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 Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair 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.
I was at a winter fair at my daughter’s school over the weekend and spotted a bin full of plastic letters with magnets attached to the back, the kind you’d put on a refrigerator door. I got lucky with the lighting and captured this photo with my new Google Pixel phone (more about which later).
November was a good time to lose myself in film and try to forget about the outside world. I even made it to theaters four times, where I saw three of the best movies of the year (I wrote about them in this post) and one of the least consequential (rhymes with “proctor mange”). I also spent a lot of time on the bountiful new streaming service FilmStruck, a haven for cinephiles that was a source of great comfort. In total, I watched nineteen flicks.
DesignScape is an experimental system from Adobe Research and the computer science department at the University of Toronto. Its purpose is to demonstrate a system that “aids the design process by making interactive layout suggestions, i.e., changes in the position, scale, and alignment of elements.” The user is presented with a set of elements typical to most design problems—a headline, blocks of text, logo, icons and illustrations, contact information, etc. As these are manipulated, the system automatically generates new layout suggestions based on the input. The user can choose one of the suggestions to further refine, at which point the system generates still more suggestions. It’s like having a design assistant at your side as you figure out a layout problem. Watch this video to see it in action.
The examples here are crude, both in the quality of the basic elements and in the suggestions that are generated by the system. But watching the video, it’s apparent that there’s a respectable “layout intelligence” at work here; the system is making reasonably well-informed decisions about how the elements should be placed in relation to one another, resized, aligned etc.
In fact the “quality” of the design decision-making in DesignScape is based on data gathered through asking humans to produce layouts via Mechanical Turk. It’s easy to imagine that a wider scale effort involving more designers and/or more qualified designers could, at some point, produce much more refined outputs.
Even so, what’s on display here all seems fairly academic until it’s demonstrated on a tablet. Fine tuned manipulation of design elements is difficult on touch surfaces; in this context, the idea of assisted graphic design layout suddenly seems not only viable but desirable. Rather than something that might come someday in the future, it suddenly feels like something that could make sense now.
It seems safe to say that while a certain segment of graphic design will never be completely replaced by automated systems, at some point in the near future systems like this will become commonplace, either as a replacement for lower-dollar design needs, or even as a complement to big ticket design processes. Remember, there was a time when many of the world’s most famous graphic designers scoffed at the idea of ever needing a personal computer to do their work.
Adobe’s marquee apps like Photoshop and Illustrator get a lot of criticism, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not. But they’re still workhorses for millions of people, and as a reader reminded me recently, often they feature the kind of attention to detail that really matters to designers, even in the smallest ways.
Sometimes it’s the little things. Illustrator has the ability to align dashes to corners. For the life of me, I can find no other Mac graphics program (Affinity Designer, Omnigraffle, Graphic [Autodesk], …) that has a similar feature. Am I missing something?
I hadn’t realized this, but this reader is totally right. I revisited this feature recently to see for myself. Here’s a 150 px square with a 1px thick dashed line that breaks for 5 pt every 15 pt. Notice how the corners are not uniform.
Here’s the same square, with the catchily named “Align dashes to corners and path ends, adjusting lengths to fit” option turned on. The result: pretty corners.
And here’s that square again, with dashes that are 75 pt long instead. The dashes magically align with the corners and the midpoints of each segment of the square.
In each of the last two cases, product designers, managers and engineers sweated over the details to make sure the output matches the designer’s intent. That’s a rare quality—even amongst the many newcomers to the design tools space who are clearly as passionate about creative tools as Adobe is. This is not to say that Adobe apps do not have lots of work ahead to be simpler, more performant, more in tune with what users want. It’s just to say that creating software for designers requires an extraordinary amount of attention to even the smallest details; you have to account for nearly every detail that every designer would ever want to finesse. You know how designers are; we’re fussy.
Frankly, I’m depressed. The whole idea of a “President Trump” has left me adrift, has dimmed my hope. My reaction has been denial, excessive devotion to my to-do list, and turning to film. Luckily, the gray that comes with the end of the year—and in the weeks since the eighth of November, it’s been unbearably dark and cold—can be reliably tempered by the harvest of the “serious” film season. I’ve seen some extraordinary movies in the past month, two of which feel like they mark the end of an era, and a third that will almost certainly come to be regarded as timeless.
