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.
For about as long as I’ve had broadband in my home I’ve used Speedtest by Ookla to test the speed of that connection. The web-based version of this tool allows you to create an account and save a history of your results, but the iOS versions do not. So I cooked up a script to do just that using Workflow. It’s one result of weeks of continued, after hours tinkering with this amazing iOS automation app—I first wrote about it after the holidays when I had lots of free time to play with it, but I’ve found it so compelling that I still play with it all the time even as my schedule has gotten busy again.
Unfortunately my workflow does not save results from Speedtest’s iPhone or iPad app to the official Ookla account. Instead, it uses a Zapier webhook to record the results in a Google spreadsheet (using a technique I learned from Federico Vitucci at MacStories). As such it requires a little bit of setup—it’s not complicated, but it some visual aids help. Before you get started though, you’ll need to have Workflow (obviously) and Speedtest by Ookla installed on your iOS device, as well as a free Zapier account and a copy of this Google Sheet document in your Google Drive.
To get started you first create a new Zap in Zapier. To set up the trigger portion of your Zap, select the app “Webhooks by Zapier.” There are two options: Retrieve Poll and Catch Hook; select the second one.
The next step asks you to specify a Child Key to pick off—you can ignore this one. After that, you’ll see a step that will let you test the setup to confirm it’s working.
Notice that that screen contains a unique URL for your webhook. Copy it and save it for later; you’ll need to add it to the workflow itself in the app later.
Now set up the action portion of your Zap by selecting Google Sheets. After you do that, you’ll select the option “Create Spreadsheet Row.”
At this point you’ll need to match the data that the workflow passes along to Zapier with specific columns in the Google Sheet. The names are the same, so it should be pretty self-evident.
Once you’re done you can test that action. If everything goes smoothly, you’ll get a row of sample data in your Google Sheet, which you should feel free to delete.
The next step is to acquire the workflow itself, which you can get at this link. Open it in a browser on your iOS device and click “Get Workflow,” which will open it in the app. You’ll then be asked to paste the unique URL for the webhook that I mentioned above; once you do that, the workflow is good to go.
To actually use this, open up the Speedtest app and run a test. When it’s done and the app presents its results, tap on the Share icon, tap on “Run Workflow” from the resulting share sheet, choose this workflow and run it. In addition to saving the technical results of the test, the workflow allows you to specify a room in your house where the test was taken and add any notes that you might wish to attach to those results. Once the workflow has completed its execution on your device, it should just take a moment or two to save the data to Google Sheets. Special bonus if you have a free account: most Zaps only get executed every fifteen minutes or so unless you’re a paid Zapier user, but this one will run more or less instantaneously for everyone.
It does take some persistence to get the hang of Workflow, but hacking together scripts like this has been immensely satisfying for me. I’m just so impressed by the app’s elegant balance of power and accessibility; its drag and drop interface is truly a wonder. If you’re at all interested in using your iPad or iPhone for productivity, it’s well worth spending some time with this app.
Over the past several years, television manufacturer Vizio has been rehabilitating its reputation as a bargain basement TV maker by shipping surprisingly high quality products at low prices. I myself have owned two of their sets, and I’ve been very complimentary of the surprisingly insightful design that goes into them.
All that good will may have been for naught, though, as it’s been revealed that these very same televisions have been engaging in rather nefarious, privacy-violating behavior. The FTC announced on Monday that it has settled a complaint against the company for tracking the exact content that consumers have been watching on its TVs without their consent.
Starting in 2014, Vizio made TVs that automatically tracked what consumers were watching and transmitted that data back to its servers. Vizio even retrofitted older models by installing its tracking software remotely. All of this, the FTC and AG allege, was done without clearly telling consumers or getting their consent.
What did Vizio know about what was going on in the privacy of consumers’ homes? On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content. What’s more, Vizio identified viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, streaming devices, DVD players, and over-the-air broadcasts. Add it all up and Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.
That’s a shocking and egregious example of the old adage that if a technology can be used for some nefarious purpose, it will be. Thankfully the FTC (and the New Jersey Attorney General) prevailed in this complaint, though it’s maybe worse news that the total settlement sum is just US$2.2 million. That hardly seems like a particularly disincentivizing figure for a company that was sold last year to Chinese tech company LeCo for US$2 billion. The amount is said to cover eleven million televisions that were either sold with or retrofitted with this unwanted feature starting in 2014. That works out to just 20¢ per unit. The precedent that this sets seems counterproductive; for a company whose products cost hundreds of dollars each, it seems like pretty straightforward economics to say that acquiring potentially valuable private data is worth a gamble of 20¢ per unit.
