Ugh, the Oscars ceremony was last night. Seeing the results this morning, there’s so much to complain about, but it’s probably better for me to skip all that and just get to my very delayed round-up of the sixteen movies I watched last month.
That included two that I got to see in theaters: “Roma,” which I watched in 70mm, and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins’s unflinchingly painful adaptation of the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. Both were gorgeous on the big screen (“Beale Street” perhaps even moreso than “Roma”), and are clearly the work of true masters of their form. But I’m honestly bewildered by the relative lack of attention paid to the latter; this was one of the very best films of last year.
Meanwhile, at home, I also undertook a long postponed project: watching the entire run of “Harry Potter” films. I’ve never read the books and had only seen the third film (the one directed by Alfonso Cuarón) before, but my daughter has been fanatically immersed in J.K. Rowling’s world for some time now, so I wanted to experience some of it for myself. I managed to watch “only” the first seven (the first seven!) before the end of the month and finished the eighth early in February. My reaction: Wow. That was a long way to go to arrive at some pretty obvious conclusions.
Here’s the full rundown:
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) When are we all going to admit that we’ve dragged this “Star Wars” thing out way too long now?
You could plausibly argue that most iPhone cases, protective qualities aside, hide and even detract from the aesthetic beauty of the phones themselves. I mean, we all know Jony Ive sheds a tear every time an Otterbox is sold. But there is a line of cases from Tech 21 that might actually have a legitimate claim to making your iPhone look better. That’s because they feature original decorative designs from Liberty London, drawing on over a hundred and forty years of distinctive, art nouveau-inspired textile prints. They’re stunning, actually.
Their formal attractiveness aside, what draws me to this line of cases is the idea of creating a connection, however tenuous, between the distinctly contemporary iPhone and an historically significant design legacy like Liberty’s. If nothing else, the pairing of these two seemingly unrelated kinds of design draws a contrast worth considering between a technological product that few people expect to last more than two or three years and an aesthetic tradition that has lasted nearly a century and a half.
I’m not really a floral print kind of guy, but I’ve long admired the aesthetic acuity of Liberty prints. What’s more, I would actually sport one of these myself if I didn’t already own a case (also made by Tech 21, but just a boring, dark gray color)—and I wouldn’t necessarily choose the darkest, “manliest” option, either. There are ten total designs and you can see them all at tech21.com.
Folks, at long last, I made it to Japan. Like just about every designer I know, I’ve felt spiritually drawn to that country for years, but for some reason I just never found the opportunity to go. Then I was asked to take part in “Why Design Tokyo,” a new conference for user experience design organized by Adobe’s UX Dojo team and UX Milk, and hosted by the folks at DMM.com. So two weeks ago I packed a bag and flew there for two days of talks, workshops and getting to know the local community.
It was an incredible visit, but altogether too brief—just three full days. That’s far too little to do anything more than see a fraction of Tokyo’s architectural diversity, experience just a smattering of its otherworldly shopping culture, sample just a few of its amazing restaurants (I did get to eat at a Michelin-starred ramen joint though—a major highlight), and meet just a small number of the amazing designers who call Tokyo home.
What I did see of the design scene there was really wonderful: truly energetic, deeply curious designers who fully immersed themselves in the conference. I was particularly astonished by how thoroughly their uniquely Japanese aesthetic manifested themselves in everything they did. One of the other speakers, Google’s wonderful Travis Neilson, ran a wildly successful workshop in which teams of designers collaborated on product ideas. The worksheets they produced were stunning in and of themselves, but also shockingly consistent with what finished graphic design looks like in Japan. I snapped these pics.
I was asked to give a keynote talk that, in the words of one Japanese member of the organizing team, would encourage designers in Japan to “get out of their daily routines and take a new step” in their practice. Delivering the lecture itself was a new kind of experience for me; I’ve never had to give a talk with an interpreter before, right there on stage with me. It forced me out of my usual, rambling style; I had to articulate each idea as succinctly as possible in English, then wait for the real time translation to be delivered to the audience before I could continue to the next point. The result was one of my more streamlined talks, which I’ve annotated and embedded here via Speaker Deck.
My main takeaway: it was really humbling to experience such a rich design culture whose operating fundamentals are so different from my Western-biased assumptions about how “good” design is created. I’ve seen design up close in a lot of countries, but I usually feel like I have some sense of how it works, and can find my bearings in how it’s practiced. By contrast, I feel like a true neophyte when it comes to Japanese design, with little understanding for its dynamics. It just leaves me awed and inspired. I imagine this is how untrained audiences for design feel in the west—and everywhere. It’s actually kind of a marvelous sensation. I can’t wait to go back.
