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.
The prospect of watching the truly magnificent Frances McDormand take no prisoners in a revenge drama was the only thing that got me out to the theaters last month. There’s a lot of that in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri,” and it’s a treat. Unfortunately it’s not enough to sustain this movie that really has no idea where to take its premise and resorts to maudlinism more often than you’d expect. Thumbs down.
Otherwise, November was a decent month for watching movies. Here are all twenty-two that I managed to squeeze in.
“Girls Trip” I had high expectations; I was disappointed.
“Arrival” Rewatched this along with Villeneuve’s back catalog. I liked it more than the first time.
If you’re interested in two guys from the pre-Snapchat age talking about what design used to be like, well have I got the podcast for you: Dan Cederholm, the amazing co-founder of the amazing Dribbble, had me as a guest recently on their Overtime podcast. We talked about how they don’t make digital design stuff like they used to anymore.
You can listen via Apple Podcasts, your favorite podcatcher app, or over at simplecast.com. You might also watch this short video beforehand just to kinda of prepare yourself.
As much as they’ve improved over the past decade—and they’ve come a long, long way—I’ve never been much of a fan of iPhone cameras. They’ve always produced images that, for me, come across as too flat and too harsh. To this day, if I want to capture a truly special moment, I’ll reach for my DSLR over my iPhone.
That said, I do find the camera in my new iPhone X to be quite impressive. Specifically, I find the dual-lens rear camera’s ability to take pictures in portrait mode to be a leap forward. It produces, by far, the warmest, most aesthetically pleasing images I’ve ever taken with a camera built into a phone. It does this by using its two lenses and advanced software to digitally emulate “bokeh,” the aesthetic quality that traditional cameras produce naturally when they focus on a foreground object and blur out the background. I’m not claiming that the example I shot below is great photography, but one look at the beautifully rendered background blur demonstrates that this iPhone is capable of shots that are far beyond the capabilities of any previous model.
This mode is optimized for, well, portraits of course, but I try to use it for everything because the output is dramatically more elegant than the iPhone’s standard camera mode. However, it is worth noting that portrait mode does come with limitations. For one, what you see “through the lens” is narrower in scope. Compare the view in the standard camera view, below, with what you see when you switch to portrait mode below it.
The result is of course that you often have to step backward in order to get your subject fully in frame. That’s actually fine with me; I prefer a prime lens on my DSLR and I’m accustomed to moving myself to get the shot I want.
There is a point though at which the illusion of digitally emulated bokeh begins to fall apart—usually anytime you closely examine a highly detailed shot taken in portrait mode. That’s where the camera is least able to distinguish between foreground and background, and sometimes its guesses are not fully accurate. You’ll notice this most often in silhouettes of a subject’s hair, which get smoothed out into what you might call “natural-ish” but not altogether convincing shapes. Here is a detail from such a shot where you can see an unnaturally definitive silhouette at the edge of one of my kids’ hair.
Sometimes too, the camera just gets it wrong. Notice the left edge of the left bottle and the right edge of the right bottle in this picture below. They’re unnecessarily blurred where other parts of the bottle shapes are sharp and crisp. A traditional camera would have produced uniform results around the bottles’ edges because the entire object is more or less at the same depth.
In fairness, there’s a specific reason Apple called this portrait mode and not something like “selective focus mode.” The software/hardware is purposely optimized for people’s faces, and it struggles with objects like the bottles above. This becomes really clear when you watch the camera try to figure out the right depth of field in real time. Watch in this video as the camera “hunts” for focus on this Lego figure, trying to figure out what’s in front and what’s in back. There’s a somewhat random “splotchy” effect that pops up repeatedly in different parts of the frame. After about ten seconds, it displays a prompt to the user to adjust position, as it needs more data, apparently, to decide what’s what.
I should be clear about my commentary here. On the one hand, it’s true that I do have (slight) objections to portrait mode. I personally find that the pictures are still not as good as what I get out of my DSLR. More haughtily, I do have reservations about the digital emulation of “natural” camera effects—there’s no denying that the results can be beautiful, but there’s just something about the fakery that offends my delicate aesthetic sensibilities.
However, I’m not even contending that any of this is ultimately bad, or should be considered a failure of technology. As I said, portrait mode produces the best phone camera photos I’ve ever seen, hands down. I would much rather than not have an iPhone X with portrait mode as an option for the many, many times it’s just impractical to carry my DSLR with me.
