Last weekend, BERG invited a selection of friends to participate in their first Little Printer hackday. Over the course of a short Saturday, we were asked to explore the API for making “publications” for Little Printer, and test them out on sample devices.

I had a few ideas, but decided for expediency to return to my “Hello World” of connected things: Tower Bridge.

My publication would be something you could schedule at pretty much any time, on any day, and get a list of bridge lifts in the next 24 hours (if there were any).

I could have made this a very small, simple paragraph, to fit into a busy list of publications. Instead, I decided to explore the capacities of the Little Printer delivery as a medium.

I was interested in the visual capacity of the Printer: what could I communicate on a 2-inch wide strip of paper? All of BERG’s publications to date have been very beautiful, and the visual design of publications feels important – it’s one of the many things that distinguishes Little Printer, and I wanted to try to aspire to it at the very least.

So I built an Observer’s Guide to Tower Bridge, based on a chlidhood of Observer’s Guides and I-Spy books. As well as listing lifts for the next 24 hours, I’d show users pictures of the boat that would be going through, so they could identify it.


I also visually communicated which direction upstream and downstream are. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious to most people, and so the “downstream” icon shows that it’s towards Tower Bridge, whilst the offset of the “upstream” icon illustrates that it’s towards Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel. It felt like a natural way to make this clear visually, and was economical in the vertical dimension (which is one of Little Printer’s bigger constraints).


Early versions showed a photo for every lift, which turned out to make the publication too big: I needed to shrink that vertical axis. I did this by only including photos of an individual boat once per delivery – you don’t need multiple pictures of the same boat. The second time a boat passed through the bridge, I instead displayed a useful fact about it (if I knew one) – and otherwise, just the lift time.


By making the publication shorter, I also avoided an interesting side-effect of running the printhead too hard. The grey smudging you see above is where the printhead is running very hot having printed eight inches of bridge lifts and photos (it prints bottom-to-top, so the text is the “right way up”). Because I’d printed so much black up top, it seemed like the head had a bit of residual heat left that turns the paper grey. This is a side-effect of how thermal printers work. You don’t get this if you don’t go crazy with full-black in a long publication (and, indeed, none of the sample publications have any of these issues owing to their careful design) – a constraint I discovered through making.

The Observer’s Guide was an interesting experiment, but it made me appreciate the BERG in-house publications even more: they’re short and punchy, making a morning delivery of several things – bridge lifts, calendar details, Foursquare notes, a quote of the day – packed with information in a relatively short space.

I was pleased with my publication as an exploration of the platform. It’s not open-source because the LP API is very much work in progress, but rest assured, this was very much a live demo of real working code on a server I control. If I were making a functional tool, to be included with several publications, I’d definitely make something a lot shorter.

It was lovely to see Little Printer in the world and working away. It was also great to see so many other exciting publications, cranked out between 11am and 4:30pm. I think my favourite hack might have been Ben and Devin’s Paper Pets, but really, they were all charming.

Lots of fun then, and interesting to design against the physical constraint of a roll of thermal paper and a hot printhead.

  • "Unlike the iPhone and Android apps, which are built on feeds from the website, this one actually recycles the already-formatted newspaper pages. A script analyses the InDesign files from the printed paper and uses various parameters (page number, physical area and position that a story occupies, headline size, image size etc) to assign a value to the story. The content is then automatically rebuilt according to those values in a new InDesign template for the app.

    It’s not quite the “Robot Mark Porter” that Schulze and Jones imagined in the workshops, but it’s as close as we’re likely to see in my lifetime. Of course robots do not make good subs or designers, so at this stage some humans intervene to refine, improve and add character, particularly to the article pages. Then the InDesign data goes into a digital sausage machine to emerge at the other end as HTML." Niiiiice.

Second Order Effects

15 January 2009

Seth Godin recently wrote about the end of newsprint, and how he frankly didn’t care. I think he’s correct about some aspects of journalism, but to talk about newspapers without talking about actual physical newspapers is crazy.

What will we miss?

All the second-order effects. We’ll miss the daily conversation with the guy on the newstand. We’ll miss the cuttings that our parents and grandparents send us in the post. We’ll miss seeing other articles in our peripheral vision as we read – complete articles with photographs and boxouts, not just headlines – as opposed to the ads that surround the online edition. We’ll miss scrawling notes in the margin. We’ll miss leaving them lying around the flat for our flatmates to read. We’ll not have anything to wipe our shoes on.

I say this as someone who’s happy reading from a computer screen, if not from an e-reader. The second-order effects of newspaper journalism being transmitted in physical newspapers are just as compelling a reason for their existence as the intended outcome.

This reminded me of something else that’s been on my mind, relating to another newspaper; this time, one my friends made.

Russell and Ben’s lovely paper is receiving a slowly escalating amount of attention. I’m glad, because it’s really good, and because there’s a (passable) piece of writing by me and lots of (very good) writing by many of my friends in there.

But I’m curious – and perhaps a bit concerned – as to what others might take away from it.

The most important thing about this isn’t “hey, they printed stuff off the internet“. The most important stuff is all the craft, all the second-order effects it has; the details Ben writes about in his excellent post on designing and making the thing; the tangibility it gives to work we’ve done that our non-technical friends (and especially relatives) might never see; the ease of distribution amongst small, hand-to-hand circles it affords; the way you design for (small) mass production rather than one-offs; the reminder that small-scale print is affordable and doable.

Let’s not forget the importance of the immediate first-order effect: this is a beautiful thing, lovely to hold, great to read, fun to show others. In and of itself, it’s delightful (in every sense of the word).

Russell and Ben are, I think, somewhat correct in their closing comment, that “2009 feels like a year for printing and making real stuff in the real world. Its going to be exciting“, but that’s something to consider with caution: making real stuff, printing real things alone, isn’t going to be enough; you’ve got to have the thought, the details, the affordance of second-order effects as well.

I’m excited, for many reasons, as to what 2009 might hold; I hope there’ll be, for me at least, a sizeable amount of making spread across all manner of media – words, things, screens. And, especially, the things that can’t make up their mind which they are. I’m not fussy, and I still think there are lots of interesting problems on screens to solve.

Whatever I’m doing, though, I’m going to try and remember that it’s not just about the idea, not just about the hey-look-a-thing-ness of it all; it’s about the execution, and the detail, and the thought – and embodying that thought in the final product.

To go back to Seth Godin: that’s what newspapers, real, physical, printed newspapers always did. They had affordance out their earholes, and that’s what we loved them for.

I think I’ve found my (slightly corrupted) mantra for 2009:

think twice, cut once.