If you care about design, I would posit that the most pressing evolutionary challenge it faces is not design systems or design-to-code or even accessible design, as worthwhile as perfecting those pursuits might be. Rather, the single most consequential barrier to design’s next level of success is simply explaining itself to society at large.
What is design? And how does it work? Answer those questions in clear, relatable language and the world suddenly becomes a very different place in which to practice our craft.
Writer and design thinker Scott Berkun’s new book “How Design Makes the World” does a shockingly good job of doing just that. In twenty crisply written chapters across just over two-hundred pages, Berkun breaks down the mechanics of design and demonstrates its ubiquity and importance to nearly every aspect of life. It’s a cogent, incredibly illuminating antidote to the fog and mystery that has shrouded the practice of design for practically its entire history.
When I was lucky enough to read it in galleys prior to its publication, I felt a curious mixture of joy and professional jealousy. On the one hand, “How Design Makes the World” is an instant classic that every designer will want to read and own for themselves —as well as, probably, to gift copies to the clients and stakeholders they work with. And on the other hand, having been intensely interested myself for a long time in this idea of making design more understandable, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I’d written this book.” Berkun has done a wonderful service in writing this, not just to the world of design, but to the world at large. He was kind enough to agree to discuss the book with me in an interview that we conducted over email.
Khoi Vinh: First, tell me about this title. It doesn’t lack for ambition. What is the message you’re trying to send, and how did you settle on it?
Scott Berkun: To the depression of many designers, the good work we do goes largely unnoticed. This should change! The world has so many problems today that would be easier to solve if people benefited from the knowledge designers have. But designers aren’t great at inviting people in and warmly teaching them to see. The title was the clearest way to establish the stakes—design affects everything—but make it inviting and welcoming.
So is the title—and the book—intended more for an audience of designers? Or others?
It’s intended for both in a clever way. It’s designed around powerful stories, so no jargon or background is needed. Executives, programmers and just about anyone is welcomed in to learn. For designers it gives a fresh set of stories to share and better tactics for teaching others, while giving them new hope and inspiration about why what they do is so important.
What made you realize that you needed to write this book?
I studied design in college but my career was mostly as a general project leader, a decision maker who had to bring everyone together. I’ve spent most of my life in the middle, translating between executives, engineers, marketers and designers, and designers usually have the low ground in organizations. Every designer has to teach their coworkers themselves, and start over with new teams and projects. It’s tiring. We have good books on our shelves, but they weren’t designed to solve this. I was well suited for this task and no one else had done it.
I’ve felt that exhaustion of having to explain the fundamentals of design, over and over, myself. Why do you think that even with design’s profile being higher than ever, we still struggle to define exactly what it is to the uninitiated?
One part is the high profile of design isn’t uniform. A few companies are clearly design-driven, and they get talked about often at design conferences, but most teams at most companies are not led with design as a strategy. It’s a tougher landscape. A second part is many designers don’t like or don’t want to be ambassadors. They just want to “design” and see pioneering as an unrewarding chore, which is okay—but then who is going to make it better now and for the next generation? Third, there aren’t many tools that help. Most design books, courses and movies are made for designers, not for everyone else. Fourth, there’s a lot of fear among some designers that if they teach too much, they’ll be out of a job. Many designers want to be better respected and understood but feel it’s beneath them or dangerous to make design less mysterious and invest in changing things.
That last part especially resonates with me. I’ve come to believe that, consciously or subconsciously, many designers are actually invested in people not understanding the craft. How deep do you think this runs?
It’s as deep as it can get. Many designers have been picked on and disrespected, sometimes even in design school! Some were art kids who didn’t fit in. They know that creativity is personally important, but they also know that most people, including possibly their parents, do not understand it or respect it. They’ve seen design trivialized generally by culture. Psychologically that weighs on how any person sees their profession. The fear is that if their boss or coworker learns a tiny bit, they’ll think “I’m a designer now” and they’ll get fired. There’s safety in quietly doing a job and not revealing too much, so “the secret magic” remains theirs. Of course it’s usually the opposite: teach someone the first taste of a skill and they get new eyes—suddenly they see how much they don’t know. But that requires confidence in how your profession is perceived. That’s definitely a common thread in design culture: a conflict between ambition and fear. They want good design to be popular and respected, including their own work, but fear doing the things required to make that happen.
I wonder if you think stakeholders or clients, especially, are also complicit in this? I’ve always had the impression that a certain class of client—often very high in the pecking order—want to hire designers who can dazzle them, or their board of directors, with design mystery or theatrics.
