Friday 14 July 2023

Illuminated signage! Who cares?

Reflections on my years in the outdoor media sector

Today, it's about those signs you see propping up the end of bus shelters; you know, the ones you probably lean on while waiting for the ubiquitous three buses, or while eating your chips on a Friday night. Some enterprising souls might nick the large posters. Others might attempt to break the glazing, not realising it is, well gooey PET plastic. They only use glass in posh suburbs.  

Maktab, history written

I spent the best part of 12 years from the year 2000 working in the outdoor media sector. At the time, I was studying for a PhD in physics education. A client of a friend let it be known that they were hiring for technical roles in an R&D start up. I got the job before my first exhale. I often wonder why though - my boss was profoundly deaf so he might have misheard when I said I was in the field of 'physics education'. 

Anyway, quirk of fate, within a week I was the resident 'optical physicist', my remit to improve the optical quality of existing illuminated signs, including getting rid of those nasty stripes of the fluorescent lamps you see through posters. We were an unusual company as we were trying to make improvements to optics and energy efficiency, well before any of that sort of thing was fashionable. 

Now, as a bit of background, UK outdoor media used to be a unique and in some respects a Wild West business. Charging clients to advertise their images in prime locations in illuminated units can win big bucks, but also lose them. A landmark case where a 48-sheet unit in Elephant and Castle, London, failed to illuminate, caused the media company to suffer a £100,000 fine. There are big players; there are little ones who would circumvent Planning, do a deal with corner shops to use their electric, running it under the pavement to their illegal monstrosities - only to move them down the road when the Planners caught on. 

As developers and suppliers of units, components and technology, we sought to get in the market - the legitimate part anyway. Media companies historically have always wanted cheap - they can typically reap back the cost of a unit in weeks from advertising revenue. Probably something to do with the modest habits of shareholders. So not only did we need to provide innovative solutions to problems they might not know about yet, we had to productionise them very efficiently. 

No pressure for a newly appointed physics-education-optical-physicist then. 

Some early wins

I immediately set to work with my slide rule and 486 computer. First I invented and designed a Fresnel-type lens to go over fluorescent lamps. I had the design modelled by Cambridge consultant and author of THE book on optical engineering, John Blackwell, a thoroughly lovely chap. Not your usual all-weather fluorescent cover - the facets really stretched the limits of what was possible with plastic extrusions. Anyway, with a few tweaks recommended by John B, we committed to tooling. The lens did kind of make the lamps disappear, and one major media company was interested ish. 

My next invention was the breakthrough. To get rid of lamp striping, people would traditionally just paint some dark dots on the opal diffuser you hang your poster on, in the region near the lamps. However, this would usually half the illuminance of the sign, not very desirable. Another method was to edge light the sign, but again these units were not very bright, a lot of light would be wasted. The problem was to redistribute the light away from the very bright fluorescent strip. I had the inspiration to turn traditional diffusers backwards. Have a bright diffusing film near the lamps, have the darkening dots poster-side. Totally radical. But it worked and we made a patent application. This configuration had an additional benefit in that multiple reflections between our special film resulted in the partial plane polarisation of the light, which mimicked natural daylight and gave our signs a certain 'presence'. We had a great story to boot as well - not bad for a physics-education-optical-physicist-lighting-expert. 

Steady state

A bit of corporate reshuffling later and I found myself promoted to Technical Manager with a team under me. We now needed to expand and prove ourselves to investors, and we muscled into the general signage design and manufacture market i.e. steel bashing. What the average person eating their chips does not realise, is that a humble 6-foot or 6-sheet sign at the end of a bus shelter requires expertise in many disciplines: steel fabrication, aluminium extrusions, glass, plastic, seals, electrics, lighting, paint finishes, mechanical gubbins like doors and locks, structural safety and wind loadings, and all the tricks you can muster to ensure units survive in the harsh British outdoors, and not get unduly vandalised or nicked. And we were adding in optical technology which was our USP. 

