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. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.
A treasure trove for comics nerds of my generation: this style guide was produced by DC Comics over thirty years ago for licensees of their many iconic characters. I remember many of the images from seeing them on beach blankets, tee-shirts and other items over the years. The majority of the art in the guide was illustrated by artist José Luis Garcia-Lopez. Where comic book artists as a whole have traditionally been quite expressive and interpretive, Garcia-Lopez’s clean, strong line was able to forge a reasonably canonical notion of what these characters “really” looked like.
Like many apps that debuted on the iPad (no matter how compelling), the remarkable Astropad has apparently felt compelled to release an iPhone version—it’s available now. This new release allows your phone to act as a WACOM-style graphics tablet, just as its predecessor did with the iPad. Once connected to your desktop computer via wifi or USB cable (supporting both methods is itself a canny move), your iOS device serves as a high quality, low compression input peripheral that can drive any of your preferred graphics programs. You can even use a stylus of your own choosing to achieve beautiful, natural, pen-based gestures.
Notwithstanding this further confirmation that the iPad market is in the doldrums, I was disappointed to see that Apple apparently passed on showcasing Astropad as an innovative example of software unique to its tablet. It’s not hard to imagine the powerful television commercial that could have been: picture a sprightly artist painting a vivid landscape with an Astropad-powered iPad and a laptop running Photoshop, Pixelmator, or any other graphics program. That said, if you become enamored of using Astropad as a graphics tablet on your phone, it’s hard to imagine you wouldn’t like it more given the relatively copious screen size of an iPad, so maybe this will function as a gateway drug of sorts.
If there’s one reason why the category of design tools feels so rich with possibility right now it’s because UX prototyping software is in a truly germinal stage. So much about how prototyping should be done remains open to interpretation; no one has yet figured out a a set of best practices that can be unequivocally declared “the best.” This is very different from more mature categories of software like, say, spreadsheets or blogging systems where even the most innovative contenders tend to be essentially the same as the incumbents.
With every new entrant in the category we, as users, as designers, are treated to novel attempts at establishing new, or at least variant, ways of doing things—vocabularies and syntaxes, essentially, that try to capture the flurry of motion in procedural form. The central contribution that each new UX prototyping tool tries to make is to establish a workable system for describing how interface elements move, transform, signal intentions, react to user inputs. Taken as a group, the contenders of the past several years are notable for their disparate approaches; some are simple adaptations of familiar tools like presentation software; others are ersatz development environments; still others let you play the role of a switchboard operator in an old timey movie, wiring things together incomprehensibly.
What they have in common is that they all feel, to varying degrees, as limiting as they are empowering. Each one must formulate its own specific equilibrium between the competing priorties of speed and ease-of-use, on the one hand, and power and control, on the other.
What makes this process of figuring out best practices particularly difficult is that we as users and customers think we’re all waiting for that idealized app that can finally balance the two ideas perfectly, like a seesaw with identically weighted children on either end, but that’s not quite the case.
In reality, we’re all engaged in a conversation with the makers of these apps, learning from one another what it means to give preference to one or the other side, feeling out the respective drawbacks of favoring intuitiveness or fidelity. Each new app builds on what we learned from the last, as ideas bounce between developers, mutating and molting along the way. Similarly, as users keep trying new ways of doing things, common knowledge accrues, feeding continually escalating expectations. If we step back, it becomes obvious that what we’re looking for isn’t the perfect balance at all, but rather the right kind of imbalance, a balance that is likely not knowable without a lot of trial and error.
When we eventually achieve a workable notion of “best practices” they will almost certainly tilt more towards one side of the fulcrum, maybe dramatically so, rather than leveling steadily. We may never get the ability to prototype anything that we can dream without having to hack some heap of counter-intuitive code, and we may never be able to sufficiently empower the greatest number of creative UX thinkers without sacrificing the ability to tweak every parameter.
