On the Democratization of Design on The Voice of Design

A few weeks ago I was invited to appear as a guest on the second episode of Mule Design’s new podcast, The Voice of Design with hosts Erika Hall and Larisa Berger. It was a great discussion that sprang in part from my article “In Defense of Design Thinking, Which Is Terrible” back in May. It was a great talk about the state of the design industry and what we have to do to level up our profession.

You can have a listen to the episode below and you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

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Movies Watched, May 2018

Still from “Tully”

Jason Reitman is one of those journeyman movie directors who can pass as an auteur. Usually, as in the case of “Thank You for Smoking,” “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult,” it’s pretty easy to see past his ambitions to the clumsy conceptions that are the real heart of his moviemaking. But in the case of “Tully,” his charmingly narrow look at the trials of motherhood and post-partum depression, he manages to transcend his level best. A little. It’s not a great film but it mostly works—at least in a New-Yorker-short-story-of-the-week kind of way.

The main reason it’s any good is Charlize Theron’s performance, a fully committed deep dive into the chasm between youthful ambition and middle-aged helplessness. I’m usually not a big believer in the maxim that gaining weight equals great acting, but the startling body transformation Theron underwent for this role deserves merit for being more than just a superficial if physically demanding affectation. Rather, it demonstrates Theron’s formidable willingness to find highly specific, uncritical empathy with the characters she plays. It’s getting harder and ignore the fact that she’s one of the best actors working today.

Here is a list of all sixteen films I watched in May.

  • Tully” A pretty big improvement over this creative team’s previous outings, even if you can see the central plot twist coming a mike away.
  • Molly’s Game” On re-watch, still flawed, but still very good.
  • The Incredibles” By a mile, the best super-hero film of this century. So far!
  • Maggie’s Plan” More or less a Woody Allen film not made by Woody Allen.
  • Sex and the Single Girl” Insipid historical artifact.
  • Steve Jobs” Most of us knew too much about the subject matter to recognize that this is a great movie.
  • Den of Thieves” The film equivalent of a trashy but really fun paperback thriller.
  • Thor: Ragnarok” Definitely fun, not so definitely good.
  • Journey to Italy” Doesn’t live up to expectations.
  • Castle in the Sky” Sometimes I feel utterly alone in my inability to get past Ghibli’s paper-thin characters.
  • Dragon Inn” Tarantino owes so much to this.
  • Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” Nice enough.
  • A Touch of Zen” Over-the-top wuxia majesty. Recommended!
  • Revenge” Sketchy feminism wrapped in a gripping thriller.
  • Deadpool 2” Breaking news: scientists have isolated the “meh” gene.

If you’re interested, here’s what I watched in April, March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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Automating the End of Movies on Physical Discs

Netflix Envelope Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar, Flickr

No one pays attention to Netflix’s discs-by-mail business anymore but for those who are curious, the subscriber base continues to decline steadily and the company’s operations have shrunk from a peak of fifty distribution centers across the United States to just seventeen remaining. Some projections show the division winding down as soon as 2025, but it’s also worth noting that in the meantime its profit margins continue to grow.

That’s probably thanks in no small part to efficiencies like “The ARRM,” or the Automated Rental Return Machine, a robotic disc-processing machine that intakes countless returned Netflix envelopes, extracts their contents and repackages the discs for mailing to new customers. It’s pretty fascinating to see in action, as this video demonstrates.

That video was produced by Netflix’s marketing department and so it has an elegant sheen to it. If you want to get a better look at the ARRM in action, this decidedly more prosaic video from Bronway, the automation vendor who created it for Netflix, is also fascinating. It offers more detail on how efficiently—almost ruthlessly—the machine executes its tasks.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of human intervention necessary with the ARRM, which makes it sort of interesting—maybe sad, maybe scary?—to think of how Netflix has basically built a robot to serve a dwindling population. In a very real sense, they’ve optimized the profit margins for a dying customer segment. It’s the end of the world as they know it, and they feel fine etc.

I’m one of those holdouts who still subscribes to discs by mail, mostly because my appetite for films you can’t watch on streaming services is pretty high. Still, even I can see that the writing is on the wall for this service; a couple of years ago I downgraded from the two discs-per-month plan to one-per-month, and not long after that I got in the habit of pausing my subscription during summers or periods when I knew I’d be traveling extensively.

Even if the shuttering of Netflix’s DVD service won’t be exactly the same as a final nail in the coffin for disc media, it’ll still be meaningful. Netflix buys tons of physical media; once it stops doing that, the economics of movies on disc will only get worse.

