Head down & study

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In December 2011, Elle and I moved house, which meant there was room for me to have a study (winning) to put all my books, paperwork and records in. It’s been just over a year since then and I’ve finally got my office/man cave just how I want it. Above are a couple of snapshots.

Annual anthems ’13

OK, so in November I posted about the Mercury prize and I thought I’d follow up, now I’ve caught up with some of my album backlog with my top albums of 2013. No reviews, just a list that you should definitely listen to:

  1. Daughter – If You Leave
  2. Darwin Deez – Songs for Imaginative People
  3. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  4. Villagers – Awayland
  5. Foals – Holy Fire


Mercury Prize 2013

I follow the Mercury Prize religiously each year because it always includes the four or five albums I want it to and the rest are always gems I’ve missed. It’s basically my source of ‘what you should have been listening to’ each year and this year is no different. The nominees were:

  • Arctic Monkeys – AM
  • David Bowie – The Next Day
  • Disclosure – Settle
  • Foals – Holy Fire
  • Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg
  • James Blake – Overgrown
  • Jon Hopkins – Immunity
  • Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
  • Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
  • Rudimental – Home
  • Savages – Silence Yourself
  • Villagers – {Awayland}

Villagers, Arctic Monkeys, Bowie, Foals, Jake Bugg, Laura Mvula and Laura Marling were already firm favourites of mine that frequent my turntable weekly and the rest were welcome additions to my list.

Last week the winner was announced in the ever pretentious and ill-informed coverage that accompanies the award annually. James Blake scooped the award for Overgrown which I have only heard in passing. I always try to listen through all the nominees thoroughly and this year I spent so long on Villagers & Foals I’ve barely squeezed a listen to the others in!

Oranges & lemons

Ok, so this post isn’t actually about citrus fruit. Since starting my new job (complete with hour long commute) I have been consuming audiobooks, which I supplement with reading bits of the paperback too, in droves. Since starting I’ve started and finished a raft of classics including The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Crime & Punishment, Catch 22, Waiting for Godot, the Picture of Dorian Grey, Metamorphosis, Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s 1984.

Some of these books have been, much as advertised, a great pleasure. Others (I’m looking at you Melville & Dostoyevsky) were, to say the least, a hard slog. However, the one that stood out head-and-shoulders to me was 1984. I read Animal Farm years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it despite the fact I had very little knowledge of the Russian revolution and therefore probably didn’t get much out of the integral allegory. So, with a good feeling about Orwell at the ready I dove in gleefully. 1984 was wonderfully paced and so perfectly balanced between reality and fantasy that you can’t fail to reflect on how close this (seemingly) impossible nightmare world is to our reality. The tension that it manages to produce and manipulate is astounding, especially to me as I rarely get that enthralled in a book.

The thing that really struck me however is Orwell’s forethought into the mechanics of language, politics and technology that would be required to produce such a world. The ‘New Speak Dictionary and perpetual warfare that may, or may not, exist is a wonder of creation. Ordinarily ,with anything that tries to fabricate a new world, there are plot holes so big you could park a small van in them that you simply have to pretend not to see. In 1984 however, I didn’t see any. The mechanisms with which the new world order had arisen and was sustained is terrifyingly feasible. What is more exceptional (and this too applies to Animal Farm) is that the book was published in 1949 (and Animal farm in 1945) and yet they both predict with shocking accuracy the state of things to come with nothing more than applied logic. I am truly in awe of the intellectual capacity of Orwell to see all these moving parts in motion and predict their outcomes decades before their happening.

Also, on a less dystopian, and more appropriate note… the new penguin classic cover for 1984 (shown above) is a work of minimalist genius. The cover is identical to the battered 1960’s copy I prize on my rapidly filling book shelf but with the title and author overprinted in black (as on censored military documents). The text still appears however, as an emboss, much as a pen would imprint on paper. Winston, the books main protagonist, is concerned, in his line of work at the Ministry of Truth, with doctoring and altering literature & journalism. I can only imagine that, with this manipulation of the written word, language and the truth throughout the book, that this was the aspect of the new world Orwell despised most. To encapsulate all of that by simply adding a print finishing technique to the original, iconic cover is an enviable achievement in my book. Bravo penguin.

Using my noodle

A couple of weeks ago I was tasked with bringing a colleagues design to life quickly, and on a budget. The design was great and, though cheap, fast & good usually spells disaster, I was planning to spend my weekend trying to do much the same on a pet project so it seemed like an ideal opportunity.

