Offline Magazine

Among the many things I’ve been working on for the past six months is spending a bit of time helping entrepreneurs Tom Smith and Brad Flaugher realize their very canny vision for mobile publishing. It’s called Offline Magazine, and it debuts today in the App Store.

Each month, Offline delivers five essays about culture, comedy or design, curated as a proper issue (I wrote one of the pieces in the debut edition). The Offline app itself is beautifully designed (not by me, but by Trevor Baum) and purpose-built for mobile reading. That last bit is incredibly important; this is a reading experience expressly designed to complement reading habits on phones and tablets, not demand new, unnatural ones.

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Hel-F’ing-Vetica Shirts Are Back

From time to time, I get asked to bring back the “Hel-F’ing-Vetica” shirts that I first ran many years ago. Last week I finally got around to accommodating those requests via Spreadshirt, which allows users to print tee-shirts on-demand. They have a process called flex printing that is very close to traditional silkscreening, which even allowed me to run the design with a bit of silver, shown here on a heather gray American Apparel tee:


Even better, because the Spreadshirt route allows me to sell without having to hold inventory, customers can now get this design on long-sleeved tees, hoodies and — finally — women’s tees, too. You can visit my Spreadshirt shop here to get yours for the holidays!

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Everpix and Everyone

A bummer of a coincidence from yesterday: after using Everpix for several months and enjoying it immensely, I decided to pony up for the US$49 annual fee. Hours later, I happened to read that Everpix is shutting down. A note signed by the Everpix team said: “We were unable to secure sufficient funding in order to properly scale the business, and our endeavors to find a new home for Everpix did not come to pass. At this point, we have no other options but to discontinue the service.”

Possibly losing forty-nine dollars doesn’t bother me so much, since Everpix promises to refund all of its subscribers (they hope to do this by 15 Dec). It’s the fact that Everpix was a terrific product that in many ways fit the bill for what I think a modern photo experience should be: an inexhaustible storage locker in the cloud that effortlessly backs up my photos from every source.

Facebook, Twitter, Path, Instagram, my phone’s camera roll, even pics that people sent to me via MMS; Everpix comprehensively backed up all of these sources to the Web and made them navigable through an intelligently self-organizing and elegantly designed web interface. It was really a pleasure to use, especially its Flashback feature, which would send me daily emails to remind me of photos taken a year or two ion the past.

While I have no inside knowledge of what went wrong with Everpix (the writing was on the wall for a long while, apparently, and The Verge has a lengthy account of the wind-down), I have some guesses.

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The Guardian’s “NSA Files Decoded” and Multimedia Journalism

A new multimedia extravaganza from The Guardian takes an in-depth look at what Edward Snowden’s leaks “mean for you.” It comes replete with plenty of high quality video, a gorgeous custom page layout, and lots of doodads throughout. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it’s The Guardian’s volley in the “Snowfall” game first served up by my former colleagues at The New York Times.

I’m pretty ambivalent about this new strain of multimedia journalism. As well executed as these early examples are, both this and “Snowfall” clearly cross the line from utilitarian storytelling to superfluous bells and whistles. Also, in my own personal, decidedly unscientific polling, of all the people I’ve met who marvel at “Snowfall,” no one has ever told me that they actually read it. (That’s actually not true; someone told me they did read it, but then again that person has three newspapers delivered to her doorstep every morning, so I would say she’s an outlier.) I suspect the same thing will be true of “NSA Files Decoded.” These kinds of things, I think, are meant to be marveled at more than they are meant to be read.

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ThinkUp Transforms

Since leaving Etsy over the summer I’ve had the good fortune of working on lots and lots of interesting things with lots of interesting people. At some point, I will provide a more thorough accounting of what that stuff is, but one of the best projects on my plate is helping my friends Anil Dash and Gina Trapani with their new company ThinkUp.

ThinkUp was actually an app before it was a company. In fact, you can download the open source version right now, which you can install on your own server. Even with that old school distribution model for Web software, the product has already gained a devoted following of tens of thousands of users. Now Gina and Anil are transforming it into a centrally hosted service, easy enough for everyone to use without having to wrestle with the complexity of running your own server.

What is ThinkUp? Anil and Gina answer that question in great detail here and here, but I like to think of it as an insight engine for your social network activity. It looks at your postings and returns a myriad of fascinating statistics and revelations about the who, what, where, when, why and how of your tweets and updates. Aside from being really smart, it’s also loads of fun.

Gina and Anil’s ambition is not just to transform ThinkUp into a much easier to use, much more robust product, but also to build a new company in the process — a different kind of company. Like any startup, they want to achieve hockey stick growth, but they also want to do that in the framework of “a great tech company that’s focused on doing the right thing for our users, our community, and the Web.” They are just as proud of the list of privacy-compromising features that ThinkUp doesn’t engage in as what the software does do.

To pull this off, they are in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign that will fuel this journey. I encourage you to read all about it on the campaign page to get a sense of how unique their mission is, and join the campaign.

