Update: Recycling Isn’t Working

Recycling Icon

Here’s an update on a post that I wrote at the beginning of the year about how China has upended the way recycling works. In short, Americans recycle as much as 66 million tons of would-be waste each year, the majority of which used to go to China. However, as part of a new policy aimed at improving its own environmental conditions, China no longer allows imports of those foreign recycling materials. The result is essentially a crisis in everything but name, as this article in The New York Times details:

In the Pacific Northwest, [Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the country] has diverted more than 2,000 tons of paper to landfills since the Chinese ban came into effect, Mr. Keller said. The company has been unable to move that material to a market ‘at any price or cost,’ he said. Though Republic is dumping only a small portion of its total inventory so far—the company handles over five million tons of recyclables nationwide each year—it sent little to no paper to landfills last year.

But for smaller companies, like Rogue Disposal and Recycling, which serves much of Oregon, the Chinese ban has upended operations. Rogue sent all its recycling to landfills for the first few months of the year, said Garry Penning, a spokesman.

Western states, which have relied the most on Chinese recycling plants, have been hit especially hard. In some areas—like Eugene, Ore., and parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii—local officials and garbage haulers will no longer accept certain items for recycling, in some cases refusing most plastics, glass and certain types of paper. Instead, they say, customers should throw these items in the trash.

Some waste managers are holding out hope that China may change its mind and begin accepting recycled waste again, which may or may not be a realistic aspiration.

What’s truly amazing, though, is the idea that even with this major change in the way the ecosystem for waste works—and even with the growing problems stemming from climate change—there has been little or no change in awareness of how recycling works. The Times article hints at this reality: its title is “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not,” and an accompanying article called “6 Things You’re Recycling Wrong” offers a primer on recycling fundamentals that is so basic that it’s embarrassing that most people don’t already understand it.

Both underscore the idea that Americans clearly have no idea what it means to recycle—not just how to do it properly, but whether it’s truly a net positive for the environment or the economy. The assumption is that recycling is a magical cure-all for the deleterious effects of uninhibited consumption, when it clearly is not. There is a wanton disinterest in consequences here that is astounding but perhaps not surprising as choosing to ignore facts is clearly becoming the hallmark of our age.

If you’re interested in learning more about how waste can be tempered not just with recycling but also with a mindful approach to reduction and reuse, I recommend this episode of the 1A podcast.

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Illustration in the App Store

App Store Icon on the iOS Home Screen

Apple’s dramatically redesigned App Store got a decent amount of attention when it debuted last year with iOS 11, but its unique success as a hybrid of product design and editorial design has gone little noticed since. That’s a shame, because it’s a huge breakthrough.

I myself paid it scant attention until one day this past winter when I realized that the company was commissioning original illustration to accompany its new format. If you check the App Store front page a few times a week, you’ll see a quietly remarkable display of unique art alongside unique stories about apps, games and “content” (movies, TV shows, comics, etc.). To be clear: this isn’t work lifted from the marketing materials created by app publishers. It’s drawings, paintings, photographs, collages and/or animations that have been created expressly for the App Store.

We don’t see this particular flavor of artistic ambition from many companies today, especially tech companies. The predominant mode of product design almost exclusively favors templates and automation, what can be done without human intervention. The very idea of asking living, breathing art directors who need to be paid real salaries to hire living, breathing illustrators who also need to be paid a living wage in order to create so-called works of art that have no demonstrably reproducible effect on actual profits is outlandish, absurd even. The mere suggestion would get you laughed off of most design teams in Silicon Valley. Design in this century has little use for anything that can’t be quantified.

And yet, here is Apple’s App Store, presenting new, original illustrations several times a week. Of course, not everything shown is bespoke. For some recurring editorial features they use wallpaper-like designs made from app icons; other stories borrow graphics right from the apps themselves; and sometimes the art directors will sneak in a graphic that they might have used in the past.

