End the suckage of 2016 with fonts from the 2017 Comicraft sale!

If, at the end of “The Wizard Of Oz,” one of the three freaks who somehow blagged themselves onto Dorothy’s warrior quest asked the Wizard for “an ineffable and infallable sense of visual design,” he would have responded thusly:

“My lad, I have read catalogues, advertisements, book covers, movie posters, and product packaging. I have attended design conferences and watched endless keynotes from the best minds that ever escaped from Madison Avenue, who, when confronted for the first time with actual reality, could only speak in adverbs. Softly. Continue reading “End the suckage of 2016 with fonts from the 2017 Comicraft sale!”

How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name

How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name:

“Good design should be attractive, pleasurable, and wonderful to use. But the wonderfulness of use requires that the device be understandable and forgiving. It must follow the basic psychological principles that give rise to a feeling of understanding, of control, of pleasure. These include discoverability, feedback, proper mapping, appropriate use of constraints, and, of course, the power to undo one’s operations. These are all principles we teach elementary students of interaction design. If Apple were taking the class, it would fail.”

(Via FastCoDesign.)

I just got around to reading last week’s editorial on Apple design, written by two legends of UI theory. Both have written classic books on user-oriented design: Don Norman wrote “The Design of Everyday Things” and practically every early Mac geek owns a copy of Bruce Tognazzini’s “Tog On Design.”

When they say that Apple’s lost the thread on effective, functional design, everyone ought to listen.

I’ve had plenty of reasons to ask myself some of the same questions…particularly in the past month. I reviewed Apple’s Magic Keyboard, and couldn’t hide my disappointment and confusion; it’s a desktop keyboard that looks great as a static object, but why on earth did they make so many tradeoffs?

Then Apple released Apple TV. The new touch-based remote has plenty of nice features. And, it’s impossible to sense if you’re holding it the right way without looking at it. And because the touchpad runs from edge-to-edge, it’s almost impossible to pick it up without unintentionally fast-forwarding through a video.

Apple TV is actually a perfect example of the sort of stuff Don and Tog point out in the article. I was seriously annoyed by the remote on the first day. Then, I discovered and read Apple’s User Guide. Now I know that if I accidentally fast-forward, I can cancel it by tapping the Menu button.

I love Apple Pencil. It works great. Even there, though, Apple’s focus on design commanded them to design a stylus that doesn’t have a clip or anything else that makes it easy to carry, no cap to protect the tip, and its glossy body is slippery enough that I dropped it when trying to get it out of the box.

(It’s also round. But it’s weighted so that it won’t roll off the table. Neat.)

I’ve always thought that good software design requires ideas that make the software easy to use during the first week, and other ideas that make it easy to use three months later. First impressions are important for a beginning user. Still, at some point this person gets experienced. That’s when he or she wants power features that allow them to get more done with fewer clicks, even if they need to go into Settings or (God forbid) actually learn something.

Few things disappoint me so much as an app that’s easy to outgrow…especially when the only reason for those limitations is “we wanted it to be clean and pretty, and [missing feature] is something that only 10% of our users would actually be interested in.” 

Don and Tog talk about how Apple has walked away from its earlier commitment to functional design. They would know (Tog, Apple Employee #66, literally wrote the book on Apple user interface design). I have to wonder if part of Apple’s problem is that they no longer have the luxury of being a niche maker.

In the Eighties and Nineties, the company made hardware and software for fans of Apple. That’s not to say that Macs weren’t objectively great computers; Apple was making stuff for their own audience. Now that they’re unquestionably a juggernaut, they’re making phones and computers for everybody. Apple’s clean design aesthetic is of limited or no value to them; therefore, they’re more keenly aware of limitations that Apple Design sometimes imposes. Like me and the Magic Keyboard, they see no aesthetic upsides. They just wish there were a visible “Back” or “Menu” button.

These things matter. I chose to spend the summer with my SIM card in an iPhone 6 Plus, so I could thoroughly test Apple Watch and also find out if I needed to widen my perspective, after two years with an Android phone as a daily driver.

iOS 9 has addressed so many of of the iPhone’s limitations over the past couple of years that I was considering switching back permanently. I still haven’t decided yet, but it seems unlikely now. Google’s new Nexus phones are outstanding.

More than that, though, I still haven’t warmed to Apple’s 2013 overhaul of the iOS interface. Even after two years with it I experience many of the problems that Don and Tog talk about in their article. The UI is so subtle and stripped down that I often find myself hunting around the screen to figure out what I need to tap to make something happen. I just like Android 6 better.

The whole article is definitely worth a read. Whether you agree with their conclusions or not, it’s a terrific primer on design theory. And I hope it spawns some serious conversations. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect users to learn new skills over time before they can get the most out of an app or piece of hardware. It’s just that, Jeez…five years ago I couldn’t have imagined myself deciding that an Android phone has a prettier, easier-to-use interface than an iPhone.

Nothing Left To Take Away

Keynote window, showing a slide of Steve Jobs holding up an iPhone

Greetings from the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Thanks to the 5624-foot altitude, EVERY night is two-for-one drinks night to anybody visiting from sea level, at least in terms of the effects of the alcohol.

I don’t know for sure how many years I’ve been speaking here. I think my first was in 1997, and I’ve missed only one of them since. That’s 14 years. Which is absolutely absurd, so I dismiss this as just another agenda-driven fiction of the Liberal-controlled basic math.

