Nov 30, 2007

Trillanes Fans Club Launched

Sali na! Read the story.

Nov 15, 2007

Being 10 and a Showcase of Drupal in the Philippines

By the way (what a weird way to start a blog-- "by the way"? anyway:). By the way, I just realized that our company Dig It All Solutions is now 10 years old! Wow!

On paper, Dig It All Solutions was only incorporated in 2004. As a sole proprietorship, it officially became a legal entity in 1999 as Digital Solutions. But our company really began as a rag-tag team in 1997, when we were just designing websites and doing simple ASP and PHP to create dynamic sites.

The term CMS (content management system) had not been invented at that time (if my RAM serves me right), but what we were already doing was building simple CMS engines from scratch: often clunky pieces of code in ASP or PHP that allowed users to Add, Edit and Delete -- or, as they call them now, CRUD (CReate, Update, Delete).

Ten years later, open source CMS have matured. Our CMS of choice is the excellent Drupal. Technically speaking, Drupal is not just a CMS -- it's really a platform that allows people to keep building on it through pluggable modules.

Which brings me to the meet of this topic. There is a growing community of Drupal users in the Philippines and we are proud to be a part of it. Prouder still, because our Tech Department is composed of the primary experts in Drupal (ahem, ahem).

Here is a showcase of some of the pioneering Drupal projects in the country.

Shenzhen Buzz is a lifestyle and tourist guide for Shenzhen and China. Visit it.

The Department of Health is the first government agency to use Drupal.
The Information Management Services (IMS) office of DOH is
notable for spearheading knowledge management efforts in its offices.
Drupal's powerful Taxonomy module makes a website ideal
for promoting knowledge sharing. Visit it.

News Mekong is a collaborative site that allows journalists around the world
to share news and reports about the Mekong Region. Visit it.

Haribon Foundation was also one of the first NGOs
to adapt Drupal. They asked our help after giving up
on their previous static website. It was difficult to update
and took weeks before any update happened.
They have very heavy web traffic, which Drupal efficiently manages. Visit it.

Nov 14, 2007

Long-Stemmed Mirrors, Metal Detectors and Popping Up Trunks: Lessons from Congress and MRT Blasts

Continuing my series on Design of Pinoy Security.

GK Chesterton once said, "The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic."

To me, this sums up the whole tragedy of security design in the Philippines and anywhere in the world. A security tragedy happens (like the bombing of Glorietta, Megamall, Congress and MRT) and authorities respond to it with very uncreative security measures.

By uncreative I am not only referring to unimaginative signs on the airport that say, "We treat all bomb jokes seriously." I also mean reactive security designs that only cause more pain to the public that they are supposed to be protecting. Here are examples:

  • Inspection of everyone entering the premises. This is the stupidest scheme I've ever encountered. Have the security bosses tried inspecting the bags and pockets of at least 10 people? Could you sustain that for the hundreds and thousands of guests in malls and at a public place like the MRT? If you were the underpaid guard on duty for 12 hours, would you have enough alertness left after the first 5 hours?

  • Opening of gift-wrapped boxes and shopping bags. Again, stupid, not only because it is highly annoying, but also because of the absence of warnings at the gate, saying that wrapped presents will be opened. As it happens, unwary commuters only learn about the rule after they already purchased their tickets.
  • Inspecting cars by popping the trunk and using those long-stemmed mirrors. Let's be honest -- after observing this security measure for a few minutes, would a determined bomber make a bomb look obvious and hide it in the trunk or under the car? Do the guards even know how a hidden car bomb would look like?
The thing is, these stupid security measures cause a false sense of security in the public perception. The public, including managers of establishments and security agencies think they can relax because an underpaid guard wields mirrors, metal detectors and looks inside car trunks of all incoming guests.

And because of this false sense of security, we drop our defences and become uncreative, while Chesterton's proverbial criminal is constantly alert, creating new ways of bypassing the system.

* * *
BTW, Glorietta's 2007 blast is supposed to have been caused by a gas leak and not a terrorist attack. But several years back, Glorietta was also bombed, so I refer to that incident, and not the recent one.

Nov 4, 2007

Studying MSIT in Adelaide

The contract arrived this week, which makes it official. I am going to study MS in IT at the Heinz School, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Australia. The stint will be full-time for 12 months (Jan-Dec 2008). w00t!