We enjoyed some years manufacturing 'bread and butter' units for a large well-known UK media company and also directed time for further R&D. We invented a lamp post-mounted unit where the entire innards could be lowered to the ground for poster changing AND electric maintenance - a game changer and worthy of another patent application. We invented a lamp fault detection unit that could report an SMS to your phone when a single lamp failed, in the wake of fines for non-compliance of illuminated units - this was in the days when wireless tech was in its infancy. We worked with a London architect to develop some very fancy street furniture incorporating our signs. 

We were also close to that inflection point of global expansion that meant I was sent off round the world looking for volume manufacturers. I was now Technical Director. Without naming nations, some really crafted units beautifully. Some had all the ISO quality certifications in the world but could not install a nut insert level nor weld a corner without gaps. One factory had Alsatian dogs and only three walls. One cheeky so-and-so pulled me aside and said he could make for me some special designs of his own, only to show me a plagiarised version of my designs! Oh well, imitation, flattery and all that. 


Revolution and crash

All good things come to and end, and the financial crash of 2008 was the final nail in the coffin for the business. Advertising is usually the first thing to get slashed in times of financial strain. It was probably the right time to move on as, also, technology was rapidly changing. LED lighting was ascending and the preferred solution. Fluorescent was somehow seen as dirty and inefficient. Source vs. source, fluorescent is always more energy efficient and I don't think LEDs ever match the colour rendition/spectrum - possibly because no-one knows about partial plane polarisation, but I need to stop moaning. LEDs have won the day. 

Also, wireless tech moved on leaps and bounds from our clunky GPRS to full internet capability. Full colour LCD or LED TV screens became cheaper, along with the capability to beam in images, sequences or entire movies from any computer to anywhere. The culture of plastering every available public amenity space with signage was also changing towards less signs, more targeting, and more fully digital ones, even in bus shelters. 

I enjoyed some years consulting after the 2008 crash, setting up Opal Flame Consultancy. Most prominently, I worked on and off in India for a few years, spreading the love of everything I knew, so long as it was relevant. I helped my client win some highly strategic advertising contracts and provided them with state-of-the art technical solutions for improving their units. I love India, as I have indicated in other posts here. They do some things very differently over there, and they are innovators. The Delhi media care crew (seen below) work very hard, through the middle of the night to re-post and maintain signs. In the big 48 and 96-sheet billboards, I note that a 24-hour guard lived and slept inside the 600mm or so deep sign between the lamps and poster. When I asked why it was necessary to have a guard, my host replied, "oh it's because people will steal the lamps or plug into the electric supply". 


Amongst other things, I provided a solution that meant they could double the illuminance of their signs, or half the electric consumption to get the same illuminance. Naturally they went for double! 


So, the next time you lean on a bus shelter sign, or observe units in airports or other mass transit systems all trying to get your attention, remember the armies of people working behind the scenes to sell the advertising, and the humble souls developing and manufacturing illuminated units and components, in a global supply chain. Or, you could just carry on enjoying your chips. However, you'll likely not be able to nick the poster these days.

Do you want one more?

In the time frame covered in the above story, I led a parallel life playing guitar in a Europe-renowned Yes tribute band, toured with original members, appeared on Richard and Judy, and released the critically acclaimed original progressive rock album 'Aquaplanage'. But that's a story for another time.

We would often see our posters on billboards across Europe. Goodbye Belgium, Hello Cleveland!  

Thursday 22 April 2021

Earth Day: our individual actions

I'm totally with Gandalf when he says, 

"Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check... I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay." 

It is in this spirit that I share some of the 'everyday deeds' we've been doing since we took on a patch of Mid-Wales a few years ago. 

