is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. RSS sponsorship opportunities available through /Syndicate Ads.
I upgraded my iPhone and my Mac tonight so that I can run the new Apple Music service. Setting aside for now the fact that with this major upgrade iTunes and the iOS Music app have have both reached new levels in tortuously convoluted user experiences, here are some of the things I encountered. First, this:
That’s Allen Toussaint, in case you aren’t familiar; not Elvis Costello. Toussaint did record an album with Elvis Costello some years back, but they’re different people. Jeebus, even a Bing search for Elvis Costello turns up the right photos.
Second, here are the playlists that Apple Music made for me based on the interests I signaled during the service’s onboarding process, where you click on a really showy, confusing and not particularly comprehensive series of bubbles to indicate what genres and artists you like. The results are pretty terrible.
The playlists include a whole bunch of stuff I can’t stand, along with a smattering of albums from acts that I’m okay with but not particularly passionate about, and one so-so album from a band I quite like but rarely listen to. Nothing from my current heavy rotation of artists appears here, and nothing new or surprising that I’d never encountered before does, either. Overall, the selection lacks any real surprise or inspiration.
When I complained about this on Twitter some people seemed to think that it was unrealistic for me to expect Apple Music to come up with great recommendations on the first try, contending that it has too little data to go on now, and that the recommendations would improve given more of my time and usage.
That response completely bewildered me because it entirely ignores the facts. Apple does, in fact, have all the data that they need to make great recommendations to me. I’ve been using their iTunes Match service for two years, which stores all of my iTunes library’s metadata in the cloud. Moreover, I’ve been using iTunes for almost a decade and a half now, migrating the same music library from computer to computer and device to device. Few other services have as much data on my media consumption habits as Apple does—not Netflix, not Amazon, not Google. Plus, Apple is the most successful technology company in human history. When you combine those factors, shouldn’t it be realistic to expect more from Apple than what is basically the same out-of-the-box experience that the original Beats app offered?
I’m passionate about Apple and heavily invested in their ecosystem, but this kind of willful denial of the very high expectations we all have for this company drives me bats.
Despite its name, The Coral Project is not focused on marine biology. Rather, it’s a collaboration between Mozilla, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and it’s funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its ambitious and worthy goal is to “improve communities on news sites through open-source software”—basically to elevate public discourse via great design and technology. The team is hiring a UX strategist and I talked to its head of design, Sarah Sampsel, about that opportunity. Sampsel is Director of Digital Strategy & Design at The Post, but she has been a part of the Coral leadership team since last year, when it won its grant from the Knight Foundation.
What’s the idea behind the Coral Project?
We really believe the experience of commenting on a news story is broken. The conversations are fragmented, often noisy, and they’re spread out across the web. Tacking on a comments thread to the end of a story is just scratching the surface of what we should be doing to allow readers to play a bigger part in the conversation.
Readers should be able to participate in and contribute to productive discussions about current events in more meaningful ways. They should be empowered to manage their own identities across the sites they participate in and have access to data that will help them understand who’s interacting with the content they create.
On the flip side, we want publishers to have the tools to better understand their contributors and control the level of discourse on their sites.
What makes this a great opportunity for a designer?
At this point, the Coral Project is a blank canvas. It’s an amazing opportunity for a designer to come in and help shape the vision of what we ultimately create. There are so many directions something like this could take and at this point we need to establish a process for generating user-centric ideas.
Can you describe at a lower level what you think the work will look like?
Coral will be a platform, not unlike WordPress (though of course we’re not trying to re-create WordPress). We’re designing open source software that has to be incredibly flexible, that has to scale across many organizations.
That means we’ll need to create administrative and account management solutions for both publishers and users. We’ll need standardized solutions for commenting, soliciting user contributions, displaying text, videos, photos, etc.—and this is where it gets interesting. The consumer-facing side, the tools and solutions we offer, that’s all ripe for disruption. We have a chance to come up with new ideas, components and opportunities for users.
What kind of designer will thrive in this job?
The major requirements are a passion for journalism and a drive to understand and develop communities online—how they work, how they’re evolving, how they fit into the news and journalistic space.
It’s an ambitious project, so we’re looking for a candidate who would be a very strong advocate for the user. A hands-on product designer who also has lots of experience conducting research and user testing to inform and validate decision-making. A person who is self-motivated, deeply interested in designing tools and platforms, and genuinely curious about solving problems for online communities.
It really is a unique opportunity to fix the community and commenting issues that plague all media organizations. The partners are Mozilla, The New York Times and The Washington Post, so it’s an opportunity to reach millions of users.
Self-taught artist Raphaël Vicenzi has produced an impressive body of illustration work, frequently for the fashion industry, but I’m partial to the mixed media collages he creates for himself. They’re chaotic yet elegant, favor a black and white color palette, and can be highly abstract, though they rarely lose sight of a figurative center entirely.
Seen is a novelty typeface with an agenda: as you type, it automatically redacts terms that the NSA might consider threats to security, e.g., privacy, communications, etc. It’s a commentary on the surveillance state, just in case you didn’t catch that.
You can try the font in your browser or download it for free at projectseen.com.