I've been wanting to study abroad for several years and I nearly gave up this dream, until AusAID and CMU granted me a scholarship. w00t w00t! Data will be flying in to join me early next year and we both decided to just give up our home and sell everything (well, almost everything).

Among the items we will be selling:
  1. Desktop PC
  2. Flat screen LCD monitor (slightly used)
  3. GanzKlar DVD/MP4/DIVX player
  4. Washing Machine
  5. Ref
  6. Oven
  7. Bed
  8. Shelves
  9. Corolla Altis (Automatic) 2000
  10. Lots of books!
We'll be disposing the items in batches, since some of these will still be in use until Feb-March 2008.

If you're interested, just stay tuned as we announce prices and dates of selling.

Oct 19, 2007

Design Lessons from Glorietta Explosion

Many will be talking about today's blast in Glorietta, but most will ignore two important design elements that came into play but will be ignored. First is the design of our buildings in general and second is the design of security in malls and other public places in our country.

Design of Buildings. An eyewitness interview in TV Patrol revealed an important detail that will be ignored by most of us. The eyewitness, who was inside the mall when the blast happened, said that it took several minutes because they could get out of the mall because it was very, very dark.

Most of our building designs were patterned after old, western design: bulky, hulking structures. Just look at the boxy, claustrophobic design of Megamall or the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the buildings in its vicinity.

In today's global-warming-conscious world, these buildings are energy inefficient. They suck up thousands of watts of electricity daily, just to power air conditioning, lighting, escalators and elevators.

Ironically, we are in a tropical country with lots of sun and wind. We should take advantage of this by making buildings that use lots of natural light and air to save on electric costs.

Our architects need to look back into the design of more traditional houses. The bahay kubo and bahay na bato maximized natural lighting and ventilation. But we have destroyed most of these buildings and erected instead unventilated bungalows and box buildings.

Oct 1, 2007

Going to Google

It's slowly dawning on me that I'm leaving this Friday for Silicon Valley to attend the Google SoC Mentors Summit, to represent the Drupal community (I'm one of three geeks who will be going there for Drupal). This was so sudden that my brain is still in denial.

I wouldn't have accepted this had it not been for Google's sponsorhip of my air fare and one night's stay. I'll just extend a few days to visit friends and relatives in San Jose, San Francisco and LA. Aside from Googleplex, I'm thinking of visiting the Intel Musuem, Apple HQ, Stanford and UCLA. I'm hoping to buy a Macbook for Data and an iPod, probably.

I'll be posting relevant discoveries at IndioSign and Mac Switcher.

Thanks to Denise for lending me her precious digital cam!

Sep 2, 2007

My Elements of Design

I learned design by picking up a thing or two here and there, reading tips in recommended books (like The Design of Everyday Things), and observing good designers and their work. I had no formal schooling, but in retrospect, a lot of what I've studied or done helped me in the design work I've done.

I will summarize what I've learned through years of work, trial and error, and
My Elements of Design:

  • Simplicity: design must be self-evident, with no extraneous stuff but not intrusive. As EB White often stressed in his Elements of Style -- "Omit unnecessary words!".
  • Form follows function: begin with function and then fit the form. If you work the other way around, you'll get your priorities muddled up.
  • Intuitivity: related to simplicity. Design must not need a users manual to figure out. A few minutes (even seconds) of training should suffice.
  • Balance: symmetric and assymetric.
  • Wow-factor: excellent design, like a good movie or book, should "wow" us. Paradoxically, although the design does not call attention to itself, we later realize that we have just encountered a good experience. And then we marvel at the good-ness of the design.
  • Lastly, the test of design is in, as the Eat Bulaga judges always emphasize, the "audience impact" -- how the customer interacts with the product or service and whether the design is pleasing, in general.
Let me explain the paradox caused by Simplicity and Wow-factor with an example. If you've been to one of those Friday's restaurants, you would have encountered the bubbly waiters and managers who squat when they talk to you in an attempt to look friendly and literally lowering their status so you could talk down to them.

They are all cheerful and alert, but don't you get this feeling that it is all contrived? That is an example of intrusive design. It calls attention to itself and the "audience impact" is that it lacks sincerity.

