The folks at Creative Mornings recently interviewed me about blogging, which is a topic you don’t really hear a lot about these days. They did this in collaboration with WordPress, who are of course proponents of people publishing their own websites—and owning those sites—using their seminal blogging software.
In fact, the interview is hosted at a WordPress-owned site called Own Your Content, a beachhead for an eponymous campaign that encourages creative professionals to “own their content, platform, and the future of their work.” Unsurprisingly, one of the questions addresses the issue of centralized writing platforms—which, frankly, means Medium—and whether or not I believe that people should be using them or should be using independent publishing tools like WordPress. In my answer, I try to draw a distinction between the idea of publishing “content” and “writing”:
…far be it from me to pretend that I know what most people should be doing. Many terrific careers have been borne from creating works on centralized platforms, where the creator has only the most tenuous ownership over what he or she is creating or its brand.
That said, I personally can’t imagine handing over all of my labor to a centralized platform where it’s chopped up and shuffled together with content from countless other sources, only to be exploited at the current whims of the platform owners’ volatile business models. I know a lot of creators are successful in that context, but I also see a lot of stuff that gets rendered essentially indistinguishable from everything else, lost in the blizzard of ‘content.’
Not that the work I do is all that important or memorable, but I prefer to think of it as ‘writing’ rather than as ‘content.’ And for me, that’s an important distinction. Content and writing are not the same thing, at least the way that we’ve come to define them in contemporary society. Content is inherently transactional; its goal is to drive towards some kind of conversion, some kind of exchange of value. This is why platforms just think of it all as ‘content’; for the most part, they’re indifferent to whether it’s good or bad writing, or even if it’s writing at all. It doesn’t matter whether it has any kind of inherent worth, whether it’s video or animated GIFs or whatever— so long as it’s driving clicks, time spent, purchases, etc.
Again, I’m not suggesting that what I do has any superior worth at all, but what I will say is that the difference between content that lives on a centralized blogging platform and what I do on a site that I own and operate myself—where I don’t answer to anyone else but me—is that my writing on Subtraction.com has a high tolerance for ambiguity. It’s generally about design and technology, but sometimes it’s about some random subject matter, some non sequitur, some personal passion. It’s a place for writing and thinking, and ambiguity is okay there, even an essential part of it. That’s actually increasingly rare in our digital world now, and I personally value that a lot.
In retrospect, my view on content is a bit too harsh, I think. Content is an unavoidable reality of the contemporary Internet because it’s virtually impossible to do anything online today without being involved in a transaction of some kind. And there’s a lot of good content out there too, much of it on Medium, in fact. What I regret though is that it’s almost all become content, and that there is relatively little writing on the Internet these days that isn’t transactional, that actually has a tolerance for ambiguity. Read the full interview at ownyourcontent.wordpress.com.
I’m incredibly humbled by the whole thing but I have to say it’s directly a function of the rich culture for innovation at Adobe. I’ve said before that the reason I work there is that, as the only multibillion dollar professional creativity company in the world, Adobe allows people like me to work on problems that no other company would even be interested in, much less realize the potential of. It’s an honor to get this recognition, but I’m only one of many, many people at Adobe who are frankly having the time of our lives reimagining what professional creativity can be.
You can read the write-up about me in Fast Company’s ranking at fastcompany.com. Also, note that I’m one slot ahead of actor and icon Michelle Pfeiffer. I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally have an edge in my years-long rivalry with Michelle Pfeiffer.
I got out to theaters twice last month to see “Shazam!” and “Avengers: Endgame,” both jam-packed with super-hero action and special effects (and, incidentally, virtually indistinguishable from one another). But the most thrilling new movie I saw in April was Steven Soderbergh’s very odd “High Flying Bird”—on my iPad.
Despite possessing a vibrant sense of verve and daring, this original Netflix release from director Steven Soderbergh is almost perfectly designed to be swallowed up whole by today’s media landscape, before anyone notices. It’s ostensibly a drama about the world of professional basketball but it includes virtually no basketball; its cast is noticeably lacking in star power, even if the performances by up-and-comers André Holland and Zazie Beats are transfixing; and its plot is so obtuse as to practically defy any buzz spread by word-of-mouth. It’s almost unsurprising that when it debuted back in February, it was met with a mixed reception before promptly sinking into the deep, mealy swamp that is Netflix’s bottomless catalog.
