Generating Design Elements Directly from Code

Illustration for React-sketch.app

React-sketch.app is a new, open source library from the team at Airbnb Design that allows templates and working assets from the company’s extensive design system to be generated directly from code. It obviates the need for a design system to maintain its constituent elements both as “drawn” objects in a layout app and as a snippet of code in a repo, thereby eliminating the inevitable inconsistencies that arise as the system evolves. In react-sketch.app, a given button, say, is created by React components, so that the designer is ostensibly working with the exact button itself.

It’s a fascinating project that minimizes the distance between design and code and it could have some interesting long-term implications for how design is practiced—at least for the production aspect of large scale design operations. Read the announcement at airbnb.design, fancifully titled “Painting with Code.”

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1977 EPA Graphic Standards System to Be Reissued

EPA Logo by Chermayeff & Geismar

Back in 1975 famed design agency Chermayeff & Geismar was tapped to create a branding and graphics standards system for the then still relatively new Environmental Protection Agency. What resulted was something that’s virtually inconceivable today: an exquisitely executed, thoughtful, comprehensive design solution produced and implemented for a government agency. Now, some forty years later, the embodiment of that solution, the “1977 EPA Graphic Standards System” manual, is being reissued as a hardcover book by the people who made possible the recent, successful reissues of standards manuals for the New York City Transit Authority and NASA, in partnership with Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, the most recent incarnation of the original agency, and AIGA, who were entrusted with an original copy in their design archives. The project is currently raising funds on Kickstarter, and Wired has this writeup. The project’s brief video is also a great tour of the document.

While I’m actually happy that important artifacts of design history like this are finding an audience through these reissues, I’m intensely curious about who exactly is buying them. Are they younger or older? What is their median income? Are they professional designers or just fans of graphic design? And maybe the most important question of all: are these reissues actually expanding the audience for design history, or the profession as a whole?

Incidentally, the glory days for Chermayeff & Geismar’s system were brief; within a few years they collided unceremoniously with the Reagan era. In 1981, Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch—mother to dubiously installed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch—to head the agency and she let it founder, unsurprisingly.

1977 EPA Graphic Standards Manual
1977 EPA Graphic Standards Manual
1977 EPA Graphic Standards Manual
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Free Fonts Are Getting Better, But What Does That Mean?

I’m continually astonished by the downward trend in the value of design paraphernalia. We’ve seen massive shifts in the stock photo business where those assets now cost little or nothing—and companies like Unsplash can raise millions of dollars in venture capital to give away stock images for free.

Perhaps less pronounced, for now, but still worth watching is the trend towards free in the marketplace for type. Every month I get an email update to Typewolf’s Definitive Guide to Free Fonts, an excellent, comprehensive handbook of the best offerings in the market. Each new edition adds more free fonts, and watching this activity month to month is fascinating. Jeremiah Shoaf, the designer behind Typewolf, surfaces the best of recent releases, but even amongst these the quality can be varied. Some are quite well executed while others are merely passable.

Still, there seems to be something happening here. In 2014 Shoaf himself wrote this in an article for Smashing Magazine:

Once thought of as amateurish by professional designers, free and open-source fonts have gone through something of a renaissance in just the last few years. The quality of available free fonts has increased dramatically.

When I emailed him to ask about his feelings now, three years later, he stood by those comments. “We are seeing more and more free font releases that are suitable for professional design,” he said. Shoaf pointed to several examples of high quality releases from just the past year or two, all of which are superb, admittedly:

Infini. A calligraphic sans-serif that was selected as one of Typographica’s favorite typefaces of last year.

Free Fonts and Typewolf

Space Mono. A monospaced typeface designed by Colophon Foundry.

Sample of Work Sans Font

Work Sans. A sans from Wei Huang inspired by early grotesques.

Sample of Work Sans Font

Cormorant. A refined Garamond created for display use rather than text like traditional Garamonds.

Sample of Cormorant Font

Given the quality of these examples, the question inevitably arises whether their kind will diminish the market for paid typefaces. In Shoaf’s estimation, the opposite is in fact happening: free fonts are effectively raising the bar for typography in general, at least on the web, and stoking demand for more distinctive, paid fonts. “I think free fonts and commercial fonts can co-exist peacefully,” he says.

Whether that is true or not is hard to verify, but it seems clear that the labor and expertise that goes into producing the very best typefaces will never be compatible with a market that assigns a value of zero to fonts in general. We’re not at a disruptive juncture yet, but I hope that as this evolves, we find a way to square the introductory value of free fonts with the richer quality of premium fonts.

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Movies Watched, March 2017

Still from “Get Out”

Back in February a friend tried to get me to go see “Get Out” with him but I demurred, not being a huge fan of horror. Instead we went to see the overrated “The Lego Batman Movie,” which I’ve since come to recognize as an embarrassing miscalculation. “Get Out,” which I finally watched in theaters in March, is the first masterpiece of this year, a triumph of social insight, Hitchcockian suspense and expertly measured comedy. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Meanwhile, I squeezed in thirteen other movies last month. Here they are:

If you’re interested, here is my list of what I watched in February and in January, as well as my full list of everything I watched in 2016. You can also follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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Commodore 64: For the Love of a Machine

Sample Spread from “Commodore 64: For the Love of a Machine”

Graphic designer, photographer and die-hard Commodore 64 enthusiast Andreas Wallström is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for a lavish coffee table book devoted to the now thirty-five year old home computer. The book includes in-depth interviews with the machine’s co=creators Al Charpentier and Bob Yannes and loads of photography of the people, products and art that emerged around the Commodore 64. More at kickstarter.com.