When designers ride public transportation, they can’t help but notice the signage—especially if it’s confusing. Most of us just tsk-tsk to ourselves or complain vainly to uncomprehending companions. But New York-based designer Adam Fisher-Cox actually does something about it: he undertakes self-initiated projects to propose redesigns and shares them with the world.
Here’s one good example: several years ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates New York City’s subway, installed countdown clocks throughout the system. These LCD display boards let riders see at a glance just how much time remains before the next train arrives, finally remedying a perennial source of bewilderment and pain that has plagued generations of subway riders. Suddenly you could tell at a glance whether you’d be better off staying put and waiting, walking to another platform to catch an alternate route, or even exiting the station altogether and hailing a cab—and usually the information is actually even accurate. For those who live in cities where this kind of technology is already common, you have to understand: this subway system is over a hundred years old.
Still, despite providing long needed information to riders, the countdown clocks are hardly a paragon of information design. They provide only room enough to show two pending train arrivals at a time, which is too slow a pace in some stations where the train you’re actually waiting for may be third or even fourth behind the next one to arrive. Some countdown clocks also need to show countdowns for multiple trains arriving in two different directions at once, and so waiting for the information you need to be displayed can be tediously time consuming.
Fisher-Cox proposed a redesign that uses overlapping cards to indicate the next several trains arriving in two directions. It’s a whipsmart solution. You can read about the thinking that went into it in this blog post he wrote.
Fisher-Cox also did something similar for the wayfinding system for the AirTrain at JFK airport, this time with some real world impact.
This one immediately caught my attention not just because the work is very good, but because I happen to use that particular light rail system all the time. JFK is the closest airport to me, and I prefer to get there by taking the subway to Howard Beach, Queens, where I transfer to the AirTrain to get to my departure terminal. The whole journey takes not much longer than traveling by car and costs just US$7.75, but the real benefit is you’re not burning fossil fuels along the way.
The AirTrain itself is much more modern and reliable than the subway, but its wayfinding signage is plagued by mediocre typography, questionable aesthetic choices, and less than optimal labeling and directional instructions. I mean, take a look.
After riding it himself for the first time, Fisher-Cox wrote this extensive critique and mocked up some possible solutions. This led to him actually getting hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency responsible for the airports and their attendant light railway lines, to create a pilot solution for the real thing.
Fisher-Cox’s resulting redesign is much less ornamental, much more legible, and significantly easier to understand, even at first glance. His case study lays it out in detail.
Additionally, Fisher-Cox wrote this revealing blog post in which he walks readers through the reasoning behind his solution. It’s an invaluable lesson in how to design wayfinding, but also in fundamental principles of usability. Read it at adamfishercox.com. Then maybe go out and redesign the public transportation signage in your city.
The story so far: a few years ago I decided to stop watching TV and watch only movies. Pretty much any movies. Tiny indies and Hollywood blockbusters. Recent popcorn flicks and classic arthouse fare. Critically lauded masterpieces and trashy schlock. More or less anything. It’s been great.
Every time I watch a movie, I log it in my Letterboxd film diary. Then, at the beginning of each month (ostensibly), I post a recap of what I watched the previous month. I’m going into my fourth year of doing this now. In my first year, 2016, I watched a total of 189 movies. In 2017, I watched 191 movies. And last year I watched 201. (You can see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here.)
I’ve been trying to write this post since January 1st but here, finally, are some thoughts on what I saw. First off, my favorite new films from 2018.
A few smaller films that could become classics over time: “Thoroughbreds,” the debut film from playwright John Doe, heralds what could be a major new talent. “Revenge,” a French-made vengeance fantasy that’s really a super-hero movie without the costumes; simple, brutal and incredibly memorable. “Bad Times at the El Royale” shouldn’t be seen if you have a low tolerance for Tarantino derivatives, but it’s thrilling nevertheless, and gives its actors plenty to chew on. And finally, I am usually fairly contemptuous when highly successful comedic actors undertake “serious” roles in naked attempts to score themselves Oscar recognition, but I have to say Melissa McCarthy’s unabashed turn as a down on her luck writer-turned-forger in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was excellent.
Asian Americans in Film
While there were great strides last year in Asian American representation both in front of and behind the camera, the movies themselves left much to be desired. As I wrote in September, I found both of the highest profile triumphs—“Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”—to be thoroughly dishonest. On the other hand, I thought “Searching,” a strange little indie thriller that happens to take place entirely on computer screens and starring John Cho, was a real triumph not just of form (its unconventional, screen life narrative actually worked) but also in representation.