I’m fascinated by how most people think of creative work as high excitement, as their experience with it is mostly from TV and movies. Every pitch meeting on shows like “Mad Men” is just three minutes long, with an orchestrated soundtrack and Emmy-worthy dialogue performed by actors with off the charts charisma. It’s no wonder stakeholders and clients tend to want magic. They have no other conception of what it’s supposed to feel like to have discussions about ideas. So I agree they are complicit, but often from ignorance.
On one side, getting clients is sales work and dazzling people can help sell. And early in a project an inspiring (but unrealistic) prototype can get a team excited. Hard to argue against that. But when it’s deceptive or defeats the clients own goals, it breaks the golden rule. It’s up to the professional, the designer in our case, to show there’s a better way to think about what good is. This is similar perhaps to how a doctor would advise a patient that they don’t need an MRI for a paper cut. Since design will never be at the center of culture (but we can get much closer!), how good we are at explaining it and being ambassadors is critical. But it takes skill to do this without adding friction and if you’re struggling to pay bills and your clients demand magic shows, it’s hard to resist for long. Yet if we all do this, the status quo remains.
Okay so it sounds like it’s safe to say that there are some serious myths or misconceptions that you’re out to dismantle. Can you describe how your book tries to do that?
There are two big ones I take on directly in the book. One: that design is hard to explain. It’s not! The trap is trying to teach it with theory and posturing (“I want you to learn… to be impressed by what I know!”), a trap many experts fall into. But we know people’s brains learn best from stories. How did UI design make the Notre Dame Cathedral fire worse? That’s a story. Why did a city rotate half of its streets forty-five degrees so driving is confusing and dangerous? That’s a story too. The book is a series of well-crafted stories, each unpacked in entertaining ways using concepts from design to explain why these good or bad things have happened to all of us. It does the heavy lifting designers need to do with their co-workers and communities (and often for the designers themselves, who can use a refreshed view on what they do and why).
Two: that design is just the trivial surface of things. Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint color or style (which is often harder and more powerful than people think). But design goes all the way down. Why is the border between India and Pakistan where it is, and often in conflict? Someone designed it. Why is the nearest bus stop one block or fifty blocks from where you live? Someone designed that too. Why does a McDonald’s cheeseburger have three buns? And where’d that “special sauce” come from? Again, it was designed! The book’s stories come from a wide variety of places (by design!) to connects how the challenges of say mobile app design shares a lineage with hundreds of other kinds of design work, and seeing it that way changes how you we the world and what we can do in it.
The breadth of the stories in the book is impressive, both in variety and also in demonstrating how design is really just everywhere.
Glad you feel that way!
Are these stories that you’ve collected over the years, or did you start with specific principles you wanted to examine and then came to find the stories through research?
I’m obsessed with these kinds of stories and have been studying them since college. I’m just fascinated by how everything works (or doesn’t!). But once I have a rough outline of what a book is supposed to do for the reader, I start looking at the news and anything I read more carefully. I become a design investigator. I’ll dig up obscure books that often have fresh takes and examples (popular books often sing the same notes). I don’t respect category boundaries: many great design stories come from engineering or business or history writing. I do lots of research and then in early drafts the game is figuring out which stories can fit where, if it all. And then in later drafts it’s how it all fits together. It’s a design process, really. And some great stories I hoped to use just don’t fit, much like a designer discovers some of their best ideas need to get cut to make space for the other ideas to shine.
Which of the stories that did make it into the book do you think are the most surprising or most instructive?
It’s staggering to think that much of the Notre Dame Cathedral burned to the ground because of a basic usability problem any junior design student could have solved. That shock wakes readers up, which is why it’s early in the book. And the irony that something built well enough more than six hundred years ago to still be here was decimated by a design flaw created here and now in our proud era of high technology. That contrast makes clear design is indeed everywhere, both the good and the bad. Had a couple of more people known design basics so many terrible things that happened would have been wonderful things instead. I’d really like to help change that.
That one is a real eye opener, for sure, and so heartbreaking. What strikes me about that story is that as it was reported, and it was reported extensively, design barely got a mention. In fact, for most of these stories, design is really a secondary narrative, hidden in the background. It’s almost as if as a culture, or maybe as a species, humans can’t see design, even when it’s hiding in plain sight—or even when it produces tragic outcomes like the fire at Notre Dame. Would you agree?