In contrast, I've been in taxis where the driver struck up a nice conversation that felt sincere. Or, if you own a Mac, you have this exhilarating feeling of having encountered a good product. The Mac seems to imbue you with good feelings but when people ask you why you like the Mac, you really can't explain it. Why? Because the little things that Apple built into the Mac (the great interface, stable machinery, visual design and good feel of the material, etc) all merge together in a synergy that produces a single impact: Wow!

Good design does not call attention to itself, but the user nevertheless still appreciates it, albeit sometimes failing to articulate it well.

Aug 24, 2007

The Design IQ of MRT

The lowest design IQ in the universe must be concentrated in the management offices of MRT (aka, LRT-3 or the EDSA light rail). A visit to MRT especially in rush hour is a lesson on how Bad Design can cause you more stress:
  • Trains break down, forcing huge human traffic jams.
  • Long queues at the ticket booths, winding all the way down the stairs and spill out into EDSA. People here can wait as long as 30 minutes or more.
  • And after the long ticket lines -- you have to line up for bag inspection, causing another 30 minute wait.
  • More time lost inside the station as you wait for a train to arrive.
  • All this time, no one is announcing if a train will be coming or what time.
  • And when the train finally arrives, there's no room to squeeze in, which makes you wonder why the train bothered to stop.

What Works

In other train stations (like in Bangkok, Australia, Europe and even in our own LRT-2 -- note, I include LRT-2, or the Aurora line), riding the train is a smooth and stress-free experience. We list things that work in these stations.

Ticket Machines

The good stations use automated vending machines to dispense tickets. There is often a window with a human, but only to give out change, special tickets, or information.

Wide Passageways and Cars

The other train stations have very wide passageways so human traffic flows more freely and crowds do not accumulate. The cars also have wider bodies, designed for lots of commuters to move around in. Not so in MRT, where cars are small and cramped. This is why people in MRT are always packed like a Brother Mike service.

Lots of Information and Maps for Passengers

Station names are prominent and announced clearly by a recorded message. If you're on the street and you don't know anything about the area, you will see prominent signs indicating a train station. Schedules are published on video screens and even announced through a PA system so people don't wander about, wondering whether a train will ever come. Plus, they have maps showing the train stations and the vicinity. If there are different train lines, the map gives useful info on how to get to the other lines. (Instead of bombarding us with too many ads, why won't MRT ask these advertisers to sponsor maps of the MRT?)

Special Passes

Special passes help decongest human traffic in the ticket booths and give a more convenient option for customers. In the countries described above, you could purchase special tickets or "passes" -- a day-long pass allows you to ride all day long. A weekly pass lets you use your ticket for 7 days, and so on. Like prepaid cards, you can easily recharge these special tickets.

What Ails the MRT?

I used to wonder why problems plague the MRT. After some years of observing, I have figured out some design flaws in their system(s).
The main stations and terminals (North EDSA, Quezon Ave, Makati, Taft) have bad real estate designs:
  • Narrow passageways and waiting areas. At North EDSA station, which receives almost all of people from the North, there is only one narrow stairway, a slow and hot elevator and 2-4 ticket windows. Same is true with Quezon Ave. Since there is too much human traffic in the first two northern stations of MRT, people often try to go as far as the GMA-Kamuning station or do a "round trip". All these are symptoms of the trouble that MRT is experiencing, and still, nothing is being done to alleviate the bottlenecks!
  • Slow ticket dispensing. All tickets in MRT are dispensed by humans, and most of the time they fumble as they count change. Why not activate those vending machines that I saw rotting in the corners of the station?
  • MRT has stored value cards -- the closest we can get to special passes from other countries. But such is the ineptitude of MRT management that they still run out of stored value cards! I suspect that MRT "runs out" only because... they are waiting for those silly Samsung ads to be printed on them!
  • Useless and slow bag security checks. In Ayala, there are many turnstiles to accommodate traffic, but inept management introduced a choke point -- a baggage check with two guards intercepting everyone entering the turnstiles. Imagine how many office workers are pouring into the station, only to be choked by two guards. I believe that baggage checks are useless deterrents to terrorist attacks (any sufficiently motivated criminal or terrorist will think of a way to outsmart these inattentive guards, anyway. What if they instead let everyone enter the waiting area, and then the guards could conduct random checks in the train waiting area?
  • Several times, I have been stuck inside the Shaw station's waiting area (longest was for one hour), waiting for a train that never arrived. I felt helpless and duped, since they could have advised us in the first place that there was a problem. No one told us what was happening. To top it all the place was hot, because the architects never paid attention to ventilation design. People were about to riot. In contrast, Bangkok's SkyTrain stations are all open to let the breeze cool the area naturally.

