Earlier this week, my former employer The New York Times launched a major redesign of its Web site. There’s an interesting article about it over at Mashable, including comments from The Times’ digital design director, Ian Adelman.
It’s really hard, if not impossible, for me to offer any objective opinion about this redesign. I still have many friends at the company, including Ian. Also, perhaps as a function of having drunk its Kool-Aid as an employee, I still believe that The New York Times is something special, that it’s indisputably unique, and that comparing its actions with other news outlets or brands is often a counterproductive exercise. Finally, the most prejudicing of all reasons: I’ve seen what it takes to get things launched inside The Times, for better or worse, and this knowledge tends to make me alternately more forgiving and more critical than the average person might be.
Love it or hate it, the wispy, thread-like aesthetic of iOS 7’s icon language is here to stay, at least for a while. Designers of stock icons are embracing it too, and if the sheer volume of new icons they’re turning out is any indication, this visual vernacular is probably not the most laborious style to work within.
Today my friend Matt and I are releasing Facebox, a pack of fifty, rights-cleared stock photos of real people for user interface design and business presentations. For a limited time, you can buy the pack for just US$25.
So how would you use Facebox? Let’s say you’re designing any digital product in which the concept of users needs to be represented — in comment threads, on profile pages, in activity streams, etc. Whether you’re working in Photoshop or Sketch or right in HTML, sooner or later you need photos of hypothetical users to stand in for the real users who will eventually interact with your product.
Or let’s say you’re working on a PowerPoint deck in which you’re showing user personas or user flows, or maybe even revealing a new strategy that will bring huge numbers of new patrons to your business. For any of these purposes, you might need pictures of hypothetical customers to stand in for the real customers to come.
As a designer, I come across these situations all the time. What I used to do was go to Twitter or Facebook and grab the avatars of my friends. That has its drawbacks: it’s laborious, the avatars are usually of insufficient resolution to be used at any larger size, and they’re not always suitable for presentations. Worse, it’s not exactly legal.
This is the problem that Facebox solves. It provides a rights-cleared, ready-to-use repository of fifty real people — not stagey-looking models, but the kind of people you’d run into on any street corner, and whom you could easily imagine using just about any digital product.
The pack includes all fifty faces as PNGs or JPEGs you can start using immediately. We’ve also imported all fifty into PowerPoint, Keynote, OmniGraffle (as a symbol library) and Sketch, too. We’re also including the original Photoshop file, fully set up with Smart Objects, so you can change the crop shape (several options are included, e.g., circle, rounded rectangle, star, etc.) in just a few clicks, and export at any size that suits you.
I find myself more and more impressed all the time by The Noun Project, the online resource for crowdsourced pictograms. Its goal is to build “a global visual language that everyone can understand” and “to enable our users to visually communicate anything to anyone.”
When I first became acquainted with The Noun Project several years ago I thought that mission statement meant that the site intended to flesh out the commonly used ISO graphical symbols that we see so often in public signage, extrapolating what amounts to a widely understood visual glossary into a full pictorial lexicon. Basically, I thought they were going to build a whole world around Helvetica man.
It’s kind of ironic, but one of the things that has made it easier to move away from Photoshop is the immense popularity of some of its very own features. A good example is the program’s blend modes — darken, multiply, color burn, lighten, screen, color dodge, etc. These have become so popular that when other graphics programs like Acorn, Pixelmator and Sketch implement similar functionality, they generally replicate them almost exactly. Switching made simple.
My favorite of these blend modes, by far, is multiply. As the name suggests, this mode gives you the product of two or more layers, multiplying each pixel on the top layer by the pixel or pixels in the layers directly beneath it. The result is a darker image that is usually quite visually rich. I use it all the time.
Now and then, designer founders of new startups ask me for advice on the companies they’re building. Having tried and failed to build a sustainable business as a designer founder myself, I feel a little leery about offering advice. At the same time, with the benefit of hindsight, I can recognize some of the same missteps that we made with Mixel.
The most prevalent one is not putting the user at the center of the company. This is somewhat ironic, because designers often pride ourselves on being advocates for the user experience. But there is a difference between user-centric design and building a user-centric business.
I’m working up to writing at greater length about iOS 7 because, well, blogging. In the meantime, I thought I’d make one specific point. The thing that bothers me most about the new operating system is the completely revised back button, which is now less of a button and more of a left-facing arrow that looks a bit like a compressed bracket, plus a text label. I’m not going to critique it extensively right now, except to say that my least favorite thing about it is that it’s not the old back button.