The real shame will happen when movies stop coming out on DVDs and Blu-Rays altogether. That’s not because they were such a lovable way to package films (they have their pluses and minuses); it’s because with the loss of each media format, we also lose some titles forever. The list of movies that never made it from VHS to DVD is not insignificant. Usually these “lost” titles are somewhat obscure, but even a major film like “Air Force One” can get lost in the shuffle. As this Collider story recounts, even though that movie is available in a recently pressed Blu-Ray edition, it isn’t available to stream—not just from subscription services like Netflix and Hulu, but it’s not available to rent from iTunes or Amazon, either. It’s hard to say how many more titles we’ll lose when you can only watch movies online, but it’s something to think about as we so eagerly embrace that future.

Photo: Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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LEGO and Augmented Reality

There’s no doubt in my mind that augmented reality is going to be amazing and that people will build incredible new experiences with Apple’s ARKit, version 2 of which was announced earlier this week at the company’s annual World Wide Developers Conference. But in order for that reality to come into focus, developers—and designers—are going to need to bring greater thoughtfulness and creativity to the new medium, or at least more than was on display during the LEGO demonstration portion of the keynote.

If you missed it, you can watch the video, below. In it, LEGO director of innovation Martin Sanders and a colleague use iPads trained on a real, physical LEGO model to unlock a layer of augmented reality. The real time visual coordination of the physical and the virtual is impressive. Sanders claims that the combination of the two “really opens up those creative play possibilities.”

I found it to be a surprisingly thoughtless take on how kids actually play with LEGO toys.

My kids have been obsessed with LEGOs for about a year now, and so I find myself, somewhat unexpectedly, with a lot of opinions about the experience of playing with bricks. We’ve built a lot of kits together, roughly about as complex as the one shown in this video, and I can easily imagine them being enthusiastic if those kits could be combined with what is essentially a video game layer. That’s not unique to them, of course; pretty much any five year old in Western society is going to be wildly receptive to any video game opportunity.

But that’s at cross purposes with what I, as a parent, find most valuable about LEGO bricks: their tactile, physical nature. I fully buy into all the clichés of the benefits of LEGO play: they build fine motor skills; encourage problem solving; enhance coordination; stoke the imagination; and even teach the value of cleaning up after yourself (that last one is not to be underestimated). And in a major bonus, they do all of this without batteries, keyboards or screens. For our family, LEGOs are great because there’s no tech involved. The fact that they are not video games, that they engage our kids in a wholly different way from video games is a valuable feature, not a shortcoming.

Even setting aside my mildly Luddite attitude towards digital toys, what struck me about yesterday’s demo was that it fundamentally and carelessly subverts the purpose of LEGOs. Presumably, once a set is completed, it must remain more or less intact in order for the AR component to work. Sure, you could probably change up a decent portion of the parts and the software could be smart enough to account for the change, but it seems logical that if the kit were to be disassembled too much, the VR experience would stop working entirely.

The problem with that approach is that, at least in our household, the completion of a LEGO kit is just one stage in its useful life, so to speak. Even incredibly complex models that took hours or days to complete will come apart eventually, either through the natural disassembly that happens when they’re stored in toy bins or through purposeful dismantling. For us, no LEGO brick ever has a truly permanent use.

In fact, what happens to bricks after they’re combined to look like what you see on the box is, for me, much, much more interesting. My kids and I regularly sit down and build fantastical new creations that pull parts from countless other kits, whether they’re wheels from a police car, arches from a building, a rowboat from a picnic set, or maybe weirdly organic shapes from a LEGO dragon. Here’s an example of one that we’ve been working on for the past two weeks:

Improvised LEGO Construction

Anything and everything goes into these odd assemblages; they have no plan and no purpose. That’s what makes them so fun; they’re free-associative improvisations with no real limits or constraints other than that they need to be stable enough to stand on their own. And even then, if they fall apart, that’s fine too; we just remove what didn’t work and then we add something else. There’s no wrong answer to the question “What do we add next?”

This freeform method of play is what truly unlocked LEGOs for my kids and me. When they first started getting obsessed with them, I was somewhat cool to the process of following the extensive instruction booklets that are necessary to assemble the sets—to me, they just seemed like preparation for a life of putting together IKEA furniture. But once we removed the rules and the sense that anything we built was ever meant to stay that way, it became much, much more interesting for everyone. Now we collaborate on these creations together, and anything the kids want to add is just as interesting as anything I contribute—usually more so.

