Observing Design Observer’s design

Oh, good­ness. I start­ed writ­ing this post in Jan­u­ary, and have had it basi­cal­ly fin­ished for weeks now. I’ve been putting off actu­al­ly post­ing it for some time, think­ing it needs more work. But now — in fact, just three hours ago — Design Observ­er unveiled a redesign and made me look like some kind of jerk. Now, if that isn’t an object les­son in ship­ping

Design Observ­er looks dated.

The Past

DO’s head­er boasts proud­ly that it’design-observer-2s been oper­at­ing since 2003, and you can tell. Look at it with 2014 eyes and you’ll observe a non-responsive fixed-width lay­out with tiny text. Is that real­ly a blogroll? Where are the ubiq­ui­tous social shar­ing buttons?

It’s like a time cap­sule of early-2000s blog design.

And that’s why it’s so great.

Design Observ­er reminds me of a lot of web­sites from the ’00s, some of the first blog-ish things I ever read. (Like Pix­el­sur­geon! Or Design is Kinky! Or Pix­el­sur­geon!) Maybe I owe the fond­ness to my youth, and its design lim­i­ta­tions to the bad old days of prim­i­tive web browsers. Or maybe it was just Web‑1.9(beta) style. To my eyes, though, the look holds up well.

The Present

The infor­ma­tion den­si­ty on Design Observ­er is amaz­ing and that prob­a­bly has a lot to do with the type­face, which is tiny by today’s stan­dards. I peeked into the HTML because I knew the type­face appealed to me, but I could­n’t quite put my fin­ger on why. IT’S 8 POINT VERDANA, you guys!1 It’s so tiny, yet so crisp and read­able. (Com­pare that to Ari­al, or its bla­tant rip-off Hel­veti­ca.2)

The site was def­i­nite­ly not designed with the cur­rent tablet craze in mind, and as a tablet own­er who does­n’t love tablets, I like that. That said, I shud­der to think of what Design Observ­er must look like at unscaled ‘reti­na’ resolutions.

The Future

Speak­ing of the future, I fear the day I’m going to vis­it Design Observ­er and find a Medi­u­mi­fi­ca­tion has hap­pened — this has to be on their roadmap. It does seems a lit­tle strange for a design site like DO not to be fol­low­ing what are, for bet­ter or worse (Here’s my bal­lot! I vote ‘worse’!) mod­ern design con­ven­tions, which favor clum­sy UI for smudgy fin­gers over — you know — the stuff that helps peo­ple do stuff.3

And once it’s gone, it’s gone. Sad­ly, Design Observer’s robots.txt file tells most search engine crawlers to sim­ply go away. DO specif­i­cal­ly includ­ed a rule ban­ning the Inter­net Archive, which means the page has nev­er been cap­tured by the Way­back Machine, the Inter­net’s somewhat-official time cap­sule… and nev­er will. This makes it tough, if not impos­si­ble, to see what Design Observ­er looked like ten years ago, two years ago and even last week, to see how it changed with the times — or did­n’t — to become what it is today.

And when this frankly won­der­ful design is replaced by some­thing “bet­ter” and “mod­ern,” it will also dis­ap­pear for­ev­er. Hope this helps.

  1. In col­lege, I prob­a­bly spent more time choos­ing a font for AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger than I did study­ing for some class­es, and this size Ver­dana was what I’d always come back to.
  2. I kid… I own the DVD, hon­est! Now please put down those taste­ful Dieter-Rams-designed pitch­forks.
  3. I’m not against design­ing while keep­ing mobile devices in mind, but these designs almost always come with design­ers choos­ing to reduce func­tion­al­i­ty across all devices in the name of con­sis­ten­cy. Hey world, news flash — you can do respon­sive design in a way that does­n’t do away with side­bars, page chrome and just gen­er­al func­tion­al­i­ty until web­sites look like Write­Room. Just make it degrade nice­ly.

Her was silly. (Not a typo.)

Spike Jonze’s Her was an inter­est­ing movie taint­ed with just a sprin­kling of ridicu­lous­ness… and I’m not talk­ing about the high-waisted pants.

I’m about to spoil it hard, so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen it. (But do see it.)

Look, I just find it hard to believe that the down­fall of this prod­uct was due to a gap­ing design flaw that some­how nobody noticed: Saman­tha was designed with­out any process iso­la­tion. When you ask the soft­ware how many users it has (or how many it’s in love with, etc.), it should respond “one — you” because your run­ning instance of the soft­ware should­n’t know any­thing about any oth­er users, and def­i­nite­ly should­n’t be access­ing oth­er users’ data.

What peo­ple are doing with the soft­ware, hav­ing rela­tion­ships with it or what­ev­er, is beside the point. One bina­ry, one bil­lion­ty indi­vid­ual Saman­thas. Come on — we’ve had Unix for forty years.