The comic artist R. Sikoryak has combined the little read iTunes terms and conditions that we’ve all blithely ignored countless times with his deep knowledge of comics history to produce a truly genius mash-up of the unexpected. His 96-page work “Terms and Conditions” takes that legal language and inserts it into off-kilter renditions of familiar comics like “Peanuts,” “Calvin & Hobbes,” “The Simpsons,” “Spider-Man,” “Batman” and more. The star of each page is an often grossly exaggerated Steve Jobs—who sometimes bulges with super-hero muscle and sometimes springs off the page like your favorite characters from the funny pages. It’s all bizarrely hilarious but a true masterwork of absurdist pop art.
Here are some samples, first in the style of Bill Waterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes”:
In the style of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”:
In the style of Steve Ditko’s “Spider-Man”:÷
In the style of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”:
The forthcoming documentary film “Graphic Means” explores the world of graphic design production—the tools and methods that enable the craft, and how they underwent a dramatic transformation between the 1950s and 1990s. It’s not the kind of subject matter that you’d necessarily expect to be covered in film, but it exists because a determined contemporary practitioner, Portland-based designer and educator Briar Levit, took it upon herself to bring this almost forgotten era of history to life. With the film nearing completion—it debuts at the ByDesign Film Festival in Seattle on April 15 and starts streaming to Kickstarter backers the next day—I caught up with her to find out more about the project.
Khoi Vinh: Your background is in design; how did you come to find yourself directing and producing a movie?
Briar Levit: I found myself falling in love with a topic—the cold type era—that seemed to have a lot of potential appeal for other graphic designers. Initially I thought I’d just start to work this history into my classes, but it seemed unfortunate to do research only to share with a relatively small number of people.
I thought a book might be something I’d do—I’m a book designer after all. But it was having seen Doug Wilson’s film, “Linotype: The Film” some years back, that helped me settle on making a movie. His documentary was both entertaining and educational, and really helped clarify a lot of confusion I personally had as a designer who’d heard terms about Linotype thrown around, but really only knew it as a type foundry.
He certainly could have told the story in a book, but to see the machines in action, to hear the machines—that brought it to life! Not to mention the stories and personalities of the Linotype operators.
I wanted to do that for the era that followed as much as possible. As far as I know there is no phototypesetting equipment that is currently being used. So while there wasn’t the chance to make beautiful footage of the people and the machines, there is quite a lot of archival footage on the topic (much of which, Doug Wilson shared with me!).
You said you missed this period of technology and production by about a decade. How much did you find that you’d never known before?
I suppose I was aware of the tools, but seeing them in use in step-by-step photos brought home the sheer amount of skill, time and number of steps that processes like creating a comp for client approval took.
The thing that surprised me most was that designers and typesetters had to calculate the number of words/characters that would go into a given block or body of text. This number was based on everything from point size to typeface style to line length. This level of preparation is mind boggling for someone like me who lays books out and can get a quick sense of how many characters/words fit on a page in a given design in minutes with InDesign.
That shift to digital typesetting seems somewhat analogous to the transition from “hot type” to photo typesetting, which I know the film also covers. Did you get a sense of how that evolution affected the designers of the day?
Absolutely. In the transition to digital type, however, all typesetters lost their jobs, not just some. This was the period in which designers had to learn to set their own type—for good or bad. Designers I’ve spoken to say there was quite a lot of poor typesetting at the time because designers were on a learning curve, not just with computers in general, but when it came to the rules of typesetting. They had relied on skilled people before to do that job.
While it’s sad that those jobs went away, I can’t imagine not setting my own type. I love doing it—first the process of establishing a design/system, and then the sort of Zen process of implementing it across a whole book or article.
To me, that suggests a long arc for designers away from specialization and towards generalization. Today’s designers need to be able to do so much; not just layout and typography, but photography and retouching, production and prepress, code and development—you could argue even marketing and sales. Does that idea of an arc sound accurate, or is it just an illusion that the pre-digital era allowed designers to focus much more on “just design”?
