Friday 31 January 2020


Do designers sometimes just get too clever? The thought arose when viewing the Australian Open tennis this year. The graphic logo for this event is what we are supposed to read as ‘AO’ - Australian Open. This seems simple enough, but the designers have gone for a crisp and cleverly simple expression, using what really is an inverted ‘V’ for an ‘A’ followed by a straightforward, geometrically circular ‘O’ reminiscent of Gill Sans. Just why a proper Gill Sans ‘A’ might not have been appropriate seems unclear. One can only assume that it was seen to be too literal; insufficiently ‘creative.' It appears that the odd use of the letter ‘V’ has been chosen just to avoid an ordinary, obvious 'A'. Cuneiform script comes to mind, but this seems an extreme reference/inspiration for such an occasion. One wonders, what is letter ‘A’ in cuneiform? Unusually, the graphic can be read as the insert marker - ^ : alternatively, it can become the 'smaller/larger than' mathematical symbols - < and > when imagined sideways. Why not flip it again? Why are these manipulations made to forms that have some general agreement in our society?

Gill Sans

Cuneiform script

'Australian Open' seems to have been included to reinforce the reading and define the baseline.
The graphic could easily become an obvious but undesirable 'OV'.

The strange adoption of the clever 'A' used as the insert symbol that it is.
This smart game subverts the reading of the 'V' as an 'A'.

One can appreciate the visual slickness of this logo, while being annoyed with its awkward games. Is this acknowledgement why the image was chosen? While the designers might see their efforts as being uniquely smart, the device has been used before. The Queensland Board of Architects has developed a graphic in which the ‘A’ is an inverted ‘V’ identical to the ‘AO’ use of the letter in its graphic.

An invented 'A' with other strange new letter forms.

There is something about letters that makes one concerned about this game. Letters are really forms that cannot be played with in such a loose manner, where one letter becomes inverted to be read as another, even though letters are remarkably resilient. Just look at all the numerous fonts and see how the clarity of the reading remains in spite of the enormous number of variations. The rules are maintained in font designs, but they are ignored in the ‘AO’ image. It is this break with known form that annoys. Where might it lead? What other inventive inversions might there be? Is there a word that can still make sense in another way when inverted?#

Roll the ball and one gets a clear 'OV.' - Oh dear!: hence the 2020.

Little things are important in letters and numbers. There is a story that tells that our numbers are forms that have been developed from markings that include the number of angles between the lines that equals the number being represented. This is apparently why the number 1 has its top flash; and why the number 7 sometimes has a crossbar on the centre of its leg. Change the angle count, and the number is changed – its raw sense for being. 7 suffers the most with variations, but we survive, as we do with a simple stroke as 1. These are subtle variations that keep the raw basis of the form. It is not as though the one or the seven is an inverted alternative number; but without the crossbar, there can be misunderstandings, especially with handwriting.

1 and 7
O and 0

So it is that we can end up in a real shambles of uncertainty when lower case letter ‘l’s and number ‘1’s become a muddle, in the same way letter ‘O’ is confused with number ‘0’. There are other complications too, all best seen in computer texts, and in the British postcode system when a sans serif font is used. It really is impossible to interpret the reading of some British post codes without checking on the standard number/letter mix in less ambiguous codes.

An Australian 'tea party' classic

Code is the core word. If one breaks the rules of the code, then there is no message other than confusion. The ‘AO’ image survives because it is promoted so heavily in its context. One does not immediately see an inverted Iced VoVo biscuit, but it does arise as a possibility as one considers the various readings. Why is there this effort to be so clever by breaking the rules of letters? Good graphics can work on many levels by using things ordinary and everyday: see the Jacobs Creek graphic - This is a remarkable achievement that does not rely on being creative in any smart, bespoke, personal manner.

Unique, individual brilliance – “Look at ME!” - is a position that thrives in architecture where one becomes a genius for breaking the rules – see Gehry, et. al. The more extreme the outcome, the more exceptional the person is considered to be. This approach gives us the ‘AO’ architecture that plays games for the sake of being different. We need to find a way to be astonishing in an ordinary, everyday, manner. We need to seek out meaning, not in clever inversions, but in forms that can be clearly understood for what they are and what they say, so that a rich, shared understanding can underlie our being, and our culture. Existing in a world of individual geniuses intent on sharing ‘selfies,’ only creates a tense schism that fragments, when it is wholeness that enriches.

No 'Australian Open' when the ground establishes the baseline.

Slick, interesting forms might grab attention, but they have little staying power; lacking substance. They remain intriguing perhaps for only a few minutes, until the next surprise arrives. Our architecture and graphics need to be better than this, because we will only end up with a world of distractions, with each seeking to outdo the other for attention: “Look at ME: we’re the ‘AO’ ” - the dropped iced VoVo of tennis. It is certainly an Australian reference! Given the BOAQ graphic, maybe the ‘AO’ is ‘Architects Only’? Who knows. It is only the sales promotion that is continually telling us differently. Now this says something about how promotions change our reading of things! Should we be concerned?

Variations on VoVos.

Perhaps a slick 'P' - a sick 'P'? Maybe a wounded 'A'?


 See also:

It is interesting to observe that KIA is a major sponsor of the ‘AO.’ ‘KIA’ shares the idiosyncratic graphic inversion that is just as annoying, even with its quirky distortion. The bingo call, "Legs eleven" comes to mind, only here it is "Legs V." The graphic reminds one of the Johnny Walker brand; and walking fingers.