I feel that way but I’m not sure of the cause. Some of the challenge is that news itself is designed! And as an industry they’ve been so decimated for the last 20 years it’s hard to even calculate how their reduced ability to investigate and explain things has impacted us. They do involve design experts when it’s something like the butterfly ballot, or the Boeing 737 MAX, but that’s only if the journalist thinks to ask one and has a basic notion of how design isn’t only aesthetics or interior design but is integral to everything. There’s just not enough design literacy yet in the people who write the news.
One self-inflicted trap is that good designers strive for their work to become invisible. Even now I’m not thinking about the design of the keyboard I’m typing on, the screen I’m looking at or the email software I’m using (okay, well now I am, but you get my point) and I wrote a book on why we should notice everything!
I wonder if when we shifted into consumer culture, where fewer people make things, it’s easier to imagine that phones and cars just fall from the sky in finished form. We’re exposed to far less of the process of how everything, from food, to technology, to laws, are made. I’m hopeful though: we are naturally curious creatures. All it takes is the right spark, or story or question and people’s sense of wonder rises.
How much are you actually trying to stoke that sense of wonder, to get more people interested in design, with this book?
As much as possible! But I wrote the book with professional designers in mind too—many of us have become jaded, tired of trying to explain it with the same old stories. I wanted to give us a fresh way to think about what we do and the profound possibilities of a society that was more design literate.
So can you imagine a future where design is much better understood, much more present in our everyday thinking as a society? And, aside from the key role that this book might play, what is necessary for us to get there?
I can! In a way I’ve seen it. In 1994 I couldn’t get a job doing interaction design (what we now call UX design). A career doing it didn’t exist. I’d never have imagined then how well accepted and understood the role of design would become in the tech world. Not even close. But we know there’s a long way to go. We just need to make it an inspiring mission and give more designers the skills and tools to show the way and celebrate the people who’ve done it and are doing it now. And for that reason and more thanks for what you do and for taking the time to interview me here.
It’s the weekend so I’m sneaking in an incredibly tardy housekeeping post here: a full wrap-up of my movie watching from 2019. Like my monthly roundups, I’ve been doing this for the past several years as a way of assessing what I’ve seen—usually not five months after the year has wrapped, but better late than never.
The way it works is: every time I watch a movie, I log it in my Letterboxd film diary. Then, at the beginning of each month (more or less), I post a recap of what I watched the previous month. After the year is over, I put all of the roundups together in a single post, along with a top ten list.
Currently, in May of 2020, I’m in the middle of my fifth year of doing this, which is nuts. In my first year, 2016, I watched a total of 189 movies. In 2017, I watched 191 movies. In 2018 I watched 201. And last year, I watched 219. (You can see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here.)
One of the benefits of posting this so late in the following year is that I had the time to actually watch more of the previous year’s films than I normally do. As a result this list of my favorites looks slightly different now than it would have looked back in January, say. Reassessing the year now I realize that only the first five or so feel absolutely essential to me. The rest are worthwhile for sure, but I’m less passionate about them than I was about the lower spots on previous years’ lists. This actually seems like a fairly accurate reflection of the fact that most of 2019, at least leading up to the traditional, late-year awards season, was a terrible time for movies.
“Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★ I almost don’t even care about the political morality tale at its heart because every beat feels like pure entertainment.
“Uncut Gems” (2019) ★★★★ Breathlessly alive like few other movies in recent memory.
“1917” (2019) ★★★★ Largely a technical accomplishment but I really did feel something when I watched it.
“The Wedding Guest” (2019) ★★★★ Your mileage may vary on this one but it’s the sort of brainy, anti-thriller that I find irresistible, plus it’s a showcase for its two incredible vibrant South Asian leads.
If you’re spending your pandemic working your way through the seemingly endless lists of movies and television recommendations for quarantine life, then I salute you. That has not been my experience. Instead, I’m barely keeping up—if I’m honest, I’m not keeping up—with all of my duties as an employee, parent, ersatz home schooler and, as our house falls apart, barely competent handyman.
Still, somehow I managed to watch thirteen movies last month, which is surprisingly not far off from my usual low of around sixteen or so. (I just went back and checked, and for some unaccountable reason, I watched only a dozen last June.) As I’ve said in the past, the way I’m fitting in all these viewings is by first, largely abstaining from television (which I largely gave up several years ago and without regrets), and second, by watching most of these movies in short snippets as brief as ten or fifteen minutes. It’s sort of like the best advice about getting enough exercise: you just gotta make the time.