That kind of play seems incompatible with what the LEGO team presented at WWDC. Their vision of combining bricks and augmented reality changes the goal from building for the joy of it to building in order to unlock a video game. The assembly of a LEGO kit becomes just a preliminary stage in spending more time looking at screens. And as any parent will attest, the allure of screens for kids is so potent that this new take on play effectively limits the usefulness of the physical toys. Disassembling a LEGO model, reusing its pieces for other creations—these natural behaviors are inhibited when AR is introduced in this way, because they would cut off that intoxicating gaming layer. There’s not a kid out there who would be willing to take apart something that allows him or her to spend more time on an iPad.

To be fair, early applications of new technologies are often shallow interpretations of the true potential of the medium at hand. As we become more acquainted with what AR can do, it will become more apparent both how AR can be used more effectively as well as how AR should be used. Augmented reality has the potential to enable true innovation, but it would be a shame if that potential is mostly harnessed to subvert what works so well without it, as it seems to do in this case. For designers and developers, when we think about what we can make with technologies like this, it’s perhaps more important than ever for us to think about what is good for our users—is it really in the best interests of kids to use LEGOs just to play video games?

I’m certainly not arguing that makers of physical toys shouldn’t be investigating how AR can complement their products. It does seem logical that there will be something pretty interesting to come out of combining LEGO bricks and AR—maybe an app that you point at a pile of random LEGO parts that then shows you what new creation can be made from those pieces? Or an app that lets you point at any object and then generates instructions on how to build a LEGO version of it? Maybe an app that lets you identify two or more kits that you own and shows you how they might be combined? Concepts like these are admittedly more complex to execute than simply adding a video game layer to an existing kit, but if augmented reality is to be as truly game changing as it’s been advertised, it probably won’t be enough to settle for simple concepts like what was shown by the LEGO team at WWDC. This new immersive future is going to require us not just to build more ambitious products, but to be more thoughtful about them, too.

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Update: Recycling Isn’t Working

Recycling Icon

Here’s an update on a post that I wrote at the beginning of the year about how China has upended the way recycling works. In short, Americans recycle as much as 66 million tons of would-be waste each year, the majority of which used to go to China. However, as part of a new policy aimed at improving its own environmental conditions, China no longer allows imports of those foreign recycling materials. The result is essentially a crisis in everything but name, as this article in The New York Times details:

In the Pacific Northwest, [Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the country] has diverted more than 2,000 tons of paper to landfills since the Chinese ban came into effect, Mr. Keller said. The company has been unable to move that material to a market ‘at any price or cost,’ he said. Though Republic is dumping only a small portion of its total inventory so far—the company handles over five million tons of recyclables nationwide each year—it sent little to no paper to landfills last year.

But for smaller companies, like Rogue Disposal and Recycling, which serves much of Oregon, the Chinese ban has upended operations. Rogue sent all its recycling to landfills for the first few months of the year, said Garry Penning, a spokesman.

Western states, which have relied the most on Chinese recycling plants, have been hit especially hard. In some areas—like Eugene, Ore., and parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii—local officials and garbage haulers will no longer accept certain items for recycling, in some cases refusing most plastics, glass and certain types of paper. Instead, they say, customers should throw these items in the trash.

Some waste managers are holding out hope that China may change its mind and begin accepting recycled waste again, which may or may not be a realistic aspiration.

What’s truly amazing, though, is the idea that even with this major change in the way the ecosystem for waste works—and even with the growing problems stemming from climate change—there has been little or no change in awareness of how recycling works. The Times article hints at this reality: its title is “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not,” and an accompanying article called “6 Things You’re Recycling Wrong” offers a primer on recycling fundamentals that is so basic that it’s embarrassing that most people don’t already understand it.

Both underscore the idea that Americans clearly have no idea what it means to recycle—not just how to do it properly, but whether it’s truly a net positive for the environment or the economy. The assumption is that recycling is a magical cure-all for the deleterious effects of uninhibited consumption, when it clearly is not. There is a wanton disinterest in consequences here that is astounding but perhaps not surprising as choosing to ignore facts is clearly becoming the hallmark of our age.

If you’re interested in learning more about how waste can be tempered not just with recycling but also with a mindful approach to reduction and reuse, I recommend this episode of the 1A podcast.

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Illustration in the App Store

App Store Icon on the iOS Home Screen

Apple’s dramatically redesigned App Store got a decent amount of attention when it debuted last year with iOS 11, but its unique success as a hybrid of product design and editorial design has gone little noticed since. That’s a shame, because it’s a huge breakthrough.

