for families. The main temple was decorated in both Chinese and Tibetan styles. Kangding's nightlife buzzes around karaoke bars whilst playing poole in the street is popular in the afternoons.  One evening we received an impromptu invite to a Tibetan wedding party.

From Kangding we ventured westwards, out to the grasslands of Tagong. Here a spectacular monastery is framed by hills flanked with prayer flags and you can hire horses to explore the local mountain valleys. We trekked through the hills to yak herders' summer encampments. We pitched up alongside and were invited to share lamb stew and drink yak butter tea.  We trekked with two different groups of Tibetan herdsmen.  Our first dilemma was a dispute over the pre-agreed price. We sat in a grass meadow watching tense negotiations between Pan our Chinese guide and Khampa Tibetans with silver daggers. 

The trek to see Gongga Shan itself was from a village like holiday park called Hailuoguo. Along the path was a small cafe house brewing wild mushroom soup where the locals told us about an edible fungi that only grows high up on Gongga. We crossed on to the glacier and took pictures of the summit surrounded by blue sky. 

Following hotpot and karaoke celebrations back in Chengdu I switched flights to travel with our Chinese companions back to their home town Guilin. There, we swam in the Li river, took a trip down to Yangshou and ate with the locals. Whilst in China I attempted to learn a little more Mandarin - mainly from Lego (Li Guo Zhang), our camp chef who had a particularly good repertoire of marching songs and proverbs. We presented him with an illustrated T-shirt bearing one of his favourite sayings - something along the lines of "three mosquitos make a meal and women smoke fags"!

Our travels took us to hot springs, Tibetan cahou, Yak skin tents and Governors' meetings. Along the way, we swapped stories with charcoal makers, herdsmen, wedding guests and dress makers. Ganzi was full of colour and contrasts. I'd love to revisit and see how much has changed since the late nineties. Recently, I converted some of my old slides to digital. Here's one of Tagong monastery with a backdrop of prayer flag triangles decorating the hillside. 

Tagong Monastery

Tagong Monastery

Printed in Somerset

Found a little link in my Twitter stream, can't remember who from but it took me to a small site called printedbysomerset. On first impressions it felt slightly gimmicky, a black cardboard strip tears through a black cardboard envelope revealing a sheet of white paper, or is it more cardboard.

Up pops an interface of black box frames and er printed looking print. It was pleasantly and unusually reminiscent my Mac Classic’s UI from the mid nineties. 

Puzzled, I wondered if it  really was printed in er...Somerset? 

A quick check on Google maps revealed it’s connection to a printing company based in Canada.  Nothing in the slightest to do with a county in little old England. 

It sparked my interest by standing out from a crowd of sites and for not following more typical trends. It takes skeumorphism on a literal origami ride, not just a metaphorical wander, like those eighties desktop folders and files. It’s a website that you can touch, unfold, perforate and explore. From the bookmark that adds to your bookmarks, to the team profiles that tear out like perforated stamps and turn over in a light breeze to reveal contact information, everything about this site feels overwhelmingly printed or paper cut, not digital!  The iPhone encapsulating a scrollable twitter feed is a notable exception. You can order a printed copy of the website by penning a postcard (or was I submitting a form?)

You can fold, tear, pull out and scrub bits of the interface to reveal further messages or hidden meanings. A great deal of careful attention has gone into each little animated corner of the page and it has deservedly won bronze and silver lions at Cannes. It captures attention and there’s great cohesion between on the ball copy and playful design. 

It’s choreographically and semiotically excellent but for the digital execution to be as good as the postal copy, it needs freeing from keyboard traps and topping up with good semantics inherent in mark up, not just on skeuo paper. 

I read a great article on the manual by Simon Collison about the fragmentation of expertise in web design, the sheer number of fields to keep abreast of, the new tools and patterns to keep on learning or the opportunity to build a lexicon. One sentence in particular caught my attention as a friend had been asking about ways to measure design: 

“Design is certainly not a science, but coupling visual grammar with the science behind semiotics, mental models, human senses, and emotional response provides us with a far stronger approach to our work than making choices because they just feel right.”

Design is both art and science. Perhaps that's why you can attempt to measure a website's emotional impact, memorability, viral propensity and usability then find that each enquiry paints a different picture or tells a different story. 

A design can be beautiful, functional, useful and playful but the lens or technology through which you interact or investigate it will with no doubt fashion those judgements.  