Before election day, I went to see Barry Jenkins’s exquisite, tender “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age tale about a gay, African American boy growing up in poverty in Miami. Jenkins’s last feature was 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” a mumblecore-esque melodrama that I found charming yet overly careful. So I wasn’t prepared for how confident and unhesitating his work in “Moonlight” is; it’s powerful and engrossing without compromising the authenticity of its subject matter in the least. It also now seems, in the aftermath of the election, like a closing chapter in the Obama era, a time when LGBT progress seemed destined to make greater and greater strides for years.
I also saw, on opening weekend, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” the story of a linguist wrestling with the personal and geopolitical implications of trying to communicate with aliens who have landed on Earth. Villeneuve directed the nearly perfect “Sicario,” one of my favorite movies of last year, and in “Arrival” you can still see the same pitch perfect directorial instincts: a keen feeling for naturalism and the ability to challenge the audience without sliding into the inscrutable. Maybe the most notable thing about “Arrival” though is a kind of movie magic that often goes unappreciated: insanely fortuitous release timing. Sometimes, the erratic, lurching path of filmmaking somehow produces a piece of work that is perfectly suited for the very day it debuts. This story of a desperate, international scramble to deeply understand and communicate with one another bowed in theaters just days after a dramatic shift away from empathy, from internationalism, like a commentary on what could have been. It might actually make your mourning even more difficult, actually.
To me, these two movies are a coda for the past eight years; products of an era of open-mindedness and intellect. The third movie I saw is perhaps better suited for the next four years in that it’s an intoxicatingly effective piece of escapist entertainment: Park Chan-Wook’s surprisingly romantic “The Handmaiden.” From the very first scene, in which a poor Korean girl leaves a makeshift family to go work in the grand home of a rich and twisted master, this movie upends expectations and roles repeatedly. The initial half hour or so, which dives into the societal distortions of Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, is a fairly standard historical drama, but even in its conventionality it’s enthrallingly made. Before long, though, the movie transforms itself and repeatedly—in turns, it becomes a long con, a romantic comedy, a pornographic exploitation, a revenge thriller, and, briefly towards the end, a horror film. All of it is redeemed with the director’s wit and craft; it’s the purest kind of cinema in that it is the kind of fully immersive tale that can only be made on the big screen. In short, it transports you to another world, and lets you forget, for a time, about this world here, where Donald Trump was elected president.
I spent a lot of time thinking about work and politics in October, and not enough time watching movies. As a result, I only clocked in seven films. That’s the lowest count of the whole year. I only managed to see a few of them in theaters. One of them was “Storks,” which seemed strangely off kilter and bizarre for a mainstream kid’s film—until I saw that it was executive produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who are steadily creating one of the most distinctive bodies of work in movies.
More next month.
“Prisoners” Kind of saw it as a warm up for director Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.”
“X-Men” I was shocked by how poorly the FX has aged, but the human core of it still works.
“The General” I’d always heard good things about this one; it did not live up to the things I had heard.
One day, decades from now, my children will ask me, “Papa, why didn’t you stop global warming when you had a chance?” Or, “Papa, how in the world did Donald Trump become president? Didn’t you realize that he would destroy the country?”
Announced today during the keynote for MAX 2016, Adobe’s annual user conference: Project Felix is a new app that reinvents three-dimensional modeling so that it’s comprehensible to—and, more importantly, useful for—graphic designers. Not only does it allow you to quickly apply materials and shading to models, it also allows you to easily place that model inside a photo with automatic perspective and lighting correction, so that the effect is seamless. The user interface looks like this (though you can also turn on a dark mode— why would you ever do that?!?):
Felix solves a real problem that typically 3D-averse designers (most of us) have always had—being able to give visual form to physical objects we see in our heads without having to resort to the vagaries of traditional 3D modeling software. It’s a problem that, as a designer, I never imagined anyone would want to solve for me; but it’s fantastic that those kinds of assumptions are changing. Design tools aren’t just getting more numerous, they’re also starting to address problems that have been overlooked for many years.