I myself paid it scant attention until one day this past winter when I realized that the company was commissioning original illustration to accompany its new format. If you check the App Store front page a few times a week, you’ll see a quietly remarkable display of unique art alongside unique stories about apps, games and “content” (movies, TV shows, comics, etc.). To be clear: this isn’t work lifted from the marketing materials created by app publishers. It’s drawings, paintings, photographs, collages and/or animations that have been created expressly for the App Store.

We don’t see this particular flavor of artistic ambition from many companies today, especially tech companies. The predominant mode of product design almost exclusively favors templates and automation, what can be done without human intervention. The very idea of asking living, breathing art directors who need to be paid real salaries to hire living, breathing illustrators who also need to be paid a living wage in order to create so-called works of art that have no demonstrably reproducible effect on actual profits is outlandish, absurd even. The mere suggestion would get you laughed off of most design teams in Silicon Valley. Design in this century has little use for anything that can’t be quantified.

And yet, here is Apple’s App Store, presenting new, original illustrations several times a week. Of course, not everything shown is bespoke. For some recurring editorial features they use wallpaper-like designs made from app icons; other stories borrow graphics right from the apps themselves; and sometimes the art directors will sneak in a graphic that they might have used in the past.

I know this because for four or five months now I’ve been coming back to the App Store at least once a week, taking screen grabs of the original art and posting them to this Pinterest board. Not all of the art I’ve captured has been truly great, but what I’ve seen again and again is an awareness of the unique power of an editorially-driven digital product and, I think, a sense of the opportunity to do things that, quite frankly, no other company is willing to do. So far I’ve taken nearly a hundred screen grabs. Here are a few of my favorites.

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Valuable Lessons from Pointless Machines

Most people think of Rube Goldberg machines—devices which intentionally perform simple tasks in indirect, unnecessarily complicated ways—as examples of ingenious engineering. But the work of “kinetic artist” Joseph Herscher reveals that these contraptions are as much about design as anything.

Herscher’s pièce de résistance may be “The Cake Server,” shown above: a gorgeous monstrosity that brings together melting butter, a glass of juice that pours its contents into itself, a baby using a smartphone and much more to serve a slice of upside-down cake to a plate in its God-intended manner of delivery. It’s a marvel to behold.

Though the Cake Server relies on precision execution and basic physics and engineering principles, it’s clear from watching the behind-the-scenes video below that there is a real artistry at work, too. In comments that will sound familiar to any designer, Herscher talks about the importance of the viewer’s experience and how certain components of a Rube Goldberg help create a sense of expectation and narrative for the audience. The inclusion of a hammer, for instance, suggests a pounding motion is imminent. His process also includes significant iteration, “creatively tedious” trial and error, in order to determine if something can be reliably reproduced to the desired effect—again, design at work.

It’s also interesting to note that what makes these machines interesting, entertaining and even educational to audiences is not just whether they accomplish their tasks. Granted, no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that doesn’t make it to its final stage, that fails to deliver that slice of cake or whatever its ultimate punchline may be. But it’s also true that no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that’s dead simple and poses no challenges, whether to the creator or the audience. What matters is the aesthetic quality of the contraption, whether it challenges the possible for no better reason than the fun of that challenge.

Indeed, looking at any successful Rube Goldberg machine offers a lesson in how we might appraise design. In design, we often emphasize the simple metric of whether a something works or not. Some people argue—some designers among them—if it accomplishes its goal then it’s hardly important whether it looked great or not, whether it offered any kind of ineffable aesthetic qualities. I think that’s a false dichotomy though; I think it’s important that a design solution should work and that it’s beautiful. Given the choice between an ugly solution that works and a beautiful solution that also works, most would choose the latter.

It should also be acknowledged that Rube Goldberg machines are in fact pointless, and that if the importance of aesthetic design rests on the entertainment value of pointless machines, that’s not the strongest argument in the world. Fair. But also consider that Rube Goldberg machines are often used to teach physics and engineering. When a student builds a Rube Goldberg he or she is learning the principles of design as well as the principles of physics; you can’t learn one without the other. The two are actually interrelated, funny enough.

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Adobe XD: Ten Million and Zero

Adobe XD: Ten Million and Zero

This morning there are two major announcements for Adobe XD, our new end-to-end design, prototyping and sharing app, and I’m proud to say that I’ve played a bit part in both of them. The news can be summed up in two numbers: ten million and zero.

Ten Million

$10,000,000 is the amount of money Adobe is setting aside for the new Adobe Fund for Design, an initiative to help supercharge the design ecosystem. If you’re building design tools, if you have something meaningful to contribute to the future of how designers work, this is for you—the Fund makes investments but it also issues grants, which means it’s open not just to teams of all sizes, but also to individuals. The goal is to inspire anyone with a passion for design tooling to build on top of Adobe XD, obviously, but also to help people bring to life wholly new approaches to the design ecosystem. Find out more about the Fund here.

