Two Very Different Kinds of Illustration

In late December The New York Times published “The Year in Illustration,” a round-up of the dozens of commissioned illustrations that adorned their pages in 2017. Most of the work is really great and a little of it is not so great, but in any case this overview does a valuable service in highlighting just how much illustration is a part of the organization’s writing. These highly idiosyncratic, unpredictably organic, invariably witty artworks add a vital dimension to Times journalism by facilitating the conveyance of complex concepts, both in current events and the world of ideas.

I found this one particular graphic from the overview worth noting. It shows, at a high level, the richness of approaches to illustrating a single subject, albeit a widely influential one: Donald Trump.

Trump Illustrations from The New York Times’ Year in Illustration

The expressiveness on display here is impressive, especially just for a single subject: we have pieces done with watercolor, pencil sketches, vector drawings, collages, cartoons and more, plus almost every hybrid of the above.

In fairness to other art directors, this level of variety is about par for the course for editorial illustration and there are tons of other publications that could boast a similar heterogeneity. But it’s worth comparing this range with the kind of illustration we see in digital products. For some time now, I’ve been collecting screen shots of illustration usage in apps, web sites and related collateral on this Pinterest board. Here’s a snapshot:

Monoculture Illustrations

Even at reduced, thumbnail scale, it’s pretty evident that the range of expression here is much, much narrower. Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive inventory, but over the past year or so that I’ve been maintaining this board, I’ve tried to capture every product-related illustration that I can find. In my experience, the vast majority of them are quite similar in their aesthetic: the colors range from primary to bright pastels; the figures are cleanly drawn and almost always rendered with vectors; the details are highly abstracted and shading is geometric if it appears at all; the compositions are generally minimal and only occasionally feature very limited background elements.

Step back and you might mistake these as excerpts from a children’s book, except that they depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things. One could argue that they effectively infantilize their intended audience, as if the drawing style is predicated on the assumption that users of digital products can stomach only the most child-like and, maybe, most computer-like visuals.

It’s not even that I dislike this aesthetic, either. Sometimes this look can be quite beguiling, and if nothing else it’s more often than not expedient—it’s not a style of illustration that gets in the way of the users. But it is worth taking a step back to examine the way our products use illustration and trying to understand why we’ve all settled on this particular approach.

The simplest answer, of course, is that it’s the most economically pragmatic method of adding a moderately more human element to digital products. The style is simple, it’s efficient, and it can usually be done in house. It probably wouldn’t be far off-base to assume that a lot of these illustrations were done not by professional illustrators but by product designers who also have some illustration talent themselves. They designed the app and while they were at it, it was faster and cheaper to just have them create the illustrations too.

And that may be the unifying thread that ties all of these illustrations together: they can all be executed with the tools that a designer has at his or her disposal—a vector drawing app and an image editing app. There’s none of the unexpectedness that editorial illustration prioritizes and that professional illustrators spend years mastering—no photostats, no Rorschach patterns, no sculptures, no halftones, no unruly blotches of ink or paint. Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance. That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.

To be clear, I’m certainly not arguing that illustrations for products should even look like the kind of editorial illustration that The New York Times commissions. Product illustrations are there to make the user’s experiences easier; editorial illustrations are there to make the reader’s experience more interesting—even more challenging. But looking at the former and the prevalence of a single, monocultural aesthetic that seemingly almost every startup and tech company and would-be industry disruptor out there has adopted, it’s worth wondering if there’s some other voice—or even a different modulation of this same voice—that could be appropriate. Not all of these have to look so interchangeable with one another. In fact, it might actually be desirable for some brands to look, y’know, distinctive and unique.

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New Year, New Relationship with Plastic

The first of January is when we all resolve to adopt better habits but this new year may mark an entirely different way to think about our relationship to plastic, whether we like it or not.