Here's our wildlife pond, dug by hand. I re-used some old paving on the near edge and some old roof tiles to create a small waterfall. It now thrives with all manner of creatures having moved in: newts, snails, dragonflies, water boatmen, the occasional frog or toad. Sparrows love bathing in the shallow end. Behind you can also see our ‘pocket paddocks’ where we’ve left the grass to just grow and it gets cut once a year. 
We absolutely use no chemicals on our stone paving, allowing ‘messy’ nature to come in. As well as the solitary bees who make their homes between the slabs, we get a host of more interesting visitors! Wood mouse, bunnykins and a red-legged partridge. 

Last year we opened up our forest garden a bit, carefully pruning some trees and leaving others, to provide a balance of light and shade. This spring we have been rewarded with a marvellous show of forest flowers (and fairies). 

We’re lucky to have a meadow which we leave unimproved, so the wild flowers can return. A haven for bees and some interesting butterflies are slowly coming back. It gets cut once a year; we barter the hay with our neighbours and the cycle begins again. 

There’s a slither of ancient wood at the other end of our property which we’ve kept the livestock off for a couple of years now. The bluebells are returning. I’ve also planted a few natives; birch, rowan, elder, to help it along. 

Here are our no-dig veg beds at a couple of stages of development – they were left to do their thing over winter and are now full of juicy worms! We are absolutely 100% organic in our principles, and our veg looks vibrant. We make all our own compost from garden and kitchen waste and have finally got the heaps in some sense of order! 

Finally, here’s upcycling an old wellington boot and bit of left over fence wood. A cosy bolt hole for a robin or anyone who is interested. 

The Earth has always been important to me. Back in the 90s we had a conservation group on Horsenden Hill; the inclosures we planted in the old wood are slowly starting to mature. I also spent nearly a year working on organic farms in Australia. Given the choice, I'd much rather be pottering around quietly making something for the bees, than screaming at the government to make changes, or climbing on top of tube trains. I kind of think it creates a better vibration, all round. But that's just me, rather tall for a Hobbit, doing my bit nevertheless. 

Friday 2 October 2020

Diverse communities, and lifelong 'mateship'

To mark National Inclusion Week 2020, I thought I would do something. To be honest, I was reticent, and might have titled this post 'feel the awkwardness, but do it anyway' especially as a white, middle-aged, middle-class hetero bloke. On reflection, I don't think I need to feel this way. I'm going to describe a bit of my background, before focusing on some of the most significant lifelong friendships I've gravitated towards, and incidents that define who I am in the deepest possible way. The recurring theme is one resonating with the Australian concept of 'mateship'. 

Please, don't place me on a pedestal! 

I'm of Austrian-Hungarian descent, first generation British. My father was a refugee who escaped the Hungarian civil war in the 1950s. My mother, a true cosmopolitan, moved here in the early 1960s. Myth has it they met outside the Polish deli in Ealing Broadway and my dad persuaded her to bunk off college for the afternoon... I grew up in the leafy suburbs in 1970s-post-Enoch Powell London. Our neighbours and 'friends' were always quick to point out our foreign heritage; to be honest, sometimes you might have felt it was the 1870s. For me, a lot of name-calling, any excuse to be preyed on, at school and in the scouts. On hot summers when my skin was suitably tanned, I even got called the P-word! I since Anglicised the pronounciation of my surname. 

My primary school was predominantly white, we had a bus of kids from Southall join us every day. One day, my teacher had the bright idea to do a multi-cultural event. I got roped in, without consultation. I had to write a page about who I was and what my background was. People who know me know I have little problem writing a proverbial 'War and Peace', but this was the most awkward thing I'd ever done. 'Hi, I'm Robert, I'm different from you...' Especially when a lot of kids' older brothers were active members of the highly-toxic National Front. It blew over, but subsequently I went as far away for high school as I could, down to Southall in fact! 

The Indian connection

When I was very young, I did not know what it meant to be of one nationality or another. I often played with Ranjit round the corner. 'Ranjeeee!' I would shriek on arrival as was typical went you went round your mate's houses - no phones or even doorbells were necessary. In the early days, we did the usual boys things like ride bikes and climb walls. A bit older and we both got into electronics and built amplifiers and things. Ranj built an entire PA system c/w bass bins that I used to borrow (think Brixton sound systems in the height of Reggae). He got into DJing and I into rock music, but we would occasionally jam - I would blast my guitar over the electronic music of the day, generally annoying all the neighbours with the racket. 

