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.

Google, No to Design?
March 24th, 2009 by Lex

In the recent days, a story about a particular Google designer resigning spread quickly around the web. The decision to leave was driven mainly by the glass ceiling in the design department, and a general lack of perceived value in design expertise overall. Specifically, Google has a phenomenal and closely guarded brand, which is controlled with hyper sensitivity by the very few at the top. Such an approach is potentially damaging over the long-term, and at least comical in the short-term. As per Douglas Bowman:

Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

So what is the role of design in the development of technology? Information designers would relegate the visual to the background completely, as did Google, opting for clean fonts and easy indicators based on primary colors. There is a fundamental difference between “ease of use” and aesthetic beauty. Google the website holds no aesthetic value–at most it does not detract. Like Microsoft’s Excel, it is highly functional and concise, but woefully lifeless.

Should technology solutions be full of life, though? Even a tasteful beauty pulls aways focus and determination. But then, is life and work merely a functional, tasteless experience? Do we not deserve an environment that nurtures creativity and expands our possibilities? The cost-benefit analysis is not won by productivity alone! Design and aesthetic pleasure contribute to one’s quality of life, and to strip them out as distraction is fundamentally disrespectful to the self. It is a sign of incompetence and narrow-sightedness to do so.

The company on the clear opposite side of this spectrum is Apple. This is an easy example, and could thus be seen as frivolous. But it isn’t! Nothing could be more true than Apple’s, and specifically Steve Jobs’, fascination with the aesthetic. But what a mission–to make the everyday more useful, enjoyable and beautiful than the last! We may not even realize the quiet revolution of design in our gadgets, but it is everywhere. It is in those transparent shadows in ITunes, and the way that objects are moved through space, and elegance of transparent windows. The effect of Apple on computing is not simply within its own products, but in every Windows, Palm, Blackberry, Facebook, Nintendo product on the market. Here is an example of the invisible as highlighted by Steve Jobs:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer was beautifully hand-calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts, and since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

So, where are the design visionaries for the next epoch of technological evolution?

The Web Design
July 23rd, 2008 by Lex

What role does visual design play in the evolution of the web? One might think that the effects are limited to aesthetics, but this is not true. One particular example shows how a visual set-up determines the consumption and creation of content, and how we react to that content.

Message boards and forums are as Web 1.0 as you get. They have a specific information structure. A single user posts a thread, and others reply to the starting post with their own posts. The design is such that the original post and the following post have equal visual weight. The first poster is similarly equal to everyone else.

Now take that single poster’s entire library of threads and pull it onto a single site. Keep the information structure exactly the same, with page numbers, responses and so on. However, isolate and highlight the first post. Make it large, colorful and bold. Make the title fancy. And then take everyone else’s responses and call them comments. Shrink them, thin them and gray them out. All of a sudden the forum turn into a blog. The visual change literally becomes the orator’s pedestal. It is a sign of power, a crown.

In the last few years, services like Twitter and Tumblr popped up as new, exciting, Web 2.0, paradigm-shifting approaches. Really? This is just another visual redesign of the old forum thread. The concept is exactly the same, only the design is changing. And this isn’t to say that the meta-concept is the same, i.e. it is all “conversation”, or the web is all “information”. No! The functionality here is identical, but how the service looks and feels drives its usage.

And this leads us to the grand importance of appearance. There has been a lot of innovation in information structure, such as the social network. Has there been a similar intensity of innovation in visual presentation?