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Capture Nuzzel Stories in Instapaper with Workflow

I’m on record with my admiration for the mobile news app Nuzzel. It uses your social graph to alert you of the news stories trending among people you follow, thereby creating the most accurate personalized news wire service that I’ve ever used. As I wrote in a blog post last August titled “Nuzzel Is the Best Mobile News Product Out There,” its utility is so valuable that the app succeeds in spite of its otherwise lackluster design. I described it then as “aesthetically lacking and difficult to use,” and unfortunately it hasn’t really gotten better in the time since.

Here’s an example. Every day, Nuzzel does a terrific job of alerting me to a dozen or two news stories that are almost always highly relevant to my interests. These alerts can come fast and furious though, and keeping up with them can be a burden during a busy workday. Nuzzel doesn’t really offer a simple way for you to save them for later or to a third-party service like Instapaper, unfortunately. What it does offer is its own “newsletter” feature, which lets you swipe on an alert on the home screen and add a given story to a daily, auto-generated email that people who follow you on Nuzzel can get in their inbox.

Nuzzel Notification on iOS Lock Screen

It’s easy to see why Nuzzel privileges its newsletter feature over services like Instapaper; this is in theory an effective way to stoke interest in Nuzzel itself and to build a social network within the app. I have no idea if it’s working for the company or not, but I was basically disinterested in the newsletter feature until I realized it could be a solution to my “save for later” problem.

What I did was subscribe to my own newsletter, so that I get a copy of it around midday each day. Then I built a script with Workflow to parse each day’s newsletter, find the links to just the stories, expand them and then add the text of each one to my Instapaper account.

So now as these notifications appear on my phone, I just quickly swipe on them to add them to my daily newsletter. When that arrives, usually around midday in New York, I run the Workflow script by clicking on the newsletter’s “View this issue in your browser” link in iOS’s Mail app, choosing “Run Workflow” from the Share Sheet and then tapping on the script—which I’ve named “Nuzzel Newsletter to Instapaper.” It’s a few more taps than I would like but the process takes only a few seconds and the end result is that I have all of the stories in my Instapaper app with minimal effort. In an ideal world this wouldn’t even be necessary as I could just send links directly to Instapaper from Nuzzel alerts on my phone. But for me it’s an ideal companion to an incredibly useful but flawed product, and yet another example of the edge cases that can be smoothed out with Workflow.

You can grab the Workflow script here and run it yourself. You’ll just need to set up your own newsletter on Nuzzel and authorize Instapaper inside Workflow. However, be aware that the script uses regular expressions as a brute force way of understanding what’s contained in each newsletter and finding the links it should add to Instapaper, which is a method that is often fragile. It works for me nine times out of ten, but your mileage may vary. When it works though, it works great.

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Minim Playing Cards

Minim Playing Cards in Black
A Black and a White Deck of Minim Playing Cards
A Hand of Minim Playing Cards in Black

I don’t play cards very often but I’m fond of this extravagantly ascetic take on the familiar 52-card deck. The numbers are typeset in a functionally spare sans-serif face and the suits are abstracted into simple geometric shapes. The product name for them is Minim playing cards and there’s a design that’s all white and another that’s all black. At just US$10 each, they will give you a modest slice of luxury for a surprisingly reasonable price. Available at areaware.com.

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The Deck Shuts Down

Parting Message at The Deck

The Deck described itself as an independent ad network focused on “reaching web, design & creative professionals” but it was more than that. The Deck was built on truly admirable principles, a worldview about how the Internet might work if it could resist its worst temptations. Ads were small, non-invasive and restricted to high-quality advertisers providing products relevant to the network’s chosen niche, and all of the member sites joined without a contract, purely on a handshake—and no one got sued. It was really successful for a while and but now its founder Jim Coudal is shuttering the network, citing the nearly wholesale change in the online market for independent content:

In 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks. The indie ‘blogosphere’ was disappearing. Mobile impressions, which produce significantly fewer clicks and engagements, began to really dominate the market. Invasive user tracking (which we refused to do) and all that came with that became pervasive, and once again The Deck was back to being a pretty good business. By 2015, it was an OK business and, by the second half of 2016, the network was beginning to struggle again.

I was lucky enough that Subtraction.com was a member for a while and it was a point of pride to be part of such an esteemed group of publishers. Just take a look at the list of the sites that were a part of the network and you’ll see some of the best design thinkers from the first decade or so of this century. It’s sad to see The Deck go, but all things must pass. My thanks to Jim for making something really wonderful. Read his parting comments at decknetwork.net.

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Niche Tea

Niche Tea Packaging
Niche Tea Branding
Niche Tea Packaging

Startlingly well done branding and packaging for Niche Tea by IWANT Design in London. I’m particularly impressed by the execution of the patterns, which span a range from graphic and geometric to organic and photographic—and yet they all work together seamlessly. Here are two examples:

Niche Tea Branding Pattern
Pattern for Niche Tea

More info and images at iwantdesign.com.

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Bumpr Notices

Earlier this month my friend Scott and I launched Bumpr, a Mac utility that lets you switch up your default browser or mail apps, on the fly, so that when you click on a link you can decide where it gets opened. Since then, the notices have been really positive. In fact, just today, Bumpr got a “four mice” (out of five) review at Macworld. And just a few days ago, Apple included Bumpr in its front-page collection of “New apps and games we love.”

Bumpr in the Mac App Store

For a tiny side project—especially one that limped along for four years—I couldn’t be prouder. Try Bumpr today while it’s still 50% off during our launch sale: getbumpr.com.

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