You’re right that jobs were generally more specialized during the cold type era. Which, as you say, allowed designers more time to simply design. But the benefit of having to do all of these jobs for ourselves now gives us a level of control and flexibility that most designers didn’t have before. We are able to tackle design problems in a variety of media ourselves, which is very empowering for communicators.
So having immersed yourself in this era, do you feel nostalgic for it at all? Sounds like maybe not?
No. I find the methods incredibly impressive and fascinating, but I have no desire to return to them, and neither do ninety-five percent of my interviewees. The feelings around lamenting the loss of these methods are usually tied to two things—one, a perceived devaluing of the designer as expert/specialist, and two, simply missing the pride and physicality of the work.
It suggests to me that graphic design production might have attracted a different kind of person—not better or worse, just different in terms of the work that suited them, or what they wanted from their vocation. Did you get a sense for that?
That’s a great question! I would say yes and no. Yes, because it would attract a person who probably had an innate sense of attention to detail and control—perhaps a taste for math even. When I look at the processes, myself, I wonder, had I know the field even existed, if I would have attempted to study design, let alone kept with it if I started. I will say that I do think the folks attracted to design, whether now or in the past, are often folks who have a natural creative urge, but who may prefer to work with constraints. I think they are also likely to prefer working on projects that have to do with topics/issues outside of expressing their feelings, like a creative person drawn to fine arts would be more interested in.
How about in the sense of class? Today design is, for better or worse, generally thought of as white collar. Was there a blue collar aspect to production jobs?
There was, and I would argue, there still is a class divide in our field in terms of who does design work, and who does production work (like prepress at a printer, for example).
It may have been more palpable during the cold type era, because designers came into contact with many more vendors than they do now. A designer would work with production artists/designers, as well as typesetters, image retouchers, and then, later folks in service bureaus who offered services like scanning, and proof printing. This tension is explored a little bit in “Graphic Means.” The film also takes a brief look at the impact the industry had on welcoming women into the workplace when cold typesetting finally took off in the 1960s and on.
Can you talk a bit about that experience for women? And if there were any parallels to more recent history?
Basically, women were given entry into the field initially as union typesetters went on strike, and newspapers were looking to hire folks to temp for them. I should note that women were forbidden from joining these labor unions. Later, when cold typesetting started infiltrating type shops in the sixties, many union men who were hot typesetters (letterpress and Linotype), were not interested in doing the work because it was seen as ‘glorified typing’ to them. So “open shops,” or shops that weren’t union-run, often had a good percentage of women doing typesetting.
For women designers, technology had less to do with their entrée into the field, as design jobs weren’t controlled by a union. I don’t have proof, but my guess is that the number of women designers started rising as the number of women going to college grew (from 1960 on), and as acceptance grew for women to have full-fledged careers.
The field of graphic design now is pretty well balanced in terms of the sexes (that’s my guess based on experience). Women are still at a disadvantage when you look at specific jobs within design, however. Jobs that are more technical, and which include aspects like coding, have much lower numbers of women. This goes back to the issues the women of the mid-century had—opportunity and/or privilege. There has been lot less support and encouragement for girls at young ages to get involved in the more technical pursuits. I think that’s changing more and more as parents and teachers became aware of this issue and adjust their approaches. It’s exciting to see the work of groups like Black Girls Code and Women Who Code.
What are the biggest lessons you take away both from what you learned about this era of history and also from your experience turning it into a documentary film?
I think the biggest take-away I got from immersing myself in this era and thinking about the tools that designers used—is that they are, in fact, just tools. There was brilliant design before the computer, there has been brilliant design after, and there will continue to be brilliant design to come.
On a personal level, I took a lot from my interview with April Greiman. Her openness to the desktop computer is so inspiring. She was trained in International Typographic Style and New Wave typographic style, but she didn’t let that stop her from exploring the possibilities with a tool that, in most designer’s eyes was not up to their standards yet. On top of that, she didn’t just try to make the tool replicate what she’d already been doing by hand. Instead she experimented with the new possibilities the tool offered. I always wonder if I would have been an early adopter, or if I would have held out until the tools met the resolution established standards. Here’s an example of me catching myself in this kind of thinking recently…
As you may know, there was a big announcement this year from a team composed of type folks from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, about a standardization of a formerly limited font format—the variable font. Upon hearing about this specification, which allows infinite options for weight and width, I was mortified. My mind immediately started fretting about all of the folks who weren’t trained in typography, who would use an insane number of weights and widths, and misunderstand issues of contrast and hierarchy. But I stopped myself. I thought, maybe this is opening a door to something new? I asked myself: What would April think? I’m on a mission to keep an open mind about new technologies as a result.