8 February 2020
The problem of an ad hoc inversion is one that is repeatedly experienced with number 6 and 9. Normal usage has no issue with the reading of these numbers. It is only in card games and similar situations where the direction of the number cannot be controlled, that we have the need for one number to be underlined. Usually number 9 is shown as 9 to differentiate it from an inverted 6 - 9 c.f. 9. The inclusion of some base text in association with the AO achieves the same outcome. The need for this device weakens the authority of the graphic, changes its inherent potency: exposes its weaknesses.

9 February 2020
For more on graphics, see:  Here there are other examples where 'A's have been made by flipping the 'V', although both examples do make a gesture towards including the horizontal with the use of a swish form.

15 February 2020
Just drop the racket between a couple of balls, and one has: 'VOLVO'!
KIA may not be happy!

Thursday 30 January 2020


This piece was penned, well typed, shortly after watching the 2020 Up Helly Aa, Europe’s biggest fire festival held annually in Lerwick, Shetland, on the last Tuesday of January. It is a truly remarkable occasion with a long history. The celebration involves the whole community. The Internet and the sponsorship of Northlink Ferries (see: ) has made it possible for others scattered around the world to be involved in the parade, as it happens, streamed live.

This year, events in Australia have changed the way this festival is seen. What is of interest is how context and experience changes things. The circumstance is not unrelated to matters architectural.

An Australian Up Helly Aa

The alarm buzzed with a rhythmic annoyance at 5:00am: Wednesday morning, 29 January 2020. The clouds in the east had turned a gorgeous pink as the sky lightened. The wafting air stirred by the ceiling fan made the warm, humid stillness feel fresher, a little cooler: it was an early rise for Up Helly Aa in Australia. The cuppa was put on.

Shuffling through the various sites, avoiding the one that wanted all one's personal details and credit card information in order to watch, the Northlink site was eventually found. Why is it always so difficult to discover the livestream? Last year it could not be found, but the effort was successful this time.

The town hall clock, glowing as a bright disc in the dark over Lerwick, with the exclamatory flagpole above, displayed the time as 7: 26pm: just in time - then it started. The first glimmer of light very quickly became a blazing screen of glowing fire on the tablet: the coverage was working well.

As the camera zoomed back from the fiery fancy dress, the bright orange-red aura of the blaze highlighted the silhouettes of the nearby buildings. A shiver of fear ran through the body. One was immediately reminded of the images of burning homes and bushland seen in the news over the last few months in Australia. These recollections changed perceptions of this annual celebration by putting fire into another context, suggesting a similar spectacle with a horrible outcome: raw terror; horror; choking smoke.

These thoughts and emotions lingered as the flames paraded through the darkness, weaving unbelievable, dotted processional lines through the town. Up Helly Aa remains as impressive as ever, but it had become burdened with the depressive reminiscence of the harsh reality of a dry, burning country. Sadly, one recalled the loss of lives, the scorched flora and fauna, and the homes and livelihoods gone, as Lerwick lauded the culprit.

New Year fireworks, Sydney Australia

Lerwick and its Town Hall

Given Australia's debate with celebratory New Year fireworks exploded just for entertainment while nearby regions are being burned by the flames of fierce blazes blasted by winds; and noting the science of climate change, and the impact of carbon dioxide on the environment, the thought arose: might Up Helly Aa soon change into an LED display, complete with drones buzzing patterns into the night sky? Maybe the galley could become a hologram? The enlivening smell of paraffin need not be missed, perhaps being added as a misted fog to capture the olfactory experience so loved by the commentator: "exhilarating!" The terrible problem of petrol sniffing in Australia came to mind.

LED displays


The town hall clock happily chimed throughout the parade, marking time. The morning sky was much brighter, whiter now as the circles formed around the galley, and the flaming torches were thrown to burn as a pile into a huge, final flush of flames: the brilliant sun shone through the trees as a blazing ball. It was going to be another hot day here - 28C already. The tablet was put down for a few more minutes of dozy snoozing as the folk of Lerwick moved into the halls for a night of fun and food, and drink and dance, starting, as the programne noted, at 9:15pm. Up Helly Aa organisational skills always amaze with their impressive planning and rigour.

Fun in the halls

Fire as festival shows the happier side of a ferocious, feared foe. While Up Helly Aa is unforgettable, this Australian summer is too, but for starkly different reasons. The Internet gives rise to some startling contrasts and ironies as images flick through times across the countries of the world, putting the Up Helly Aa procession into drought, desert, burnt and burning bush, and flooding rains, and many other climes. Just yesterday, the array of towns that have no water was published as an alarming map; another diagram illustrated the fires that are still burning in the southeast: meanwhile reports tell of monsoon rains flooding the north - "record downpours overnight."




We'll be thinking of Lerwick as the day warms up to the predicted 35C. It is now 7:08am - time for coffee: 30C already. Thank goodness for the ceiling fan and the Internet. We are pleased we were able to avoid the site that wanted all our personal details: thanks Northlink. It is good to see a company giving back to a community, especially something so universally anticipated and loved; an event that stirs the desire for homecoming. Happy Up Helly Aa!

This piece was published in The Shetland Times Friday, 31 January 2020.