A few years later, William C, 20 years our senior, from Northern India - we met in the pub, Will befriended our gang; we shared good times and drinking. Also a sharing of new experiences - us getting him into heavy metal, him getting us properly into Indian food, Krishnamurti, the art of discussion and enquiry. I visited his extended family in India - unbeknown to me, he told them to 'treat me as family'. Will was, in every respect, an uncle or older brother. 

Balvinder J is my sister's best friend, godparents to each other's kids. This friendship spans the decades, so much so that we are considered family and can call Bal's fairly conservative parents 'Mamaji' and 'Papaji'. Bal taught me to cook Indian properly, completing my education in this respect! 

The theatrical connection

Many of you will know about my musical exploits. I'll relay one story from my time in my first apartment, recently moved into with my new wife. Neighbours Robin and Des were a couple, into bikes, 60s and 70s rock. Des sang in a local pub band. We would often meet their friend Alex, owner of a local hair salon, and guitarist of some acclaim. Alex liked to dress up at the weekends. We must have looked a sight - me young lad in my 20s with long hair and a pint, Alex c. 55 in a little frock, longish silver hair, red sparkly high-heels and a G&T, huddled in a corner. You would never in a million years guess we were intensely discussing Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Marshall amplifiers and the merits of different types of guitar strings. Good times, good mates. It just was. 

The allotment connection

My parents always had an allotment at the back. When I was young, the allotment society was run by a bunch of cliquey cretins who disliked the idea of foreigners having an allotment, and disliked the idea of foreigners living near them full stop.

Fast-forward to now, Bal J is now the allotment treasurer, a first generation Indian Jacob M is plot manager and it is truly the most open and multi-cultural environment you can imagine! We've got English, Welsh, Austro-Hungarian (of course), Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Guayanan, Polish, Latvian, Serbian and probably more. Everyone shares their surplus - people do this on allotments anyway. We have a jolly knees up a couple of times a year. In my view, the society is a beacon in the community, and all the local counsellors and local MP visit frequently.

Friday 28 August 2020

Is there any nobility in our leadership?

I’m not the first to think about whether the qualities of nobility are at risk from being disconnected with leadership. In our 21st century context, this is not about inheritance by bloodline or title, but those qualities that lead others to deem one as ‘noble’, such as,

  • Being honest, courageous, kind, admirable, virtuous, reputable… and many others 
  • Having or showing outstanding personal qualities or high moral principles
  • The notion that leadership is about others

In our fair isle the legends of King Arthur, whether real or idealised, are exemplars for old-school nobility, albeit rooted in a male, monarchic context. Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien speaks about ‘the blood of NĂºmenor’ and a golden age in Middle Earth; this is often interpreted as alluding to Atlantis or the Biblical fall of mankind. I suggest that being of the early 20th century he may well also have been lamenting the decline of Europe into fascism and any number of other ‘isms.

Noble leadership of the kind I suggest at the beginning transcends blood, race and gender. Covid-19 has demonstrated clearly where good leadership at an international level has minimised impact, and where it has been a right ham’s ear. You countries know who you are!

But I really want to talk about leadership at a level closer to home – what of our inspirational industry leaders, project managers, technical leads and supervisors?

I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders; people who inspire you to go the extra mile, keep you in touch with their thinking, give you latitude to do your best and also to challenge them. I remember one such case where a big cheese from the US came over to the UK and took time to meet every one of our team informally, in person, in every UK branch office – she did not need to do this. Another case, where I headed up R&D and every experiment, whether success or failure was studied, with enthusiasm by our leader, who really drew out the best in us. The camaraderie on an intense project only works if the leaders join in. Through these people I’ve nurtured my own leadership qualities, admittedly having made mistakes along the way.