More to the point, quibbling over the finer points of photographic effects is somewhat (though not entirely) pointless. What really matters here is that there will be tens if not hundreds of millions of these cameras in the hands of countless people everywhere before too long, and those people will take billions of pictures with them. Only a vanishingly small number of these people will ever object to the details I’ve listed here; most will be incredibly pleased with how portrait mode performs and will share the fruits of their labors avidly.
Just on the merits of sheer volume alone, portrait mode will become a part of our collective visual vocabulary. If the history of photography has shown us anything, it’s that technological limitations that are unsightly at first come to be embraced by culture soon enough not as deficiencies but as legitimate aesthetic choices of their own. Look no further than Instagram’s filters for proof of that. There may come a day when we forget “real” bokeh entirely and hold up digitally generated bokeh of the sort that portrait mode creates as the real thing. Truth is going out of style anyway.
Last week Kickstarter launched Drip, “a tool for people to fund and build community around their ongoing creative practice.” This new service is a complement to the company’s original model; where “classic” Kickstarter helps people fund projects, Drip aims to fund people.
At its heart Drip is essentially a subscription service inflected to support the creative pursuits of “artists, authors, game designers, musicians, and filmmakers.” It’s worth noting that that list, quoted from the announcement blog post, emphasizes artists—and conspicuously fails to mention the technologists and product creators who have thrived on Kickstarter. This seems like an attempt to get back to the company’s original goal of developing a funding model for the arts, which over time has become somewhat diluted by the platform’s surprising effectiveness as a launching pad for products and businesses.
Drip also has an interesting take on how to do this: each campaign begins with a “founding membership” phase that last anywhere from a week to a month. Anyone who subscribes during this period is designated as kind of special patron and may be offered special rewards for their early participation. The idea is to drive demand early on so as to start off each artist with maximum momentum.
The company’s three launch videos are also notable in that they exclusively feature women:
Learn more at d.rip. Oh, also, Kickstarter just redesigned its brand identity so that it’s both thicker and more bubbly while also opting for a more subdued flavor of green.
Back in September Apple made a welcome improvement to iTunes by automatically upgrading, at no cost, its customers’ already-purchased movies to 4K resolution. This was laudably customer-friendly but I also found it to be a savvy move in that it underscores the value of owning media.
It’s notable that movies and TV shows haven’t followed the path of music, at least not yet. Video media was never as thoroughly decimated by digital piracy as audio was, and so as a result we don’t have a “Spotify for movies,” a comprehensive (or nearly so) streaming catalog available for cheap. The closest we have is Netflix which has never been complete and, over time, continues to become even less so.
You can argue whether that’s ultimately good or bad for consumers (who wouldn’t want a Spotify for movies?) but at a minimum, the ownership of films allowed under the current model preserves a meaningfulness that has largely disappeared from music. I rarely buy albums anymore because I can listen to nearly anything I want at any time I want on Spotify. That’s a tremendous luxury but the flip side is that I don’t care about music nearly as much anymore, and I don’t really feel like any of it is “mine.”
By contrast, I do feel a certain pride of ownership over the movies in my collection, whether they’re digital or on physical media. These are movies that I’ve selected to be part of my own personal archive, that I plan to return to again and again. In this way I have a kind of relationship with them; they’re much more a reflection of who I am and what interests me than the albums I’ve assembled in Spotify.
To that point, it occurs to me that Apple could go even further in emphasizing the value of ownership by helping their customers convert rentals to purchases. If you rent a movie on iTunes, Apple should offer to let you pay the difference between the rental price and the purchase price to actually own it. To keep this reasonable, this offer could be limited to the rental period, which Apple also increased to forty-eight hours back in September. That’s the perfect amount of time to let a customer upgrade her transaction because it creates a useful urgency to the value. I posted this on Twitter over the weekend and was surprised by how many people seemed to think it was a good idea.
If you rent a movie on iTunes, they should offer to let you pay the diff to fully buy it within the 48 hr rental period.
Like the 4K upgrade, this would go a long way towards removing a key piece of friction in the ownership model. With analog media, there was no practical way of allowing a customer to get credit for a previous transaction involving a specific piece of media. Whether you saw a movie in theaters or rented it from Blockbuster it didn’t matter because when you decided you wanted to own it for yourself, you were back at square one—you’d pay exactly as much as someone who’d never seen it before. In digital media, especially with end-to-end buying and playback systems like iTunes, this is now relatively trivial. Giving credit for previous transactions would go a long way towards cementing the relationship between the creators of media and the consumers of media, and in the case of this suggestion I can only imagine that it would spur more purchases and generate more revenue.