Put another way, will the winner of this category—“The Photoshop of prototyping”—look more like InVision or more like Origami? The first comes from the camp of decidedly simple but frequently infuriating precursors like Keynote and the masochistic joy of editing a document on your phone, and the latter literally hails from the brain trust that brought us such complex wonders as Asana and figuring out your privacy settings within an omnipotent social network.
Luckily for us, the need for an answer is not yet pressing. Prototyping as a craft, or even as a subset of the craft of user experience design, is still young enough that it would be premature for us to try and settle a winner in the short term. This somewhat awkward, highly formative stage in which we basically get a brand new prototyping app every month or so is actually one of those rare necessities that feels like a luxury. All these independent attempts at figuring out how this new discipline should work are good for our craft, not to mention tons of fun, and there’s no reason it has to end soon. Barring a butterfly flapping its wings the wrong way on a trading floor in China, it may in fact turn out to be a good long time until we need to declare a winner at all in this space. To be sure, a winner will be crowned eventually—that’s capitalism, folks—but until then, it’s a wonderful time to be a designer.
The steady stream of new UX prototyping software continues. Last week saw the widely praised release of Principle, an OS X app that allows users to design and animate anything from multi-screen flows to individual interactions and behaviors. It’s the brainchild of Daniel Hooper, a former Apple engineer who worked on core photography apps for iOS and OS X. Hooper left the Bay Area in 2014 and moved home to Atlanta, where he was able to focus on creating Principle as a small, independent concern. I asked him a few questions about the launch over email.
Q. How did Principle start?
I left Apple a little over two years ago and spent a month or so thinking about what I wanted to do next—a prototyping tool was at the perfect intersection of my skill set, interests, and market need. I hired contractors for bits and pieces, but most of the work was done alone. Creative tools are a big project, so I’ll be growing the team now that Principle has launched.
Q. How does Principle fit into a designer’s toolbox? What does it replace, and what does it complement?
Principle is primarily a tool to help designers think about and try ideas. You never know if you’re onto something until you see it. Once you do have something you like, it’s easy to explain the idea by sharing the Principle file.
As for what it might replace or complement: that’s a tough question because designers come from many disciplines—each of which has different approaches for animation and interaction. People have described Principle as: “An easier After Effects!,” “Keynote for designers!,” “Quartz Composer without the mind-blow!” So the way Principle fits into your toolbox largely depends on your background.
Q. Is the product that shipped the product you imagined at the outset?
Definitely not. When Principle started, it was an iPad app for visual programming. I thought it would be nice for designers to design touch interfaces on a touch screen, and that complex behavior was what designers really wanted to do, if only there was an interface for it. User studies proved me wrong.
Q. What kind of user research?
I did quite a few interviews with designers in the Atlanta area. What turned out to be most helpful was to have them talk me through some of their recent work—you start to see how their tools affect what kind of work they produced. After development started, I would meet with designers every one to two weeks and silently watch them use Principle. This was painful, but it was a priceless reality check for all my designs. These user studies are the single biggest reason why Principle turned out the way it did.
Q. When you look at the market for design tools and all of the activity in it lately, all of the new indie products, what do you find notable and how do you think the market will evolve?
Technically, I expect tools will move away from web technologies—they were a convenient shortcut to get off the ground, but as more people begin prototyping and more complex things get built, the web’s limitations will start to show. If you want to see the future of software, and design, read research papers from the 1960s-70s.
I’m interested in tools that try a new approach—there have been a lot of scripting and “noodle” prototyping tools, but I think those are a poor match for the way designers think. Some argue that these tools have no limits. I disagree. They limit the way you think to that of a computer.
Q. What’s ahead for Principle?
There is a lot planned: refinements like you might expect, but a lot of totally new things too. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but I believe that the most exciting days for Principle are ahead.
Photographer Henry Hargreaves has a great sense of humor about technology—and a very canny understanding of the role that it plays in our lives. He writes:
Electronics have become almost a holy device, the way a new Apple device sends people out of their minds. But as soon as the next model comes out the last is immediately forgotten. This is a commentary about the similarities between tech culture and fast food. Quickly devoured and then discarded because of our appetite for the newest product.