Brooklyn-based decor studio RockPaperRobot specializes in incredibly clever furniture designs that seem to defy, or at least challenge, the laws of physics. Their Ollie Chair is a fully functional seat that collapses into a washboard-like plane in an instant, and their Brag Table looks like a massive diamond balancing on its smallest point, and yet it’s perfectly stable. Perhaps their most ingenious product is the Float Table, which looks sort of like a gargantuan Rubik’s Cube where each component is floating, separated from the others as if by magic. The company describes it as:
…a matrix of ‘magnetized’ wooden cubes that levitate with respect to one another. The repelling cubes are held in equilibrium by a system of tensile steel cables. It’s classical physics applied to modern design. Each handcrafted table is precisely tuned to seem rigid and stable, yet a touch reveals the secret to Float’s dynamic character.
So much interesting stuff is happening in design tools that I’m going to start aggregating links here on a weekly basis. This is as much for my benefit as anybody’s, as I find the act of collecting and reposting the news helps me actually better understand the new developments. Here are a few to start.
InVision, the wildly popular prototyping app, shipped support for direct posting to design sharing site Dribbble with just a few clicks. blog.invisionapp.com.
Github’s Atom, a modern, hackable text editor, is now out of beta. The promo video, which is a spoof of short industrial films from the late 1960s and 1970s, is pretty amusing (see below). blog.atom.io
Webydo is a new browser-based application for creating “pixel-perfect, responsive web sites…without code.” A cursory look shows that it’s beautifully designed, with slick demonstration videos. webydo.com
Sketch Data Populator is a new plugin for Sketch that automatically, er, populates data inside your Sketch mockups. Unfortunately, if you have say a hundred rows in your database that you want to visualize then you’ll need to manually create one hundred copies of your interface in order for that to work. Still, when I tweeted about this plugin, the response was pretty enthusiastic. Grab it at github.com, and read about how the team at Depop used it in this Medium post.
Macworld has a review of the image editor-like web design application Macaw (version 1.5.15). From the review: “I intended to test Macaw by building a small site with it. But after tearing down and rebuilding the same page four times, I threw in the towel.” Still, they awarded it 3-1/2 “mice”—my impression is that they rarely award less than three, so take that for what it’s worth. macworld.com.
Meanwhile, the Macaw team seems to be rebooting its efforts. They’ve just announced their next project, “Scarlet,” which they refer to as a “The live design environment.” Sign up for news about its pending beta release at scarlet.macaw.co.
And here’s that Atom video that will surely make you feel proud of yourself for living in the year 2015.
If I missed something, or you have some thoughts on how I can do this better, please let me know via the comment form below.
Designer Keith Scharwath has a sideline in unabashedly retro, warmly rendered typographic paintings—he refers to them modestly as hand-painted signs. His works quote snippets of the American vernacular—action-oriented sentence fragments like “Here comes success” and “Just business”—and his typography evokes the detached, consumerist irony of Pop Art. Gorgeous stuff.
A few of his original works are available for sale, and more samples are on view, at scharwath.com.
I’m not much of a cook or a foodie, but I have a peculiar fascination with cast iron cookware. Both the craft of forging these crude yet elegant tools and the way that they get more beautiful with age and repeated use are sources of wonder to me. They’re the exact inverse of digital hardware, which starts decaying the moment you break it out of its box.
Chef David Lebovitz had a chance to visit the French factory where the storied le Creuset line of cast iron cookware is made. In this blog post, he follows the whole manufacturing process, from hot metal to color enameling. It’s a completely engrossing read if you’re fascinated by craft.
Symbols are important, especially visual symbols; I’d be the last person to deny that. However, in the wake of Dylann Roof’s monstrous killing of nine African-American members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, one symbol is dominating the discourse more perhaps than it should. There is a robust debate going on currently about the propriety of the Confederate flag, that antiquated, offensive standard of the antebellum south, and whether or not it will be possible to remove it from South Carolina’s State House grounds.
This is not an unworthy discussion—it would be a triumph for basic human decency if we banished the Confederate flag, to be sure—but for me, it’s all a tremendous and even cynical distraction from the real issue, which is guns. The column inches devoted to “the Southern cross” in the days since Dylan Roof’s heinous crime are much more copious than those devoted to the most urgent, most pressing dimension of the whole tragedy: the lack of sane gun control policy in the United States of America.
We may be able to get rid of this flag, but what good will that do us when another deranged shooter claims lives in New England, the Midwest, the Northwest, or anywhere else outside of the South? It would be a wonderful miracle if that somehow never happened again, but is anyone willing to bet that banishing the Confederate flag is really going to do anything to curb this seemingly relentless tide of shootings? It is a noxious and hateful banner, but in contrast, our current gun control policy—and the repeated public tragedies that policy engenders—is pure insanity. This is one instance where the importance of symbols seems highly overrated, and a regrettable diversion from the difficult reckoning that those lost lives really call for.
In the interest of a less morose approach to this argument, let me leave you with this brilliant, fifteen-minute standup routine by comedian Jim Jefferies, who articulates a damning and, thankfully, hilarious case against the American regard for guns. Laugh at it even as you may be crying inside.