The site is for a multi-channel business solutions provider called ‘Big Noodle’ and is a single-page site navigated with anchor links. I tackled the project using WordPress (as I always do) and an incredible theme called Enfold as a back-bone.

The build was completed fairly quickly using a child theme of Enfold and most of the site infrastructure was easily implemented with the theme’s unique layout builder. Incidentally, this also makes for an extremely intuitive client CMS. Most of the work went in to styling within the child.css which was simple but time consuming when I reached browser testing.

Once the desktop site was completed I then started to look at the responsive states and added a number of media queries. The final result (which you can see at http://bignoodle.co.uk/) is a real acheivement for me as a bespoke design realised (almost) pixel perfectly without the aid of a developer. You can see the full project here.

Next up for me is to build a theme from scratch. Watch this space…

Pastures new

Tomorrow marks my first day as a designer for the wonderful Jellyfish Creative and will no doubt lead to a good few posts in the near future. However, this post is really about pastures old desptie what the title suggests!

I’ve been with Newenglish as a designer for over a year and will be sad to not be joining them again on Monday morning – but onwards and upwards as they say! Anyway, the real reason for this post is to reflect back on the past year at Newenglish and what I’ve learnt. It’s been my first real studio job as before that I was Creative Directing at my own studio, 19 Grams with the ever-talented Mr. Seed and going back further I was freelancing with Innersmile. So, what have I learnt over my time with Newenglish? Well, that’d take a ruddy long time to answer so here are the key things:

Colour work
I think, as a designer, the most important thing I’ve learnt is about colour and being less conventional with my palettes. I always used to use simple spectral palettes, traditional colour pairings or derivations of primary palettes. What Carl and Wendy (the Creative Directors) have an exceptional skill for is creating colour ways which never occur to me and work wonderfully. Wendy’s colour choices for Leicester Learning Services (LLS) which were derived from my simple primary palette are exceptional. The warm grey-purple and ‘sweet’ raspberry pink are brave choices I would have never thought to use but, on seeing them in use, it’s a no-brainer. Similarly, Carl’s cool palette for Pochin (new website coming very soon!) includes some very subtle colours which I would be too scared would be washed out but hold up incredibly well.

I suppose an eye for things like that improves with time and I am infinitely improved in choosing palettes from where I was 18 months ago but there’s always room to grow.

Attention to detail
This is something I’ve always felt I was extremely good at but in a studio environment there’s a new frame of reference. Seeing the intricate detail with which artwork is scrutinised took a while to sink in with me. A couple of minor artwork issues later and I became so aware that what I thought of as ‘good practice’ was way off the mark. So, I now try to triple check everything and get an extra pair of eyes on to make sure there’s no more double spaces, off-by-a-millimeter margins and one-shade-out colours. Again, there’s always room for improvement but I’m better than I’ve ever been at that now and I’ll only get better!

Organisation and systems
Now this IS something I’ve always been good at. I daresay that if you asked any of my former Newenglish colleagues what was my most defining habit and characteristic it would indefinitely be incessant list making and organisation. So what did I learn? Well, that’s simple…I learnt just how valuable a trait that can be. My first and most-prominent account with Newenglish all centred around rolling out a brand across a huge raft of literature, web assets and even interior & exterior signage. My first instinct was to get a spreadsheet drawn up with the assets needed, pieces to be created and what stage they were at. I shared this with the directors, project manager and the client as second nature thinking ‘that’s what anyone would do’. Apparently though, my freakish need to be organised is not as common as I’d thought and makes me quite handy for handling logistically complex projects – which was a nice discovery.

Workspace aesthetic
This is probably the thing I will miss most about Newenglish (except my colleagues and Barker the studio dog of course!). The huge, light, airy converted chapel that the studio inhabits is gorgeous in itself but the colours on the walls, the books on the book cases, heck even the bookcases themselves are all gorgeous. Once I got over the inevitable clutter of papers and samples of a buzzing workplace that obscure all the finely chosen furniture and settled in it was so apparent and refreshing that Carl and Wendy have tried so hard to make a lovely environment for both them and the team to work in. I’d be very lucky to work somewhere even half that nice again.

Incidentally, the blurry image above is a nicely framed photo which floats loosely atop a pole on wheels in the studio. ‘Why?’ you might ask, as I and everyone before me has. It’s to block the light from your eyes as it moves through the brilliant rooftop skylight while still looking oddly cool – as you do.