Don’t tell my boss, but I’ve also taken to watching this stuff while I’m working. Midway through April it occurred to me that I could (occasionally) prop up my iPad next to and at about the same eye level as my monitor and rewatch a film with the sound turned all the way down—and no one would be the wiser. Foreign films, or at least films with subtitles, work best so I can get a sense of what’s happening, since I’m really only dipping back into the movie every five or ten minutes or so and only then for a few moments. It’s definitely not what you would call focused viewing (and I’m not counting movies I watch this way in lists like the one below) but I find it adds a little boost to my day, sort of the way looking at a painting can give you a shot of creative energy. Even catching short glimpses of a movie—even a movie I didn’t find particularly notable the first time around—is worthwhile, especially if I get to find a new appreciation for the way a given scene was shot, lit or edited. These are the little pleasures that make self quarantining more bearable.
Overall, though, April was not the most interesting month of movie viewing for me. Probably the most notable, new-ish films I saw were: Robert Eggers’s arthouse psycho-horror-drama “The Lighthouse,” which people raved about and I thought was fine (though not a great choice to lift one’s spirits during quarantining); and Corneliu Poromboiu’s overly conceptual policier “The Whistlers,” which was memorable mostly for lead actor Catrinel Marlon’s searing gaze. I also saw Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s slasher B-movie “Ready or Not,” which was amusing and unpretentious if not particularly brainy. None of these are essential viewing though.
Here is the full list of what I watched in April.
“Emma” (1996) ★★★ I could watch another dozen remakes of this story.
“Tangled” (2010) ★★½ Disney seems to think it can outsmart stereotypes by playing into them.
“The Lighthouse” (2019) ★★★½ Sumptuously crafted but a disappointingly predictable rendering of lunacy.
“Based on a True Story” (2017) ★★ Roman Polanski brings together two intensely watchable actresses, concocts a tantalizing conflict for them, and forgets to do anything with it all.
“Sons of the Desert” (1933) ★★★½ The sheer delight of Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick genius, stretched to its narrative limits.
“Vendetta of a Samurai” (1952) ★★★★ An unsparing indictment of the falsity of combat glory, wrapped inside a samurai flick.
“Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★ Rewatched. Had a ball again.
I shared my work from home setup in a post earlier this month, but I’ve since had to set up a second workspace at home too—this one for podcasting. That’s right, quarantine measures or no, we’re hard at work on a third season of “Wireframe,” the documentary series on user experience design that I host for Adobe. (Find all the previous episodes at adobe.ly/wireframe.)
As much as I enjoy sitting at my desk, there was never a hope that I’d be able to record good quality audio there. My home office is on the ground floor and faces the street where the sound of passing cars, buses and, sadly, ambulances is too frequent to be avoided. So I retreated to a corner of our basement where the ambient noise is considerably less problematic. I know nothing about sound production but the fine folks at Pacific Content, with whom we’ve partnered to produce this upcoming third season, shipped me exactly what I needed.
The heart of the setup is a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface which essentially allows my 2016 MacBook Pro to capture high quality sound. (The two are connected by USB-C, which may actually be the first time I’ve ever actually connected two USB-C devices together.) I have a Shure Beta 58A microphone (with a windstopper) connected to the Scarlett, and it’s propped up with an Amazon Basics tripod mic stand with boom. During sessions I capture my own audio with QuickTime while also talking with the rest of the production crew via video conference. That pretty much monopolizes the screen real estate on my MacBook, so I also like to use my 2018 11-inch iPad Pro to read from episode scripts and to take notes. And I listen to the whole thing with my trusty Sony MDR-V6 over-the-ear studio headphones (which are debatably the same as the more easily found MDR-7506 model), also plugged into the Scarlett.
This all sounds like we’ve been doing this podcasting-from-home thing for weeks but in truth we’re just getting started and still working out the kinks. I do miss the feel of a real recording studio and the ability to interact in person with the crew, but I’m really enjoying the convenience of being able to do pretty much the same thing from home. I’m also grateful to be able to continue working on “Wireframe” despite being in lockdown. We’ve got a great season planned, with lots of great stories about design and how it shapes technology to fit into our lives—including stories about how design, technology and living have changed since pandemic set in. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Our third season kicks off later this year.
Back before our sense of normalcy was completely reset, 330,000 people used to pass through Times Square in New York City each day. Now it’s a ghost town.