Starting today China, which has long been a massive consumer of the rest of the world’s plastic waste, will no longer accept more than half of the plastic that it formerly imported. Until now, China has had a huge appetite for the plastic bottles, forks and other disposables that other nations toss away unthinkingly, recycling that waste into raw materials used to create the similarly disposable Chinese goods the rest of us can’t stop buying.

That appetite has now been halved and the consequences are likely to be nontrivial. China’s goal is to reduce pollution and improve the health of its citizenry. In the near term however, the many countries who have long relied on China as a kind of dumping ground for its plastics may see their pollution levels rise. In fact the market for recyclables is likely to suffer substantially as China now turns to manufacturers of new plastics for what it needs to continue to create new goods. In short: more new plastic will be produced, and less old plastic will be recycled.

The silver lining may be that first world consumers begin to focus more on reduction and reuse rather than just on recycling. We have for too long allowed ourselves the convenient out of being able to toss an unlimited number of goods into a green or blue recycling bin without thinking about whether those goods should have been used to begin with, or whether they could serve some useful secondary purpose.

For designers, this is an opportunity here to reframe the way problems are solved. Designers of physical goods, particularly, may soon need to emphasize the sourcing of materials and the sturdiness of their solutions, optimizing for environmental impact both in the creation and the useful lifespan of what gets designed. There are likely to be downstream consequences for non-material designers too; to some extent design has always been able to assume a constantly refreshing supply of surfaces onto which our designs can be applied, whether digital or analog. In a world where a major portion of those surfaces can no longer be recycled or even manufactured in the first place, the way we think about what a good design solution is may change drastically. It’s hard to argue that this more holistic view on how we all conduct ourselves is not necessary but whether we’ll rise to the occasion or not is of course an open question. It’s a new year, it’s up to us what we make of it.

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Notable Movie Posters of 2017

It’s the end of the year and I’ve been on holiday since before Christmas. With this much time on my hands, I tend not to think much about work; instead I’m watching a lot of movies and thinking a lot about film. This afternoon I did a quick survey of several “best film posters of the year” lists, and compiled my own inventory of the posters that I thought were most worth commenting on. In no particular order…

Poster for “Human Flow”

Human Flow” Probably not surprisingly, a contemporary artist—the inimitable Ai Weiwei—made a documentary about the global refugee crisis and hardly anyone noticed. Its poster image is graphically striking but I wonder if it’s too benign or even neutral, rather than upfront about the scale of this issue.

“Downsizing” Poster

Downsizing” Alexander Payne’s high concept comedy posits a world where you can miniaturize yourself in order to help preserve the earth’s resources and enjoy its bounty without guilt. It’s an intriguingly unexpected concept for one of the smartest directors working, but its generally terrible reviews dissuaded me from venturing out to theaters to see it. Nevertheless, this teaser image is a total winner, a graphical riff on film posters themselves.

Poster for “Better Watch Out”

Better Watch Out” This horror thriller about the holidays came and went without much fanfare. Its marketers may have done better to stick with this teaser image and its efficiently descriptive imagery of a bloody Christmas sweater for the entirety of the marketing campaign, rather than the utterly generic posters that were ultimately rolled out.

Poster for “I, Tonya”

I, Tonya” This biopic about notorious figure skater Tonya Harding is at the top of my list to see in spite of the fact that I have virtually zero interest in the sport or the subject. Its main poster images are fine but I really took to this one which echoes the illustrative style of tween books from the 1980s—this almost looks like it could have adorned a Judy Blume novel.

Notable Movie Posters of 2017

It Comes at Night” There are a number of teaser posters on this list, which is cheating because they don’t have to do the heavy lifting of the final release posters. They can just hint at what’s to come, which is a much easier creative challenge for the designer. It’s even more unfair to choose posters for horror films whose very nature is to be mysterious and reveal relatively little. Still, this teaser for director Trey Edward Shults’s bunker thriller “It Comes at Night” is worth a closer looks. Its simple, classically centered composition does so much with so little, and the perspective effect created by the progressively larger font lines is genius.