Last month while in Las Vegas for Adobe’s annual MAX conference, I moderated a panel on design entrepreneurship. The notion that designer co-founders can provide a competitive edge to major new companies is roughly half a decade old now, following the breakout successes of companies like Airbnb, Kickstarter and Pinterest.
The premise of this panel was to check in on that idea, to see how much has really changed for the designer co-founder in that time. The best way to do that, I thought, would be to talk to the designer co-founders who are building new, up and coming companies today.
To that end, I was lucky enough to be able to recruit three superb entrepreneurs: Joey Cofone, designer, CEO and co-founder of Baron Fig; Tiffany Chu, designer and co-founder of Remix; and Tricia Choi, designer and co-founder of MoveWith. To round out the panel with perspective from the investment community, I also invited Enrique Allen, co-director of Designer Fund, to join us. It was a fascinating discussion, especially when we debated the topic of whether a designer co-founder is likely to build a fundamentally different kind of business from other kinds of entrepreneurs.
For years we’ve groaned every time a character in a movie commands a computer to “Enhance!” a low resolution image, and then watched as an implausibly clear, high resolution replacement appears before our eyes. For me, this has always been one of the worst kinds of lazy storytelling; it always suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of how digital imaging works on the part of the moviemakers.
Well as it turns out, the work of scientists over at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany may ultimately give technologically clueless film directors from the 1980s and 1990s the last laugh.
The picture is downsampled, reducing the data to this pixelated state:
That image is then processed with their “ENet-PAT” method and results in this:
I’m not sure this approach can resolve a grainy image of a face into something instantly recognizable, which is usually what one sees in films, but this example is stunningly effective nevertheless.
To give some context, the resampling techniques most of us are familiar with from Photoshop and other image editors generate new pixels and details strictly from what’s available in a given low-resolution image. That results in glaringly unconvincing results that are usually either overly smooth or pock-marked with unsightly image artifacts. By contrast ENet-PAT uses machine learning techniques to teach a neural network how to best guess what details should be added to an image. Once trained, the system can produce reliably believable results like these. Scary.
The only movie I saw in theaters in October was Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” Apparently, a lot of people did not like this weirdly brainy blockbuster, as its poor performance at the box office may result in as much as an US$80 million loss to producers. Ouch.
“2049” is certainly not without its problems, I’ll admit. And yet I still found it almost entirely satisfying, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s original which of course was also a tepidly received financial disaster. That one just happened to go on to become one of the most beloved and influential science fiction films of all time. In fact, I re-watched the so-called “Final Cut” of the 1982 original in preparation for the sequel and was astounded by how much more I liked it than the last time I watched it—I’ve probably seen it five times by now. And, if I’m honest, I enjoyed it substantially more than the very first time I saw “Blade Runner” in the 1980s, on home video. It has never been hard to appreciate the beauty of the original but the totality of Scott’s aesthetic vision, while undeniably impressive, was so well executed that it invited suspicion. A film that gorgeous couldn’t also be good, could it? Turns out, the answer is yes.
Villeneuve’s sequel is also an almost indescribably gorgeous piece of filmmaking, thanks in no small part to the contributions of its cinematographer, living legend Roger Deakins. (It should be noted that Deakins is one of the very best visual artists working today, in any medium.) Beyond that though, I was as impressed as ever with Villeneuve’s idiosyncratic staging and pacing, and the unique way he is able to coax candidly off-kilter performances from his cast. He could make a short film about something as mundane as a mailman on his daily route and it would be something nobody has ever seen before, if not an artistic revelation. There is so much good stuff in “Blade Runner 2049” that I can’t imagine it hasn’t been doomed to the same fate as the original: initial failure followed later by widespread acclaim. Then again predicting the future is a great way to be wrong, which is how most sci-fi films end up.
I also saw a twelve other movies in October. Here they are:
When people ask me why I joined Adobe, my answer is simple: there are things that I get to work on here that I would never get to work on elsewhere. Here’s one of them: Adobe is putting a major new emphasis on positively impacting diversity and inclusion in the creative industry, starting with a significant report that we released just last week. I’m very proud of having worked on this effort from its inception earlier this year. You can read the report below and learn more at this site, and also read an article about it over at AdWeek.
Why are we doing this? Adobe is a tech company but we are in the creativity business, and that means we take as our primary concerns certain things that other companies can’t afford to foreground. There are many businesses for whom creativity in its many forms is important, maybe even critical, but Adobe is the only multibillion dollar company out there who is expressly interested in the core problems that creative professionals like me—designers, illustrators, photographers, filmmakers, artists of all kinds—encounter every day in making our work.