I took these pictures during a somewhat irresponsible outing to midtown Manhattan on Friday night. After being cooped up for weeks at home in Brooklyn, my family and I decided to bust out of quarantine and drive into Manhattan. We headed to our favorite pizza joint, a tiny takeout shop in midtown, and ate a few slices in the car, parked right in front on West Thirty-ninth Street. It used to be impossible to ever find a spot there.
Then at about seven o’clock we drove uptown with the windows rolled down to hear the cheering as healthcare workers changed shifts, a daily ritual throughout Manhattan and in other cities that for some reason doesn’t take place in our Brooklyn neighborhood. We were practically gliding north on Eighth Avenue with the traffic lights in our favor, unimpeded by the sparse traffic on the road with us, and with the music of wild cheering and banging pots and pans on every block. I got choked up listening to it.
Fifteen minutes later it was getting dark already. We stopped on Broadway at Times Square, parked the car at yet another curbside spot that I honestly never in my life dreamed I’d ever be able to park in, and got out to explore within just a few city blocks. There were a handful of other pedestrians there, maybe less than a dozen. One of them was another opportunistic amateur photographer who asked to take a photo of us. A few people in masks were standing outside a boba tea shop, waiting for their orders. Once in a while a bicyclist would zip by, usually carrying a big, insulated food delivery bag with the name of some restaurant or delivery service emblazoned on it. And there was a police officer standing in front of the massive TKTS red steps, usually a favorite spot for dozens of tourists to rest their feet and take pictures, now cordoned off and deserted.
Not a single one of Times Square’s famous neon lights or mammoth, animated billboards had been turned off. They were all blinking, flashing, blaring their irrepressible marketing pitches out onto the bottom of a nearly soulless urban ravine. The sun had set completely by now and the lights were wildly vibrant but somehow remote, like a chandelier someone had forgotten to turn off when they’d left the house. Most of the ads were still selling to a world and time ignorant of COVID-19, but some had even been updated with inspirational corporate messages about persisting through the pandemic. Still they all seemed like echoes from the past.
Mostly Times Square felt eerie. And tense. There was the danger of somehow contracting the coronavirus, of course, which is omnipresent these days. But I also felt ill at ease about the outing, guilty about playing tourist amid a crisis, even in my own city. It really felt like we were not supposed to be there, both because we hear so much that the responsible thing is to stay home these days, but also because it felt somehow unnatural. For New York City residents especially, Times Square has never felt like a desirable place to spend your time, mostly because it was always insufferably congested with foot traffic. In the absence of people though, it felt no cozier. The architecture, the wide open square, the disturbing quiet felt forbidding to humans.
We were only there for about ten minutes before I started to think I couldn’t take it much longer. At the corner where Forty-fifth Street, Broadway and Sixth Avenue all somehow intersect at impossible angles, two men had set up what amounted to a soap box. One of them wore a balaclava, entirely masking his identity. He was shouting through a microphone attached to a portable speaker, sounding off on some political diatribe to no one in particular. I heard him spew some disgruntled invective about China and the virus, and I thought about how the pandemic had become a cowardly excuse for racist miscreants everywhere to take out their fear on Asian people. I suddenly felt nervous, maybe a bit scared, not just for me but for my kids, too. The vast emptiness of what used to be the world’s busiest city square felt even less hospitable now, maybe even a bit hostile, even. We walked back to our car and drove home.
Between all the pandemic-mandated video conferences and cooking and cleaning and my kids’ remote schooling, I watched just over a dozen movies in March. That’s only about half of what I saw the previous month, way back when life was normal—or at least when we we were all still laboring under the mistaken impression that things were normal. Of course, anything I managed to watch I watched at home, since cineplexes are not an option. But I did get to see “The Invisible Man,” which was only released in theaters at the end of February and is already out on home video. I do sorely miss theaters but I have to be grateful too to live in an age when there are so many ways to watch new movies.
Happy as I was to see it so soon, unfortunately I found director Leigh Whannell’s new take on “The Invisible Man” to be a bit of a drag. It’s less a 21st century horror film than a fairly ludicrous ’80s-style domestic thriller in the “Fatal Attraction” mold. And while it does cleverly invert the perspective of the story by focusing on the title character’s besieged love interest, it’s so overly impressed by its wokeness that it can’t stop announcing its own virtues to the audience. Subtle, it’s not. All that said, “The Invisible Man” is still reasonably suspenseful and so not a terrible way to spend two hours. Plus, Elizabeth Moss. Her performance here, like pretty much everything she’s done for the past decade, is proof that she’s one of our great living actors.
