Portable cathedrals

March 17th, 2012

Dan Hill's review for Domus of the already-defunct Nokia N9 serves both as a requiem for an elegant smartphone and as a reminder that there's more that one approach to designing mobile computers:

Imagine an inverted pyramid representing the Apple mobile product line, with the MacBook Pro at the top, moving down into the Macbook Air, then down again into the IPad, before miniaturizing further into the iPhone at the apex. Each step down the 'computer-ness' diminishes and the 'phone-ness' increases, yet Apple takes its knowledge of building computers and runs it through the entire stack, with iOS simply a version of MacOS. As a result, the flexibility and efficiency of its software is evident at each stage, just as integration is enabled up and down the pyramid. This strategic alignment has an impact on consistency of functions, interactions and integration, yet also the operational requirements of device maintenance, code libraries, and battery life.

Nokia has been effectively starting at the bottom of the pyramid, the phone, and trying to move up. (To be fair, when they started, there was no pyramid above the phone.) […]

[Via cityofsound]

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Graphic designers aren't ruining the web

February 19th, 2012

John Naughton's article charging that Graphic designers are ruining the web isn't entirely fair to graphic designers. In fact, to my mind it's a rare example of Naughton being almost completely wrong.

It's only occasionally a case of designers trying to design prettier pages and increasing the size and number of files required to produce their desired look; more often, the root of the problem is the desire of publishers to embed a couple of dozen separate objects on a page, many of them being links to social networking sites or pointers to other parts of the site you're on. And, of course, adverts. Lots of adverts.

As it happens, I was so tired of the Guardian's site cramming the articles I read into less than half of my browser's window and surrounding it with extraneous crap that I read Naughton's article using the wonderful Instapaper Text bookmarklet: much better. The Readability Bookmarklets do a similar job, and with the bonus that a share of your monthly subscription1 can be claimed by the publisher, providing them with at least some income to compensate them for the income they wouldn't have got from the ads you didn't see.2

  1. In proportion to the share of your reading via Readability that month.
  2. And probably wouldn't have clicked on anyway.

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Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock, Tick, Toc…

February 16th, 2012

Building a clock that will run for 10,000 years requires you to try to anticipate problems other clocks just don't face:

Notes taken during [a colloquium on the Long Now Foundation's plans to ensure that the 10,000-Year Clock keeps time despite long-term variations in the length of a day] show that, while the technical success of the Clock's durability is yet to be determined, its ability to inspire long-term thinking is already taking hold:

Neil deGrasse Tyson jested that the Long Now should put some signage on the 10,000 Year Clock so that a post-apocalyptic Earth will not think that the world will end when the clock stops working.

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Domain Knowledge

February 10th, 2012

My favourite part of Mark W. Shead's post on how an apparent flaw in the design of an air pistol illustrated why designers need domain knowledge is that it prompted an informative, detailed, respectful exchange of views in the comments between Shead and a reader with experience in the business of shooting air pistols at competition level. I love this sort of detailed dissection of the whys and wherefores of design work.

It turns out that in some contexts it makes perfect sense to site an air pressure gauge on an air pistol in such a way that it all but demands that the user stare straight down the barrel of the (loaded?) air pistol. Who knew?

[Via Electrolite (Sidelights)]

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MegaUpload Reloaded

January 25th, 2012

Web designers all agree: the FBI's seizure of MegaUpload is a disgrace

Let's check out the source of the page:

<img src="banner.jpg"/>

No JavaScript. No AJAX. No CSS. Not even any tables. The image doesn't have ALT tags. Maybe you're not worried about Google indexing this page, or visually impaired people being able to read it, but I hope you realize you are just flushing the last 8 years of the Internet down the toilet. Interestingly, you went with the trailing slash that closes empty elements in XHTML but the DOCTYPE is…nothing. Whatever – this stuff is for nerds.

What we need to focus on is what a colossal missed opportunity this is for you. MegaUpload is down and the notice on the site is getting tons of exposure […]

You must plan these operations, right? I mean, it's not like you just randomly seize private property on a whim. This is a failure of project management. You can't just bring in a designer at the last minute and expect them to polish your design turd. This is your chance to shine. Go wild. […]

[Via Snarkmarket]

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January 21st, 2012

Kawamura Ganjavian's Ostrich is said to be a boon for power-nappers everwhere:

OSTRICH offers a micro environment in which to take a warm and comfortable power nap at ease. It is neither a pillow nor a cushion, nor a bed, nor a garment, but a bit of each at the same time. Its soothing cave-like interior shelters and isolates our head and hands (mind, senses and body) for a few minutes, without needing to leave our desk.

Alternatively, I can't help but think that it looks like the dormant form of something out of a creature feature.

[Via swissmiss]

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Film Alphabets

January 12th, 2012

Stephen Wildish has produced some lovely illustrations of 'Film Alphabets', arranged by decades: The 1960s, The 1970s, The 1980s, The 1990s, and finally The 2000s.