I’ve been writing so much about how the market for design tools has been changing in fascinating, vibrant ways that I’ve felt a little left out of the action. It’s not a stretch to say that there’s never been a better time to make software for people like us, and it’s only going to get more interesting in the months and years ahead.
Rather than let this golden age pass me by, I’ve decided to take action: I’m thrilled to announce that effective immediately I’m joining the team at Adobe, based at their brand new, growing space at Fifth Avenue and 15th Street in New York City. I’ll be working with Behance co-founder and Adobe VP of Products for Mobile and Community Scott Belsky on a number of new software initiatives for designers—which are going to be awesome.
Of course, this comes on the heels of launching the brand new version of Wildcard (go download it!) just a few weeks ago. The timing seems incongruous, I know, but it’s actually perfect.
Though I’m incredibly proud of the app, for me the best thing about my experience at Wildcard has been its team—particularly my incredibly fruitful collaboration with Steve Meszaros, my colleague in design there for nearly two years. He’s an amazing craftsperson and a brilliant creative mind, and he deserves as much credit as anybody for the wonderful reception that Wildcard’s design and user experience have received.
This summer, as we neared the app’s launch, it became more and more apparent that Steve was ready for the next stage of his career. When I discussed this with Jordan Cooper, Wildcard’s co-founder and CEO, we realized that this was an opportunity for a transition that could benefit everyone: Steve could take over the day-to-day design operations and I could move to a less intensive, more strategic role.
It’s a change that actually brings me full circle with Wildcard. Two years ago, I started working with Jordan and his co-founders Doug Petkanics and Eric Tang as an advisor, stopping by periodically to consult on how to build out the design discipline at the company. It was never my intention to get more involved than that, but when I saw the kind of company that they were building, and I got to know the team that they were assembling, it struck me as an opportunity not to be missed. I still very much feel that way, so I’m very happy that I’ve found a new arrangement that lets me stay involved. Wildcard has a very bright future and I’ll still be a part of it.
Now I’m turning my focus to the enormous opportunities that lie ahead in creativity software. When I first started thinking about making this move, I talked to three companies with whom I’m friendly: there was Adobe, there was a startup with several significant rounds of funding, and there was another late-stage tech giant. I could tell from the outside that they were all doing really interesting things in this space; as I talked with them further and they selectively revealed details of their plans for the next few years, it became even harder to decide among them—there are some really exciting products in store for all of us, as designers, if these plans bear fruit.
In the end, though, Adobe was the choice that made the most sense for me. I’ve had a wonderful, ongoing collaboration with the folks there (see Adobe Comp CC!) for nearly two years, especially Scott and his crackerjack team of truly committed designers and engineers. In spite of my criticisms of Adobe’s past strategies, what I’ve seen throughout that relationship has been a new kind of company emerging from the old one. This new Adobe is one that is more designer-focused than ever before, that values openness and engagement with the community more than ever before, and that has managed to fundamentally restructure how it defines success.
That last point is a crucial one. Thanks to its frankly amazing transition away from boxed software and towards cloud services, Adobe is no longer incentivized to simply get designers to buy Photoshop, InDesign, After Effects, etc. In this new world, Adobe’s success is now predicated on whether they can materially contribute to a better creative ecosystem for everyone—consumers, users, designers and third-party software publishers alike. Put another way: the design tools market is no longer a zero-sum game for Adobe, and competitors don’t have to lose in order for Adobe to win. That vision looks exactly like the one that I aspire to for the market; one in which software giants, indie developers and everyone in between are all able to make the creative ecosystem better in their own ways.
I’ll be joining this campaign as both a designer and as a member of the community. There are some truly impressive projects happening at Adobe right now, and I hope to play bit parts in bringing some of them to life. And there are also some huge opportunities to create new software and work with third-party developers who are solving real problems for designers, and I’ll be rolling up my sleeves to make contributions there, too. Relatively little of this is mapped out with certainty, and in fact, lots of it is uncharted territory, which is even more exciting to me. In fact, later today I’ll be hopping on a plane to visit Adobe’s San Francisco headquarters for the first time, to start figuring out how to make all of this happen. Wish me luck.