Like a lot of people I also went back and rewatched Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller “Contagion” which, if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably still heard about how it was eerily prescient about our current circumstance. I’m still not sure I quite understand the perverse curiosity that made revisiting this pandemic tale irresistible (The Times took a crack at explaining the phenomenon in this article). It’s a bit like the lure of horror films, I guess, or maybe the base appeal of masochism in the face of impending doom.
By contrast, I also tried, for a minute, to watch Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak” from 1995, a similar tale of a world overrun by pandemic. I’d never seen it before but from its very first frames it was so clearly unconvincing, so Hollywood, I couldn’t bear to keep watching and turned it off. As a film, “Contagion” is so much scarier because it’s so much more real, but what’s truly captivating about it is Soderbergh’s singular ability to tell a story that feels both unflinchingly realistic and escapist at the same time. Every frame, every cut, every line of dialog feels both objectively, almost clinically detached and also emotionally vibrant, even skewed. The verisimilitude is horrifying, but the artistry is mesmerizing.
Film audiences have really come to take Soderbergh for granted in recent years, probably due at least in part to his obvious compulsion for working constantly. He released two superb films in 2019, “High Flying Bird” and “The Laundromat”, that barely registered in popular conversation. It’s a bit sad that it took a horrific global pandemic for us to go back and appreciate how amazing “Contagion” was. It’s a reminder that he’s made over a half dozen equally worthwhile films since.
Here is the complete list of all fourteen films I watched in March.
“Early Man” (2018) ★★½ Charming but weightless, and disappointingly short on ambition for an Aardman film.
This video produced by researchers at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar demonstrates the effect on the air surrounding a person when they cough. Starting clockwise at top left, it shows as a baseline the air flow during normal breathing, then while coughing unrestricted, while coughing into the hand, while coughing into the elbow, while coughing into a dust mask, and finally while coughing into a surgical mask.
The contrast in how air is moved between coughing unrestricted and coughing with a surgical mask is dramatic; the former travels forward explosively like a cannon while the latter combusts upwards more like a puff of smoke. Yet it’s still shocking—though I suppose it shouldn’t be—how much the surgical mask does not suppress. The university has more on how they were able to capture this visualization at uni-weimar.de.
Below is a similar visualization from Dr. Lydia Bourouiba at M.I.T. that shows, at 2,000 frames per second, how the micro-droplets of an unrestricted sneeze travel directly in front of a person in a “turbulent gas cloud.” The visual clarity here is even more striking and, though sneezing is not as closely associated with COVID-19 as coughing, still horrifying. The video shows how micro-droplets can continue to spread well beyond the six-foot safety zone we’ve all become acutely aware of in recent weeks. In an accompanying article, Dr. Bourouiba writes:
Peak exhalation speeds can reach up to 33 to 100 feet per second (10-30 m/s), creating a cloud that can span approximately 23 to 27 feet (7-8 m).
It’s worth noting that so much is still not known about COVID-19 so it’s probably not wise to draw conclusions exclusively from these videos about how the coronavirus spreads. Still, if nothing else, these visualizations underscore the importance of social distancing and the value of wearing masks in public.
In the spirt of sharing as a remedy to isolation, I thought I’d share a peek at my home office, the space where I’m spending virtually every hour of my days since we were all forced to start working remotely just a few short weeks ago. It’s an L-shaped desk in the front room of the bottom floor of our house in Brooklyn. In the picture above one of my boys is sitting adjacent to my seat, on a video call with his teacher.
I count myself lucky to have the space to dedicate to an office, and also lucky to genuinely enjoy being there. There are many downsides to being more or less confined to our own homes but having this working area just a flight of stairs away from my family is actually a huge joy for me.
Plus, this office has all of my stuff; the equipment and the books and the gadgets that help me feel creative and stay focused. I’ve never really been one of those people who could work productively for hours at a time at coffee shops because I really just needed all my paraphernalia around me and arranged just so in order to really get in the zone. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s here, in case you’re looking for tips for your own WFH setup as well.
My main computer is this 27-inch, Retina 5K iMac from 2017. I’m actually not a fan of laptops and would much prefer having a huge, stationary monitor and the horsepower of an iMac and rely on an iPad for computing on the go.
