Sketch Toolbox

If you want to get a sense of how vibrant the community around Bohemian Coding’s Sketch is, take a look at the plethora of plugins being written by independent developers to supplement the app’s core functionality. They’re a small but growing number, and full of creativity and ingenuity. Some of my favorites are RenameIt, which allows you to quickly change the name of a group of layers with sequential numbering, and Content Generator, which instantly creates objects with dummy data.

This plugin market is still in its infancy; almost all of them are free, and most all are ongoing GitHub projects rather than completed works. The new utility Sketch Toolbox, now in beta, may help advance the state of the art though. It provides a user-friendly plugin management interface that gives you access to virtually all known Sketch plugins at a glance; you can install any plugin directly from Sketch Toolbox without having to manually download and install it. This surmounts a huge barrier for accessing these plugins; grabbing one from its GitHub page is not difficult, but it’s far less convenient than it could be, as Sketch Toolbar ably demonstrates.

Sketch Toolbox Interface

If it’s successful, Sketch Toolbox could spur developers to create more polished plugins, and may even give them an opportunity to sell them, essentially creating an App Store-like ecosystem. That’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves, though; for now, it does plenty in simply providing an elegant solution to an annoying problem. I’d say it’s an invaluable aid to any designer working in Sketch, and during the beta it’s free, to boot.

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From Paper to Screen

This graduate video project from French designer Thibault de Fournas is a brief visual recounting of the transition of typography from paper to cinema screen. At just over two minutes, it doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Nevertheless it’s lovely.

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Instant Lab

The Impossible Project has built an unlikely (if not, um, impossible) business on top of the ashes of the iconic but now defunct Polaroid empire. Their reconstituted version of Polaroid’s instant film has been commercially available—and has sold well—for some time now. They also operate a studio in New York City where customers can get large-scale portraits of themselves taken on instant film; the studio doubles as a shop for rentals and retail sales of refurbished vintage Polaroid cameras and other instant photography paraphernalia. It’s pretty impressive.

Instant Lab

The company’s first original product is interesting too: Instant Lab is a US$199 device that transfers Instagram photos to real world, analog instant film prints. You put your iPhone in one end and a pack of Impossible Project film in the other end, and voila, a pretend Polaroid photograph becomes a real world Polaroid-esque photo print (a free app controls exposure time). The dizzyingly meta implications and reality-questioning implications aside, the idea is pretty smart. More at the-impossible-project.com.

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Google Catches Itself in the Mirror

This is a brilliant if spooky Tumblr from artist Mario Santamaria that exposes a meta-layer of the Google Art Project, which documents artworks, galleries and ornate buildings around the world. Santamaria has collated instances wherein Google’s camera captures its own image in the mirror. The hint of self-awareness, even if illusory, is surprisingly terrifying, perhaps made even more so by its inadvertency.

The Camera in the Mirror
The Camera in the Mirror
The Camera in the Mirror
The Camera in the Mirror

Many more images here.

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Titles for A Most Wanted Man

The trailer for Anton Corbijn’s new film “A Most Wanted Man,” features some beautiful animated typography, some of which I’ve crudely excerpted here as an animated GIF. Each letter is made up of jigsaw-like pieces that turn in space, creating a striking assembly effect. Hopefully the movie itself will feature the same animation more extensively.

Titles for “A Man Most Wanted”

This is Corbijn’s third feature film. His first two, the Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and the spy elegy “The American,” were affecting, if a little self-serious. “A Man Most Wanted” is notable for featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last full performance; the early reviews at Rotten Tomatoes look promising.

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Brill Bruisers

Canadian indie rock stalwarts New Pornographers have a new album coming in August called “Brill Bruisers,” and it has a fantastic sleeve by Steven Wilson and Thomas Burden.

“Brill Bruisers” by Steven Wilson and Thomas Burden

Though computer generated, the imagery is an update (a successful one, if you ask me) of the California airbrush style of commercial art from the 1970s, as documented in Norman Hathaway’s excellent book “Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of California Airbrush Art.” Though sadly already out of print, Hathaway’s book offers a superb overview of what was, in the 1970s and ’80s, the dominant aesthetic in record covers and advertising design. The style fell out of favor for many years, but everything has its season.