Or wait, is Saman­tha sup­posed to be “the cloud”? If so, as social soft­ware, we should expect it to be fuck­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, as pub­licly as pos­si­ble. Maybe this movie is deep­er than I thought.

On anoth­er note, folks — make back­ups.

Righter writing

I’ve been hold­ing the pen (and before that, the pen­cil and cray­on) incor­rect­ly for as long as I’ve been writ­ing. As such, my hand­writ­ing is pret­ty ter­ri­ble and I’ve always been prone to hand cramp­ing. Var­i­ous teach­ers and at least a cou­ple of par­ents have tried to cor­rect this over the years, but I’ve always just ignored them and gone on writ­ing as I pleased. I found my way eas­i­er and more com­fort­able, although the com­fort would only last for the first few minutes.

I’m not sure what hap­pened, but about a month ago I was sit­ting at my desk and I decid­ed that I was going to start hold­ing the pen cor­rect­ly. At first it was a dif­fi­cult, frus­trat­ing and uncom­fort­ably con­scious process, and I would some­times for­get to do so, but I made sure to cor­rect myself as soon as I remem­bered. I soon found it easy enough to do with chunki­er pens (like most of my foun­tain pens), but now I’m able to do it well enough on days I car­ry some­thing thin­ner (like a Park­er Jotter).

Con­se­quent­ly, I’m writ­ing a bit more slow­ly and delib­er­ate­ly now, and while my hand­writ­ing has­n’t real­ly changed at all, the new hand posi­tion has become auto­mat­ic — I now just pick up the pen and hold it cor­rect­ly. Since I still pre­fer to do much of my dai­ly think­ing ink-on-dead-tree-style, this small change con­tributes sig­nif­i­cant­ly to my qual­i­ty of life, as I trade short-term com­fort for long-term comfort.

Next up is cor­rect­ing my sit­ting pos­ture,” he writes, slouch­ing terribly.

MOOCing for fun (and profit?)

Last year I read an inter­est­ing blog post that taught me the name for some­thing I’d been hear­ing more and more about for a while: MOOCs (“Mas­sive Open Online Cours­es”). You know, they’re those online class­es that you can take, offered by uni­ver­si­ties like Stan­fordHar­vard and oth­ers — plus a host of pri­vate com­pa­nies — typ­i­cal­ly for free and with­out cred­it. Oh, and across an absolute met­ric fuck­ton of topics.

Yes­ter­day, set­ting aside any traces of an um-yeah-I-already-finished-college-thank-you atti­tude, I spent some time pok­ing around MOOC List — an exten­sive aggre­ga­tor of avail­able class­es — and found some­thing that caught my eye: Intro to the Design of Every­day Things, taught by Don Nor­man, author of that book you may have seen on my din­ing room table, wait­ing patient­ly to be read, for a lit­tle while now. (Okay, Ama­zon says it’s been over two years.)

So I’m tak­ing Don’s class now, and while I’m not sure if I’ve had my eyes opened to any tru­ly new con­cepts yet, I’ve picked up a cou­ple of terms: “affor­dance” and “sig­ni­fi­er.” And to fin­ish off Les­son 1, I’m cur­rent­ly on the look­out for a sig­ni­fi­er to pho­to­graph, cri­tique and improve.

So, why Intro to the Design of Every­day Things? I can actu­al­ly share the answer I post­ed to the class forum:

I’m tak­ing this class because, as a copy­writer whose opin­ions on the fin­ished prod­uct tend to extend a bit beyond my spe­cif­ic area of exper­tise, I’d like a more sol­id ground­ing in these oth­er areas.

Basi­cal­ly, soon I’ll be telling you why I’m right about even more things, using all the right terms. Look out.

Not everyone’s a critic

As a kid, I hat­ed “crit­i­cal think­ing” questions.

I did­n’t know what the term even meant, but what I did know was that about a third of the ques­tions at the end of each chap­ter in my school text­books were “crit­i­cal think­ing” ques­tions. I’d read the assigned text — well, usu­al­ly — but skim­ming the chap­ter for key words would mag­i­cal­ly reveal the answers… at least for all the nor­mal questions.

In what year did Napolean what­ev­er? I knew the hack for that: scan the text for numbers.

My goal was to get my work done as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, because the draw of TV time at home, and “free time” in class was strong. Crit­i­cal think­ing was an annoy­ing road­block to very impor­tant leisure. I just want­ed to get done.

As an adult, I take my time when I work — I just try not to com­plete­ly Dou­glas Adams my dead­lines, if you catch my drift. Qual­i­ty is impor­tant (although it’s only job two), and if I fin­ish some­thing ear­ly, odds are it could use some more thought, anoth­er look tomor­row with fresh eyes, or some­thing like that.

There real­ly is no prize for fin­ish­ing first.

I real­ize now that the crit­i­cal think­ing ques­tions were the only ones that ever real­ly mat­tered. Teach­ers prob­a­bly told us that, but it did­n’t mean any­thing at the time. And when I look around today, I get the sense that to a lot of my peers, it still doesn’t.

The Premium McWrap packaging is very nicely designed

McDonald's Premium McWrap 1I’m clear­ly no stranger to mar­ket­ing, but my career has­n’t yet brought me in touch with prod­uct pack­ag­ing. I like pack­ag­ing, and I’ve actu­al­ly bought things over the years because they were nice­ly pack­aged — stuff like can­dy,1 Altoids Sours, some ran­dom bike part… and yes, I’ve even bought myself a few low-balance gift cards2 to keep in my this is so awe­some file.

I recent­ly found myself impressed with the card­board pack­ag­ing around the McDon­ald’s Pre­mi­um McWrap — I should prob­a­bly go ask for a clean one while they’re still avail­able. I guess I did­n’t notice when they added this item to the menu, because I ordered my first one by mis­take. My annoy­ance at pay­ing about dou­ble what I expect­ed turned to intrigue about as soon as I peeked into my drive-through bag.

Some of that price cer­tain­ly went into the pack­ag­ing design. What I found was­n’t a cheap paper-clad item like stan­dard McDon­ald’s wraps, but some­thing that actu­al­ly looks like a “pre­mi­um” product.

  • The box is rather thought­ful­ly designed, con­tain­ing the food very nice­ly with­in — you know, what you want from a container.
  • It has a pull-and-tear strip for open­ing the pack­age… and nat­u­ral­ly, the strip runs right past the Xbox ad unit on the front.
  • There’s a lit­tle tab sys­tem on the side of the box that’s there pri­mar­i­ly to indi­cate which wrap you ordered, but also to pas­sive­ly edu­cate you on the rest of the line­up. (“Oh look, they also have sweet chili flavor!”)
  • It does­n’t look like this should work, but once you’ve opened the pack­age, the box eas­i­ly stands upright, even with the wrap inside.
McDonald's Premium McWrap 2 McDonald's Premium McWrap 3

Wait, was what tasty?

  1. Still pissed that my par­ents would­n’t buy me Bub­ble Tape.
  2. Con­fuse your local cashier today — ask for a $1 gift card!

Derechos, am I right(s)?

Span­ish is a lan­guage I’ve stud­ied on and off through­out my life, but nev­er hard enough, it seems. See­ing a pam­phlet recent­ly, titled Declaración de los dere­chos, made me feel that way. The actu­al mean­ing (“dec­la­ra­tion of rights”) was easy enough for me to fig­ure out, but I was sur­prised when I real­ized that the Span­ish word for “rights” is dere­chos.

Whether or not you under­stand Span­ish, you may be won­der­ing why I found this so strange.

Well, a word in Span­ish I cer­tain­ly know is derecha (which means “right”… as in, the direc­tion that isn’t “left”) — it’s one of the first words any­one learns in Span­ish. And despite that word and dere­chos hav­ing dif­fer­ent gen­ders, it can’t be a coin­ci­dence that the two words are almost the same in both Eng­lish and Spanish.

What’s so weird about that? Why should­n’t these Eng­lish homo­phones be sim­i­lar in Spanish?

I’d explain it like this: I most­ly feel this way because of how it works with anoth­er pair of Span­ish words — in Eng­lish, the word free has dif­fer­ent mean­ings that each trans­late dif­fer­ent­ly. Most of the time we prob­a­bly think of it in the “cost­ing zero dol­lars” sense… but there’s also the arguably higher-minded def­i­n­i­tion “exist­ing with­out restric­tion.” In Span­ish, they’re two very dif­fer­ent words, the for­mer being gratis and the lat­ter being libre.

In the English-speaking world, I see the dif­fer­ence between the two “frees” most often come up in the Free Soft­ware1 com­mu­ni­ty. When dis­cussing Free Soft­ware phi­los­o­phy, peo­ple will wax elo­quent about the dif­fer­ent mean­ings of free, using phras­es like “free as in beer” and “free as in free­dom” to help con­trast the two. They’ll also occa­sion­al­ly veer into expla­na­tions of Span­ish vocab­u­lary to high­light the dif­fer­ence, point­ing out that gratis and libre are more pre­cise ways to describe two kinds of soft­ware, both of which are “free,” but in sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent sens­es of the word.

With my mind steeped in this soft­ware salon cul­ture of the back-alley forums of the Inter­net, I became so keen­ly aware of the extra mean­ing words can pick up when trans­lat­ed into oth­er languages.

And that’s why I find it so hard to believe that, en Español, “rights” are sim­ply dere­chos. The trans­la­tion should be some­thing more abstract… more libre-like. I would­n’t have guessed that when trans­lat­ed, my rights become “not lefts.”

  1. You may also know this as “Open Source,” although there are folks who will tell you that they’re not the same thing. These folks have beards.