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Night Mode for Mobile

If you’re reading a book late at night on your phone or tablet, being able to set the interface to night mode is essential. Dimming the screen to black and reversing the user interface elements and text out of that background is much easier on the eyes in a darkened room, and easier on relationships, too, if your partner is trying to sleep next to you. I use this all the time in both Kindle and iBooks (the latter, by the way, is my preferred reading app because of the former’s eye-gouging use of justified text — how do people read in that app?!).

But if you’re reading your email, Instapaper, Twitter, your RSS client, or just about anything on your mobile device, there’s no night mode. In fact, outside of these book reader apps, I can’t think of another app that acknowledges the fact that sometimes users open devices in dimly lit environments, and that an interface with a single level of brightness may not apply to every situation.

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Time Stamps in iOS 7 Messages

With each passing day, my unfinished writeup of thoughts on iOS 7 seems less and less like it’s going to happen. Hopefully in the next week sometime.

Meanwhile, here’s something I discovered in iOS 7 last night: if you pull the speech bubbles in Messages to the left just slightly, the interface reveals time stamps for each individual message. There’s also a subtle but noticeable color change in the blue bubbles, drawing attention away from them towards the new information coming onto the stage. Fantastic.

Messages in iOS 7

When I mentioned this on Twitter, some folks complained that, clever as it is, it’s not very discoverable. Normally, hiding this feature in this way would seem somewhat user-unfriendly. But I think this is an elegant solution to a long-running but minor complaint about this app.

Since its inception, Messages has only selectively displayed time stamps, usually after a long lull between exchanged messages. I admit having wanted to see the time stamps on plenty of occasions, but not so much so that it broke the experience of using the app for me. In fact, I think that Apple made the right call originally: only show time stamps where they add meaningful value; anything more is superfluous. I still regard these time stamps as superfluous; but this new availability is the best of both worlds: the time stamps are there, but they add no visual clutter until the user actively calls for them.

I still take issue with iOS 7’s many glaring imperfections, but I admit that I’m finding it really enjoyable too. Stuff like this, small as it is, counts for a lot.

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Introducing Facebox

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.

All of that for less than the price of one stock photo. Buy Facebox today.

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Passing Around Passwords

My devotion to and affection for Agile Bits’ 1Password has been continual and unabated since I first started using this indispensable security utility several years ago. I rely on it many, many times a day, across several different devices, and it never lets me down. In fact, though I ostensibly use it to remember and generate passwords, I’m fond of saying that the real reason I use 1Password is so that I can tell other people how awesome 1Password is.

Yet 1Password is for the individual use case. It’s not so helpful for situations when passwords need to be shared by more than one person, in teams.

There are a few would be contenders trying to solve that problem by turning password management into a cloud service. Earlier tonight I tried Mitro. They have an attractively designed Web page but I found the product itself pretty lacking — it looks like it’s not even finished. To that point, Mitro currently ships only with an extension for Google Chrome, at least for now. I actively use three desktop browsers and at least two mobile browsers, and 1Password covers almost all of these scenarios — anything less is a tough pill to swallow.

To the Mitro’s credit, when I emailed the company about their missing browser extensions, someone got back to me right away, within minutes. Then again, when I sent a follow-up query, it went unanswered.

Compare that with competitor TeamPassword, whose founder and CEO Brian Sierakowski both emailed me and instant messaged me almost as soon as I signed up. Brian was super-friendly and helpful, and he promises that the TeamPassword solution is much closer to ‘1Password but for teams’ than Mitro’s, which is enticing. Still, I hit some snags in the login process, and while Brian is working with me to get them sorted, I have yet to get access to TeamPassword.

I also heard from members of the founding teams of both SimpleSafe and Meldium, which seem to do similar things. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to try either of them out.

Obviously, this is a problem that a lot of people are thinking about actively, which makes me happy in spite of the unimpressive results so far. Even Agile Bits is working on this problem; the current iOS versions of 1Password incorporate a workflow for sharing passwords, and the Mac version will have the same soon, as the company details in this blog post. Their approach is similar to the one that LastPass uses, from what I understand. That is, they offer a means to send a password, but not a channel for doing so; there’s no cloud service attached to 1Password’s sharing mechanism. That’s a little disappointing, but in the end, it may be sufficient for what I need, because at the very least it will let me keep telling everyone I use 1Password.

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The Noun Project

I find myself more and more impressed all the time by The Noun Project, the online resource for crowdsourced pictograms. Its goal is to build “a global visual language that everyone can understand” and “to enable our users to visually communicate anything to anyone.”

When I first became acquainted with The Noun Project several years ago I thought that mission statement meant that the site intended to flesh out the commonly used ISO graphical symbols that we see so often in public signage, extrapolating what amounts to a widely understood visual glossary into a full pictorial lexicon. Basically, I thought they were going to build a whole world around Helvetica man.

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