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.
I’m in San Francisco this week where you can actually smell the ash in the air from the wildfires in the north. The damage looks horrifying, and The San Francisco Chronicle captured that feeling perfectly on the front page of yesterday’s edition.
I’m not sure I’ve seen edge-to-edge printing on a newspaper’s front page before but the effect is stunning here—and sadly appropriate. The borderless presentation underscores the totality of the fires’ destruction, how the damage stretches as far as the eye can see. My heart goes out to the victims.
This movie still from Vanessa Gould’s masterful documentary “Obit.” is a snapshot of one of the most exquisitely crafted talking-head film compositions I can remember seeing. First, it gives full, unfussy attention to New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox, allowing the full range of her mesmerizing articulation of the nuances of the obit trade to flourish on the screen. But she’s placed off-center in an extremely clever way; we get the context of the Times newsroom behind her, or at least a charming corner of it with shelves teeming with books and covered with sticky notes, and even a manual typewriter just behind her (not just anachronistic set dressing; the typewriter actually serves a narrative purpose elsewhere in the film). The space that the frame leaves to Fox’s right allows her arm and hand to gesture about balletically as she underscores her words. And, to her far right, the camera just manages to fit in her nameplate mounted on the edge of her cubicle (in the actual film you see the full nameplate, but in this capture I found online it’s cropped slightly for some reason). So much information and expressiveness conveyed in one deceptively simple shot.
There’s much more to like in “Obit.” too. The film is a wonderful examination of the counter-intuitively life-affirming profession of obituary writer. It follows the atypically large staff of these specialized journalists at The New York Times as they scramble to write respectfully cogent and compelling stories about the lives of people who have just passed away. Like its subject matter, director Vanessa Gould has produced a careful, thoughtful film full of unexpected joy. It also continues the surprisingly strong batting average of that cinematic sub-genre known as “the newspaper movie.” “Obit.” holds its own next to more dramatic or hallowed fare like “Spotlight,” “All the President’s Men” and “His Girl Friday” by diving deep into the process of reporting. The results are fascinating not just from the perspective of understanding the process of how obituaries are created, but also understanding how we think about and memorialize notable lives.
Also worth mentioning: “Obit.” sports a gloriously tasteful poster. This thing is gorgeous.
“Obit.” is available for streaming now. Learn more at obitdoc.com.
This sketch from Saturday Night Live making fun of the use of the font Papyrus in the logo for James Cameron’s fantastically boring “Avatar” has already made the rounds. It’s hilarious.
It made me think though: with the possible exception of Helvetica, the only time popular culture acknowledges typography is when something has gone wrong—really wrong. Think of Comic Sans, which has earned a wide reputation for being a severely overused, terrible choice. Or Calibri which figured centrally into a major corruption story in Pakistan earlier this year (that scandal even became known as “fontgate”). Papyrus now joins those ranks as being remarkable for being notorious.
It says something about our craft when the only time the uninitiated have an opinion about it is when it’s gone off the rails somehow. This is not to say we shouldn’t have a sense of humor about what we do. We should—this SNL short had me in stitches. At the same time though, it would be nice to be recognized for the good we do, too. Design needs to do a better of job of explaining the value that we contribute to society, otherwise it’s just going to mean more ridicule.
Thanks in part to a ridiculous amount of recent business travel I managed to watch seventeen movies in September, though I only got out to the theaters to see one of them, the sublime “Logan Lucky.” Actually, to be more accurate, I watched it in one of the 330 drive-in theaters that still exist in America. That number is down from 4,000 or so when the phenomenon of watching a movie outdoors from the comfort of your own car was at its peak. And visiting the Hyde Park Drive-in Theater in upstate New York almost felt like a time warp back to that era. The concessions stand, a wide, low-profile concrete structure towards the back of the lot, clearly looked like a remnant of post-War architecture’s least exuberant building trends. But everything looked over a half-century old, too: weathered and repainted over dozens of times, as if maintained by ghosts on a budget.
It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a cinephile’s experience, either—the sound was tinny over the FM frequency that you tune your car radio to, and the picture wasn’t particularly crisply projected onto the patchy, billboard-sized screen. But I’ve never been to a drive-in theater before, and I could see the appeal, even in this age when 4K screens and Dolby Atmos audio can be had at home. One, you’re watching a huge movie screen out under the stars; we went on a particularly perfect late summer evening, when the air had a cool snap to it without being cold. And two, you’re not at home, you’re out in the world, with other people. That’s a good thing.
As for “Logan Lucky,” it was kind of implausible and silly but it was good solid fun. Maybe more importantly it brings the talents of Steven Soderbergh back to the big screen; even his most trifling cinematic dalliances are fascinating works. I liked it a lot and can’t wait to watch it again.
Here’s September’s full list of the movies I watched.
Just a quick note to say we’ve updated Bumpr—the simple but indispensable Mac utility that lets you choose which app you want to open your links in, on the fly—so that it works beautifully with the newly released macOS High Sierra. Bumpr 1.1.8 is available right now in the Mac App Store.
