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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Drunk User Testing

This witty bookmarklet simulates the effect of looking at your site while inebriated. It uses JavaScript to seesaw any web page back and forth and slightly blurs the text, recreating with reasonable accuracy a feeling that will be familiar to many of you reading this right now. It claims to give designers and developers “insight into how users actually experience interfaces”—implying, I suppose, that there is a lot of under-reported browsing while boozing happening out there.

Drunk User Testing

Grab the bookmarklet at drunkusertesting.com.

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Calculating the True Cost of a Cheeseburger

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who has been steadily producing a superb body of work on the hidden implications of the food we eat, details the “true cost of a cheeseburger” in this column. His accounting is based on the economic concept of “externalities,” defined by Wikipedia as a “cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.” These externalities include pollution, suppressed wages, and obesity, among others.

…Cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or—ideally—both.

An average cheeseburger costs US$4.49, but according to Bittman’s research, the externalities can amount to as much as an additional US$2.90 per burger. Multiply that by the 16 billion burgers that Americans eat per year, and it becomes obvious that the person who cooks and sells a burger and the person who eats it are not the only economic players affected by that transaction. And that’s just figuring in the externalities that can be empirically calculated; Bittman goes into estimates for those that are not so easily quantified as well.

Last year, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales. So it’s not a stretch to say that the external costs of burgers may be as high as, or even outweigh, the ‘benefits’ (if indeed there are any other than profits). If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.

I love a good cheeseburger, but this macro-view gives me pause. Read the full article here.

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Wrong Answer

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has the story of an epic cheating scandal centering around Parks Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia, where teachers changed answers on standardized tests in order to improve overall results for their school. The article digs beneath the superficial narrative—that Parks teachers forged test answers in order to save their jobs—to reveal something much more complex: a struggling public school desperately trying to preserve the incremental positive advancement of its beleaguered student population in the face of a heavily politicized and unrealistic focus on statistical improvement.

Unlike recent cheating scandals at Harvard and at Stuyvesant High School, where privileged students were concerned with their own advancement, those who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.

While not blameless, Parks teachers were working in the larger interest of their students. The school resided in an underprivileged area of Atlanta, where students’ families were routinely broken or plagued by drugs or violence, and so the staff were determined to prevent the closure of yet another institution in the neighborhood, causing yet another public structure to be abandoned. They subsisted on typically meager wages and fought valiantly to give their charges every chance to surpass their conditions. And it turns out Parks Middle School was not alone; an investigation revealed that cheating was rampant throughout the school district.

After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a ‘culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.’ They wrote that data had been ‘used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.’ Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make targets or be placed on a Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination. At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.

Read the full article here.

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Bélo from Airbnb

Here’s the new Airbnb logo. They call it “the Bélo.”

Airbnb Bélo

Apparently no one checked for inadvertent sexual connotations. The mark looks like an abstraction of ALL the private parts.

I can’t pretend to know what went into designing the Bélo, but the end result is surprisingly tone deaf. This seems like a case of a still young startup that wants to assign meaning to its stratospherically successful brand so badly that it has quickly gotten in over its head. The story that Airbnb tells in order to contextualize its new identity seems similarly hamfisted and overly self-important to the point of satire. Airbnb is successfully disrupting the tremendous and staid lodging industry, but it’s hard to imagine this particular combination of pomposity and message mismanagement from say Holiday Inn.

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