People like all kinds of films. Some of them, I don’t know why. “Black Panther,” for instance, was, again, a victory for representation, but I thought it was pretty flimsy and a major letdown after director Ryan Coogler’s previous works. “You Were Never Really Here” was another critical darling, and while I was impressed by how methodically made it was, in the end its story of a merciless killer finding redemption in a young girl struck me as fatally clichéd.
Blasts from the Past
Some movies from previous years that I’d never seen before: “A Prophet” (2009) A prison movie unlike any other. “Breaker Morant” (1980) Historically unflinching version of “A Few Good Men” without the whole justice part. “Rififi” (1955) Nearly every detail has been copied countless times, but somehow it still feels entirely new. “Dragon Inn” (1967) and “A Touch of Zen” (1971), both by legendary Hong Kong director King Hu, both fantastic. “The Villainess” (2017) Completely nuts, hyper-violent romantic melodrama. “The Insult” (2015) No offense to Jordan Peele, but this is a social thriller. “Lady Bird” (2017) Very cute but very good too. “Random Harvest” (1940) An old time weepie that I’m way too savvy and smart to fall for, except I totally did.
And here is the complete list of everything I watched last year.
“The Post” It’s okay. But man, regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski might want to take it down a notch.
If you’ve been waiting for the second season of “Wireframe,” the podcast I host in which we tell deeply researched stories about the world of design, well stay tuned, it’s in the works. Meanwhile, in a crazy development that both excites and terrifies me, I can now confirm that we’ll be performing a special live episode of the show at the beginning of next month.
Our live episode will be all about designing the user experience of sound. It’ll take a look at voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, how we structure interactions for these kinds of products, and how sound and voice are emerging as a new kind of raw material for design. We’ll have recorded clips as well as a lively discussion amongst an in-person panel of designers who are working on the frontlines of this new territory.
The panel takes place on Sun, 3 Mar and you can read more about it at onairfest.com. Readers can get a 15% discount with the code “Subtraction19” when you buy your tickets here. You can also listen to all six episodes of “Wireframe” at gimletmedia.com, on iTunes or anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Privacy and technology journalist Kashimir Hill is in the middle of publishing a fascinating series of articles called “Goodbye to the Big Five,” in which she reports on her experiences trying to function on the internet without the products or services of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. To do so, she uses a custom-built virtual private network created by activist and technologist Dhruv Mehrotra.
The VPN completely blocks her access to the millions of IP addresses controlled by these companies. This has a much more extensive impact on online life than simply abandoning their branded products. In the case of cutting off Google access, for example, ride hailing apps like Lyft and Uber become useless, because both apps depend on Google Maps. Spotify’s music is hosted in Google Cloud, so it too becomes inoperable. And even seemingly independent sites like The New York Times are affected; because each page on the site tries to download Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads, and Doubleclick, the experience is slowed down considerably.
Particularly notable for design audiences is the proliferation of Google Fonts use across the web.
Many of the sites I visit want to load Google fonts—a free, open-source resource the company released in 2010—which are downloaded from Google’s servers and then cached in the browser. Having quick access to a variety of fonts that would not otherwise be available on your computer generally helps sites load faster, but it has the opposite effect for me during the block.
Given that Google has so many ways to track people’s digital activity already, I’m disturbed to see how ubiquitous the use of Google fonts is on the web, but the company has promised that it won’t use them to track a site’s users. So there’s that.
To Google’s credit, they don’t seem to be exploiting this situation. Hill also writes:
‘Of all the shady shit Google does, this one doesn’t seem that shady,’ says Dhruv, when I consult him about it.
Shady or not, it’s eye-opening to realize how broadly influential Google is in the user experience of the internet. Google Fonts is hardly an insubstantial product, but relative to its other pursuits, it barely seems like it takes much effort from the company. And yet in less than a decade it has turned into one of the most important providers of type in the world. (Full disclosure: this site uses Libre Baskerville served from Google Fonts.) The fact that the company has operated the service with a relatively neutral hand is commendable, but who’s to say how long that will last? The implications for the design world are far reaching if Google ever decides to turn its Fonts service into a revenue bearing business.
Read the first several installments in Hill’s series at gizmodo.com.
