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’m not sure I completely understand what “Mute” is, but it appears to be a kind of promotion for the typeface Bowling Script by Alejandro Paul of Argentina’s Sudtipos type foundry.
“Mute” describes itself as “a visual essay conceived from the design of a phone case whose function is not to protect it but silence it.” It takes the form of either 3D renderings of cases or actual fabricated cases, ornamented with tiny figurines in various meaningful poses, alongside even more meaningful words that are typeset in Bowling Script letterforms which have been extruded with great drama.
I can’t pretend to really understand what the message of this project is, nor can I pretend to understand what Paul is going on at length about in this lengthy, not exactly cogent essay about the typeface. What I do know is that the project and the typeface are a real feast for the eyes. In fact, I wish more typefaces demonstrated their wares with showcases as unorthodox as this one.
Today is Thursday, which means another episode of my favorite new weekly show: “Serial,” a podcast spinoff from public radio institution “This American Life.” The premise of “Serial,” now on its sixth episode, is the examination of a single, true story for twelve episodes, with each installment shedding more and more light on its events and characters, and all told in the distinctive, first-person journalistic style of “This American Life”. More specifically, the podcast’s first season sets itself the challenge of solving a murder.
The subject is the 1999 strangulation of Hae Min Lee, a female high school student who lived in Baltimore County, Maryland. The victim’s ex-boyfriend and fellow high school student, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and has served the last fifteen years in jail, though as “Serial” demonstrates in sometimes frustratingly believable detail, the case against Syed was full of inconsistencies and unfocused details. Host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis are exceedingly scrupulous in their pursuit of a more complete, less ambiguous understanding of the events surrounding Lee’s death than what was aired at Syed’s trial. They make a point to remain skeptical of both the case for Syed’s innocence as well as the case against it. With each episode, Koenig carefully reviews testimony, interviews trial witnesses afresh, even retraces drives and footpaths from fifteen years ago. She presents the findings clearheadedly, without leaping to conclusions. It’s good old-fashioned, gumshoe journalism delivered in a totally gripping, immersive audio package.
The reception to “Serial” has been almost universally positive, and despite it existing as an audio-only program, it’s gained the traction of a high-quality cable drama in that each episode is eagerly anticipated and discussed. In fact, I find that it bears a striking resemblance to HBO’s “True Detective,” which also caught the imagination of its audience. Both follow a single story for a single season, both examine events long in the past, and both revolve around murders of young women.
The difference is not just that “Serial” is based in fact, but also that it goes to enormous lengths to portray those involved in the case as fully fleshed out human beings. “True Detective” received lots of critical praise during its run, but I found it full of absurd and unbelievable characters and a ridiculous amount of phony Acting-with-a-capital-A. Not only that, but without its elaborate production values and unnecessary nudity and gore, what remained of HBO’S show was a wholly unsurprising structure and a lengthy inventory of clichéd plot details. At the end of its first full season, “Serial” will tally roughly the same number of hours as the first season of “True Detective,” and comparing the two will serve as a striking demonstration of how even money, star power and the vividness of television can pale next to extremely thoughtful storytelling.
This slide deck from Andreesen Horowitz analyst Benedict Evans is an essential overview of how mobile technology is changing our definition of technology itself, how it’s coming to supplant the things that we previously took for granted as established elements of the technological landscape.
There is no point in drawing a distinction between the future of technology and the future of mobile. They are the same. In other words, technology is now outgrowing the tech industry.
It’s simply and concisely written but its argument is very potent. It will only take you a few moments to flip through the relatively short 45 slides, but every one of them is rich with insight.
Shortly after Apple’s new iPhone 6 models went on sale in September, the company proudly announced that they had sold over 10 million units in the first weekend, a significant improvement over the 9 million units they sold at the launch of the previous models. Similarly, after about a week of the company’s Apple Pay system being publicly available, CEO Tim Cook gleefully touted that, in just its first three days, new users had activated over 1 million credit cards on the system. “That is remarkable momentum,” remarked The New York Times, dryly.
Between these two events, on 17 Oct, two new models of the company’s iPad line were also announced. It’s now more than ten days after they went on sale, and yet there have been no sales figure announcements, no bragging about new record-breaking numbers of iPads pre-ordered, no new milestones in adoption reached. There’s just silence. In and of itself that might not be remarkable, but the lack of news around sales numbers seems especially suspicious given that iPad sales have declined now for three quarters in a row.