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Walking City

Described as a “slowly evolving video sculpture,” this mesmerizing eight-minute animation tracks the stride of an abstract, golem-like figure as its composition changes from faceted panels to scaffolding to blocks to sand-like grains and more. The elements at play are “the language of materials and patterns seen in radical architecture” and the figure is intended to represent the notion a city or urban space.

It was created by the UK media art and design studio Universal Everything, so you know it’s cool.

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Google, Roboto and Design PR

Google’s endeavors in typography are the subject of an article this week at New York Magazine’s Web site called “Google Is Designing the Font of the Future.” Writer Kevin Roose details the company’s recent history of crafting a proprietary typeface for its Android platform, starting with the little-loved Droid typeface, then the moderately more successful Roboto typeface. Now, Roboto is seeing some major improvements in a new revision (the company feels that typefaces no longer have to be issued in the monolithic manner of metal type, and can instead be continually updated like any other software) as part of Google’s new “material design” aesthetic initiative.

Google’s Roboto Typeface

New York is obviously not a magazine for a type-savvy audience, so the article naturally starts off with the kind of disclaimers that designers have had to grin and bear whenever general news outlets write about our craft, e.g., “Among the thousands of features on your smartphone, one you’ve probably never thought about is which fonts it uses.” This is standard stuff; not original but forgivable. But when Roose delves into the specifics of Roboto’s enhancements, things get a bit fishy:

For starters, the whole Roboto font family has been ‘rounded out,’ as designer Christian Robertson told me, with differences visible in letters including uppercase B, C, and D. The rectangular dots above the lowercase i and j have been turned into circles—an attempt, Robertson says, to make them look ‘friendlier.’ The spacing of certain letter combinations has been tweaked. And some of the more unorthodox details—the curved leg of the uppercase R, for example—have been replaced with straighter, less ornate versions. The overall effect is that the new Roboto looks a bit more casual and less angular than the old one, more like a friend’s handwriting than a professional designer’s efforts.

These changes sound like legitimate improvements, but they seem to be about par for the course in the refinement of any typeface. They’re just presented in this article in a hocus pocus manner intended to wow uninitiated audiences with the dark witchcraft of type design. There’s nothing remarkable here at all, and certainly nothing to suggest that Roboto deserves to be thought of as “the font of the future.” Even the mention that this new iteration of Roboto has been tested “on a ‘big pile of devices,’ ranging from tiny smartwatches up to huge flat-screen TVs, to make sure it looked good at every size and from every angle” is a paper-thin claim. While commendable, that kind of testing is de rigueur for any font that hopes to be an operating system default in this day and age.

I don’t point this out to mock or criticize the author’s errors or misconceptions about what goes into designing typefaces, but rather in fact to marvel at how well Google is selling the story of its design efforts.

There’s essentially no news in this article other than, “Google has revised Roboto using some recent best practices of type design.” And yet the Mountain View company has been able to spin that non-story into a story that claims that the company is fundamentally reinventing typography. I’ve seen the same publicity gears at work again and again over the past year, whether it’s about material design, Google’s card metaphor usage, their maps redesign, or even the narrative of how the company is integrating design itself.

Last month I wrote that Google “is writing a fascinating case study for how to retrofit design into a tech giant’s DNA.” Part of that case study is this very tactic of the company touting its newfound religion of design far and wide, early and often. Even if some of the coverage, like this New York article, is not particularly substantive, the company has nevertheless been successful in portraying design as integral to virtually every new consumer-facing product it’s released over the past few years. This is in marked contrast to its legacy of creating products so lacking in aesthetic élan that, well, you could describe them as user interfaces that looked great on the radio.

Though I have my quibbles with many of Google’s initiatives, tactics and products, I can’t deny that the commitment that they made several years ago to design has been resolute. Lots of companies talk about design, but Google has really doubled down and fully invested its energies in making design work within its corporate walls. What’s more, the commitment has been productive; it’s resulted in real, tangible results. Roboto is not my favorite typeface and I seriously doubt whether it accurately previses the future very much, but as a symbol of a company that has fundamentally transformed its relation to design, it’s very impressive.

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