Realtime Text is a handsome sans serif typeface from Paris-based Swiss designer Juri Zaech and it’s on sale for half off at YWFT through Sep 20, which is what caught my eye. More interestingly, Realtime Text is based on Zaech’s own Realtime, a terrific fixed-width font that brings a surprising amount of warmth to machine-centric uses like tabular data, data dashboards and informational readouts. It’s unusual to get such a well-designed monospaced typeface that also has seamlessly matched, proportionally-spaced siblings.
In this Print Magazine article, Sagi Haviv of prolific branding studio Chermayeff & Geismar drops some knowledge on his firm’s approach to designing logos. Specifically, Haviv explains how they decide whether the principal form of each logo should be a wordmark—the name of the company rendered in a unique way—or a symbol—a trademark-ready icon:
Creating a symbol can be a great design exercise, but we try to be very disciplined about only developing a symbol when there is a compelling strategic reason to do so. This is because visual identities work through familiarity, so any new visual element has to be learned first in order to be established. Using a symbol as part of the logo means that there is an additional element that has to be learned. We find that people are generally willing to learn as little as possible.
Haviv then runs through several examples of wordmarks that Chermayeff & Geismar have developed for brands like Mobil, Barneys New York, Hearst, Showtime and more. There’s so much to learn in just these few paragraphs.
Haviv argues that wordmarks are much easier to trademark than symbols, especially at this point in the broader history of corporate iconography when countless companies have trademarked symbols of nearly every possible shape, size and color.
No matter how excited we are with a new symbol design, it still has to be tested by the trademark attorneys to make sure it is ownable. There is no more humbling moment for a designer than when we receive the fat spiral-bound reports with all the symbols similar to our designs, and we can see how many designers out there have already thought about the same exact thing that we thought was so original. Although our designs usually survive this process, it is nice every now and then to be able to skip the search.
As valuable as this advice is, it seems to overlook a fact of the contemporary branding environment that is very real for a huge number of today’s brands: they need to be represented by an app icon. Of course, you can squeeze a wordmark into an app icon, but if your company’s name is more than just a few characters, it can be a tough exercise.
Here’s all the design tools news that’s crossed my desk over the past two weeks or so. First up, the cavalcade of new software tools from indie developers continues unabated—which is awesome, if you ask me.
Principle, a new OS X application that “makes it easy to create animated and interactive user interface designs,” emerged from beta this week. Principle is focused on prototyping and is well suited for designing individual animations and interactions or multi-screen user flows. Beta tester Benjamin Berger wrote about his experiences with the app in this Medium article. Based on feedback I’ve heard from designers who have been trying it this week, it seems like a solid release, and I’ll be giving it a spin myself soon. If you’re using it, email me and let me know what you think. Principle is available for trial and purchase at principleformac.com
Wake is a new app and service billing itself as “A private space to share and discuss design work with your team.” It too is out of beta this week. Wired wrote about it in this article. You may or may not find the app’s promotional video to be incredibly obnoxious. wake.io
FlySolo is a new project management tool for designers that’s in private beta. It promises “an individual environment” for each project as well as extensive integrations with the third-party tools popular with designers. Sign up for access at flysolo.co.
InVision unveiled Workflow, a “design project management tool” that integrates with the company’s flagship prototyping features, and Boards, a tool that lets you “Create custom moodboards and brand boards, share image galleries, present in-progress or final design assets” and more.
Finally, some miscellaneous items that caught my eye because I have so much free time to surf the web looking for fun stuff.
Are you interested in learning Framer? Are you interested in doing so via the cartoon likeness of a surprisingly divisive pop star? Lucky for you, designer Michael Lee wrote this post at Medium that shows you how to “Learn Framer with Kanye.”