I know this because for four or five months now I’ve been coming back to the App Store at least once a week, taking screen grabs of the original art and posting them to this Pinterest board. Not all of the art I’ve captured has been truly great, but what I’ve seen again and again is an awareness of the unique power of an editorially-driven digital product and, I think, a sense of the opportunity to do things that, quite frankly, no other company is willing to do. So far I’ve taken nearly a hundred screen grabs. Here are a few of my favorites.

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Valuable Lessons from Pointless Machines

Most people think of Rube Goldberg machines—devices which intentionally perform simple tasks in indirect, unnecessarily complicated ways—as examples of ingenious engineering. But the work of “kinetic artist” Joseph Herscher reveals that these contraptions are as much about design as anything.

Herscher’s pièce de résistance may be “The Cake Server,” shown above: a gorgeous monstrosity that brings together melting butter, a glass of juice that pours its contents into itself, a baby using a smartphone and much more to serve a slice of upside-down cake to a plate in its God-intended manner of delivery. It’s a marvel to behold.

Though the Cake Server relies on precision execution and basic physics and engineering principles, it’s clear from watching the behind-the-scenes video below that there is a real artistry at work, too. In comments that will sound familiar to any designer, Herscher talks about the importance of the viewer’s experience and how certain components of a Rube Goldberg help create a sense of expectation and narrative for the audience. The inclusion of a hammer, for instance, suggests a pounding motion is imminent. His process also includes significant iteration, “creatively tedious” trial and error, in order to determine if something can be reliably reproduced to the desired effect—again, design at work.

It’s also interesting to note that what makes these machines interesting, entertaining and even educational to audiences is not just whether they accomplish their tasks. Granted, no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that doesn’t make it to its final stage, that fails to deliver that slice of cake or whatever its ultimate punchline may be. But it’s also true that no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that’s dead simple and poses no challenges, whether to the creator or the audience. What matters is the aesthetic quality of the contraption, whether it challenges the possible for no better reason than the fun of that challenge.

Indeed, looking at any successful Rube Goldberg machine offers a lesson in how we might appraise design. In design, we often emphasize the simple metric of whether a something works or not. Some people argue—some designers among them—if it accomplishes its goal then it’s hardly important whether it looked great or not, whether it offered any kind of ineffable aesthetic qualities. I think that’s a false dichotomy though; I think it’s important that a design solution should work and that it’s beautiful. Given the choice between an ugly solution that works and a beautiful solution that also works, most would choose the latter.

It should also be acknowledged that Rube Goldberg machines are in fact pointless, and that if the importance of aesthetic design rests on the entertainment value of pointless machines, that’s not the strongest argument in the world. Fair. But also consider that Rube Goldberg machines are often used to teach physics and engineering. When a student builds a Rube Goldberg he or she is learning the principles of design as well as the principles of physics; you can’t learn one without the other. The two are actually interrelated, funny enough.

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Adobe XD: Ten Million and Zero

Adobe XD: Ten Million and Zero

This morning there are two major announcements for Adobe XD, our new end-to-end design, prototyping and sharing app, and I’m proud to say that I’ve played a bit part in both of them. The news can be summed up in two numbers: ten million and zero.

Ten Million

$10,000,000 is the amount of money Adobe is setting aside for the new Adobe Fund for Design, an initiative to help supercharge the design ecosystem. If you’re building design tools, if you have something meaningful to contribute to the future of how designers work, this is for you—the Fund makes investments but it also issues grants, which means it’s open not just to teams of all sizes, but also to individuals. The goal is to inspire anyone with a passion for design tooling to build on top of Adobe XD, obviously, but also to help people bring to life wholly new approaches to the design ecosystem. Find out more about the Fund here.