People skills
The studio is beautiful but it’s the people who make it what it is and I have been fortunate to work with some lovely co-workers. I shan’t be too specific but suffice it to say that the banter flowed freely and everyone was a great laugh when needed and an absolute asset when required. I hope they all continue to be as great at what they do as they have been.

So that’s the last year or so of my life summed up. How about that!

TL;DR – Learnt a lot, am a better designer for it and will miss the studio and the people very much…

Les Revenants

This week my trusty turntable is spinning Mogwai‘s Les Revenants. In the traditional sense of the phrase, this LP is an OST for French TV drama ‘Les Revenats‘ (or ‘The Returned’ if you’re watching the subtitled version on 4 as we were). However, Stuart Braithwaite in interview with Edith Bowman explained how they had produced and mastered the album as a stand-alone piece of music. Interestingly then, as an avid music junkie and someone who had followed the series on television before listening to the album, the album flows beautifully instead of flitting from intense instrumentals to soothing ambient pieces like one expects from most OSTs.

Mogwai are a five-piece post-rock group heralding from Glasgow. A former housemate of mine was a borderline super fan of theirs so I had heard a fair amount of their work before. I’d even usedone or two tracks to set a motion graphics project to. Their back catalogue is extremely interesting, showing a stark transition from gritty, distorted post-hardcore to an almost Eno-esque ambience. Seemingly, the band have unconsciously drifted into a wonderful niché in soundtracks after having produced music for 2006’s ‘Zidane: aA21st Century Portrait’ a French documentary about Football legend Zinedine Zidane.

The Returned is an etherial and moody drama set in a small alpine town where the dead begin to rise. This may sound like flogging a dead horse as it’s exceptionally rare to find any true originality in zombie flicks these days. Even AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ and it’s basis in Robert Kirkman’s comic series (which is currently adorning my bookshelf) rarely introduces new ideas, perspectives or angles. The Returned plays on the dichotomy of the living and the dead within the returned characters. A fresh angle which is not hugely dissimilar to BBC Three’s In The Flesh.

The soundtrack is an atmospheric, almost ambient affair with a real Mogwai hallmark to it. Time singatures vary, strings descend into crackling guitar and moods shift fluidly from track to track. The album reminds you of the moods within the show without echoing them exactly. It acheives exactly what they wished it to in that it holds it’s own as a record. Had I not seen the program I am near-certain I would have equally enjoyed the music and, equally, had I not known of Mogwai I am sure I would have enjoyed the show. The music is a true stand-out feature for me in the series which sent me straight to the nearest record shop but I feel it’s worth noting that the music is in no way the ‘hero’ of the show. It elegantly accompanies and heightens the moods in the series without ever stealing focus as you would want from such a thing.

TL;DR – Check out Channel 4’s ‘The Returned’ and then enjoy the album. It’s a match made in eerily foggy French heaven.

Fat sounds

I’m going to try and post weekly what I’m listening to…this week it’s a very old classic – The Fats Waller Collection. Fats was an extremely influential pianist who shaped the sound of early jazz and helped make modern music what it is today. Sadly, he died on Pneumonia in 1943, aged just 39. His music is an incredibly soulful mix of jazz piano and blues standards that makes for an excellent 12″ to accompany beavering away on pet projects.

Welsh adventure

OK, so, with any luck, this marks post one of my weekly posts (best laid plans and all that!).

Elle and I have just got in from a five day stay in (unusually) sunny North Wales. We’ve been staying in my grandparents’ chalet in Morfa Bychan, Porthmadog at the foot of the Lynn peninsula. Once a buzzing harbour town, it’s a tourist trap with some beautiful scenery and some less-than beautiful tourists. We trotted off on Friday with Elle’s friend Katie and two cars of friends following a few hours behind. We had a blast playing on the beach and reverting to seaside toddlers. From a slightly more appropriate perspective however, one of the things that stood out to me was the effect that ageing and decay had on the signage and way-finding throughout the area.

The unmistakable ‘British-ness’ of our street signs being iconised in cheap canvases in the Range and other such bargain basements seems extremely London-centric with ‘Borough of Westmister’, ‘SE1’ and ‘Underground’ being plastered on every printable surface imaginable. To me and other letter lovers what makes a quintessentially British sign is more about the Johnston, Gill and Calvert adorned surfaces than the red, white and black of the capital. Having said that, the walls of my house include a LOT of tube-related artwork due to a joint fascination Elle and I share for the aesthetic and engineering of the underground, but no road signs or the like. To me the reason is simple; the beauty of those London pieces lie in their history and the implied century of culture behind them. ‘M6 (North) via M69’ doesn’t quite have that charm but neglect it for a decade or so, slightly play with the brand guidelines and suddenly that charm and charisma comes flooding back.