Prototypes extend concepts beyond the page

A pop up book of opposites by David A Carter - Learning through storytelling, interactions and play

A pop up book of opposites by David A Carter - Learning through storytelling, interactions and play

This concept book was one of my daughter's favourites when she was two. The book follows the journey of a yellow box that transforms from just an unboxing experience into a helicopter then a lorry containing a horse, to the lights switching on and off from windows in a building and well many more transformations.  Each box concept illustrates a set of opposites up - down, in - out, on - off, inside - outside.  The best bit about the book is that the interactions invite both play and re-telling of stories about each very simple action or pair of opposites. Early on in the book, there's a series of boxes within further boxes - akin to Russian dolls with a tiny mouse hidden in the smallest box. Storytelling has expanded beyond the book's space as my daughter delights in hiding the mouse and re-discovering him having first searched under the duvet, pillows and  bear. The interactions on each page invite play and because the nature of the book is more about basic pictures and movement, a two year old can tell stories in words and gestures about what will change or what has changed.  The book reminds me of paper prototyping and animation basics - it's simple and engaging through being inherently interactive and not just a flat surface.  




Discovering La Baraque

In 1996 & 7 I'd either jump to my feet or crawl out of bed at 8.30am after a night of belgium beer swilling in an underground car park style night club to teach or support either an art and expression, ceramics or bakery class.

I'd drag myself out of bed, buy a waffle in the underpass for breakfast -  but always make sure that my feet had climbed the steep wooden stairs of an old farmhouse building the other side of Louvain la Neuve's campus by 9.00am.

When we arrived in Belgium, our supervisor gave us the opportunity to choose for ourselves whether to take exams. He offered us the opportunity to pick or choose any combination of courses we wanted from the entire 200 course Baccalaureat syllabus. With no inherent structure, no Internet, just a pedestrianised campus town with unusually quiet weekends,  we started  a trial and error sampling of ways to earn holiday travel money, learn something different and discover for ourselves which interests would stick.

An autumn of bar work, babysitting, beer event marketing, vingt quatre heures velo, cognitive neuroscience in a foreign language, chinese, sport psychology, educational psychology, volunteering, sport and Belgian carnivals on top of the usual student socials slowly subsided into a calmer, less frenetic spring and summer.  We skipped some lectures, took a few clandestine adventures around Europe, and sampled the country's finest beers and carnivals.

So it turned out that my three things that stuck from 1997 were La Baraque, Chinese and climbing.


La Baraque

La Baraque was and is still a centre for activities  (I guess in the UK it'd be known as day services or a modernised day centre) for adults. Their website is called New Horizons - It introduces la Baraque, La Serpentine, La Cognee and La Lisere - La Baraque is an old farmhouse with a new extension, whilst the accommodation like la Serpentine was architected in a similar fashion to our student shared accomodation or 'kots' - well perhaps a bit more homely and spacious but a stone's throw away. The residences took part in campus art trails and there were kot-a-project student initiatives supporting and organising social activities.

What started out as a bit of bread making, pottery and art became a really strong appreciation for asbl's philosophy and their way of working - how much attention they gave to providing the right kinds of support to people, the emphasis given to individually chosen projects or providing the right kind of independence or support, as well as well as the social collective support staff, residents and students lent each other.  In art and expression, themes sometimes connected artwork together. We had beautiful artist materials at our disposal, half of which I didn't know the french names for.   Around Easter we marketed a foire artisanle in the neighbouring villages and towns with posters and flyers - tents and marquees went up in the main square - everyone pitched in but with different activities - food, posters, flyers, paintings, craft and ceramics stalls - the University square was covered and hours of atelier work & expression were on show to students, locals, friends, project kots.

I sometimes read reports on Mencap, like one called stuck at home - about the impact of day service cuts, highlighting the heavy impact of cuts and increased charging for services that leave people isolated, lonely and scared about the future.

Person centred and user centred strategies are good strategies for seeing a problem from somebody else's perspective or for tailoring activities to suit real world needs.  But for person centred planning to work, people often also need social structures and frameworks in place, not just free will. The stuck at home report showed that over half (57%) of people with a learning disability known to social services do not receive any day service provision at all, compared to 48% in 2009/10. If this was because they were now in formal training or jobs then great but the report also shows that 1 in 4 people with a learning disability responding to a Mencap online survey spend less than one hour outside of their home everyday.

The report showed that 1 in 3 local authorities have cut day services provision. What I appreciated about asbl's business model was that it was not just about service, it's also about creativity, innovation and enterprise - bakery, recycling, ceramics and about communications - journalism, events marketing...and there are so many great small examples of this in the UK too.  It's about inclusive  opportunities to write, create, make, sort, grow, choose if to get between home and work by minibus or on foot, participate in social and leisure activities and all that person centred stuff - but also about the benefits of being involved in a wider social framework such as that provided in Belgium by kots-a-project,  aspects of University life and the architectural design thinking that went into the build of a completely new and pedestrianised campus town.