When we are voiceless and misinformed (most of us Pinoys are), we tend to be more tolerant of bad service design. Thanks to the LRT-2 (the Aurora line) we are given a taste of a better alternative. You should try getting a ride at the LRT-2

It's been how many years now since we started encountering these MRT problems? Things do not seem to be improving. The only innovation I have seen so far was the introduction of a cordoned area for women, children and senior citizens. But this is not a solution to the root problems. This is merely cosmetic. Things will worsen if MRT management does not examine more closely what's happening.

I don't think the solutions will be difficult to find. If someone like me who knows nothing about crowd control and train systems can make these observations, what more these experts at MRT? Or do they really know what they're doing over there?

  • MRT described in Urban Rail:
  • Wikipedia entry:

Aug 21, 2007

Please wait to multiply

I don't really like social networking sites, that is, the way they are built right now, because they force you to build something that you can't really share later on. Friendster, for instance, requires you to register before you can reply to a friend's blog.

And if you register, the next level of pressure is for you to build your own site. It so happens that I already have my own site, a blog and even a photo sharing home. Multiply is purportedly convenient because it unites these elements into one space, yes, but what about second breakfast? (oops, wrong line of thought).

What I meant was: sige, build your Multiply site, put your photos and videos, import your blogs yeah. But now what happens to my other sites? How about my Google Ads and Amazon links (haven't tried embedding links to Amazon)?

Aug 17, 2007

Improving the DOH Retirement Process

Just got back from the Department of Health, after giving a workshop and mentoring session. Our goal: help a cluster of the KM team to use some knowledge sharing techniques to improve their retirement process.

We began by defining the process start and ending, then started using Post-Its to write down the steps. After lining them up in the whiteboard and drawing arrows (thus the boxes-and-arrows process map), the team really got deeply into the discussion. The team was so engaged that they did not even think of pausing for lunch.

Despite asking people to stop thinking about the process while eating lunch, discussions continued. Our session at 1:30 PM and I have a feeling people would have stayed and worked on the project had it not been for the order from DOH to go home. Everyone went home having a deep sense of fulfillment.

We examined each step and bounced around ways to improve them. I liked the openness of the people to accept ideas. Everyone let everyone to finish what they were saying before any critiques were given.

To be honest, I was a bit unsure whether we would get substantial results since it appeared that a previous process improvement effort had already been done -- in fact, the cluster came armed with a neat list of steps, complete with input and output, plus flowcharts.

But when they started stepping through the process map and comparing it to what was happening in reality, new stuff came out. I gave them guide questions like, "What common errors or complaints do you receive?" and "Are there bottlenecks or points of delay in the procedures?"

After lengthy discussions, the KM team had a list of improvements to the DOH retirement process, two of which would result to major impact. First, a simpler, more efficient process, by decreasing points of mistakes and causes of delay. Second, an insertion of a knowledge harvest process for key retiring staff. This was a very fulfilling day for us, despite the rain and the flood that I had to drive through to get back home. Thanks to the DOH process improvement team!

More photos here:

Aug 16, 2007

How a Principal Redesigned Our (Formerly) Lousy High School

This is the story of how a young principal named Imelda Penecilla-Macaspac worked against the odds and revived our ailing high school. I am a graduate of a public school called Pampanga High School (PHS), formerly called Jose Abad Santos HS (JASHS) in Pampanga. I owe a lot to this school -- it gave me a scholarship and a good academic preparation for college. It's where I honed my skills in writing and science.

I visited PHS last 11 August and what I saw touched and inspired me. What's really interesting is how the current principal revived the ailing school from a state of disrepair. If you have time, kindly read on.

When I was studying in PHS, the school was in a bad state of disrepair for lack of funds. We had old, rusty lab equipment and the grounds were always underwater on rainy season. We never used the foul toilets ( I once tried to get in and kept gagging at the smell and sight).