Earlier this week, a product team here at Adobe showed me their “vision deck”—a Keynote presentation that explains in broad strokes the new product that they intend to build. It’s a very talented team and their slides contained some of the smartest product thinking that I’ve seen in recent memory. But they were getting tripped up on the details, and their slides did not tell a story. Fashioning your design ideas into a compelling narrative is a fundamental skill that not all designers and product people master very easily. Unless your deck does this, the details can overwhelm the intent—and the intent of these things is always to persuade an audience to see things your way.
The advice I like to offer in these instances is to think of a slide deck almost literally as a story, and to follow the essential rules of storytelling. You don’t need to have the skills of a playwright or screenwriter to do this. You just need to swap out basic narrative concepts—the kind you probably remember from grade school—for product and design concepts.
The bedrock of any story is its characters (not its plot, contrary to what many people believe!)
The main character in a product vision is your user; start out by telling us who she is, what motivates her, and what her challenges are
Plot happens when your character/user encounters a new challenge that, ultimately, helps her solve her challenges
Your product is the plot! Explain how it changes your character’s life
Your product’s features are the details of your story; they should all show your user’s journey from problem to solution
You can hew as closely to a traditional plot as you like—you could even read Robert McKee’s bible on screenwriting “Story” and build your deck according to the three-act structure that drives most of filmed narrative—or you can just use it sparingly, as it suits you. The key idea is to make your deck about your main character, the user. If you paint a captivating portrait of who that is, and if everything flows from your understanding of that person and her challenges, then you’re on the right track.
However, I don’t find it plausible to conclude that just because the iPad isn’t growing right now that that means it can’t grow again. For me, it’s a fallacy to think that the iPad we have today represents the peak expression of what an iPad can be. Yes, you could argue that the trend towards larger smartphones and thinner laptops has robbed the iPad of some of its distinctive qualities, but that would really only be true from a hardware perspective. There’s loads of untapped potential in iPad software.
I’ve talked in the past about decoupling development of iOS for iPhone from development of iOS for iPad, which would allow the former to take on more and more unique capabilities. Whether that step is necessary or not, Apple showed how interesting the platform could become when it started to introduce a handful of iPad-specific iOS features in 2015—slide over apps, split screen view, picture-in-picture and Apple Pencil support have all become indispensable. That hardly seems like the limit of what can be done; if we had a sustained burst of similar innovations on this platform, there’s no doubt in my mind that the devices would become much, much more compelling.
The reality of it all though is that Apple is moving on many different fronts at once, and each one requires massive effort. The iPad is both blessed and cursed by its provenance as an Apple product. On the one hand, no other company could have brought it to life. And on the other hand, it’s like a very, very talented child born into a very large family full of talented children, all clamoring for parental attention. Fans and true believers in the platform, and I count myself among them, can only hope that Apple loves it as much as we do.
When you have a young family, like I do, it’s pretty difficult to avoid paying money to The Walt Disney Company in some form or another. But as Disney has come to absorb more and more entertainment franchises, it’s become increasingly harder to avoid paying tribute to the Mouse even when seeking more “grown up” entertainment. Those quote marks around “grown up” are really appropriate too because many of the properties that they own—under the Marvel Comics and the Star Wars banners particularly—are ostensibly for kids, but everyone knows that Americans don’t really grow up anymore.
In December, as the year drew to a close, I got to wondering how much money I had paid to The Walt Disney Company over the previous twelve months in total. I went through my Amazon order history and my wife’a too, and also our Fandango tickets, credit card statements and whatever else I could think of, and tallied every Disney-related expenditure that as a family we incurred. I tried to stick to explicit purchases; I ignored “derivative” expenses like consumption of Disney-related properties within other services like Netflix, or even Disney-related gifts received from friends and extended family. The total was still just over US$1,000.
To be honest I’m not sure whether I expected this number to be higher or lower. On the one hand, for a family of five, it works out to be US$200 per person, which is not that outrageous, really. This is especially true given that 2016 was a particularly Disney-heavy year for us, as we went to Disneyland Park while visiting my mom in Southern California, which added significantly to the total. On the other hand, a thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on entertainment. It’s certainly a lot of money to give to one company. In the end I think that’s what’s most surprising about this: the idea that all of this goes to a single corporate entity. Just multiply that by millions more families, and the genius—and fearsomeness—of Disney’s business model becomes much clearer to me than it ever had been before.