Zero

$0 is the cost of the brand new Adobe XD Starter Plan. This is an unprecedented move for Adobe: you can now get Adobe XD for free. This isn’t a limited time deal—it’s a new, permanent offering alongside our other Creative Cloud plans. And it’s not an abridged version of the app, either, it’s the real thing. None of XD’s design and prototyping features have been dialed back. You can create an unlimited number of project files, each containing thousands of artboards (XD is wildly performant and won’t blink an eye)—all at no cost. The Starter Plan only limits you to sharing one prototype and one set of design specs at a time, but you can export locally and to services like Zeplin and Avocode with no limits. This fully lowers the barriers for Adobe XD for anyone practicing design, whether you’re a student, a new professional, or you’ve just been curious about Adobe XD and haven’t yet tried it. Get it here.

On top of that, we have our regularly scheduled monthly release of new XD features—read about that here. There’s so much great stuff in the pipeline too, from advanced prototyping to innovative design systems features to truly breakthrough interactivity capabilities, and much more. I’m obviously biased but XD is truly something special. If you haven’t done so already, give it a try here—it won’t cost you a thing.

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Movies Watched, April 2018

Still from “A Quiet Place”

I really didn’t know what to make of “Avengers: Infinity War” when I walked out of the theater. It’s such a weird mess of a film, frequently incoherent and often absurd. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that the filmmakers tried. They tried to make its villain interesting; they tried to make the runtime largely entertaining; they tried to add some weight to a cinematic “universe” that has only come to seem lighter and less substantial with each installment. I’m not sure they fully succeeded in any of that, really, and it’s not just because the narrative of the film ends up, morally speaking, in some seriously questionable territory. It’s a just bizarre film that seems to defy any kind of appraisal. Given the massive box office receipts though you’ve probably already seen it yourself, along with millions of others. So what anyone thinks of it, including me, probably doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Another unexpected downside of “Infinity War” is that it seemed to put an unexpected amount of distance between John Krasinski’s unexpectedly satisfying “A Quiet Place,” which seemed like a late winter gem, and the summer movie season. Not that I relish all of the dreck that’s usually trotted out in the early part of the year, but if nothing else it’s a time for interesting if imperfect movies. “A Quiet Place” exemplifies that perfectly; a weird little horror movie that can boast its fair share of surprises, mostly in how deeply felt it is. Anyway, I watched it in mid-April but that was a long time ago; it’s May now and summer is well underway, at least at the movies.

Including those two, I saw a total of fifteen movies last month, and wrote at moderate length on a few of them, linked below.

If you’re interested, here’s what I watched in March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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The Secret to Writing (Is Writing)

Pencil Shavings Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

A16z board partner and Microsoft alum Steven Sinofsky continually proves that he’s one of the smartest minds in tech with Medium articles like this one, called “Writing Is Thinking.” It’s an annotated version of a tweet storm he published recently about the challenges in building a culture of writing at tech companies. This quote is particularly good:

It is really incredible the amount of pushback I see from companies, startups to big, about writing. In particular around the notion that writing is the antithesis of agile. Writing ossifies and cements decision or plans that should change, it is said. My view is that agility comes from planning. Without plans, activities are just brownian motion. And you can’t have plans, especially shared plans, without writing.

If it isn’t already obvious, the fact that I’m sharing and applauding Sinofsky’s argument here is that I feel strongly about the value of writing in design as well as technology. In a world full of talented designers, the ability to express oneself in written form is a key advantage.

However, someone asked me recently: “I know I should write, but when I actually do it I don’t know if I’m writing for myself or because I know I should write.” I’ve always said that everyone should just write but I realize that for many people it doesn’t come so easily. It can feel more like a compulsory duty than a passion, at which point it becomes pointless—unless you’re writing from your heart, your writing is unlikely to make much of an impression on anyone.

That said, there as many avenues into writing as there are ways to write; the trick is to find the the sensibility, the style that works for you. Maybe you feel more comfortable writing in short, concise bullets than at protracted, grandiose length. Or maybe you feel more at ease with sarcasm and dry wit than with sober, exhaustive argumentation. Or perhaps you prefer to knock out a solitary first draft and never look back rather than polishing and tweaking endlessly. Whatever the approach, if you can do the work to find a genuine passion for writing, what a powerful tool you’ll have.