I’ve got a ton of peripherals attached to this iMac too, including a Kensington Expert Mouse trackball and an Apple Magic Keyboard; I find that switching back and forth eases repetitive strain on my wrists. I’ve also got a Matias Wireless Aluminum Keyboard which connects to up to four devices via Bluetooth, very handy for the other computers that I have to add to this mix occasionally. Also essential but hidden in this picture is a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M document scanner, an essential tool for getting rid of paper clutter.
I also use this aging 13-inch, Retina MacBook Pro from 2015 as essentially a dedicated video conferencing station. It’s hooked up to a Jabra Speak 410 which is exceptionally loud and clear as a conferencing speaker and microphone. With so much going on in the house these days though, I usually use the Jabra just as a mic and plug in my Sony MDR-V6 over-the-ear headphones (still the best sounding headphones out there for my money) as a speaker instead. The laptop is propped up on a Bent Ply Laptop Stand, a really beautiful design originally created by Eric Pfeiffer for Evernote many years ago (I bought it as a remaindered sale item when Evernote realized they had no business selling office hardware). Since the laptop is elevated by the stand I use a Logitech MX Ergo wireless trackball as a mouse with it.
We’re a Google Home household and I keep a Google Home Mini on my desk for, among other functions, the broadcast feature, which allows all the similar devices in the house to act as an intercom system. It’s great for not having to yell between floors to get someone else’s attention.
When it’s warm out, I use this surprisingly effective Lasko 4000 Air Stik oscillating fan to cool off. Directly under that spot of the desk, hidden from view, is a small Honeywell Uberheat ceramic space heater for use during cooler weather. Since it’s usually just me on the floor where my office is, these save me a ton on HVAC bills.
A few years ago I decided to upgrade our house to mesh wi-fi hardware and chose the Netgear Orbi system for the fact that unlike many other mesh wi-fi systems, it’s not centrally managed by its manufacturer. I keep this Orbi Satellite node here to extend the network throughout this floor and it works great.
This 2016 MacBook Pro is my official work laptop. Usually of course it’s at the office but I took it with me when we were all asked to work from home. I hardly ever touch it though, as it’s practically redundant with the other devices I already have at home. Plus it’s only got USB-C ports which I still find to be irritating.
Many years ago I sprang for this Herman Miller Aeron chair when I spotted it on sale. I’m generally skeptical of the promises of office chair ergonomics but I haven’t found a better built chair than this one.
This dark object tucked under the desk is a paper shredder. If it’s not obvious I’m pretty enthusiastic about getting rid of paper.
Usually when there’s not a pandemic on, I use this Baron Fig Roamer Tote as my work bag. But even without the daily commute, I still find this bag super handy for transporting tech gear within the house, as I sometimes find myself working from other rooms when someone in the family needs to use the office for privacy.
Obscured slightly behind the chair here is my 11-inch iPad Pro from 2018, attached to a Brydge Pro keyboard. I always keep it handy and given the choice it would be my preferred computer. I’ll also occasionally use it as a secondary monitor for the iMac via macOS’s excellent Sidecar feature.
Yes we still have a house phone line! Actually it’s a VOIP line from Vonage, connected to a VTech DECT handset system. It’s much clearer sounding than cell phones (I hate talking on cell phones) and it’s free to call our family overseas.
When I get a break from video calls I like to play music from my Mac through these Creative Labs Gigaworks bookshelf speakers (the right speaker is at the far end of the shelf). Being able to play music out loud is one of the best perks of working from home.
You can find virtually everything on this list to buy for yourself somewhere—except the L-shaped desk itself. That and the shelves installed in that little nook above my seat were built for me not long after we moved into this house by a carpenter I found via a friend’s referral. The guy was a real artist with wood; not only did he custom fit these items to the exact dimensions of this particular space, but he built in all kinds of amazing details to the pieces. You can see how the legs of the desk actually include vertical storage; the drawers open and close with complete silence; towards the back of the desk he drilled 1-1/2 inch holes for cables that lead to a hidden raceway where wires can be threaded and hidden.
This carpenter was also an impeccable craftsman; every edge lines up perfectly and even after seven years of regular use, not a single edge has chipped or a single part has broken. I keep referring to him in the past tense because unfortunately not long after finishing this project he left the custom carpentry business altogether. (So unfortunately I can’t refer friends in search of a carpenter to him.) Still, the abundant care and craftsmanship with which he invested this setup is one of the reasons it’s such a pleasure to sit here, day in and day out. Not that i wouldn’t prefer getting back out into the rest of the world, mind you.