Notable Movie Posters of 2017

Mother!” People hated this film but this gorgeously illustrated cover is a triumph. Had I not heard so many terrible reviews, I’d have gone straight to the theater on this image alone.

Poster for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Roman J. Israel, Esq.” This legal drama looked totally unappealing to me but its poster is delightful. It offers just the right amount of details—the unruly hair, the old-fashioned Walkman headphones, the thick glasses—to convey the film’s emphasis on character. And its simple Helvetica title typography, reversed out of star Denzel Washington’s silhouette, underscores the notion of an internal struggle. Expertly done.

Poster for “The Beguiled”

The Beguiled” You don’t see wildly expressive typography nearly obscure the face of a big star like Nicole Kidman very often, and even less do you see it running sideways—along with all of the type one the poster. All of it is beautifully woven together though.

Postrer for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

The Killing of a Sacred Deer” This image is a fitting companion to the poster for director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, “The Lobster.” Like its predecessor, this new movie’s poster is minimal and collage-like. I’m particularly fond of the way Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell’s garments appear to turn into the musculature of the upside down head of Barry Keoghan; it’s a beautiful kind of visual punning. You don’t see a lot of consistency between the posters for a director’s films unless they’re explicitly part of the same franchise, but I think it’s really effective here for the Lanthimos “brand.” If the visual similarities are an accurate indication, I would imagine “Sacred Deer” is just as messed up as “The Lobster” was.

Notable Movie Posters of 2017

The Post” I was already a sucker for newspaper movies. But the poster for this one, which shows Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks ascending the stairs at what I’m guessing is the Lincoln Memorial, hits all of my design joy buttons—an almost abstractly square composition with big, bold Helvetica type. It stunned me when I first saw it, though upon closer examination, I’m not sure the lighting on the figures is particularly convincing and I’m also not sure there are that many steps placed that steeply at the Lincoln Memorial. Typical Hollywood!

Poster for “The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water” There are other variants on this poster for Guillermo del Toro’s retro fantasy thriller that use this same illustration against a richer, blue background, but I prefer how delicate and almost ephemeral this one looks. Lovely.

Poster for “Thor: Ragnarok”

Thor: Ragnarok” I had high hopes for this movie; I’m a big fan of director Taika Waititi and I had hoped he’d be able to bring some much needed style to the Marvel Universe. And while I did find some thing to like about this movie—its overt visual homages to original comics artist Jack Kirby are a treat—I found it to be a mess. In some ways, this poster is a perfect embodiment of the movie; it’s wonderfully bright and alive but overstuffed and conveys no story or single unifying idea.

Poster for “Phantom Thread”

Phantom Thread” I like the idea for this poster better than its execution. Its watercolor illustration is in the vein of the mid-century fashion world that P.T. Anderson’s new film explores, which is fitting. The movie itself is gloriously well done, but this drawing is hardly a commensurate work of art.

Poster for “Ingrid Goes West

Ingrid Goes West” It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to design a poster for a movie about the Instagram culture as a riff on the Instagram grid. But this poster avoids slavish imitation and goes for something more interesting—it’s a Hockney-like photo grid but not made of photos, but rather of a pastel-like rendering of star Aubrey Plaza’s face. I was charmed by it.

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Movies Watched, November 2017

Still from “ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

The prospect of watching the truly magnificent Frances McDormand take no prisoners in a revenge drama was the only thing that got me out to the theaters last month. There’s a lot of that in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri,” and it’s a treat. Unfortunately it’s not enough to sustain this movie that really has no idea where to take its premise and resorts to maudlinism more often than you’d expect. Thumbs down.

Otherwise, November was a decent month for watching movies. Here are all twenty-two that I managed to squeeze in.