More than just our historical focus on tools though, we think a lot about what makes creative professionals successful. Our company’s unique dichotomy of tech and creativity gives us a different perspective on the issue of who gets to do creative work professionally. To be sure, there are many companies undertaking meaningful initiatives to create more diverse and inclusive workforces, but these efforts almost always tend to be seen through a tech lens.
While there is of course a significant overlap between tech and design, not all designers or design teams can be said to be part of the tech industry. This is even more true for illustrators, photographers, filmmakers and artists. You don’t have to Google very extensively to find research and discussion on diversity in tech (which is a good thing), but there’s not much out there that looks penetratingly at diversity and inclusion in creative fields.
Adobe is aiming to change that. Creative organizations have unique challenges when it comes to these issues, and as an industry it’s important that we understand the nature of these challenges as part of our own experience, something that we ourselves can impact, and not as something that gets rolled up alongside other disciplines like engineering, product management, sales, etc.
Maybe one of the biggest misconceptions about how the creative industry works is that, because our crafts are in many ways premised on unconventional thinking, we are already a diverse industry. In tech companies, the design team is often the most diverse group in the org. Our study does in fact show that a vast majority of us believe in the benefits of diversity and inclusion, believe that it makes our work and our industry better. I’ve been in this field for a long time and I’d wager that almost everyone I’ve ever met professionally would agree with this. That’s the good news.
On the other hand, over the course of my career I’ve worked with only a small handful of creative directors who were women, and with vanishingly few designers of any level who were of African American, Hispanic, or Native American backgrounds. In my experience at design conferences and events all over the world, the audiences are overwhelmingly white and the speaker roll calls only marginally less so.
These experiences are reflected in the report that we did. It’s based on a survey of a sample group of seven hundred and fifty creative pros as well as a series of qualitative, in-depth interviews with people like Ian Spalter, head of design at Instagram, Gina Grillo, CEO of the Ad Club, and Jacinda Walker, chair of AIGA’s diversity task force.
What you’ll see is that there are stark numbers among women who feel that the leadership in their design organizations are diverse, and who feel that their gender will hamper their career growth. Creative professionals of color are significantly less likely than their white peers to feel that their contributions are valued, and many fewer minorities than whites graduate from university programs in creative fields. Maybe most tellingly, only half of those surveyed, regardless of gender or ethnicity believe that the industry as a whole has made sufficient progress in becoming more diverse and inclusive over the past half decade.
For my part, this has been a passion project on which I’ve been very fortunate to be able to spend a significant portion of my past nine months at Adobe. Like many of us in the design field, I have in the past been guilty of underestimating our industry’s diversity and inclusion challenges. When I was starting out in design, to some extent this issue felt like it was a solved problem, or one that was just on the edge of resolving itself.
As an industry, we’ve spent most of the past two decades arguing for a seat at the table for any designer, without thinking deeply enough about who among us, gender- and ethnicity-wise, gets a chance at that seat. And of course my personal experience is made more complicated by the fact that I’m an immigrant and an Asian American—in the broader sense of American culture I’m a minority but within the design industry there are any number of Asian Americans on teams everywhere. Diversity is a richly complex subject and there are no easy answers.
That’s why I feel so fortunate to be a part of this team at Adobe who are similarly motivated to move the needle on this issue, regardless of its scale and complexity. This report is just the first step—a baby step. Its intent is to raise the volume on this conversation, to put some facts and figures and quotes out there on the specific intersection of professional creativity and diversity and inclusion. Going into 2018, you’ll see Adobe build on this further with commitments both internally, within our company and products, and externally, to the design and creativity communities at large—we’ll be both recalibrating current initiatives for even more emphasis on these issues as well as rolling out new ones. We hope to do some good, and that’s why I work here.
Apple’s new iPhone X was released just this past Friday and you can read any number of reviews of it right now—my favorite are from The Verge, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Six Colors. I was lucky enough to get an iPhone X too and you can read some of my thoughts on the device a little further down.
However I’ve come to believe that there’s at least one thing wrong with this whole notion of product reviews—and with smartphone reviews in particular—and that’s that by and large they’re only ever interested in these phones when they’re brand new.
When an iPhone debuts it’s literally at the very peak of its powers. All the software that it runs has been optimized for that particular model, and as a result everything seems to run incredibly smoothly.