Actually, the scary thing is my realization that (oh, for the love of God) I’m now part of the Old Guard here. During my first years as a speaker, I was impressed by those people who seemed like they’d been coming here forever. They’d show up at the first party of the week and they’d immediately continue conversations that have been going on for ten years, picking them up right from where they’d left off at the previous Conference, it seemed. There I was on Monday evening, sitting on the steps of a patio with a plate of buffet food on my lap, talking with the same group of friends I’d been chatting with at the same party in the same place last year.

It’s great to feel so at ease, don’t get me wrong. The situation just makes it very difficult to maintain my self-image as The Dangerous Young Upstart Whose Radical Ideas Will Ensure His Early Ouster. It was hard enough when I was still in my Twenties.

(Jeez, I am old. I find myself walking through the U of C campus and thinking “in MY day, we didn’t need longboards. We rode skateboards, like normal people!” Please note that I road a board for exactly one year of my life and I would have traded my twitchy thirdhand deck for a longboard in a heartbeat.)

Speakers at the Conference on World Affairs contribute to seven to ten panels that cover a wide range of topics. Tuesday was fairly typical for me. In the morning, I talked about alternative definitions of journalism and in the afternoon I was on a panel about interstellar space travel. I write about space and I’m keenly interested in those subjects. But I know I’m just a dabbler. Two others on the panel were an astronomer and a physicist. After my ten minute contribution (which leaned heavily on my knowledge of history) I was smart enough to just be quiet and let those guys handle the audience Q&A.

During my solo ten minutes, I stumbled on the term “manned exploration.”

I asked my pal Seth Shostak (fab astronomer and educator) “Is there a gender-nonspecific way to express the concept of sending people, as opposed to probes, into space?”

“Crewed space exploration,” he replied.

“Crude? Who are we sending up there? Ricky Gervais and Seth Macfarlane?”

This got a laugh from the crowd. Which made me happy.

When a session ends, people often come up to the stage to start up conversations with the speakers while we’re packing up our pens, papers, and iPads. A group massed around Seth and the other Guy With Credentials, asking questions about dark energy and solar sails and space elevators and the imperatives of human exploration. A woman skipped past them and made a beeline for me.

“Every time I try to email my friend,” she said, thrusting an iPad forward, “It tries to FaceTime her instead. What’s wrong?”

I happily fixed her iPad. We’re all just here to serve.

I had a new responsibility this year. The organizers gave me a plenary session…one of only a handful of slots in which a speaker has the stage all to him or herself for the whole time. Panels are casual by design; the conference explicitly tells speakers that we’re meant to speak as extemporaneously as possible. Usually, all I do is prepare a rough, five-item outline of the major points I want to cover.

But this was a different thing. The audience was going to be stuck with me and only me for the whole 50 minutes. So I went ahead and wrote a whole new show for the event. I prepared for this just as I do when someone pays me to fly out and give a keynote.

The title of the plenary was “Steve Jobs and Apple.” I built the talk over a course of about a month. First I just kept jotting down thoughts and topics that seemed relevant. Then, I shaped those notes into a rough outline with some sort of beginning, middle and end trimming out anything that seemed irrelevant. Finally, I turned the outline into slides and started thinking about the best way to communicate all of this stuff.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on Steve’s philosophies. Item after item in my OmniOutliner file contained quotes about his design ideals. Each of them said “Simplify, simply, simplify.” One item was my observation the iMac’s power button is hidden away on the back, so that nothing superfluous can mar the face of the screen. I had Apple’s PR photo of the original iPod: it’s a stark whiteout.

I created another new slide, and pasted in a good quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that I wanted to use:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away.”

This was the first presentation in which I’d used so many direct quotes. I changed my custom template and created a new master slide, basing “Quotation” on an existing master that I call “Statement.”

I looked at the new slide.

The font for the quote was Comicrazy, which is probably my single favorite Comicraft font. It was yellow. The attribution was in the same font, in white. At some point in life I’d come across a list of presentation design tips that suggested putting your identity on every slide, to encourage people to connect with you later. So my name and my Twitter handle were at the bottom of the slide, in a different font, on top of a dark box.

I re-read the “nothing left to take away” line.

Then I flipped back and forth, clicking through all of Steve’s quotes about the importance of saying “no” and simplifying things. I clicked through the slide which represented my cue to talk about Steve’s single-window design for iDVD’s user interface. My presentation contained image after image of Apple products, each with their clean, serene lines.

Well, goddamn it. Steve had shamed me from beyond the grave.

So in the days before my plenary, I built a whole new presenation template. It uses only one font (Futura) and there’s only ever one color on the screen, red. And I only use it for hairlines, to call the audience’s attention to a note). If there’s ever more than one thing on a slide, there has to be a very good reason. I try to use Magic Movies to redirect the audience’s attention instead of just slapping up a thick pile of stuff and hoping that I can steer through it.

I like the new template a lot. My next talk after Boulder is in Dublin, Ireland for Úll and I bet I’ll tweak this a little more. I’ll probably switch Futura for something just a little more interesting.

But, yes. From now on, every time I build a presentation I’ll look at each slide and ask myself “Does this screen look clean enough to contain a quote from Steve Jobs about his design ideas, or a photo of an Apple product, without making me look like a clueless idiot?”

Even when a slide contains neither of those things, it’s a good question to ask.