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.
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.
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.
When I worked at The New York Times, I used to have friendly arguments with a colleague about the role of information architects on a digital design team. The debate was over the things that an information architect does — evaluating goals, planning features, constructing wireframes — were things that should be the purview of visual designers instead. We would go back and forth over the usefulness of dividing these responsibilities, segregating the nitty gritty planning from the visual execution. Put another way, the question was whether the information architect was even necessary?
I invariably argued in favor of information architects because I’ve always felt that there is a significant population of talented designers and thinkers who can envision, plan and manage a user experience design solution even in spite of their inability to render the user interface itself in Photoshop, Illustrator, HTML etc. What’s more, there are lots of visual designers of the ‘heads down’ type, who are superb craftspeople but are not very adept at the holistic thinking necessary to plan out the entirety of a user experience, or capable of the articulation necessary to convince others of a particular UX strategy.
Things seem to be changing. For one, the term “information architect” seems to have gone out of style. What I hear a lot more these days is “user experience designer.” Now, I dislike few things as much as debating the semantics of these particular job titles, but it does strike me that part of the shift to this nomenclature has to do with the fact that, more and more, what employers want is a single person who can do both the feature planning and the visual execution.
There’s a small but meaningful number of really, really good user experience designers in the world. I’m talking about the sort of individuals who can create a highly effective, truly immersive architecture around the way real users interact with software — and who have the skills and wherewithal to roll up their sleeves and get it done. Those types are not abundant, but they’re not uncommon either.
There’s also a reasonable number of really, really good editorial designers in the world, thanks to decades of publishing tradition and best practices. I’m talking about designers who know how to enhance and even maximize an audience’s understanding of published content. They’re comfortable working with writers and editors to help shape what we read, and they create unique value out of the combination of the written word and graphic language. Even given recent difficulties in the publishing industry, there are still lots of these people out there.
But there are very few designers who have both of these skill sets.
The Internet gives designers a soapbox like they’ve never had before, and that’s a wonderful thing. One of the most entertaining uses for these soapboxes is the unsolicited redesign, a kind of public demonstration of talent in which a designer overhauls a well-known Web site or digital product and shares it with the world at large. There is no invitation required or expected, and the same goes for credentials — anybody can undertake a creative reworking of any Web site, regardless of their experience or professional status. The only real qualification is whether they can produce something that they can substantively argue for as an improvement over the original. If the redesign is full of good ideas, well-executed and persuasively reasoned, the world beats a path to your door.
In the past week I’ve been asked numerous times to respond to one such unsolicited redesign that’s achieved not insubstantial notice within design and technology circles — a reworking of a site that I was closely associated with for some time. It’s a redesign that contains some genuinely good ideas and is executed professionally. But the argument that the redesign’s author makes is not quite so persuasive, mostly because it makes some rash assumptions, misses some critical realities and, perhaps worst of all, takes a somewhat inflammatory approach in criticizing the many people who work on the original site.
I’m purposefully not identifying this person or the project or providing a link back to the redesign itself, mostly because I think it’s counter-productive to continue to reward this effort with more unwarranted attention. To me, it felt less like constructive criticism than link-baiting, and so I have tried to avoid making any public comment.
I will say this, though: unsolicited redesigns are terrific and fun and useful, and I hope designers never stop doing them. But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside. If you have good ideas and the talent to execute them and argue for them, the world will still sit up and pay attention even if you take care in your language and show respect to those who don’t see things quite the way you do.
Last week, I marked a year since my departure from The New York Times by starting to talk a little bit about what I’ve been doing (see this blog post). Today, I’m going to talk a bit about why I decided to jump into a startup, one in which we’re building a product of our own, rather than starting another design consulting business.
Some longtime readers will remember that about ten years ago I co-founded a design studio of my own. In fact, until I went ‘in-house’ at the Times, I had spent the entirety of my career in the design services industry, working with all sorts of clients doing all sorts of projects, and generally enjoying the variety of challenges and the exposure to many different kinds of businesses. But in the long stretch of months leading up to the day I resigned my position at the Times, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t return to that kind of work.
There were lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I think the design industry has undergone a significant and meaningful change, one that opens up opportunities that are not to be missed.
As I wrote yesterday, I’m encouraged by the recent design improvements that Google has made in its products, especially its new Gmail theme. I’m assuming — hoping — that Google will apply this new sensibility to its many other products too.
Number one on my list would be a refresh of the interface for Google Reader. Yes, I’m one of the diminishing devotees of RSS. Every morning and many, many times throughout the day (and often in the middle of the night when besieged by insomnia, too) I check the copious feeds that I’ve collected over the years, devouring all manner of updates from all corners of the Interweb. They’re a critical source of news, information, education and entertainment for me.
It’s only been a short while since Google co-founder Larry Page assumed the role of CEO but it’s safe to say that we now have a sense of what his vision of Google looks like. Apparently design is a key part of it.
The search giant’s recently launched, high profile social networking bid Google+ debuted with an unexpectedly thoughtful (though admittedly derivative) design, and evinces an attention to the finer details of typography, spacing and visual hierarchy that was previously absent across the vast majority of Google’s products. Similarly, the company has made additional refinements to its iconic home page that reflect a newfound respect for the intangible — the changes have been minor, but they’ve felt less beholden to the brutally analytical decision-making that has guided Google product design and aesthetics in the past.