If you’re interested, here is what I watched in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, 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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Grumpy Old Designers (on a Podcast)

Khoi Vinh on the Dribbble Overtime Podcast

If you’re interested in two guys from the pre-Snapchat age talking about what design used to be like, well have I got the podcast for you: Dan Cederholm, the amazing co-founder of the amazing Dribbble, had me as a guest recently on their Overtime podcast. We talked about how they don’t make digital design stuff like they used to anymore.

You can listen via Apple Podcasts, your favorite podcatcher app, or over at simplecast.com. You might also watch this short video beforehand just to kinda of prepare yourself.

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Some Notes on iPhone X’s Portrait Mode

As much as they’ve improved over the past decade—and they’ve come a long, long way—I’ve never been much of a fan of iPhone cameras. They’ve always produced images that, for me, come across as too flat and too harsh. To this day, if I want to capture a truly special moment, I’ll reach for my DSLR over my iPhone.

That said, I do find the camera in my new iPhone X to be quite impressive. Specifically, I find the dual-lens rear camera’s ability to take pictures in portrait mode to be a leap forward. It produces, by far, the warmest, most aesthetically pleasing images I’ve ever taken with a camera built into a phone. It does this by using its two lenses and advanced software to digitally emulate “bokeh,” the aesthetic quality that traditional cameras produce naturally when they focus on a foreground object and blur out the background. I’m not claiming that the example I shot below is great photography, but one look at the beautifully rendered background blur demonstrates that this iPhone is capable of shots that are far beyond the capabilities of any previous model.

Example Photo Taken with Portrait Mode

This mode is optimized for, well, portraits of course, but I try to use it for everything because the output is dramatically more elegant than the iPhone’s standard camera mode. However, it is worth noting that portrait mode does come with limitations. For one, what you see “through the lens” is narrower in scope. Compare the view in the standard camera view, below, with what you see when you switch to portrait mode below it.

Photo Mode in iPhone X’s Camera App
Portrait Mode in iPhone X’s Camera App

The result is of course that you often have to step backward in order to get your subject fully in frame. That’s actually fine with me; I prefer a prime lens on my DSLR and I’m accustomed to moving myself to get the shot I want.

There is a point though at which the illusion of digitally emulated bokeh begins to fall apart—usually anytime you closely examine a highly detailed shot taken in portrait mode. That’s where the camera is least able to distinguish between foreground and background, and sometimes its guesses are not fully accurate. You’ll notice this most often in silhouettes of a subject’s hair, which get smoothed out into what you might call “natural-ish” but not altogether convincing shapes. Here is a detail from such a shot where you can see an unnaturally definitive silhouette at the edge of one of my kids’ hair.

Detail of a Complex Silhouette in Portrait Mode

Sometimes too, the camera just gets it wrong. Notice the left edge of the left bottle and the right edge of the right bottle in this picture below. They’re unnecessarily blurred where other parts of the bottle shapes are sharp and crisp. A traditional camera would have produced uniform results around the bottles’ edges because the entire object is more or less at the same depth.

Objects Photographed with Portrait Mode

In fairness, there’s a specific reason Apple called this portrait mode and not something like “selective focus mode.” The software/hardware is purposely optimized for people’s faces, and it struggles with objects like the bottles above. This becomes really clear when you watch the camera try to figure out the right depth of field in real time. Watch in this video as the camera “hunts” for focus on this Lego figure, trying to figure out what’s in front and what’s in back. There’s a somewhat random “splotchy” effect that pops up repeatedly in different parts of the frame. After about ten seconds, it displays a prompt to the user to adjust position, as it needs more data, apparently, to decide what’s what.

I should be clear about my commentary here. On the one hand, it’s true that I do have (slight) objections to portrait mode. I personally find that the pictures are still not as good as what I get out of my DSLR. More haughtily, I do have reservations about the digital emulation of “natural” camera effects—there’s no denying that the results can be beautiful, but there’s just something about the fakery that offends my delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

However, I’m not even contending that any of this is ultimately bad, or should be considered a failure of technology. As I said, portrait mode produces the best phone camera photos I’ve ever seen, hands down. I would much rather than not have an iPhone X with portrait mode as an option for the many, many times it’s just impractical to carry my DSLR with me.