I’ve also known individuals who raise to positions on the basis of charisma and ego, have no manifest talent over gift-of-the-gab and might put Doctor Who’s ‘Daleks’ to shame in interaction and cooperation skills. I saw a case where one day someone was a board director and on various government committees, the next day he was in prison for corruption. I’ve seen groups of companies join to go plc, only for it to fall back into shambles, after the directors collected their loot. I’ve been employed on jobs where the bosses really haven’t a flying fiddler’s clue what I do or what I’m capable of. And I’ve seen young people thrust up to management level, where it is evident they do not have experience or greater vision to thrive. And a million more such anecdotes.

So this is why I think there is a crisis, which might have been with us for a very long time.

Without gushing too much on the need to be good and so on, as we all need to hustle sometimes, here’s my take on how to be a noble leader on engineering or construction projects; there could be many more, but I hope you find these of value:

1. Look after your own

This might seem strange to say, but I’ve seen projects where leaders persist in keeping silos separate, they divide and conquer, and even drop proverbial bombs on their teams from time to time, just to see how they cope. They even make spurious promotions, for example removing the subject expert on so-and-so to manage a totally different team! Be fiercely loyal to your team and you stand a chance they will be the same to you and perform over and above. Be anything else at your own risk.

2. Value the importance of the venture, not the leader

The venture is the important thing, not you, the leader, nor your ego. In some Taoist traditions, anyone elected, yes elected to be leader actually had a lower status than the team. Leadership was a special role that meant you were given time and space to truly serve your team. In First Nation cultures, the leadership role was often rotated, so everyone would be leader and follower at some point in their lives. Therefore, watch out for any leader who continually uses language such as, ‘my project!’

3. Be clear on your strategy

This is the one that gets me the most if broken. OK, it is a leader’s prerogative to change strategy, but when it happens on a weekly basis, come on! Also, when leaders do not share their strategies and leave it to you to second guess them, only to be told, ‘no, that’s not it, try again’, you wonder if they really have a clue themselves or are just being disingenuous to cover up inadequacy. When a document gets to draft version 97, you know the top is weak.

4. Avoid micro-managing; trust the expertise of your team

Another one that really gets me. Especially if one goes from being ignored one month to having every action in their day measured, the next. The first duty towards your teams is to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and tools they need. If they haven’t, then invest your time and money in training and then invest in some more. To not train up your teams under the risk they might take their expertise elsewhere is a no-brainer recipe for disaster. Micro-management – the clear sign of inexperienced leaders, who do not know, nor trust the capabilities of their teams.

5. Be accessible to your team

We’ve all experienced it, a psychological ivory tower that surrounds the boss’s office. Snobbery, cronyism, inner circles. We’ve all experienced hierarchies that make the pyramids look flat; as such there is no way you could even go up the line and reach the boss. Definite no-no on both counts. True, the boss does not want to be bothered with every trivial problem, but projects are successful when the leader offers an open-door policy, at least for some of the time.

6. Take interest in the tactical detail

And yes, I know leaders employ managers and experts to run the detail and deal with the problems. But time and time again, especially some project managers in this funny new world often do not have a clue about the technical detail of a project, over and above the glib external messaging – it’s just lines and numbers on a spreadsheet, or if you’re really professional, a Primavera P6 schedule. The best projects I’ve been on are where the top person is a hawk and can tell if drawings are uncoordinated; if a hedgerow has been specified wrong or pipe risers don’t match up. 

7. Be the culture you want to be

If I see my leaders running around like bluebottle flies, too busy to answer emails, too busy to offer any time or counsel, too busy to take any interest, even too busy to delegate; is that really the culture I would want to perpetuate? Maybe it's the culture they want? Focusing on the next generation of young leaders, is this such an excellent role model? I thought not.