As time goes on though, as newer versions of the operating system roll out, as there are more and more demands put on the phone, it inevitably gets slower and less performant. A case in point: I’m upgrading to this iPhone X from a three-year old iPhone 6 Plus and for at least the last year, and especially over the last three months, it has struggled mightily to perform simple tasks like launching the camera, fetching email, even basic typing. People who have recently had the misfortune of having to use my phone tell me almost instantly, “Your phone sucks.”
You could argue that three years is an unrealistically long time to expect a smartphone to be able to keep up with the rapidly changing—and almost exponentially increasing—demands that we as users put on these devices. Personally, I would argue the opposite, that these things should be built to last at least three years, if for no other reason than as a society we shouldn’t be throwing these devices away so quickly.
But even if you disagree with me, even if you’re the kind of person who upgrades to a new phone every year, I think you’d still agree that it would be useful to know how well these devices hold up after one or even two years.
Now, I know it sounds kind of counter-intuitive to read a review of a product a year or more after everyone who would consider buying it has already bought it. But imagine if the sites and publications that review these products did make it a habit to revisit them down the road. Imagine if twelve months from now you could read about how well today’s iPhone X holds up with iOS 12, and also with whatever slate of third-party apps that can reasonably be understood as essential—the 2018 versions of Instagram, Spotify, Twitter or whatever. Imagine that at regular intervals we could see benchmarks on a freshly restored iPhone X running the latest software and getting a quantified and qualified idea of how well that piece of hardware has aged over time.
If reviewers revisited these products in this way, it would give us a whole new dimension of understanding. It would tell us how well-designed these phones really are, whether the manufacturers really understand how technology—and the world—changes within a two or three year time frame. And it would help us judge for ourselves how much effort the companies are investing into ensuring the quality of their products over the lifetime in which they’re used. Basically, it would give us, as customers, a richer track record for these companies, so that we can hold them accountable in a way that tends to go unnoticed today. These devices are maybe the most important pieces of technology that we own and every time we’re enticed to buy new ones we are promised world-changing features and performance. It strikes me that it’s reasonable to examine how well those claims hold up over time.
All that said, here are my thoughts on this new iPhone.
It’s a triumph, and I don’t think that I’m saying that just because the three-year old state of my iPhone 6 Plus has been so painful to bear lately. Overall, the iPhone X feels better conceived, designed, and executed than any previous model since the iPhone 5.
The standout feature is of course Face ID which I’ve found to be very slick and very well done. Unlike some other Apple innovations Touch ID, which had its problems early on, and Siri, which continues to be problematic, Face ID feels mature and fully baked. It’s not one of those new technologies that mostly works but sometimes struggles; it works virtually all the time, and it’s super fast (though check back in a year or two). On the rare occasions Face ID doesn’t work, it’s understandable, e.g., it doesn’t seem to recognize me when I’m in bed, with all the other lights out and with my glasses off. Anyway, I’m very, very impressed with Face ID.
Being able to set up the iPhone X by merely placing it near my old phone was pretty cool. I’d done it before with my Android devices, but I really appreciated the way Apple uses this to help me set up my Apple ID on my new device.
However, I did hit a roadbump in replacing my previous device with this new one: my iPhone 6 Plus was already updated to a iOS 11.0.3, so the backup was too new for the iPhone X, which was only on iOS 11.0.1. That resulted in a misleadingly alarming error message that suggested my backup might be corrupt. To get around this, I had to set up the X as a new device then upgrade to iOS 11.1. Not too difficult but time consuming and higher friction than I think Apple should be okay with. After consulting Twitter, I found that lots of people had that same problem.
Apple’s design team did a very nice job making tweaks to the UI to make iOS 11 more consonant with the unique details of the X’s hardware. One example is that on the iPhone X, iOS 11’s “cards” are rounder to be more harmonious with the rounded corners of the X’s screen. Lots of nice touches like this throughout.
I think I miss the Home button a little, but I do like the new Home affordance which shows up at the bottom of the screen as a little bar to encourage you to pull on it. However, it tends to look like a progress bar that’s just not showing any progress. I think this needs to be redesigned.
The notch is a nuisance for sure. It’s not elegant. It also forces some downstream usability problems. An example: when I connect to my office’s VPN, the indicator that I’m on the VPN is hidden in the top right area “behind” the wireless, Wi-Fi and battery indicators. After using the VPN for a while, I forgot that I was still connected because the indicator was not visible. That’s not good.
The physical size of this model is a major improvement over the Plus size of Apple’s previous models. I had really come to dislike how large and unwieldy my iPhone 6 Plus was, and I’m incredibly happy that this new model gives me basically the same screen real estate in a much more easily held physical frame.