Weaving through the twisting tracks around Porthmadog the signs and typography have no lack of character and it’s not just because it’s dual-language (though that certainly helps); it’s because it’s terribly maintained! Algae adorn it’s surfaces, scratches and dents distort them and they feel like they’re of another time. Naturally I kept this little revelation to myself. I dread to think what the group would have labeled me had I bored them with my typographic tales – I got a dodgy enough look when I suggested black isn’t an ideal colour for an ice-cream parlour!

TL;DR – old signs are pretty.

What’s all this then?

What’s going on with all this helvetica empty square thing I hear you cry! Well OK, maybe that wasn’t you. Maybe it wasn’t anyone. I could be hearing things. More likely still, I needed a facetious way of starting this post and that was the most apt cliché I could think of. Anyway, whether you asked or not, allow me to explain…

Tocal.net is my online portfolio. Who am I? My name is Tom and I’m a designer (for print & screen). There’s much more information on that subject throughout the site so I shan’t repeat myself. Lets get back to the subject in hand. An online portfolio is essentially a resource for those interested in the type, quality & calibre of my work and possibly a bit about me and where I’ve worked. Generally speaking then, this site is for employers and recruiters (hello!) and is designed for exactly that purpose.

The name
Why Tocal? Because Tom O’Callaghan is a pain to type and can be quite difficult to spell.

The logo
All my Tocal stuff is built around the simple graphic element of an empty square. The reason being that you’re looking for a blank canvas. Something with the potential to be anything creative you need it to be. You might need to paint me as a web designer, you might need a UI designer, a brand designer or simply an artworker. Whatever it might be, you need to see objectively whether I’m the man for that job. Then, once you’ve crossed that bridge, once you’ve seen whether that potential is there, you need to see that this is a piece that will slot nicely and cleanly into your organisation. Imagine my little square as a Tetris piece. Sure it’s not the long, 5 brick dream we’re always waiting for but it’ll fit in nicely, fill a space, help you move forward and build towards your success. That’s me!

The visuals
The site is undoubtably minimalist. Why? That’s simple! You’re here for information on me and to see my work. You don’t need umpteen widgets, icons and fonts competing for your attention. You just want to see my work as it should be, in context, with a basic overview and rationale. That’s why the site is so stripped back. It is all typeset in clean, uninvasive Helvetica Neue and everything follows a simple grid. There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be so you’re free to peruse the work on display and draw your own, hopefully positive, conclusions.

The build
The site uses a very basic WordPress theme which gives the site it’s infrastructure and plain styling. On top of that, using a child theme to create my styling I cave built on to the template and removed aspects using CSS & PHP. For example, the form on the contact page is created using a plugin called Contact Form 7 (highly recommended) that has been bespoke styled using CSS to align the name and email fields into two columns. This styling also uses CSS media queries to break into one column below tablet sizes. Also styled with CSS are the numerous rollover links, which use CSS3 transition states – these are most easily seen in the footer. PHP tweaks such as removing page titles, creating variations on page templates and re-arranging page elements were tackled in small amounts as well. I chose this theme very carefully, to ensure all the tweaks I wished to make would be simple to complete.

The key thing, for both choosing and altering my theme, was to make use of media queries for responsive design. The CSS for the theme has 5 distinct snap points. At specific pixel values, which emulate those of desktop, tablet & mobile platforms and their orientations, the media queries adjust the styling and object display properties to render the site for best display on your device. Responsive design is a must for any site which doesn’t utilise a separate mobile site in today’s world. With an increasingly large percentage of users experiencing the web ‘on-the-go’ from mobile, or from smart devices like tablets, designing exclusively for desktop use is a thing of the past.

Another element of the responsive build I adopted is that, wherever possible, images are delivered at twice the usual resolution for users on retina displays. That’s anyone on iPhone 4+, iPad 3+ or any mac made after 2013. I have to admit that the motive for doing this isn’t entirely selfless. My mac has a retina display and having everything as crisp as it is in print is fantastic!

However, this relatively new innovation of media queries throws up it’s own issues. Each and every change on the site has to be browser tested in 5+ different iterations and on a number of devices. Not an enviable task but certainly a useful one.