Still, I found it riveting. “Birds” is the latest vehicle for Soderbergh’s fascination with iPhone cinematography, and the result is, if not uniformly pleasing, never less than alive, imbued with a powerful, hyper-aware detail and immediacy. In many ways the aesthetic is perfectly matched by the unapologetically ambitious script from screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (who also wrote the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”). Both are intensely precise—deep focus imagery and dense, nuanced dialogue—yet paradoxically vague and open to interpretation, and both are beautiful in inelegant, even brutalist ways. You never quite know what you should be looking at or even listening to, but the wallop they pack together is undeniable.
Here is a full list of all seventeen movies I watched in April.
Here is a presentation that I made last week about how to understand the design process, explained through the lens of Thanos, that lovable scamp from “Avengers: Endgame.” (Mild spoilers included.)
If we want more awareness of and appreciation for our work, explaining design to people who aren’t already well-versed in the field is one of the most worthwhile things that we can do as professionals. It’s also one of the hardest. Which is probably why I procrastinated so much in preparing for this talk last week, when Gimlet Creative invited me to come and help them “get a little smarter about design.” Gimlet is of course the production house behind “Wireframe,” the podcast about design that I host, but the invitation was to address the entire team of audio producers working on many different shows on many different topics.
I lecture fairly frequently and so have a good number of talks in hand but I didn’t have one that lays out the basics of the design process for an uninitiated audience. Some people can just extemporize grandly on anything even vaguely relevant to their areas of expertise, but I always need to have plenty of time to write and rehearse. In my head, I had expected to be able to devote one day early last week to writing it from scratch and another to rehearsing, but that didn’t quite work out, suffice it to say. I ended up cramming it all into Wednesday night, the day before my appearance at Gimlet.
Actually, to be totally frank, what happened was that I came by two tickets for “Avengers: Endgame” on Tuesday, and so of course, nothing got done. By the time I sat down to start writing on Wednesday, I had that feeling of being in a real jam, as I was due to give my schpiel on Thursday at 10:30a. Not only was I running out of time, but I was completely stumped as to how to tell a story that would resonate. How does one explain a subject that’s as expansive and nuanced as design, without boring the heck out of an audience as smart and discerning as this? And how to figure that out the night before?
After an hour or so of panic, I had a realization that there was an “in” here that would, at the very least, make the topic more accessible for me: I could explain design through the lens of “Avengers: Endgame.” This would require accepting a pretty silly conceit: the idea that the master plan that Thanos, the central villain, enacts in “Endgame” and its predecessor, “Infinity War,” was in fact a kind of design. Or, at the very least, it’s an example of design gone wrong, and that in itself could be a useful way of explaining how design works.
Settling on that concept allowed me to power through the rest quickly—I just used the notion of Thanos being a fairly incompetent designer as a framework on top of which I could hang a bunch of stuff about design that I already knew. The whole talk is hardly genius, but I would contend that it’s mildly fun, at least, which is a useful step towards making design a little bit more relatable. And based on the massive box office receipts for “Endgame,” even if this makes design more relatable for a tiny fraction of moviegoers, that would be a victory.
The full presentation is embedded above. Of course, unaccompanied by my talk track, my intention isn’t always apparent so I’ve added excerpts from my talk track to selected slides. For maximum legibility though, the deck is available over at speakerdeck.com. Enjoy.
An article published yesterday in The Washington Post demonstrates the danger of design’s failure to broaden popular understanding of our craft. It tells the story of hackers compromising Nest Cams in private homes by taking advantage of lax security on the cameras. And it pins the blame for this on technology companies’ focus on reducing “what Silicon Valley calls ‘friction’—anything that can slow down or stand in the way of someone using a product.” The assertion is that Nest and other companies could better secure devices like the Nest Cam by requiring measures such as two-factor authorization of user accounts, but are reluctant to do so because that would make the products more difficult to use.
It’s certainly true that more could be done to encourage better security practices for Nest Cams (and in fact for most every other smart home device; the category is in desperate need of a privacy and security overhaul). But the concept of user experience writ large is not to blame here; what’s actually at fault is bad user experience practice.
There are at least a few other designs that could have been more conducive to users’ interests here: Nest could force users to consciously opt out of two-factor authorization; it could more clearly warn users of the danger of not opting into two-factor authorization; it could offer an option where account access is restricted entirely to local IP addresses; and many more possibilities. Privacy and security are not at odds with user experience; in fact privacy and security are raw materials that designers must use to create good products.
Nest just happened to make an injudicious design decision. But the framing of the problem in this article equates a focus on low-friction user experience design to be suspicious at best, and inherently compromising at worst. Any professional product designer knows that’s hogwash, of course, but the gospel of our profession—the idea that designers are motivated to make people’s lives better—is lost on the audience of a mainstream news organization like The Post’s.