I remember dubbing our canteen the "Floating Cusina" because it was forever submerged in water. We had to carefully step on benches to reach it. We lacked classrooms and had to attend classes under mango trees, literally. Imagine that picture and then imagine things getting worst.

When Pinatubo exploded, it caused great floods in our whole town of San Fernando. Since our HS was on low ground, the flood never really left the school. Buildings decayed. Some were unusable. One time, the floor caved in -- while a class was going on!

The current principal, Mrs. Imelda Macaspac, took over with this huge problem. She was my batchmate and I am thankful she took over. She tapped the alumni association, who responded by donating funds to rebuild the school.

They started by filling the grounds with sand, to stop the floods. Then she got funds to rebuild the buildings. She demolished the old unusable toilets and asked some contractors to invest in two pay toilets. The agreement: contractors can operate the pay toilets for 15 years, after which they would turn over the toilets to the school.

She rebuilt the old unused canteen and built another canteen in the school grounds, operated by the cooperative. The school gets 20% of the profits, half of which goes to a feeding program for undernourished students. She also started a reading clinic for freshmen who (mysteriously) passed grade 6 but could not read (as in reading compre is zero!) and she noted the schools from which these students came from and notified DepEd about it.

She was able to get internet connection and set up a computer laboratory with classes on computer repair and programming. This way, she can accept donations of faulty computers and laptops which go to the computer repair class. Broken armchairs can be repaired by the welding class, and she got a tie-up with a welding company to hire students from the welding shop.

She also set up caregiver, cosmetology and spa courses under the same principle that she set up the welding and computer courses -- most of the students will not have a chance to get to college, so might as well let them learn a trade here.

I will be posting old and new photos later.

PHS needs donations in terms of books, computers, arm chairs and cash. They also welcome volunteer services, and I have volunteered to give them leadership workshops (for teachers and student leaders) and workshops on layouting for the school organ. It would also help if we can get them featured in a show or a newspaper writeup (especially since it will be celebrating it's 100th year soon). If you are interested to help, please email me through rubencanlas(at)gmail(dot)com.

Aug 10, 2007

Knowledge and Ideas from Abroad

It always helps to get ideas from other countries. I used to scorn politicos who justified their foreign trips by saying that it "broadened the mind." Probably because most of them came back and continued being bad politicians.

My first trip abroad was in Hong Kong and I marveled at their train system, the lack of security guards checking bags in malls and office buildings, and the cleanliness of the streets and buildings. You could register a business in a few hours and open a bank account with only a passport. I was elated: despite the fact that many of them were rude, their system worked.

"Hong Kong is actually dirty," said one of the locals I was visiting. "You should see Britain." That comment opened my mind. I already liked what I saw in Hong Kong and this was still not enough for someone who has seen Britain?

From HK, more trips opened for me. I visited --

  • Australia, where the airport quarantine was really serious on protecting from foreign pests and disease and I could visit mountains and beaches just by riding a train;

  • Bangkok, where travel was smooth and peaceful because their roads were mostly free of potholes and the Thai did not honk their horns even in the worst of traffic; and

  • Europe, where they had lots of parks and greenery and (in some cases) their politicians traveled like the rest of us. In Italy, their old villages were travel destinations and they were proud of their village cuisine. In London and Paris, they have preserved their old buildings and structures and you can't help but wonder how inspiring it would be to work in these cities.

In all these countries, they had good mass transit (even Bangkok's Sky Train and Metro beats our 3 train systems) and travel-friendly signs and maps. In Bangkok, although most of their signs are in Thai, their airport and Sky Train have English maps.

PS: There are more than 565,000 registered OFWs abroad (and that does not include the undocumented ones), according to a 2006 DOLE report. If we include the undocumented ones and those who have migrated, along with their families, there must be more than 1 million Filipinos abroad. Imagine if we formed a forum or a think tank where even just a tiny percentage of these Filipinos took a few minutes to write down their ideas?

I am going to label this as "What Works Abroad". Future posts on this thread will be labeled similarly.

Jul 31, 2007

Upgrading the Sari-Sari Store Sign

Surf (yes, the soap maker), has begun innovating the old, reliable sari-sari store sign in the provinces. In Tagaytay and Sta. Rosa, we recently saw the transformation from signs hand-painted on galvanized sheets to those using scanned photos of the store owners and most probably printed with large-format printers. Click "Read more" for more pictures!