Read the full article at learningbyshipping.com.

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

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Get More LEGOs in Your Life

Stüda LEGO-compatible Furniture

You need to be careful where you step at our house because my twin five-year old boys are crazy about LEGOs and they’re underfoot everywhere. Which makes us ideal customers for Stüda, a smartly designed, LEGO-compatible furniture line created by Italian studio Nine. It’s actually kind of an ingenious way to embrace the chaos that LEGOs introduce to the home environment, and luckily the pieces aren’t bad looking at all.

Children Playing with Stüda LEGO-compatible Furniture

More information on Stüda furniture at archdaily.com. If you’re a LEGO enthusiast yourself, don’t miss this post from January highlighting some wonderfully designed LEGO letterforms. Also, enjoy this photo of my twins posing with their LEGO minifigure counterparts, which I made from foamcore and construction paper for their birthday party not long ago. All those skills learned in my foundation year of art school finally came in handy.

Foamcore Cut-Outs of LEGO Minifgures
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Immersive Media and David Bowie Is

Entrance to “David Bowie Is” Exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum
The entrance to The Booklyn Museum’s “David Bowie Is” exhibition—before you have to turn your phone and camera off.

The extensive and ambiguously titled exhibition “David Bowie Is,” which originated at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London but is now running through 15 July at The Brooklyn Museum in New York, gathers a ton of artifacts from the iconic musician’s many decades as an entertainer into one massive career retrospective. There are four hundred or so objects on display, including countless photographs, original album art, Bowie’s own drawings, sixty original performance costumes, dozens of samples of handwritten notes and lyric sheets, and more.

It all amounts to as complete an immersion into Bowie as you could ask for, but as with most everything revolving around the curiously unchallenged legacy of this singularly talented artist, it’s not particularly penetrating or surprising. If you’re a longtime fan, you’re not likely to discover new sides of Bowie—or, even, less well known sides. (Tin Machine, anyone?) Still, for those already familiar with his œuvre it makes for an enjoyable if not particularly edifying afternoon out. For those who are new to his work, it’s probably a pretty enjoyable primer.

The exhibition itself is designed thoughtfully and executed with a fair amount of technologically forward-leaning imagination, especially the audio component. Each visitor is issued a pair of over-the-ear headphones (Sennheiser is a prominent sponsor of the show) attached to a Bluetooth receiver that automatically plays audio based on your specific location within the exhibition halls at any given time. Step towards one artifact and you might hear one of Bowie’s many immortal songs; step towards a different one and you might hear an excerpt from his appearance on an old TV show synced with a video projected on the wall. Everything changes automatically; all you need to do is walk and look.

This coordination of exhibits and audio is technically impressive but has some unintended consequences too. If you walk up to an artifact that interests you, you may find it difficult to actually read the curator’s notes while listening to a voice in your head that may be saying something completely different. Your choices would be to either wait until the audio is done, pull off your headphones and miss out on that content, or to fumble with the receiver to find the pause button. One way or another, it’s at least momentarily discombobulating.

More significantly, if you enter the exhibition with companions, within moments you’ll realize that the experience is so tailored to your current proximity as an individual that there’s little sense in the group keeping pace with one another. Two people standing side by side may be listening to two entirely different things, so why stick together? To actually share the experience requires pulling off your own headphones, getting the attention of your companion and urging them to pull off their own, too. It’s an awkward ritual, and it gets annoying for everyone if it’s repeated too many times.

The overall effect struck me as a disappointing hint of what the future might look like, not just for ostentatious tributes to classic rock stars but for life in a technological society too. In a way, this example of automatically playing audio keyed to your location is a decent hint of how augmented reality will function unless it’s done much more thoughtfully: it’s an alienating combination of precision targeting and clumsy relevance. The experience is customized for your data points—your position in space, your implied interest in certain content—but it’s not necesssarily in tune with what you might actually want at any given moment.