Zero

$0 is the cost of the brand new Adobe XD Starter Plan. This is an unprecedented move for Adobe: you can now get Adobe XD for free. This isn’t a limited time deal—it’s a new, permanent offering alongside our other Creative Cloud plans. And it’s not an abridged version of the app, either, it’s the real thing. None of XD’s design and prototyping features have been dialed back. You can create an unlimited number of project files, each containing thousands of artboards (XD is wildly performant and won’t blink an eye)—all at no cost. The Starter Plan only limits you to sharing one prototype and one set of design specs at a time, but you can export locally and to services like Zeplin and Avocode with no limits. This fully lowers the barriers for Adobe XD for anyone practicing design, whether you’re a student, a new professional, or you’ve just been curious about Adobe XD and haven’t yet tried it. Get it here.

On top of that, we have our regularly scheduled monthly release of new XD features—read about that here. There’s so much great stuff in the pipeline too, from advanced prototyping to innovative design systems features to truly breakthrough interactivity capabilities, and much more. I’m obviously biased but XD is truly something special. If you haven’t done so already, give it a try here—it won’t cost you a thing.

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Movies Watched, April 2018

Still from “A Quiet Place”

I really didn’t know what to make of “Avengers: Infinity War” when I walked out of the theater. It’s such a weird mess of a film, frequently incoherent and often absurd. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that the filmmakers tried. They tried to make its villain interesting; they tried to make the runtime largely entertaining; they tried to add some weight to a cinematic “universe” that has only come to seem lighter and less substantial with each installment. I’m not sure they fully succeeded in any of that, really, and it’s not just because the narrative of the film ends up, morally speaking, in some seriously questionable territory. It’s a just bizarre film that seems to defy any kind of appraisal. Given the massive box office receipts though you’ve probably already seen it yourself, along with millions of others. So what anyone thinks of it, including me, probably doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Another unexpected downside of “Infinity War” is that it seemed to put an unexpected amount of distance between John Krasinski’s unexpectedly satisfying “A Quiet Place,” which seemed like a late winter gem, and the summer movie season. Not that I relish all of the dreck that’s usually trotted out in the early part of the year, but if nothing else it’s a time for interesting if imperfect movies. “A Quiet Place” exemplifies that perfectly; a weird little horror movie that can boast its fair share of surprises, mostly in how deeply felt it is. Anyway, I watched it in mid-April but that was a long time ago; it’s May now and summer is well underway, at least at the movies.

Including those two, I saw a total of fifteen movies last month, and wrote at moderate length on a few of them, linked below.

If you’re interested, here’s what I watched in March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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The Secret to Writing (Is Writing)

Pencil Shavings Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

A16z board partner and Microsoft alum Steven Sinofsky continually proves that he’s one of the smartest minds in tech with Medium articles like this one, called “Writing Is Thinking.” It’s an annotated version of a tweet storm he published recently about the challenges in building a culture of writing at tech companies. This quote is particularly good:

It is really incredible the amount of pushback I see from companies, startups to big, about writing. In particular around the notion that writing is the antithesis of agile. Writing ossifies and cements decision or plans that should change, it is said. My view is that agility comes from planning. Without plans, activities are just brownian motion. And you can’t have plans, especially shared plans, without writing.

If it isn’t already obvious, the fact that I’m sharing and applauding Sinofsky’s argument here is that I feel strongly about the value of writing in design as well as technology. In a world full of talented designers, the ability to express oneself in written form is a key advantage.

However, someone asked me recently: “I know I should write, but when I actually do it I don’t know if I’m writing for myself or because I know I should write.” I’ve always said that everyone should just write but I realize that for many people it doesn’t come so easily. It can feel more like a compulsory duty than a passion, at which point it becomes pointless—unless you’re writing from your heart, your writing is unlikely to make much of an impression on anyone.

That said, there as many avenues into writing as there are ways to write; the trick is to find the the sensibility, the style that works for you. Maybe you feel more comfortable writing in short, concise bullets than at protracted, grandiose length. Or maybe you feel more at ease with sarcasm and dry wit than with sober, exhaustive argumentation. Or perhaps you prefer to knock out a solitary first draft and never look back rather than polishing and tweaking endlessly. Whatever the approach, if you can do the work to find a genuine passion for writing, what a powerful tool you’ll have.

Read the full article at learningbyshipping.com.

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

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