More to the point, quibbling over the finer points of photographic effects is somewhat (though not entirely) pointless. What really matters here is that there will be tens if not hundreds of millions of these cameras in the hands of countless people everywhere before too long, and those people will take billions of pictures with them. Only a vanishingly small number of these people will ever object to the details I’ve listed here; most will be incredibly pleased with how portrait mode performs and will share the fruits of their labors avidly.

Just on the merits of sheer volume alone, portrait mode will become a part of our collective visual vocabulary. If the history of photography has shown us anything, it’s that technological limitations that are unsightly at first come to be embraced by culture soon enough not as deficiencies but as legitimate aesthetic choices of their own. Look no further than Instagram’s filters for proof of that. There may come a day when we forget “real” bokeh entirely and hold up digitally generated bokeh of the sort that portrait mode creates as the real thing. Truth is going out of style anyway.

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Supporting Artists through Subscriptions

Drip by Kickstarter

Last week Kickstarter launched Drip, “a tool for people to fund and build community around their ongoing creative practice.” This new service is a complement to the company’s original model; where “classic” Kickstarter helps people fund projects, Drip aims to fund people.

At its heart Drip is essentially a subscription service inflected to support the creative pursuits of “artists, authors, game designers, musicians, and filmmakers.” It’s worth noting that that list, quoted from the announcement blog post, emphasizes artists—and conspicuously fails to mention the technologists and product creators who have thrived on Kickstarter. This seems like an attempt to get back to the company’s original goal of developing a funding model for the arts, which over time has become somewhat diluted by the platform’s surprising effectiveness as a launching pad for products and businesses.

Drip also has an interesting take on how to do this: each campaign begins with a “founding membership” phase that last anywhere from a week to a month. Anyone who subscribes during this period is designated as kind of special patron and may be offered special rewards for their early participation. The idea is to drive demand early on so as to start off each artist with maximum momentum.

The company’s three launch videos are also notable in that they exclusively feature women:

Learn more at d.rip. Oh, also, Kickstarter just redesigned its brand identity so that it’s both thicker and more bubbly while also opting for a more subdued flavor of green.

Old vs. New Kickstarter Logos

Read about it over at underconsideration.com/brandnew.

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Renting iTunes Movies and the Value of Ownership

iTunes Movie Rental Message

Back in September Apple made a welcome improvement to iTunes by automatically upgrading, at no cost, its customers’ already-purchased movies to 4K resolution. This was laudably customer-friendly but I also found it to be a savvy move in that it underscores the value of owning media.

It’s notable that movies and TV shows haven’t followed the path of music, at least not yet. Video media was never as thoroughly decimated by digital piracy as audio was, and so as a result we don’t have a “Spotify for movies,” a comprehensive (or nearly so) streaming catalog available for cheap. The closest we have is Netflix which has never been complete and, over time, continues to become even less so.

You can argue whether that’s ultimately good or bad for consumers (who wouldn’t want a Spotify for movies?) but at a minimum, the ownership of films allowed under the current model preserves a meaningfulness that has largely disappeared from music. I rarely buy albums anymore because I can listen to nearly anything I want at any time I want on Spotify. That’s a tremendous luxury but the flip side is that I don’t care about music nearly as much anymore, and I don’t really feel like any of it is “mine.”

By contrast, I do feel a certain pride of ownership over the movies in my collection, whether they’re digital or on physical media. These are movies that I’ve selected to be part of my own personal archive, that I plan to return to again and again. In this way I have a kind of relationship with them; they’re much more a reflection of who I am and what interests me than the albums I’ve assembled in Spotify.