If you look closely at the photo above, you'll find Jan Jan sitting on the left side of the store. Amusingly, Jan Jan does not look like my expectation of how a "Jan Jan" may look like -- bubbly and probably always smiling. :)

Incidentally, the sign above shows two common patterns in naming sari-sari stores: Two Brothers, Two Sisters, Kambal (Twins), etc; and a proclivity to put an apostrophe in every trailing "S", as the sign above exhibits.

Photos by Data Canlas

Jul 27, 2007

Indiosign is back!

Quite unexpectedly, Google unpublished the Indiosign Blog, thinking it was a spam blog. A spam blog is the spawn of a bot that automatically generates blog entries. Why would anyone go to such lengths to create fake blog entries?

Most search engine optimization experts will know the answer: fake blog entries with links to a certain website will boost that websites ranking in Google.

I think the problem started because I was editing my blog using one Gmail account and answering email on a different Gmail account. This was probably detected by Google's omniscient spam detector and it pulled down Indiosign.

Here is a picture of Google's message. I felt it was not a very helpful message. I didn't know what to do and it didn't provide me with clear steps or who to contact. I only understood that I needed to find a link in the Blogger dashboard after I did some surfing on the Blogger forums.

In any case, Indiosign is back, with new entries and new license plate pictures and a story about SmartBro's bad customer service design. I will also post an entry about sari-sari signboards, soon!

Designing the Customer Experience

It's a fancy term for a very much-needed concept that should be basic in all businesses: customer experience design. It means improving a business service by designing the process around the customer (instead of making the customer adjust to shoddy procedure).

Everyone has had a taste of bad customer experience design: making us wait in queue for a long time (whether you're lining up in a bank or calling customer service); filling up five copies of forms with 10,000 fields and no carbon paper; an application process that requires you to go from one building to another, taking up one whole day of your life, etc etc.

Government agencies and banks are notorious for bad customer experience design. And so are internet service providers. We recently switched to SmartBro, which came highly recommended by a friend -- a techie friend for that matter -- and that put a lot of weight on his recommendation.

But SmartBro's user experience design is neanderthal, to say the least. We were unlucky enough to have a faulty connection (each time it rains, we lose the SmartBro internet connection).

Worst, there was no way to contact tech support. There are only two ways to call for help in SmartBro. First is by email and second is by phone.

Email was not really an option since we didn't have internet service, anyway. Moreover, stupidly enough, everytime there's a problem getting a connection to the SmartBro antenna, a web page (which I presume runs locally, since there's no internet in the first place) gets displayed telling us there was an error and that we are to call tech support. Unfortunately, there was no phone number in that message and since we did not have internet, we could not surf the SmartBro website for the number!

This trivial addition would have gone a long way in customer service, but no thanks to SmartBro.

And what about the telephone number? We called it up and had to go through a series of recorded messages, asking us to click a couple of buttons. You know those voice messages -- they will ask you to "Press 1 to know more about promotions, Press 2 to know more about promotions, Press 3 to know more about exciting promotions..." If we wanted to know more about promotions, we would not be calling the tech support line. A tech support line should respond quickly!

SmartBro's support line was #4 in the heirarchy of recorded messages, so I had to wait for messages 1-3 before I could get to tech support. Which turned out to be a recording of "Umagang Kay Ganda". After hearing the song played for 2-3 minues, I gave up. (My wife had more patience, waiting for 5 minutes or more).

Update: It's 27 July, we still don't have Internet service and we still have not successfully contacted their tech support line!

Jul 22, 2007

Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, rhyming slogans ang kailangan

This blog's favorite anti-hero is the bureaucrat with the bright idea. Somewhere deep in the recesses of our decaying bureaucracy, fossilized government employees or officers are cooking up wonderful designs and slogans of such caliber as "Sorry for the inconvenient. Your taxes is working for you."

We see this malady not just in bad government posters, vomit-inducing PIA video ads, and what I can only call "high school sloganeering".

As far as the range of my memory can recall (I grew up during Martial Law), Marcos is to blame for this rhyming sickness. Every Martial Law kid still remembers, "Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan."