What conclusion can we draw from this? It’s impossible to say definitively without Apple’s guidance, but it seems likely that the new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 have not re-ignited the line, that their initial sales fell short of expectations. This would not be a surprise; almost as soon as it debuted, critics derided the iPad Mini 3 as a paltry upgrade over the iPad Mini 2. And while the iPad Air 2 was in fact a technological improvement over its own predecessor, it’s not a satisfying response to the most urgent challenge facing the whole line: that of customers asking, “Why do I need an iPad? What would I use it for?”
In fact, that has been the existential question facing the iPad since its first days. That it remains unanswered four years later, amid declining numbers, represents a notable, rare failure of execution on Apple’s part.
The iPad does a million things well, but none of them so well that customers have come to regard it as a critical, must-have—and must-upgrade—device. A lot has been said about customers opting to hang on to iPads longer than phones, and there’s some truth to that. But peel back that reason just a bit and the core problem is revealed: Apple has not given customers sufficient reason to upgrade every year or two, the way they have done with the iPhone, where upgrades almost feel compulsory.
There’s even an argument to be made that the company has fallen down on the job of innovating in the iPad line. The distinctive features of the iPad Air 2—a dramatically thinner profile, a dramatically faster processor—are largely hardware based. Improved specs matter, but Apple knows better than anyone that computing technology doesn’t win the market on specifications. What wins is superb software that makes people recognize how their lives could be made better by owning the underlying hardware. Over at The Verge, Nilay Patel cannily captures this lapse in Apple product development as part of his review of the iPad Air 2:
If the hardware of the iPad Air 2 demonstrates the overwhelming power of small iterative improvements, then the software represents the failings of that approach. The overall experience of using the iPad Air 2 in 2014 is a case study in missed opportunities and untapped potential. Apple has all but stopped adding tablet-specific features to iOS—the minor two-paned mode for landscape apps on the iPhone 6 Plus is a more significant rethinking of how to manage a larger screen size than anything added to the iPad Air 2 this year.
In many ways, the iPad has become exactly what many of its critics said it was in the beginning: just a big iPhone without its own phone number. And now, with the oversized iPhone 6 Plus on the market and in such high demand that it’s still back-ordered, the iPad isn’t even the most interesting oversized iPhone anymore. For the millions of people who bought new iPhones in September, the prospect of buying a larger, less capable version of the same device understandably lacks appeal.
To be clear, I’m making this argument as a long-term believer in the potential of tablets in general, and in the iPad in particular. Three years ago I built a company based on that potential. When it failed, I came back to the platform late last year and convinced Adobe to use what I had learned to let me take another crack at building an iPad app for designers. I’m also an inveterate user of my own iPad; anecdotally what I hear more than anything else is that people rarely use the iPads they already own, but I use mine multiple times a day, every day. And naturally I pre-ordered the iPad Air 2 as soon as it was available.
So as an iPad enthusiast, when I consider the struggles that the iPad has experienced lately, I find myself frustrated by Apple’s seeming inattention to its pressing needs. But I’m also frustrated by what appears to be the company’s own lack of understanding of what they have wrought with the iPad.
This device has opened a door to a new kind of interaction with technology, something much, much different than what has come before, something not fully understood yet. But Apple seems less interested in coming to grips with that, and more focused on demonstrating that the iPad is a great device to replicate other things: reading print magazines, drawing and painting with “real” art supplies, or duplicating existing desktop workflows. Apple’s own iWork apps for the iPad are prime examples; they’ve ostensibly been made iPad-friendly but in practice they’re oddly reworked versions of software that just works better on the desktop.
And that may be the best summarization of the way that Apple seems to think about software on these devices: they believe apps should be optimized where really they should be reimagined. To be fair, Apple does occasionally show signs of understanding this. The video-editing app Replay, which was demoed alongside the new iPads earlier this month, shows that kind of reimagination at work. Replay looks nothing like iMovie, Final Cut or Premiere, and yet its appeal is clear: it’s a streamlined reinvention of the video editing process, powered by computer vision and underpinned with the understanding that workflows should not just be simpler on the iPad, they should be effortless.
That’s exactly the ambition that guides Project LayUp, my collaboration with Adobe, but until it launches it would be premature to claim any kind of success. Whether LayUp pulls it off or not, I do believe that the cure for Apple’s iPad woes will not be thinner, more powerful hardware alone, but also a whole new class of apps that take a completely different tack to imagining how people can work with computing technology.
What will it take to get there? The short answer is a new commitment from Apple to this product line, and a willingness to reexamine the company’s entire approach to date. For instance, I’m not entirely sure it’s in the best interest of the iPad to be tied so closely to the iPhone. Ultimately, a more aggressive branching of the iPad’s operating system away from the iPhone’s operating system may be necessary. Doing so may be the only way that Apple starts to answer the critical questions at the heart of the line: “What, exactly, is unique about the iPad? What can it do better than any other device? And why can’t customers live without it?”