If you haven’t used Bumpr before, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Here’s how it works:
Click on a web link in, say, Slack or Preview or your desktop Twitter client—basically any desktop app—and Bumpr seamlessly intercepts the link. Basically, Bumpr is acting as your default web browser, but instead of opening your page, it very, very speedily displays a simple, compact menu of the web browsers you have installed. Click on one and that link opens in that browser. It’s simple and easy and fast, and it’s particularly useful if you have more than one Gmail or G Suite account and want to use a different browser for each.
Bumpr also handles email links the same way, so if you use more than one mail app, Bumpr will let you choose which of them to use with any given link. Just as with web links, Bumpr gives you the power of choice, letting you use the right mail app or browser for whatever your needs are at any given time. I still use Bumpr every day on every one of my Macs, and I can’t live without it.
As a side note, we’ve been cooking up some pretty cool enhancements to Bumpr for a big new release coming up soon. Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime, grab the latest version in the Mac App Store right now.
Here’s a brand new product that I cooked up with my friends over at Baron Fig, makers of exquisitely useful notebooks, pens, bags and more: it’s called Unfinish and it’s “an interactive notebook.” Wait, it’s much more interesting than that sounds!
Actually “notebook” isn’t quite the right word for it, and neither is “sketchbook.” Unfinish is more of a “doodle-book.” Instead of confronting you with hundreds of stark white blank pages, it gives your creativity a bit of a kickstart with a unique, quirky, incomplete image printed on each page. There’s a horse without a head, a floating lighthouse, the top of a suit of armor and much more—a different one on each of its 192 pages. Each of them is unfinished in some way, inviting you to add a background to it, trace it, extend it or even ignore it altogether. (The images are printed in non-repro blue ink so it won’t transfer when photocopied and is easily dropped out in image editors.)
There’s no implied meaning to the images, no goal or purpose aside from whatever you might want to bring to it yourself. You would think that this would be true for any old notebook or sketchbook as well, but I think a lot of people would agree that a blank page can be so confrontational that sometimes it actually demands a declaration of purpose. So when I first dreamed up Unfinish, I wanted to defuse that blank page problem and to make a playground for your brain, a space to free-associate, stoke your creativity and most importantly to have fun.
The team at Baron Fig did an amazing job bringing this to life. Unfinish is based on the company’s signature Confidant notebook line—it’s got acid-free paper, the book opens and lays flat for easy doodling and writing, and it’s bound in beautifully tactile hardcover material. It’s also a limited edition, which means it ships in a gorgeous, collector-grade box and it’s on sale only for as long as supplies last. You can get yours today for just US$20 at baronfig.com. If you pick one of these up—please snap some pics and show me your doodles!
There are more important problems in the world than where to park one’s car but in New York City, particularly, a good parking solution can be irrationally satisfying. There aren’t a lot of driveways here, you see, and so New Yorkers are left with painfully imperfect alternatives. There’s street parking, of course, which is free if you don’t get ticketed and cutthroat no matter what. There’s the option of paying for monthly parking in a garage, which in some cases costs as much as renting a place to live. And there’s even buying a dedicated spot, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (and are sometimes even pitched as investment opportunities).
If you lack the financial temerity to rent or buy a spot, the on-demand parking service DropCar presents another option. When you don’t need your car for at least several hours, you can use the DropCar app to schedule one of their “personal car concierges” to meet you anywhere within the service’s coverage area and drive your car off to one of their centralized parking lots. When you need it back, you just schedule a dropoff and a concierge will drive it to you and hand the keys back over.
DropCar costs a still-not-insignificant US$349 monthly, but it does let you order ten pickups and dropoffs each month. (The company also offers a parallel service that sends a valet to mind or move your car for US$15 per hour, handy if you have business in a place where there’s no parking. It sounds especially handy for Manhattan and doesn’t require a subscription, but I have yet to try it.) The service is not cheap, but on a recent trip out of town I left my car at long-term airport parking for fourteen days and that alone cost me US$290. That was basically for one pickup and dropoff that I had to do myself—and to and from a particularly inconvenient parking lot. When you consider that DropCar also picks up and drops off at LaGuardia Airport and JFK Airport the service starts to look somewhat more reasonable.
Travel, in fact, is the excuse I’ve allowed myself for trying DropCar. If you lack the financial temerity to rent or buy a garage spot, street parking your car is particularly inconvenient when you’re away from home. Neither my wife nor I use our car to commute (or much during the week, really), so when I’m off on a business trip, as I seem to be a lot these days, the chore of re-parking the car is a burden on her. New York’s extensive alternate side parking rules mean that you can’t leave a vehicle parked in one spot on the street for more than a few days at a time. DropCar allows us to schedule a pickup at the start of my trip and a dropoff when I’ve returned, dramatically simplifying stints of soloing parenting.
