If we work together, we really work together. Closely, under tight deadlines. And all that implies. So here we are. This is what we care about. Not the platitudes, but the important trends. Our process and how we get results. The ideas that won't let go. Or, opt out of the slow dance and read the summary.

Contributors

Keyword ‘Design’

How to Judge a Book Without a Cover

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Craig Mod has another great essay on his site regarding covers in ebooks.

There is symmetry of loss shared among all physical media as it shifts digital. The ever shrinking book cover parallels the long, slow compression of music jackets. The designers of records must have felt a similar sense of constriction with cassettes and then CDs and now Rdio/iTunes thumbnails. So much lost canvas.

He does not, however, focus on doom & gloom for the publishing industry. Instead he gives great examples of publishers who embrace the constraints of digital media. One of my favorite points was his analysis of Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design.

Jump into Frank’s ebook willy-nilly – any of these chapter opening images could be a cover. He has, on the most base level ’ within the constraints of our current ebook systems ’ distributed the cover throughout his entire book.

Mod’s attitude of embracing change is an asset that would serve any designer or publisher well.

Go check out the essay on his website or purchase a Kindle edition (affiliate link).

How to Build a Website

Friday, March 9th, 2012

What is it like to build a website? This is a question with probably as many answers as there are people. I do think there are some phases that are fairly consistent. Watch this entertaining video of the creation of Warby Parker’s 2011 Annual Report and then I’ll explain why I thought it was worth sharing.

This short video demonstrates a pretty realistic process for creating a beautiful website. It also serves to demonstrate the two loosely definable phases of building a website; design and development.

Design

The designer in the video designs in the same software I do, Adobe Illustrator. Whenever I hear that people design in Photoshop I just can’t understand how they do it. The ability to constantly and quickly move things, resizing them on a fly is essential, not to mention Photoshop has atrocious type control. Illustrator’s output is not pixel perfect so I will do some graphic asset prosecution in an image editor. Sometimes that is Photoshop, but recently Pixelmator is taking over. I do as much layout as is necessary to satisfy myself or the client and then move to markup as quickly as possible.

Development

One thing that I think Warby Parker’s video points out is that the person who designed the site also does the development, at least on the front end. More evidence that designers should code. Here’s where things get interesting, the designer is constantly hopping back and forth between design files and their text editor, Coda in their case. For me the design is still taking shape and evolving as I go. In fact I prefer to leave a lot of granular design until well after the basic markup is underway.

Conclusion

It is clear that Design and Development are intertwined. It is most effective for me to not view these two tasks as separate. The disciplines may seem distinct, and in many organizations they are completely segregated, but they are, in fact, actually two necessary tools to accomplish a common goal. Building a beautiful website.

Process Leads to Simplicity

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Anthony at UX Movement wrote an article that made me think quite a bit. I agree with some of his points and disagree with others. Let’s start from the top.

Anthony’s case goes like this: Clients/bosses/stakeholders almost always choose the simplest design direction presented to them. Knowing this, the designer should just produce a simple direction, thus saving countless time and making everyone rich. He uses the 37 Signals website as a case study to prove his point.

The problem is that this ignores the process to arrive at simplicity. If we could all just skip ahead to the most direct design we would. In the example he presents the simplest direction came early, but this is not always the case. He also does not deal with the possibility that multiple solutions, equally simple, might work for a project. There is no platonic ideal for a design. Saying ”just skip to the simple solution” ignores the fact that it is often a long and complex process to arrive at the simple solution to a design problem. There are some designers who, at times, seem to skip directly to the simplest solution. Paula Scher famously designed the logo for CitiBank in the first meeting. Aside from the decades of experience that Scher brings to bear, this is a remarkable story because it is just that, remarkable. The majority of projects are long, winding and periodically frustrating.

Wrangling the complexity inherent in difficult problems and boiling it down is what makes elegant solutions that are not anemic. That is a step you cannot leapfrog if you want the design to be effective. Jonny Ive described the process this way:

“Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

—From Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, p. 343

I think that the 37 Signals example works well for Anthony’s case because they already had a very focused definition gained by hard-won experience for the designer to work with. If only all projects were so clear! Of course in retrospect the first idea was the best, but this is rare enough that they were probably smart to test it.

I do think that Anthony has some good points. Recognizing visual excess and unfocused direction in a design is something that is always better to do quickly. Having the courage to abandon ill-fated designs rather than fiddle with them is a laudable ability. By quickly shifting to promising design directions you give yourself more time to iterate, boil it down, simplify. Doing this can give you the confidence that all avenues have been explored. Just imagine how good it will feel to have a handful of simple, effective design directions laid out in front of you. That does not mean you have to present all possible directions to the stakeholders. Paul Rand presented one logo to his clients. All the hard work, rejected ideas and B+ logos were never seen outside his studio.

In conclusion, I am in complete agreement that ineffective designs should be put out to pasture before they burn more time than absolutely necessary. But just skipping the process will not work. In fact, it seems to me that only years of the difficult pursuit will yield shortcuts, and then only occasionally.

Path

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Path is an iPhone/Android app that has recently received a face lift and it is wonderful. Path is a social network that seems to fulfill what I wanted Facebook and Google+ to be. It is an intimate experience where you share thoughts, photos, and more. This may sound like other social networking sites but it is so much simpler and not assaulting to the senses. There are a couple reasons for this. First, there is a limit to how many friends you can have based on real research on the limits of close human connections. Second, this is a mobile device only application. There is no website. People don’t spend as much consecutive browsing time on their phones than they do in front of a PC so the amount of content is more focused, relevant and less “spammy” than Facebook or Google+. This is a platform to share short, meaningful things with people who you actually care about.

The design of Path is amazing. There are so many well-considered details throughout. The posting button has a wonderful flyout animation to give you the different options for post type. The spinning clock as you swipe through your timeline and the parallax effect for the cover photo or both indicative of the care put into every part of the app. Path has great designers and is not afraid to use them. It is an app that looks good in still shots but feels amazing to use, exactly the way interaction should be.

I do have one concern for Path, it’s free. That seems like a good thing, but it means that at some point when their investors demand returns they will have to figure out how to make money. We’ve seen the effects of this business model in many startups, especially social ones, and few have been good for the user. I hope they figure it out, because I’d rather pay a little bit for Path than have it ruined. Maybe they should read this.

Benevolent Dictator

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Mills Baker wrote a great post about why compromise can be such a dirty word when it comes to getting things done. He starts off by giving the example of why compromise in government inevitably leads to stagnation:

…a real effect of compromise is that it prevents intact ideas from being tested and falsified. Instead, ideas are blended with their antitheses into policies that are “no one’s idea of what will work,” allowing the perpetual political regurgitation, reinterpretation, and relational stasis that defines the governance of the United States.

While this an astute, if depressing, summary of compromise and its effects in governance the rest of his post is actually a very compelling explanation of how compromise ruins good designs and weakens the outcomes of projects. I really enjoy Baker’s thoughts and find them to be true through anecdotal experience and observation. For instance:

…the creative arts are not so subjective as we tend to think, which is why a talented, dictatorial auteur will produce better work than polls, focus groups, or hundreds of compromising committees.

Despite the good points from this post I do think that collaboration is essential to success in most endeavors, especially large complex ones. The question is how to collaborate while staying true to the vision that the designer, author, director has put forth? I don’t know the secret to this but I do think that dividing a project into chunks and frequent candid non-presentational discussions to refocus on the overriding vision are essential elements.

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