It’s also surprisingly isolating. At one point I took off my headphones to survey the exhibition space and what I saw was a room full of people immersed in their own headphones while more or less oblivious to one another’s presence. That’s not to say that it was silent; to the exhibition designers’ credit, speakers were piping Bowie songs throughout the space. This offered a patina of human activity in what would have otherwise surely been an eerily silent experience, because there was no talking, no discussion of the experience that we were all ostensibly sharing. If you like to go to museums for the interesting discussions they inspire, this might not be for you. That old cliché about feeling alone in a crowd never felt more real.

And it was exacerbated by the museum’s restriction on cell phone service (which supposedly interferes with the ability of the headphones to connect with location beacons via Bluetooth) and an inane prohibition on photography. That latter rule struck me as particularly ironic given how media-aware Bowie’s entire approach to celebrity was from almost his very start. If ever there were a rock god made for Instagram, it was David Bowie.

It’s not clear to me that the curators of this exhibition intended to leave so little for its visitors to actually do, but it’s worth considering nevertheless that this might be a likely if not inevitable outcome of immersive media. On the one hand it isolates you from your companions in the real world; on the other hand it abets restrictions on your own technology and therefore your own ability to participate in the experience. Visitors to “David Bowie Is” are socially discouraged from sharing their experiences within the exhibition and they’re also officially prohibited from sharing what they see, hear, learn and think about with the world outside of it (at least in the moment). What’s left but just to consume what’s put in front of them, passively? David Bowie himself would’ve hated that.

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What Happens When We Recycle?

Recycling Symbol with a Question Mark

Even those of us who try to be conscientious about our waste would be hard pressed to answer the question “What happens when we recycle?” This exceptionally informative episode of the podcast 1A from WAMU and NPR looks more closely at recycling as a concept, as a practice, and as an industry.

Host Joshua Johnson finds that while two-thirds of Americans have recycling bins in their homes, just over a third of Americans’ trash actually gets recycled. That’s not just a result of individual action (or lack thereof), though how we each personally think about consumables is important. It also comes down to how producers of waste—companies, manufacturers, and retailers—have come to rely on the application of a recycling symbol on a package to excuse otherwise environmentally detrimental practices. Our addiction to online shopping and having goods shipped to us, for example, now consumes so much cardboard that it basically counters the paper waste saved by the dwindling consumption of newspapers. And more and more products are being shipped in packaging that is more difficult to recycle than before. Add to that the shocking (to me) revelation that a lot of recycling advocacy is funded by companies who own landfills and who stand to benefit from their use, and it becomes clear that recycling as a proposition is complex and not necessarily a net positive.

It’s not difficult to imagine a role that designers can play here. Of course, designers of consumer packaged goods have the opportunity to positively impact how companies think about the boxes, bottles and cans that they design for. But the whole recycling “ecosystem,” if you will, is so opaque and has been so poorly understood that it seems ripe for a designer to help clarify its intentions (e.g., emphasize reduction and reuse before recycling), shed light on its process, and provide better guidance on how to positively contribute to it. One might even argue that the usefulness of the now ubiquitous recycling logo has come to an end, and a new design system is needed. If you’re interested in these issues at all, I highly recommend listening below. You can also learn more at the1a.org.

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107 Years Doesn’t Feel Like Such a Long Time

Amazing footage from the archives of The Museum of Modern Art of the City of New York in the year 1911. It starts on what appears to be the Staten Island Ferry, docks at Battery City, then goes on a street tour of several neighborhoods in Manhattan. The footage has been altered in two subtle but powerful ways: the normally heightened playback speed of film from this era has been slowed down to a more “natural” pace; and the addition of a soundtrack of ambient city sounds, subtly timed with the action on screen. The result feels more visceral, more relatable, and the early 20th Century seems not so distant to our experience today after all.

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