We could chalk this up to lazy journalism but in fact the fault lies with us, with designers who have utterly failed at explaining what it is that we do to the world at large. There is little comprehension of what design does or how to define user experience, and what possibilities exist within these broad, amorphous concepts for everyday people. Design, as I’ve argued many times, is still a mystery to the uninitiated—including otherwise savvy reporters. In absence of understanding, suspicion and fear rush to fill the void, which is what is on display here.
I almost didn’t get out to the movies at all last month, and really, I may as well not have at all, because the only thing I watched in theaters was the moribund “Captain Marvel,” the eight-hundred and sixty-seventh in a line of “essential” installments in the pointless saga that is the Marvel cinematic universe. I say “I may as well not have at all” because I go to the movies to experience a sense of joy or celebration or surprise or discovery. But despite the landmark moment that this movie should represent by being the first female-led Marvel movie, all it did for me was to leave me feeling so incredibly sad for the state of the contemporary popcorn flick.
To be clear, I’m not above super-hero movies at all, even those you would classify under the category “dumb fun.” But it’s no fun to watch these slipshod exercises in corporate auteurism, because they have so little fun themselves. The plot of “Captain Marvel” is literally about the first time that humanity encounters otherworldly life, and the blasé, perfunctory way that that ostensibly mind-bending event is treated by the plot, by the actors, by the whole enterprise just demonstrated the utter lack of imagination going on behind the camera.
What’s truly regrettable though is the outsized financial success of this movie and others like it, because they reinforce the incredibly low expectations that we’ve all come to accept in our cinema. Imagination, surprise, artistry, even logic are immaterial to these films; all that matters is that they somehow, by hook or by crook or by horrifically unsightly computer graphics, advance us to the next purchase, to the next movie ticket, to the next video game, to the next whatever. The most important message of each of these films is that they are essential viewing in order to consume what we’ll be sold next. The only filmmaking going on in this cinematic universe is of the Power Point variety; these flicks are marketing plans, not movies.
My news consumption has been so thoroughly digital for years that I honestly never expected to subscribe to home delivery of The New York Times again. But two years ago the paper started running a special, print-only section for kids on the last Sunday of each month. My daughter happened to come across a few of the installments here and there and pleaded with us to subscribe. Since the cost of Sunday-only home delivery is only nominally more expensive than a digital subscription, we relented.
I’m not particularly happy about the resulting stacks of newsprint in the house, but I have to admit, the sight of my kids poring over the paper makes it worthwhile. It reminded me of my own youth, when I would read The Washington Post’s Sunday comics section cover to cover. It always bewildered me that The Times refused to run a comics section; any excuse to get kids exposed to newspaper consumption seems like an essential path to future customers. (For a while, The New York Times Magazine ran a “Funny Pages”” feature, which was like Sunday comics for people too arrogant to read comics; I hated it.)
This is not a comics section though. It is, appropriately, a newspaper within a newspaper for younger readers:
…The special section is a kid-centric version of The Times and mimics regular sections in the paper, including sports, national news, food and arts. Need career advice from an animator or a recipe for the best homemade slime? This package has you covered.
This is both unsurprising, because that is exactly what you would expect from a section officially titled The New York Times for Kids, and surprising, because the paper has so effectively dispelled its traditional buttoned-up (some would say stuffy) airs in order to create something genuinely fascinating to the younger set. The stuff you find between its pages is completely unassuming, wittily written, graphically arresting, and thoroughly kid-centric in its worldview. This week’s edition is the humor issue and my daughter pronounced it “Really funny.” The ol’ Gray Lady has some tricks left in her yet, and one of them seems to be knowing that a kid’s heart leads to a parent’s wallet.
Any time I’m confronted with a standard GDPR privacy warning on a web site, I reflexively click the option to accept cookies and move on. Recently though, while reading an article at The Times of London’s web site, I accidentally clicked on the option to manage my settings instead. What I got was this “privacy preference centre” dialog box. I was pleasantly surprised by its unexpectedly succinct design.
The presentation of these settings is almost certainly powered by One Trust, a service which allows customers like The Times to easily create and customize preference panels for cookies and tracking software, and then to embed them easily on their own sites. One Trust claims it provides similar privacy interfaces for thousands of customers. Here’s a more “straight out of the box” example that hasn’t been tailored to fit a host brand.