When debuting new logos, designers often share a supporting illustration that superimposes a grid on top of the logo forms, as if to demonstrate how structurally sound the design is. I’ve always viewed these skeptically, as they seem more fanciful than evidentiary. That is, I find it hard to believe that many such logos were truly designed with a grid in mind; if anything, it seems likely that once they were created, the designer went back and retrofitted their shapes to fit into some sort of master grid. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but for me it seems a bit like cheating. The grid is a framework for decision-making; it guides designers from start to finish. To go back and nip and tuck a design so that it conforms to a framework that suggests itself after most of the decisions are made seems somehow antithetical to what grids are truly intended for, at least in my view.
That’s probably too strict of an interpretation of how one should use grids, though. If a grid can be employed to help a designer at any point in the design process, then that constitutes a legitimate use. Grids are little more than just suggestions or guidelines, and at the end of the day they’re not ends in and of themselves, but tools to help designers produce an intended effect.
I won’t presume whether these examples from Tokyo-based designer Hiromi Maeo were done in what I regard as “the right way” or not, but they provide a useful look at the role grids can play in developing logo forms nevertheless. I recommend examining them closely in an app like Photoshop, where you’ll see that the regularities of the grids in use are not as straightforward as they may appear; there are slight tweaks here and there, and some unexpected nonuniformity of grid spaces that, at first glance, you’d expect to be uniform. The basic takeaway is: cheating is okay.
One last look at what I watched last year. First, between holidays and travel, I squeezed in eleven films in December and got out to the theaters three times. Most of my home viewing was spent binging on old Japanese films streamed from the new service Filmstruck; it’s basically a smorgasbord for cinema fans. Scroll down further to see them.
Some readers may recall that before the start of last year I resolved to stop watching television shows (more or less) and watch movies, exclusively. According to Letterboxd, where I keep a film diary, that allowed me to watch 185 films last year, averaging about three and a half per week. Looking back, I’m extremely happy with that choice because I saw so much good cinema last year—movies I’d always wanted to see but never got around to, movies I didn’t know anything about before discovering for the first time, and movies that I already cherished but hadn’t been able to revisit for years. Of course, it did mean that I missed out on “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things” and “Westworld,” but I’d take “The Duke of Burgundy,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “The Handmaiden” over those any time.
Speaking of the latter, here is a quick rundown of the best films released in 2016 that I managed to see. Given how infrequently I get out to theaters, it’s hardly a comprehensive list, of course.
You can also see every 2016 movie that I saw last year and how I ranked them in this Letterboxd list. That site, which I’ve really come to adore in the past year, also compiles a year-end summary of patron members’ activity which offers more insight into how I spent my movie time in 2016; if you’re interested in that, have a look here. It includes this imposing graphic of all 185 of the movies I logged.
Whew. If you care to follow along, you can join me over at letterboxd.com.
For posterity’s sake, here is the complete rundown of all 185 films, along with the brief commentary I added for them as I blogged them here, month by month.
“Sicario” Rewatched at home after seeing it in theaters last year.
After a seven month design process that was conducted in the open, Mozilla this week unveiled their new branding. Tim Miller, who leads the organization’s Creative Team, writes in this announcement blog post:
At the core of this project is the need for Mozilla’s purpose and brand to be better understood by more people. We want to be known as the champions for a healthy Internet. An Internet where we are all free to explore and discover and create and innovate without barriers or limitations. Where power is in the hands of many, not held by few. An Internet where our safety, security and identity are respected…
Our logo with its nod to URL language reinforces that the Internet is at the heart of Mozilla. We are committed to the original intent of the link as the beginning of an unfiltered, unmediated experience into the rich content of the Internet.
The work was done by London’s Johnson Banks, who wrote some thoughts here. The typeface is a bespoke creation by Typotheque for this project; it’s called “Zilla” and it’s intended to be free for everyone to use, but in a cursory search I couldn’t find a way to download it yet.
My first impression was that this is a bit of a groaner—the visual pun struck me as the tech/design equivalent of dad humor (as a dad myself, I should know). But it didn’t take me long to warm up to it. I’m a fan of its utter lack of pretension, and how unabashedly it embraces the organization’s geeky legacy. Overall, thumbs up.