Though I often post these roundups of movies I’ve watched the previous month much later than I would like, I actually do start writing them almost immediately after the month ends. Inevitably though I get waylaid by the usual distractions of living life. For this post on February’s movies my first draft was in early March, which now feels like practically a lifetime ago already. In the few short weeks since, COVID-19 came to our towns and neighborhoods insistently and undeniably, shutting down most of the country and forcing change on the fundamental behaviors of society itself.
Missing one movie is a disappointment but the loss of moviegoing is a particularly painful change for me. Despite my busy schedule I’ve always tried to get out to theaters at least once a month and it’s rare that I miss that goal. I’m in love with movies in general but also just passionate about the physicality of cineplexes: the huge screens and immersive sound; the deep, uninterrupted focus that audiences give to a film; the smell of popcorn; and of course that unquantifiable social magic of experiencing a film with a roomful of strangers and feeling their reactions in real time, alongside my own.
I’m not adding anything new to the advocacy of movie theaters here, I know. Cinephiles have been rattling off these same recommendations forever and even doing so with elevated urgency over the past decade as streaming media has emerged. Nevertheless theater attendance has declined steadily and depressingly. The end of the road for moviegoing has felt like it was coming for a long time before even coronavirus was a thing.
In a world where most of us have been watching movies on our phones anyway—and maybe even preferring to anesthetize ourselves with repeat viewings of “Friends” instead of accessing the wealth of diverse historical and contemporary film that streaming media offers—I’m not particularly certain that many folks will miss the cineplex. Some will, I’m sure, but I think most of us will be more eager to dine again at that favorite restaurant or knock back a few at the local bar. Of course we can eat or even play mixologist at home during this “shelter in place” era for however long it’s going to last, but in most cases food or drink at public establishments is an order of magnitude more vivid, and certainly more social than those at-home versions of the same core activities. By contrast, for most people movies deliver more or less the same value whether you watch them on the toilet or in a theater. In fact in a theater you’d be sitting in a dark room where it’s socially forbidden to even talk to your companion anyway, which seems unlikely to feel like much of an upgrade when all of this social distancing is over.
Whether or not that turns out to be true, for the time being the best that we can do is appreciate movies, if not moviegoing. There are a million TV shows to watch and rewatch on Netflix of course, but in this time where we looked to filmed entertainment for comfort more than ever, there’s still something special about the idea of a real movie. With the exception of the more egregiously shallow franchises, movies are by and large a good faith attempt at delivering something truly special, executed to the maximum of the director, cast and crew’s abilities, and brought to a concise, compelling conclusion. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but even when they fail, there’s something ineffable in the trying, a sense that something truly unique was attempted.
One very minor bit of silver lining in this terrible pandemic is the fact that there are a few “real” movies that had been slated to appear (or in fact had already debuted) in theaters that studios have since fast tracked for digital rental. They are a mixed bag in terms of quality so the premium rental fee of US$20 t they’re charging may not always seem like much of a bargain. But as it happens I caught one of them in theaters in February: “Emma.,” a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s immortal comic novel, and I can tell you that it’s well worth the cost of admission, so to speak.
You could say that first-time director Autumn de Wilde has a little bit of an advantage here with ”Emma“ in that the basic narrative of her film, as conceived by Austen, is practically impervious to slovenly execution. Nevertheless, de Wilde directs the hell out of this movie; nearly every frame is gorgeously composed and thoughtful. And more than that, the cast is uniformly excellent and their performances are deeply felt. The climactic scene, where an unwise quip devastates practically the entire cast of characters, is so effectively shocking that I could practically feel the whole audience in my theater cringing with empathetic discomfiture.
I actually took my ten-year old daughter with me to see “Emma.” and she found it a bit talky and short on action, but pronounced it “good” enough. Of course fifth graders and period films are not always great matches, so the fact that she recognized the film’s virtues at all is a very favorable outcome, by my reckoning. For my part, as we were walking out of the theater, I knew right away that this would be the kind of movie that would reward her on repeat viewings; as she gets older and hopefully decides to revisit it, more and more of its sharp witticisms and subtle storytelling will reveal themselves to her. That’s what good movies do, of course. Now looking back I realize that “Emma” was the last theatrical outing that she and I would share before the onset of COVID-19, and possibly the last movie we’ll get to see together in theaters for quite a long time. It was a wonderful choice.
Here is the full list of all twenty-four movies I watched last month.
“Paddington 2” (2017) ★★★½ Rewatched. This is a very entertaining movie.