The ones shown above are all pretty easy, but there are a couple of fairly obscure choices in each decade. I was a little surprised at how many films I recognised from the 1960s and 1970s, but there's not a single decade for which I correctly identified every film.

How many can you name?

[Via Subtraction.com]

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The Modern Atlas

January 10th, 2012

Google's Willem Van Lancker has posted a fascinating piece on the evolution of Google Maps, Google Maps: Designing the Modern Atlas:

As Google Maps has broadened in scope, we have also had to address fundamental differences in tasks as basic as navigation and driving directions. We have found that, generally speaking, people navigate primarily by street names in Western countries and by landmarks and points of interest in the East. This is due to a combination of factors including a lack of road names (e.g. in India where locals rely on landmarks) or just a more complex street addressing system (e.g. in Japan where street numbers are assigned by date of construction, not sequentially). […]

[In Japan…] schoolchildren are taught a set of unique icons for everyday things like post offices and hospitals. To ensure familiarity in that country, replacements were created specific to Japanese users. While we employ standardized icons for many modes of transportation (e.g. buses, trams, trains), subways lack an international sign. As subways are often used by both tourists and locals, the local branding systems for subway stations worked best – helping guide users both on maps and as they navigate outside in the real world. Additionally, a custom body of regional road shields has been maintained, ensuring consistency and familiarity with real-world roadside markers.

I suppose I was somewhat aware that Google Maps featured some degree of regional customisation, but I had no idea how far it went, nor of the sheer range of factors that make maps 'work' for users in (or simply visiting) a given locale.

[Via Flowing Data]

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The Icon Handbook

December 20th, 2011

Despite the fact that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've had cause to design an icon over the course of the last decade, I'm sorely tempted to treat myself to a copy of The Icon Handbook by Jon Hicks just on the basis of the quantity and quality of eye candy on display therein:

This is a book that I've been wanting to write for a long time. Whenever I've looked for a book on this subject, the only available publications are reference guides that simply reproduce as many symbols as possible. Where books have gone into theory, they were published decades before desktop computers, and therefore miss the most relevant and active context of icon use. Sometimes the topic is covered as a part of a book about logo design, and amounts to little more than a page or two. So I've set out to create the manual, reference guide and coffee table book that I always desired. […]

A sample of the book's content can be downloaded from the publisher's site if you want to see what I mean.

[For the record: I have no connection with Jon Hicks, other than having read his journal for some years now and admired his Helvetireader theme for Google Reader. All the evidence is that he knows what he's talking about.]

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Searching and browsing (and tapping and holding)

December 6th, 2011

In the course of a post about Browsing vs. Searching, user interface guru Bruce Tognazzini touches on something central to the experience of using the current generation of Apple software:

[…] Instead of working to make everything visible to the user, Apple's industrial and graphic designers, now fully in command, are doing just the opposite: Apparently bereft of even the barest knowledge of behavioral (HCI) design, they have busied themselves hiding everything they can, increasing visual simplicity at the expense of actual simplicity. Then, they pretend both to themselves and to us that the only instruction you'll ever need for an iPad is, "Turn it on." iPad users are left to stumble around, trying to find the things they need to get their work done, things so carefully hidden that without a friend to help them, they are unlikely to ever find them.

Case in point: At some point in the past, perhaps the distant past, Apple added the capability to jump from letter group to letter group by holding down on the letter column, rather than just stabbing at your letter of choice (and usually missing). After four years of using iDevices, during the course of writing this column, I accidentally held down for a second on an alpha character, causing the slide bar to appear. I never knew before that moment that hold-and-slide even existed in Contacts. Principle: If a capability is not visible and the developer does not teach that capability, it may as well not exist.

Damned straight! I had no idea the slide bar existed until I read that last paragraph earlier this evening.

I like iOS, I really do, but it's a crying shame that the most usable portable computers I've ever owned were designed by Palm1 and Psion2 back in the 1990s.

Come on Apple, you can do better than this…

[Via Daring Fireball]

  1. I loved my Palm IIIx and Tungsten T. The T5 was prettier and had better hardware specs, but by then PalmOS was clearly running out of steam.
  2. My Psion Series 3c was the best-engineered portable hardware I've ever owned. The Psion Series 5 came with tremendously capable software, but it wasn't as robust, and it was orphaned when Psion decided to concentrate on making software for smartphones.

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35.9 million versus 73.5 million

November 23rd, 2011

Tom Morris on why WebFonts matter.1

  1. Clue: it's got nothing to do with how pretty they can make our web pages look.

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'We're in a present where a £100 point-and-shoot camera has the approximate empathic capabilities of a infant.'

August 9th, 2011

Matt Jones has posted a summary of a recent talk he gave pulling together his thoughts about The Robot-Readable World.

Robot-Readable World is a pot to put things in, something that I first started putting things in back in 2007 or so.

At Interesting back then, I drew a parallel between the Apple Newton's sophisticated, complicated hand-writing recognition and the Palm Pilot's approach of getting humans to learn a new way to write, i.e. Graffiti.