The team at One Trust have obviously distilled their considerable domain knowledge into a thoughtful, efficient design that mitigates some of the opaqueness that always seems to accompany privacy experiences. Of course, you could argue that half a dozen tabs, no matter how elegant they are, is still too much to expect the vast majority of users to ever contend with. But it’s also fair to say that among the countless user-hostile privacy experiences that web sites have implemented out there in the wild, this is more user-friendly than most.
In some ways though this level of design refinement can actually be misleading to users. It portrays the privacy choices available to site visitors as being a simplistic set of controls. It looks like visitors can exert the full extent of their privacy rights by toggling just three or four toggles, like the ones shown here.
In reality though, even if you switch those off, there is another layer of controls that’s effectively hidden behind The Times’s elegant presentation. Back on the first tab of this privacy centre, there’s a seemingly benign link labeled “View Vendor Consent” that belies this simplicity. Clicking on it is a bit like lifting a rock to find a colony of living organisms thriving underneath. What you get is a list of literally dozens of ad networks that are enabled on the site, all of them toggled on by default. (I turned mine off for this screen shot.)
Of course, this is the reality of operating a content site in 2019: ad networks like these are essential to publishers’ business models. So it’s hard to fault One Trust or The Times for the existence of these settings. They have made this internecine world more approachable than it otherwise might be, imperfect as it might remain.
Still, this is a useful illustration of design’s limits in the realm of privacy—at least right now. Privacy as an experience is a product of complex business imperatives and technologies that have largely evolved without the participation of design. Even in a case like One Trust, where design has been brought to bear to improve the experience, it can only do so in a limited way—this is efficient window dressing, but in the end it’s still only window dressing.
The implication, of course, is that there’s an opportunity here to level up the experience of privacy through the application of design as a discipline. What’s needed is not just better interfaces like these, but a redesign of the whole ad network ecosystem. For now, that is a challenge that any single design team, whether at a publisher like The Times or a service provider like One Trust, would sem unlikely to be able to surmount on their own. But if it’s ever going to get fixed, if we truly want a world in which privacy controls are comprehensible to mere mortals, then design should play a role.
We’re officially “on hiatus” between seasons of “Wireframe,” my podcast about how design shapes technology to fit into our lives. But that didn’t stop us from recording a new episode, available right now in your podcast player of choice. Go listen to it here!
This episode was actually recorded live a few weeks ago at On Air Fest in Brooklyn, New York. On Air is a unique conference about creativity in sound, sort of a mashup of everything audio—not just music and radio, but podcasting, sound design, and art, too. Take a look at the line-up; it was full of amazing folks doing amazing stuff in this space.
We decided that On Air was the perfect place to take a look at voice design and the world of Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, et. al. To do that, we first dug into some early examples of voice-enabled human-computer interaction, unearthing clips of some fascinating precursors to today’s voice assistants. That was followed by a live discussion with two guests who are working at the forefront of voice interaction design: Katie Briggs, product designer at NPR, and Will Hall, chief creative officer at RAIN, an agency focused on voice.
If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more about it in this blog post, and listen to the first season here.
Last month I took my kids to go see “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” which was totally fine. It’s not exactly one for the canon, but I’ve come to the conclusion that anything that the creative team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller are involved in is worth watching. They don’t always hit it out of the park but they do always take a big swing. Even their lesser movies (does anyone remember “Storks”? It wasn’t bad!) are way more interesting than they need to be. It’s actually a shame that there’s no Academy Award for producing because it’s clear that there’s no way “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” would have taken home an Oscar last month if it weren’t for their involvement as producers. These two are building an amazing body of work.
Actually “The Lego Movie 2” was the only new movie I saw in theaters last month. I also managed to get out to see a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 classic “Spellbound,” which was showing at The Metrograph. That’s a wonderful revival theater in downtown Manhattan that, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never been able to visit before. “Spellbound” is not premium Hitchcock, but it did inspire me to go home and watch another of the director’s movies: “Notorious.” I hadn’t seen that one since I was a teenager, and I was happy to find that it’s still as magnificent as ever. It was the best thing I watched all month.
Here are all nineteen films I watched in February.
“The Oath” (2018) Terrific and hilarious, even if it goes off the rails a bit.
“Peter Rabbit” (2018) Exceeded my very low expectations—by a little.
“Notorious” (1946) One of those rare films where everything went exactly right.
By the way, my new goal in life is to get these roundups posted within two weeks of the end of each month. You can also see everything I watched in January and a full list from 2018. And, if you’re interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.