Plenty of folks are more prolific globetrotters than me but but according to Google Maps I logged over ninety thousand miles across twenty-three trips in 2018. That’s enough to circle the globe 3.6 times. In all that back and forth, I’ve come to rely on certain products and services to make all that travel much easier. If you’re not already familiar with them, you may find one or two that could prove useful.
For personal travel, I like to track flight prices before buying with Google Flights. You need to be specific about days, times and airlines, but once you identify the exact journeys you like, the service will watch price fluctuations and send email alerts when a specific fare has dropped or risen. For years I used Yapta to do this but that site has since deprecated its consumer service to focus on business travel.
I used to choose my seats more or less randomly, opting for a window seat when possible but otherwise not paying much attention to the layout of the plane. After getting stuck in windowless rows or uncomfortably close to lavatories a few too many times, I started paying more attention. Now every time I book a trip, I look up that exact model of airplane on SeatGuru, which has maps and advice for nearly every seat on every plane.
It’s been more than a decade since I started using TripIt and I can’t imagine taking a journey without it. Every time I make a travel booking of any kind—flight, hotel, rental car, train, whatever—I just forward the confirmation email to my TripIt account and the service automagically assembles it into a coherent, easy to read itinerary. I can view that itinerary on the web or in TripIt’s mobile app, of course, but I can also subscribe to my account’s calendar feed so that all of those plans show up in my calendar app. TripIt has gotten a little long in the tooth over the years—editing itineraries is less elegant than it could be—but it’s still a brilliant way to alleviate trip friction.
Getting through Airport Security
If you haven’t already applied for TSA Precheck, which lets you avoid the invariably longer standard lines at airport security, you’re wasting your own time. Even if you only travel a few times a year, this makes your airport experience dramatically easier. And if you travel with kids, this is a no-brainer, because it means your kids get the same privileges as you—including not having to take off their shoes, which itself can consume valuable time before your gate closes.
There’s also Clear, the privately run alternative security procedure that’s ostensibly faster even than Precheck. It uses biometrics instead of identity documents, and because it requires a paid membership, the lines are usually vanishingly short, if not non-existent. That said, I’ve never seen the point. TSA Precheck might save you half an hour or more over regular security; Clear might save you two minutes over Precheck. What’s more, Clear is available only in select airports. Don’t fall for this.
Even with as much travel as I do, I haven’t found it useful to subscribe to a wi-fi service like Boingo for on-the-ground hot spots. For in-flight wi-fi though, I usually just prepurchase a day pass via GoGo. But no matter how I get online while on the road, I always use a VPN service like iVPN for privacy—and for that matter so should you.
If you hate showing up at a party where someone is wearing the same dress as you, don’t fly between New York and San Francisco, as I do regularly, with an Away suitcase. Everyone has one. I had to put some stickers on mine (I don’t put stickers on anything) so that it wouldn’t get mistaken for someone else’s. That said, this is the best suitcase I’ve ever owned. The included battery is a fine gimmick, but the thing that really works for me is its “compression” system—a set of not particularly fancy internal straps that help you pack more into the suitcase than you would think possible. Last year I took a ten-day trip to Paris, Lyon, Berlin and Amsterdam with only my Away carryon, and it worked great.
This Mindshift zippered pouch is really intended for camera gear. But it’s so elegantly compact, with three compartments for accessories, that I’ve found it perfect for cables, power adapters and dongles (hat tip to my friend Matthew for the recommendation). It’s mostly transparent, so you can see exactly what you have and pull out just what you need. It also has room enough (and then some) for my Anker 40W 4-Port USB wall charger. Why carry several Apple wall chargers with you, as I did for years—like a dolt—when you could carry just one of these?
The cables I keep in that pouch are all secured with these basic Velcro cable ties. I’ve tried a lot of different cable management solutions over the years but these have worked out best for me. The eyelets allow you to securely wrap one end around your cable so that you don’t lose it while the cable is extended and in use. They’re also really cheap at about 16¢ each. Some Amazon reviewers complain about their quality but I’ve found mine have held up very well over time. Of course, as with all generic items for sale on Amazon, your mileage may vary.
One other item that’s come in handy many times is a mini power strip. They make these in really compact form now and they’re terrific when you find yourself low on power someplace where the one power outlet is already being used by someone else. Instead of fighting over that outlet, you can now share it, and the world becomes a tiny bit more peaceful. It’s also handy for hotel rooms where there may not be enough outlets for all your devices. The one I have isn’t quite small enough to throw into my Mindshift bag but it’s still useful enough that I throw it into my backpack.
