And Pause
August 23rd, 2014 by Lex

The mission of this site — discovery of aesthetics in every day life, and the pursuit of art and critical thinking — continues to be a deep passion of mine. But sometimes life has a way of pulling you into unexpected waters, away from the shores of things familiar. For now, at least, this iteration of Urban Aesthete is retired. The site will remain as a catalog of work done and explorations ventured between 2008 and 2011.

For those interested in the latest, and continuing the conversation, here are ongoing projects in which I am involved:

Flipboard: Confirming vision of dynamic design
July 31st, 2010 by Lex

One central thesis we have at Urban Aesthete is that visual design is an important differentiator in technology, and specifically in software and information presentation. Many tech companies are able to deliver the guts of a product, but few can take those fundamentals and create a compelling aesthetic vision. Clearly Apple does this very successfully, but it lacks the scalability of open-source, industry-wide solutions. The vision we have of the future is one where interface is pivotal, and dynamically adjustable across devices. Concept drives algorithm, which then intelligently puts together a beautiful, designed solution. Instead of custom pixel editing, we are moved by a set of driving principles — a visual architecture.

The recent Flipboard release reflects exactly this thinking and this emergent movement. The application’s guts are similar to that of a long-existing technology, the RSS reader. However, the presentation is crisp, intelligent and beautiful. Even more significantly, it is an automated, dynamic overlay on top of the churning mass of social media.

We have seen a symmetric development in, which is also a front-end overlay for Today, has over 1 million users. Flipboard is seeing similar growth in numbers. Here is what the CEO has to say about the first day of launch:

It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We thought it would take a while for people to understand the concept and get used to it and download it. I didn’t realize that it would be explosive – that within seconds people would be downloading it by the thousands.

The other thing I didn’t anticipate was the way that people used the product. They use it far more intensely than I thought they would. When people started downloading it they were flipping back to 2009 on their Facebook pages. It was crazy! They just sat there just flipping. Flipping, flipping, flipping, flipping. That stuff takes server time. We have to build pages for every few hundred posts that we go out and get.

You ever see that UPS commercial where they go live with a website and there was this group standing around and nothing happens as they’re looking at a counter, and then it goes up to 1 and they’re like “YAY”, and then 10 and they’re like “YEAHH!”, and then it climbs up to like thousands and they’re like “Uh-Oh”, it was totally like that man, it was exactly like that commercial.

Scanned Environment with Overlay Tech.
May 25th, 2010 by Lex

A next step forward.

Software scans the visible surface into 3D and then performs artistic projection. I am excited about usable technology that can be built using this approach, such as scanning your living room and projecting interfaces onto various objects and machines. Thoughts:

Check the calories on your milk and enter them into a future version of a food and fitness tracker.

Project interfaces onto your notebook to scan files or drawings and archive them onto a wireless harddrive.

TV , media and communication anywhere.

It reminds me of augmented reality, without the glasses.

Tablets *Will* Change Magazine Industry
March 26th, 2010 by Lex

Henry Blodget of Business Insider contradicts our last point that the iPad has a chance to alter people’s behavior. The main crux of the argument is:

To the consumer, the Internet is one vast publication. No longer are consumers limited to the particular editorial tastes and packaging of a few publishers whose “books” they subscribe to. Now, consumers can snack on content from thousands of publishers, for free, all day long. And the iPad is not going to change that.

Another iPad hallucination that print publishers are having is that consumers are going to pony up way more for a fancy iPad subscription than they do to just subscribe to the site online. (Or, in the case of sites that give their content away for free online, such as the New York Times, that consumers are going to pay for the iPad edition when they can get the regular web edition free.)

Why would consumers pay up for that? To get a sexier, more magazine-like electronic experience?

We think Henry is very wrong — as wrong as he was on Hulu and is starting to be on Bing. The problem is short-term thinking: if X is how we do things now, X is how we will do things tomorrow. This is the same mistake the big media companies were making in thinking that the web will be equivalent to traditional media. But new patterns of interaction and usability emerged, with the price of free becoming ubiquitous.

Free is further associated with self-curation: I download my individual songs, I download my individual movies, I find my individual articles, etc. The magazine experience, on the other hand, is one curated by a professional. The relevant question is not whether we can find the same content through a different medium, but whether the curation is worth the subscription. For example, downloading music through iTunes is self-curation and songs are provided individually and at a discount. But what about Pandora, which curates your stations and tastes successfully. We would love to see the numbers on paid subscriptions. When we subscribe to Pandora, we see value in the selection process of the algorithm — a task (or chore) that the user no longer has to do.

The magazine is a curated experience, similar to that of a good restaurant. Sure, we may be able to look up the recipe for a dish online and try our own hand at making it. Even more, we could probably order in through! But the experience is greater than the consumption of the one morsel of food — rather, it is the whole time-line of coming into the space, interacting with the staff, enjoying the ambiance, and topping off with the food. What the media companies aspire to is the success of the iPad, or a tablet in general, to re-create the pleasure of that curated experience. It takes no leap of imagination to understand the difference between a sit-forward clicky twitchy computer experience and the lean-back passive media consumption imagined by Steve Jobs.

Henry does point out that “aesthetes” would say this (too true!), but claims that the mass market will not. We, on the other hand, think the mass market has pretty good taste.

Tablets and Role of Design
March 18th, 2010 by Lex

Just got out of a Chris Anderson talk on the iPad and the future of magazines. There seems to be a recurring theme, from Anderson to Jobs, on the personal engagement with the IPad. The idea is that the different type of interaction one has with the screen, multi-touch vs. keyboard and mouse, will color that experience and redefine the type of engagement that’s appropriate. We have been long aware of the lack of “Pause” in the web , a lack of attention and participation. Tablets may be one way to solve the problem.

An interesting tangent is the role of visual design in this context. Where in Web 1.0 and 2.0, designers are limited to primitive space and focus on technical interoperability, the next media-rich generation provides a much grander canvas on which work can be put together. The online Wired, per Anderson’s demonstration, is a beautifully crafted and curated product. In addition to the resurgence in value of traditional graphic design, a new layer of interactivity and new media becomes important. Advertisements can become virtual storefronts, footnotes can turn into video, and so on. The talent to deliver these things in a discerning and non-offensive way becomes very important.

It is exciting to see the aesthetic take prominence in the next wave of media business.

Previews of Tablets / E-Readers.
December 23rd, 2009 by Lex has an excellent article on the future of e-readers, and in my opinion, tablet computers. Some pulled concept footage below:

Digital: Pause.
August 13th, 2009 by Lex

I have resurrected a project done at the Center for Educational Technology at Middlebury College for more modern browsers and screens. See if you have what it takes to PAUSE.


The mission statement is more relevant now than before. This project was completed before Youtube and Twitter were founded, which shortened our collective attention spans to a paltry 20 seconds. A recent Slate article takes on the fallacy of the immediate small reward:

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine. Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting “enter” to get our next fix.

Give it a rest, give it some pause.