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.

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?

On Weekends & Media.
February 23rd, 2008 by Lex

Weekends are reserved for creating, so it is likely that UA will take a break every Saturday and Sunday. Or perhaps it will just turn slightly more philosophical.

For example, the layout of this website and the photographs posted so far raises a natural question. Media that is read, such as pages of books, newspapers, magazines, and (unfortunately) websites, has a vertical proportion. Think of anything you may write on and its dimensions: vertical rectangle. The world of words is ruled by 8.5″ x 11″. Legal paper spills its content even further down. Go back in history and consider written scrolls, which are vertically unending. Language is vertical.

Visual content tends toward the horizontal. Television, the movie theater, your wide-screen monitor. All these tools are perpendicular to the written word. We instinctively expect the horizontal to be a “pausing” experience. One stops by a horizontal painting to quietly consider it, sits down to relax in front of a television or movie, or dives deep into family photos expecting to put in reflection and time.

Of course, certain visual media break this convention. Painting and photography are obvious examples, but the choice of vertical vs. horizontal seems to have a non-transparent effect. Vertical paintings may not seem as serene, or as demanding of attention. What do tall photographs do? On some level, they resemble a page in a book or a newspaper article more than a screen. So do they raise the same kind of response one gets from sitting down in front of a TV? Or are they more of a window and a mirror?

And then of course there is YouTube, which is doing an excellent job of destroying the “pausing” experience of horizontal media. The convergence of all these things on the web, and soon enough on all the screens we interact with, is transforming the proportions that signal to us how to consume content. No wonder the Iphone flip-flops between the vertical and horizontal.

Also, what about non-Western languages?