Water Canister and Titanium Spork
If you’re mindful of avoiding disposable plastic—like one-time use water bottles and plastic cutlery—these are terrific companions to throw into your bag. I wrote about them in this blog post two years ago and I still carry them on every trip.
I think it’s pretty amazing that you can go to a new city for the first time and, armed with just a smartphone, make your way around town easily. As a public transportation fan, I like to take buses and trains to explore new cities. There’s no better app for that than Citymapper, which covers nearly forty cities. Like Apple Maps or Google Maps, you can punch in a destination and get routing directions, but Citymapper offers much more detailed options, especially for public transportation.
Airline Miles and Hotel Points
Aside from sticking to the same airline (Delta) and the same hotel chain (IHG), I don’t have any unique hacks for maximizing these rewards. I don’t even have a credit card that earns me points. When I started traveling as much as I do, it quickly dawned on me how distorting the game of miles and points can be—sometimes, when asked to take some unappealing trip to some location I don’t have much interest in, I will think to myself, “Hmm, but that would earn me a ton of miles.”
Having status at an airline or hotel is nice, but ultimately the personal, intangible cost is much higher than the benefit. I’d much rather be at home with my family than flying business class to the other side of the world. What I’ve come to believe is miles and points are just a metric for how much of your real life you’re missing. In fact, if you don’t travel that often and therefore don’t have much use for these products and services I’ve listed here then, well, in my opinion you’re doing it right.
So many great movies come out in December, so I went to the theaters five times—that’s easily my record for any month last year. The best of the films I saw was Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite,” which is set in the court of Queen Anne in 18th Century England. It’s a sumptuous feast of palace intrigue, baroque art direction and surprisingly apt off-kilter camerawork. This is Lanthimos’s first period film, but its vision of a bizarre, distorted reality that’s blithely accepted by its inhabitants will feel familiar to those who have seen his previous films. Like those, “The Favourite” features vaguely dystopian, science fiction-like qualities. And like all good sci-fi films, this movie is as much about the year it was made as it is about the year the events it depicts ostensibly took place. If there was a time for a movie about the tragicomic art of manipulating a feckless head of state, it’s right now.
Not quite as richly auteuristic but nevertheless terrific in its own right: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Super-hero movies are in a major glut right now (I couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for any of Marvel’s own “cinematic universe” movies in 2018) but this one is a breath of fresh air. It’s the best Spider-Man movie by far, one of the best super-hero movies ever made, and probably one of the best computer-animated movies of all time. Kudos to the team who made it, and, credit where credit is due: kudos to the studio that somehow also made “Venom.”
Here are all eighteen movies I watched last month.
As of January 1st a new price transparency law now requires U.S. hospitals to publish a list of their standard charges on the Internet, something they had not typically done before. Over at Quartz, reporter Anne Quito and visual journalist Amanda Shendruk took a look at the published prices of 115 of the largest hospitals. What they found is that this ostensibly revealing information is going to be of little use to most customers. First, the lists are usually hidden in obscure, difficult to find corners of the hospitals’ websites, and second, the data is rarely human-friendly.
After locating the list, there’s the matter of understanding it. To comply with the law, many hospitals published their entire chargemaster, a list that contains thousands of items—from a cotton ball to an organ transplant—written in terms and codes unintelligible to most consumers. A chargemaster is essentially an internal document that hospitals send insurance companies to negotiate the amount they’re going to receive. The prices listed are typically higher than what most patients actually see on their medical bills, unless they’re uninsured.
As an example of how inscrutable this can be, Quartz published a screen grab from Florida Hospital Orlando’s pricing list. It’s a wonder of illegibility.
Quito asked me to comment on how design might have helped make this information more relevant to consumers, and a few of my quotes are included in the article. There’s no question that more specific guidance in the law on how the information should be presented, alongside some actual consideration for user experience on the part of the hospitals, would have gone a long way to improving the effectiveness of this effort. Design could have helped enormously.
At a higher level though, the healthcare system is so daunting, its overall user experience needs so much more than good design. Quito closes the article with some of my thoughts on this:
‘It’s crazy that we have this enormous healthcare system, and it’s so complex and you’re expected to negotiate it on your own with no help,’ says Vinh.
If you think of the healthcare system as a civic institution not unlike the legal system, the proposition for mere mortals starts to look absurd. Few of us would feel comfortable representing ourselves in courts of law without a lawyer, and yet we’re all expected to make our way through the complexity of healthcare entirely on our own, without an experienced advocate to help us understand our options and ensure our safety, to say nothing of maximizing the value of what we pay for.