From then on, I think all slogans had to be "clever," metered and in rhyme -- all three, preferred.

Exhibit A is a slogan circa 1990s on drug abuse. "Don't use drugs. They'll use you, confuse you and abuse you." (This is what I can recall of the slogan for now. Please correct my fading memory!)

Exhibit B. Senator-now-Mayor-again Alfredo Lim made this motto famous. "The law applies to everyone or no one at all." Pretty catchy, but well, on further investigation, it actually is just stating status quo in our country, favoring the second half of the assertion. He could have at least been more cogent with, "I will shoot everyone and ask questions later." -- just kidding, of course.

Exhibit C. For about 2-3 years, MRT played this message as the train stopped on each station. "Thank you for *patronizing* the MetroStar express." They've since changed this message, thank you. Actually, instead of playing this annoying message, it may have been more contingent to simply announce the current stop and the next stop -- twice. But no, our bright government bureaucrat would rather thank people for patronizing the otherwise unbearable ride.

Exhibit D. Pasig City's slogan is the rather emptyheaded "Sige Pasig, Sige Pa!". Sige pa what? More unnecessary bridges across J. Vargas Avenue? More snatchers in broad daylight at Ortigas?

To be fair, we did have our bright moments. I can still remember the "Read to Lead" campaign, which actually pushed me to be a more voracious reader than I already was. And there was this short-lived metric conversion song to start us a-using the metric system.

Things have gone downhill since then.

Rizal on a License Plate

Our new cluttered license plates. Click to see a bigger picture.The purpose of a license plate is to quickly identify the vehicle. This is why in most sane countries, license plates contain no other elements but letters and numbers, using clear, large font sizes.

In our country, some bright bureaucrat probably got a brainstorm and changed the design of our license plates into something more... "beautiful".

I am referring to the license plates that started appearing in about 2004 or thereabouts. You know, the ones that have the Rizal Monument in the middle and a blue or yellow sky in the background.

What's wrong with the design changes in the license plates?

The insertion of the phallic monument distracts the eye and introduces an unwelcome break at the center of the license number. So, let's say a car just ran over the mayor and good-samaritan you were trying to memorize the plates of the car -- say, XYZ 371 -- Rizal's monument now interrupts your flow of thought like so: "the car's license number is X-Y-Z -- uhm Rizal phallic symbol -- 3-7... what was that number again?"

On top of this, our bright bureaucrat also decided to emphasize the phrase "MATATAG NA REPUBLIKA", taking up more real estate in the plates. In other words, the font sizes of the license number now had to be decreased to accommodate the new line of text. The license number itself is now smaller and more difficult to read!

Finally, the blue or yellow background in the sky obscures the license number! These are such basic principles in design:
  • Provide good contrast between the background and the words, to improve readability!

  • In crowded spaces, omit everything but the most important information! (meaning, no distracting monuments, please!)

This, if ever, shows bad design taste or utter ignorance from our Land Transportation Office (LTO), from which the license plates originate. Just look at the stickers that LTO also produces. If you have a car, check the LTO registration sticker that you have to display on your windshield. The year "2007" is so small because LTO had to insert its logo. Plus its green font on a green background.

If you look at the other side of the sticker, you'll see more clutter. There is a long sentence and a slogan (something like, I AM A GOOD CITIZEN AND I KEEP INTERSECTIONS OPEN, and BY THE WAY, THE NAME OF THE CURRENT LTO CHIEF IS BLAHBLAHBLAH). You'll probably smash your car just reading the back of this sticker.

Photos by Data Canlas.

Displaying Our Flag

Pop quiz. On June 12, when you hang the flag vertically, which color should be on the left field? Red or blue?

A decor, whether trivial or important, will reflect the care and thoughtfulness that went into its creation. This manifests in our everyday rituals as individuals and citizens, like displaying our flag during independence day. I have noticed that more and more, we have become careless in displaying our flags on June 12 (if we even care to display the flag at all).

For instance, this year, while driving eastward along Ayala Avenue, I caught local government employees hanging flags the wrong way around on lampposts in the middle of the street. They were hanging the flags vertically, triangle pointing downward, with the red field on the left -- an arrangement reserved for war.