8. Look to the future (please)

No, not a Nodder Holder Christmas line, but remember the plc anecdote above? The concept of a job for life has now firmly been banished from consciousness, especially so in the minds of our younger generation. This might, in part be due to a cyclonic convergence of 2nd, 3rd and 4th industrial revolutions, causing such abrupt change in technologies and overnight obsolescence. I do not necessarily advocate trying to build a business for the next 200 years - it is wise to think about beginning, middle and end, yes end of your business. However, please have responsibility for your own (we come back round to no. 1 above), people who will want to give their life blood to you, who will move with you, sign up to mortgages relying on you, 'for the love of Camelot!'

Tuesday 18 August 2020

The path to net zero... in construction

To anyone not in the construction industry, your first reaction might be, "really? Would that be a path of crazy paving; slabs of broken promises?" No, indeed! This is a very serious proposition. If you read the construction trade press, many companies, small and large are taking the plunge and making a commitment to achieve net zero emissions in their operations. 

I recently participated in some Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) research aiming to find out what are the skills needs to achieve net zero. I was feeling a little gung ho on the day of the research interview and we rapidly departed from the 'script'. Instead of emphasising things like skills to specify and install various renewable technologies - which are extremely valuable - I cut straight to the chase and told the researcher, "look, you're not going to get anywhere unless people believe in it. There is massive work to be done in shifting attitudes, before you worry about screwdrivers and tools and things." Not that everyone needs to be a tree hugger (although I've got nothing against them, trees that is...). In the same way that health and safety has become a no-brainer, we need to cultivate an attitude of assurance, good quality, low waste and care for the planet into our DNA. We really need to decide what we value. And we need to do it a darn side quicker than it took with H&S (I remember running youngman boards with barrows into skips when I worked on sites as a student in the summer holidays in the late 80s, 15 years after the HASAW act!). 

I won't give too much more away here, but I'll be speaking about this theme at the University Campus St Albans (UCSA) 'Build Better, Build Faster and Build Greener’ conference on 10 September at 8.30. Event invite here. It would be good to see you there.

Friday 4 October 2013

Reflections on TCUK 2013

So it is a week after the most excellent Technical Communication (TCUK) 2013 conference. It was a chance to learn some new stuff, revitalise some old stuff and meet a load of people across a wide range of writing disciplines. I found the “commercial proposal” sessions especially useful in that I tend to do quite a bit of it these days, on both sides of the customer-bidder fence. I especially enjoyed Kai Weber’s exposition on “meaning” – a blast to my old PhD days and re-invigoration of social constructivist principles (and sharing our views of reality, which were mostly convergent). His session was so nicely contained that I failed to heckle him with any awkward ontological questions. The same could not be said about the “Agile” session – and to this moment I fail to have a reasoned answer to how on earth you pay for a project run in an Agile way, without giving the writing team a pile of blank signed cheques (which is great for the writing team). 

My paper about the risks and opportunities to be found writing in the Energy and Resources sectors was well received, with no fewer than two in-the-pipeline journal articles as spin-offs. What surprised me most was that although my study was small-scale, that the emergent findings seemed to resonate far and wide with people who work in other sectors, even as far away as software. Anyway, the presentation slides are available on opal-flame here and a full unedited academic-style write up will be available soon.

On a tangential note, I am glad to be back in the realm of home cooking (and jam making). Three days of English chain hotel food leaves a substantial lump in one’s stomach. I’m sure if Sir Paul McCartney stayed at a Marriott, we would have never got the fabulous song “Yesterday”. Think about that one and don’t eat the scrambled eggs, ever.

Monday 23 September 2013

Dr Bob at Technical Communication 2013

Heading off to the Technical Communication (TCUK) 2013 conference in Bristol in the morning. This is the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicator's (ISTC) annual conference, geared towards all things techy and communicationey (I just made that word up, cheesy, yes).

Furthermore, I'll be presenting a paper entitled "Technical Writing in Energy and Resources: Risks and Opportunities" on the Thursday. This is based on my recent experiences as a writer in the energy and resources industry and will hopefully be of interest to other writers who have a leaning towards engineering.

Conference website:

Here's my bit: