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.

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.

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!