If you ask me, that back button, the one that has been with us since the iPhone debuted, was the best back button design of all time. Most back buttons, like the ones in desktop browsers, are just an arrow-shaped icon with a text label above or below that says only “Back.” If you want to know where they’ll take you, you usually have to click and hold on the button to reveal a list of the screens you previously viewed.
The pre-iOS 7 back button consolidated these things into a single button shape that tapers into an arrowhead on the left side, and it housed a text description of where the button would lead you. It basically did three jobs with a single element. First, it visually signaled the way back, so that even if you didn’t read the descriptor text, you would still recognize the button’s function instantly. Second, if you did read what it said, it gave you the title of the previous view, without forcing you to tap and hold or take some secondary action to reveal that information. And finally, unlike the new back button in iOS 7, it was explicit about what you could tap and where; the target area was clearly demarcated by the button shape, and managed to do so without crowding the title of the view to its right (by contrast iOS 7’s new back button text often seems to run right into the title of the screen).
Was there a lot that was terribly wrong with the look and feel of iOS 6? Not in my book. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and many swaths of it were begging for some kind of house cleaning, but it didn’t need to be chucked away entirely. Apple decided to do just that, though, in their just announced iOS 7. The new operating system is significantly less ornamental than its predecessor; if you can call something “more minimal,” then iOS 7 looks to be just that. It’s simpler, less cluttered, and decidedly flatter, as folks like to say.
It’s also more like the cosmetics counter at your local department store than ever before, because, apparently, it makes liberal use of the thin or ultra light weights of Helvetica Neue throughout its many revamped interfaces.
Historically, these fonts have figured prominently into the typographic vocabulary of the beauty and fashion industries, where they’ve been used for years to connote notions of modernity, Euro-centric sophistication and near-anorexic thinness. They facilitate aspirational marketing messages, ideals that consumers can aspire to by applying that perfect shade of lipstick or putting on that perfect summer dress. And more often than not they’ve also been meant to indicate femininity.
Last night I wondered aloud on Twitter why window-based air conditioning units are so poorly designed, and why the technology seems so primitive. The average window unit, circa 2013, more or less resembles its forbears from decades ago: it’s still noisy, inelegant, heavy, and it looks like it was designed as a set dressing for “Logan’s Run.”
It was sort of an idle tweet, but it garnered a surprisingly fervent response. There seems to be broad agreement not only that these machines seem hopelessly stranded in time, but also that that shouldn’t be the case. The fact that no James Dyson has reinvented the window unit is a surprise to nearly everyone. After all this is a market in the billions of dollars; if a crafty entrepreneur could create a product that successfully addresses even just a sliver of that, they’d be doing very well.
To me, this is one of the enduring mysteries of contemporary industrial design, which has over the past twenty years sought to reinvent, redesign or elevate out of commodity status almost every object in the home, from vacuum cleaners to thermostats to toaster ovens. The closest thing to innovation that the AC market seems to have produced is so-called ductless air conditioning, but those units don’t address the problem that most Westerners want to solve with window units: cool a room with a machine that costs less than US$1,000. Ductless AC units are significantly more expensive to buy and considerably more difficult to install. And perhaps as a result, they are nowhere near as prevalent as window units.
Anyway, when I wrote the tweet I felt like I’d been lamenting this situation for years. It also occurred to me that I might have blogged about it before. When I did a search on Subtraction.com I realized that was in fact the case — I first wrote about this back in 2003. Ten years later, nothing has changed. If you’d have told me back then that that would be the case, that even by 2013, no one would come along and solve this problem or grab this opportunity, I wouldn’t have believed you. I guess it just goes to show you how our supposedly torrid pace of change is sometimes not so speedy after all.
The reality for most designers is that we are very likely to work at companies whose principal line of business is not design, but something else — media, services, widgets, what have you. This is slightly less true if you’re in the studio or agency world, but certainly if you do interaction or product design, you’re probably working in an environment that’s engineering-focused first, and design-focused second (or third). There’s a tech sector, but there’s no ‘design sector.’
Thankfully, as the design profession has matured designers have learned to assert themselves effectively in these situations. That includes having a say in the process of hiring new team members. Just as engineers and product managers (who more often than not come from engineering backgrounds) will often interview potential design hires, it’s becoming increasingly common for designers to interview engineering candidates too. I’ve done it a lot over the past several years, and it’s not uncommon at Etsy.
For designers though, interviewing an engineer does not always come naturally. In part this is because the language of engineering is so concrete and therefore more widely assimilated, and the language of design is comparatively soft and resigned to niches.