If Mike Tyson had an animated cartoon show, would he hang out with a teenage girl, a ghost, and a talking pigeon, and would they spend their time driving around solving mysteries? Thankfully we live in a world where the answer appears to be “yes.”
“Mike Tyson Mysteries” premiered yesterday on Adult Swim, where you can watch the first episode in its entirety. The A.V. Club has a review.
Peter Merholz, a lauded designer and veteran of San Francisco’s design services industry, published an interesting blog post inspired by the recently announced closure of the San Francisco office of Smart Design, as well as by the completely unexpected acquisition of Adaptive Path, a leading independent design agency in that city for many years, by the financial services company Capital One. Merholz posits that studios and agencies are suffering as more and more companies double-down on building strong in-house design teams. He wrote:
What’s actually happening, according to friends at agencies, is that clients’ willingness to buy design from agencies is decreasing, and project budgets have been shrinking. And the prevailing theory is that this is happening because companies are building in-house teams, and that’s where their ‘design budgets’ are going. Whereas in the past, a company might spend 20% of a design budget internally and 80% externally, that’s now swapped.
This is consistent with my thoughts on where the profession is heading. Three years ago, in a post called “The End of Client Services,” I wrote:
It’s not as if the services model works so well for clients anymore, either. It’s one thing to manufacture a widget and turn to a design studio to create a logo, a package, a brochure for it—to basically tell its story. But more and more, every business is becoming a digital business, is responsible for digital products. If a company is not able to design, develop and maintain their own products without outside help, then what kind of future does that company have?
It makes sense that it’s happening first in San Francisco, where there is presumably a larger concentration of potential studio/agency clients who have gotten hip to this idea that it no longer makes as much sense to farm out their design needs. But the phenomenon won’t be restricted to the Bay Area, not by any means. There are both material benefits and genuine downsides to our profession when this kind of fundamental shift happens, but in my opinion the shift is inevitable.
In his “Strategies” column in today’s New York Times, economics reporter Jeff Sommer has some eye-opening comments on how important the iPhone is to current economic activity.
‘The iPhone is having a measurable impact,’ said Michael Feroli, the chief United States economist for JPMorgan Chase. ‘It’s a little gadget, but it costs a lot and it seems that everybody has one. When you do the multiplication, it’s going to matter.’ He estimates that iPhone sales are adding one-quarter to one-third of a percentage point to the annualized growth rate of the gross domestic product.
I looked it up for my own curiosity, and 2013 GDP was estimated at US$16.8 trillion, according to this site. One-quarter of one percent of that is US$42 billion. I’m no mathlete, so please let me know if I forgot to carry a one in there.
This speed test between the iPhone 6, the Galaxy S5, and the HTC One (M8) shows Apple’s newest handset roundly beating the others. I don’t usually link to this kind of technical content because I don’t have a ton of value to add on these topics. I’m also relatively unfamiliar with speed measurement techniques; this one, in which all three phones sequentially launch an identical gauntlet of apps, struck me as clever.
The apps are arranged on each phone’s home screen in three rows of four each, with the first one at top-left being the clock app. The tester starts a timer in that app and then, one by one, launches each of the other apps starting at the top row and working his way down to the twelfth app, at the bottom right. He then returns to the clock app, taps the lap button, and proceeds to run through the sequence again. After that second lap, he stops the timer in the clock app again. It’s a very basic yet very smart way of measuring speed that seems to be a useful proxy for real world usage.
A new series from Kirby Ferguson, the prolific video essayist behind the fantastic series “Everything Is a Remix.” Released episodically as new installments are completed, “This Is Not a Conspiracy Theory” examines “the quest to understand the hidden forces shaping our lives.”
The first episode is free, but a US$15 subscription is required to view the subsequent six episodes—as well as to access the eighty-minute film that will be edited from the series at completion. This is a very interesting way to crowdfund a project, as Ferguson intends to incorporate audience feedback into the course of the series as it progresses.
Heretically, I always roll my eyes a bit when grown adults express their excessive affection for the “Star Wars” franchise. I like the original trilogy fine, but I just find my generation’s preoccupation with it to be a little absurd, especially when articulated as elaborate homages on the Internet. Nevertheless, once in a while, a “Star Wars” project catches my eye and really impresses me, like these manipulated photographs from Thomas Dagg. With great skill and abundant good taste, he’s seamlessly inserted familiar creatures, props and spacecraft from the films into mundane everyday scenes. Some of the compositions are so subtle you really need to hunt for the “Star Wars” reference, which happens to render them quietly hilarious at the same time.