To that point, it occurs to me that Apple could go even further in emphasizing the value of ownership by helping their customers convert rentals to purchases. If you rent a movie on iTunes, Apple should offer to let you pay the difference between the rental price and the purchase price to actually own it. To keep this reasonable, this offer could be limited to the rental period, which Apple also increased to forty-eight hours back in September. That’s the perfect amount of time to let a customer upgrade her transaction because it creates a useful urgency to the value. I posted this on Twitter over the weekend and was surprised by how many people seemed to think it was a good idea.

Like the 4K upgrade, this would go a long way towards removing a key piece of friction in the ownership model. With analog media, there was no practical way of allowing a customer to get credit for a previous transaction involving a specific piece of media. Whether you saw a movie in theaters or rented it from Blockbuster it didn’t matter because when you decided you wanted to own it for yourself, you were back at square one—you’d pay exactly as much as someone who’d never seen it before. In digital media, especially with end-to-end buying and playback systems like iTunes, this is now relatively trivial. Giving credit for previous transactions would go a long way towards cementing the relationship between the creators of media and the consumers of media, and in the case of this suggestion I can only imagine that it would spur more purchases and generate more revenue.

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Checking in on Design Entrepreneurship

A Panel on Design Entrepreneurship on AdobeLive

Last month while in Las Vegas for Adobe’s annual MAX conference, I moderated a panel on design entrepreneurship. The notion that designer co-founders can provide a competitive edge to major new companies is roughly half a decade old now, following the breakout successes of companies like Airbnb, Kickstarter and Pinterest.

The premise of this panel was to check in on that idea, to see how much has really changed for the designer co-founder in that time. The best way to do that, I thought, would be to talk to the designer co-founders who are building new, up and coming companies today.

To that end, I was lucky enough to be able to recruit three superb entrepreneurs: Joey Cofone, designer, CEO and co-founder of Baron Fig; Tiffany Chu, designer and co-founder of Remix; and Tricia Choi, designer and co-founder of MoveWith. To round out the panel with perspective from the investment community, I also invited Enrique Allen, co-director of Designer Fund, to join us. It was a fascinating discussion, especially when we debated the topic of whether a designer co-founder is likely to build a fundamentally different kind of business from other kinds of entrepreneurs.

The panel was live streamed on AdobeLive and Enrique wrote a great post on it that you can read over at designerfund.com. You can watch the replay above, and also peruse AdobeLive’s archive of fantastic video content at be.net/live.

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Dumb Movies May Turn Out to Be Right About Photo Enhancement

For years we’ve groaned every time a character in a movie commands a computer to “Enhance!” a low resolution image, and then watched as an implausibly clear, high resolution replacement appears before our eyes. For me, this has always been one of the worst kinds of lazy storytelling; it always suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of how digital imaging works on the part of the moviemakers.

Well as it turns out, the work of scientists over at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany may ultimately give technologically clueless film directors from the 1980s and 1990s the last laugh.

In a project called “EnhanceNet: Single Image Super-Resolution through Automated Texture Synthesis,” they’ve developed a shockingly high quality method of constructing surprisingly believable versions of low-quality originals. Here’s one example that starts with this image of a bird:

Dumb Movies May Turn Out to Be Right About Photo Enhancement

The picture is downsampled, reducing the data to this pixelated state:

Downsampled Version

That image is then processed with their “ENet-PAT” method and results in this:

ENet-PAT-processed Image

I’m not sure this approach can resolve a grainy image of a face into something instantly recognizable, which is usually what one sees in films, but this example is stunningly effective nevertheless.

To give some context, the resampling techniques most of us are familiar with from Photoshop and other image editors generate new pixels and details strictly from what’s available in a given low-resolution image. That results in glaringly unconvincing results that are usually either overly smooth or pock-marked with unsightly image artifacts. By contrast ENet-PAT uses machine learning techniques to teach a neural network how to best guess what details should be added to an image. Once trained, the system can produce reliably believable results like these. Scary.

Read more at tuebingen.mpg.de.

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