I took a photograph on my cellphone camera, just to make sure. One could argue that the flags were being displayed to appear correct from the opposite lane. (Check out the second photo, at the center and a bit down to the right, you will see the flag on the opposite lane).

But that is not right, since, on the opposite lane, if you were westbound, you would see the other flag also being displayed in reverse. A few weeks later, passing through Ayala again, I noticed that they had corrected their error and thus brought back peace in Ayala Avenue.
Moreover, the flags were made of see-through material. Even if they were displayed correctly from one side, they would always show up wrong from the opposite side.

The Makati government could have simplified this by putting the two flags back-to-back and mounting them at the center of the lamp posts. This back-to-back arrangement would have shown correctly on both lanes.

The points that are easily missed are this. We have forgotten how to display our flag in the proper manner. And, when we do remember to display our flag, we don't even care enough to make it look right from all angles.

And this was not just happening in Ayala Avenue. In Megamall, all stores displayed the flag correctly on their glass windows, if you were outside of the store looking in. But once you went inside the store and looked outwards, the flags would be signifying war!

I observed this on other malls like Robinsons Galleria. The only good flag-displays I found were in The Podium. Here, the stores took the extra effort to put two flags back-to-back so that they displayed correctly inside and outside. Others also took a safer approach by showing the flag horizontally (with blue field on top, of course).

Now *there's* another simple idea! Why not just display the flag, horizontally, or in landscape direction as we call it nowadays? That would avoid the cost of an extra flag and the extra effort of putting two of them back-to-back.

Jul 21, 2007


Signage and design are two things that fascinate me. In college, I had an unquenchable thirst for understanding signs and symbols and how they work. After all, they are the building blocks of human thought.

They help us organize our world, analyze it and make it more interesting. Thanks to symbols, we can manipulate our world in ways that we cannot do with the real objects that they represent. In the creative playground of our minds, for example, we can stack a house on top of a car on top of a planet. Or make a beautiful virgin spring out of a giant scallop floating over the ocean.

Our Spanish conquistadores named us indios, because Magellan was sailing for the Indies but instead landed on our soil. Then they mistook us for Indians (all brown-colored races looked the same to them, I guess). Indios, therefore, is a symbolic mistake and it is an appropriate word to embody our indiosyncracies.

In more practical applications, unknown to most of us, signages help us lead safe and convenient lives. Road accidents can be averted by a well-placed sign. Electric shock and other modern-day hazards are avoided everyday because of PICTograms that dePICT the dangerous consequences of mishandling machinery and gadgets.

Closely linked to signage is design -- that catch-all term that embodies the balancing of the proverbial tension between form and function. Design embraces a multifaceted field that includes the production of print material, audio-visuals, environmental spaces, products of both analog and digital nature.

Digital design is close to my heart, since I have earned a living designing books, magazines, posters, websites and some software interfaces. I have also written comicbooks and television scripts -- exercises that are predominantly verbal, but on closer look, contain elements of visual design too (since they also include camera angles and scene descriptions).

My favorites, when it comes to product design are Apple, Ikea and European furniture designers. One of these Europeans is Thomas Heatherwick from London, who runs the Heatherwick Studio.

In Europe, North America and Japan, signages get the appropriate attention they deserve. You only have to look at their street signs and railway posters and maps to see the thought that went into making signs easy to grasp. In comparison, our MRT signage is as chaotic as the minds who designed the inaccessible, tiring steps that lead to MRT in EDSA. (In the MRT stations, they once displayed a map with no indication of North, nor where people are in relation to the map (or in layperson's terms, the you-are-here mark). To add insult to injury, some maps were posted in the wrong orientation, such that if you were reading the map, you'd think the direction you were facing was bound for North Edsa when in fact you were facing the South Edsa-Taft direction).

Philippine cities will benefit a lot from a little improvement in de-sign-age, too. But our leaders and movers are simply too busy squabbling or enriching themselves -- a reflection of how much they care for our citizens and cities.

This blog will tackle issues of design and signage on both the macroscopic (theoretical, if you like) and microscopic perspectives. Please join me as we think and step through how to improve our country one sign at a time!

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Join the discussion! Send photos! Please send me photos of bad and good designages you see! Email alibata(at)gmail(dot)com. Include your name and URL if you like, so I can credit you properly. Salamat!