We’ve been using the service for several weeks now and it’s been great. On all but one occasion, the valets have been prompt or even early (the one time a valet was late, he texted me well in advance and gladly rerouted to a more convenient dropoff point that was even outside of DropCar’s coverage zone) and they’ve been consistently polite and friendly. Using DropCar’s iOS app is fairly straightforward even if its design and user experience are rough around the edges—the interface looks like a clumsy web interface unetnthusiastically wrapped in a native mobile app. Customer service has also been reliable; responses to my inquiries generally came within a day or two, though apparently from generic mailboxes (they were all written by “Trevor,” a seemingly nonexistent agent).
In fact, I have only one major complaint with DropCar—which, in a way, I’m grateful for. The company boasts parking lots in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and it even allows you to follow the path your valet drives your car on a map view in the DropCar app. Though our pickups and drop offs have all been in Brooklyn, more often than not our car gets driven to the Bronx, some fifteen or so miles away.
This means that we have to be sure to order a dropoff at least an hour in advance (one valet suggested at least two) but more importantly, the distance means a each trip consumes a nontrivial amount of gas and generates a nontrivial amount of pollution. That, combined with whatever small but still meaningful contribution the trips make to traffic congestion in New York City, makes it hard to set aside my nagging conscience: as a service, DropCar makes my life easier, but it’s probably not doing much good for the planet. I find this fact to be something of a relief because, well, it’s a sufficiently concrete reason not to indulge in a DropCar subscription. The service is a great luxury that I would enjoy immensely but I can’t justify the environmental impact let alone the cost.
There’s probably some version of DropCar that makes sense in the near future though, and maybe the company can hang on where other, similar services like Luxe and Zirx have stumbled. When electric cars are the norm then the round trips to the Bronx will be significantly easier to justify for the environmentally minded. On the other hand, if and when our roads are dominated by self-driving cars, it may turn out that valets become moot and every paid parking lot becomes a remote lot; we’ll all just be sending our driverless autos to the Bronx via an app.
Campbell-Dolleghan makes the argument that for decades now designers have been working steadfastly to make things simpler and more elegant. That campaign has been hard fought, and somewhat understandably designers have not always thought very deeply about the implications of the end results. Now, more and more, it seems that the full impact of what we do is becoming an important issue to examine in detail. In particular, Campbell-Dolleghan highlights the work of Simply Secure, a non-profit leading the way in thinking about how to build trustworthy user experiences and products.
In part, Simply Secure’s approach focuses on educating designers themselves about best practices… That means convincing the design community that privacy and security are part of their ambit–that these issues aren’t boring or impossibly complex, but rather are design problems that demand elegant design solutions. For instance, how do you communicate when and how a voice assistant is collecting data about a person? How can design foster trust in an e-commerce site’s security? How can design help people understand the way their products work, and give them the agency to control their own experiences?
Simply Secure’s focus is principally on security and privacy which are of course of paramount importance in the present. But it’s not a stretch to say that within a few years it will be incumbent upon design as a craft and designers as professionals to answer many more questions about our work than just “Does it convert?” That’s why the ability to think critically about design is going to be an indispensable skill before too long.
There’s probably only a very small fraction of all the many, many hours of various “Star Trek” shows that I think are genuinely good, but I still do have great affection for the franchise in all of its iterations. This video of composer Jeff Russo conducting a live orchestra recording of the theme to the newest series, “Star Trek: Discovery,” is nice enough, but when the familiar trombones come in at the 1:56 mark, I must admit I choked up a bit.
They say a compelling story comes not from plot but from character. But Marvel Studios confounds this truism. As they demonstrate in the passable “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which I finally got around to seeing in August, the producers fully grasp the title character, probably better than any previous creative regime who have handled him. In Tom Holland they’ve cast the best of the actors to ever play Spider-Man, one who is a perfect fit with the motivations they’ve written, and one who delivers each line with total, infectious alacrity. And yet, this keen understanding of character fails to inspire a particularly compelling story. Instead what you get is a mostly forgettable joy ride of a plot—the highest tension the film ever achieves happens during a conversation in a car ride, while all of the other action set pieces wilt away almost as you watch them. In fact “Homecoming” is more transactional than it is narrative; the movie moves along from cinematic universe obligation to cinematic universe obligation, tirelessly invoking its tiresome franchise debts. The saddest thing is that there’s virtually no point in complaining about this, as this movie could never have existed outside of the confines of the corporate strategy PowerPoint deck that brought it to life. And its ninety-two percent Rotten Tomatoes rating shows that Marvel’s decade-long campaign to lower our standards as moviegoers has succeeded. They won, we lost.
On the bright side, I did get to see seventeen other films in August, many of which were wonderful. Of particular note was the special theatrical screening of “Three Days of the Condor” at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn. It was followed by an enormously entertaining Q&A with novelist James Grady, whose book was the basis for the movie. That’s a pretty good example of how a great understanding of character can power a legitimately great movie.