The connection I was trying to make was that there is a deliberate design approach that makes use of the plasticity and adaptability of humans to meet computers (more than) half way.

Connecting this to computer vision and robotics I said something like:

"What if, instead of designing computers and robots that relate to what we can see, we meet them half-way – covering our environment with markers, codes and RFIDs, making a robot-readable world"

The entire post is packed with fascinating ideas and links to other writings on the topic, including one to this terrific BLDGBLOG post on The New Robot Domesticity that I happened upon earlier the same day I read Matt Jones' piece.

We live in interesting times.

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History of the Button

July 30th, 2011

Bill DeRouchey's presentation from last year's South By Southwest Festival on the History of the Button1 illustrates how the notion of what a button is, and what it does, has shifted over the last century or so. Which is a lot more interesting that I'm making it sound, I promise you!

[Via BERG Blog]

  1. That's pushbuttons, not buttons on clothing.

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CSS unsized images

July 26th, 2011

Nicked from 37signals:

Have you noticed that software feels cheap when UI elements move around on the screen without notice? Web applications are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Browsers give image elements a default size if they do not have explicit width and height attributes. Once these images have loaded, they expand or contract to their full size, causing all other elements on the page to reflow in response.

We try to avoid this in our applications, but it's easy for an image tag to slip through the cracks. That single tag might be repeated many times in a loop, each instance causing the on-screen furniture to shift around in an unseemly way.

Here's a tip for catching unsized images during development. Add this CSS rule somewhere in your stylesheet:

img:not([width]):not([height]) {
border: 2px solid red !important;

Then any images without width and height attributes will be drawn with a red border so they're easy to spot.


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July 18th, 2011

I'm Comic Sans, Asshole.

[Via swissmiss]

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July 14th, 2011

Dyslexie: the font for people with dyslexia…

This font is especially designed for people with dyslexia. When they use it, they make fewer errors whilst they are reading. It makes reading easier for them and it takes less effort.

Be sure to watch the video that illustrates exactly why Dyslexie is more readable.1

[Via kottke.org]

  1. It's just a shame that in order to display the text on their web page using Dyslexie the project team had to resort to using cufon, a sIFR replacement that wraps each word on the page in a bunch of markup and makes it hellish tricky to select, copy and paste a block of text. I couldn't even paste the copied text into a text editor window and get a usable result: I ended up having to use the Instapaper Text bookmarklet to produce a view of the page I could copy-and-paste the above blockquote from.

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Meaningful adjacencies

June 20th, 2011

Artist/designer Jer Thorpe on designing the list of names on the 9/11 Memorial:

In late October, 2009, I received an e-mail from Jake Barton from Local Projects, titled plainly 'Potential Freelance Job'. I read the e-mail, and responded with a reply in two parts: First, I would love to work on the project. Second, I wasn't sure that it could be done.

The project was to design an algorithm for placement of names on the 9/11 memorial in New York City. In architect Michael Arad's vision for the memorial, the names were to be laid according to where people were and who they were with when they died – not alphabetical, nor placed in a grid. Inscribed in bronze parapets, almost three thousand names would stream seamlessly around the memorial pools. Underneath this river of names, though, an arrangement would provide a meaningful framework; one which allows the names of family and friends to exist together. Victims would be linked through what Arad terms 'meaningful adjacencies' – connections that would reflect friendships, family bonds, and acts of heroism. through these connections, the memorial becomes a permanent embodiment of not only the many individual victims, but also of the relationships that were part of their lives before those tragic events. […]

Reading the article, I found myself wondering whether it wouldn't be simpler to just say 'to hell with it' and list the names alphabetically in a simple, multi-column layout. It speaks volumes for Jer Thorpe's professionalism that at no point in his post does he so much as hint that any such thought had ever speculated about the possibility of crossing his mind.

[Via Waxy.org Links]

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Receipt v2.0

June 2nd, 2011

BERG have been rethinking the receipt.

It's along the same lines as their ideas about rethinking what you could do with a train ticket, but a little less useful IMHO.

But perhaps that's just because the last thing I want to see printed in large, bold letters on my receipt is the percentage of my Recommended Daily Allowance of calories that will be accounted for by the sticky bun and sugary drink that I've just bought.1

  1. Which, some would say, is exactly why that figure should be on there in large, bold letters.

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Genius. And evil with it.

April 10th, 2011

Who enjoys shopping in Ikea?

Professor Alan Penn describes the way that architects use space to sell you things, showing how space creates patterns of movement bringing you into contact with goods. In IKEA though, the story gets more interesting, here the designers deliberately set out to confuse you, drawing you into buying things that are not on your shopping list.

[Via 90 Percent of Everything]

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Not forgetting the fragmented prepositional phrases…

March 27th, 2011

The Manifesto Manifesto:

How to Write a Manifesto

Today, we write a manifesto.

Today, our second sentence starts with the first word of the first sentence.

We write a short sentence.

Then a shorter one.

Then a really, really long one that maybe doesn't make any sense but is immediately followed by


[Via swissmiss]

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