Robert Blakeley, Whose Fallout Shelter Sign Symbolized the Cold War, Dies at 95:

You can still see Robert W. Blakeley’s ominous signs on old public buildings, rusted metal relics of an age when nuclear war was a clear and present danger. They marked the way to the fallout shelters where millions of Americans were to take refuge from the deadly radioactivity of thermonuclear explosions.

A half-century ago, the bright orange-yellow and black placards were ubiquitous on courthouses, town halls, schools and other shelters packed with canned goods and water supplies to sustain anywhere from 50 to thousands of people for days or weeks. To many, they represented hope for survival amid the destruction of cities. To others, they symbolized the insanity of war and the folly of defenses against nuclear attack.

Fallout shelters are one of the many interesting remnants of history still visible on the streets of New York.

No, designers don’t *have* to code.

Over at Wired, Liz Stintson responds to John Maeda’s new Design in Tech Report:

But design’s role in this world is constantly shifting. In his 2017 report Maeda makes the case that the most successful designers will be those who can work with intangible materials—code, words, and voice. These are the designers who craft experiences for the chatbots and voice interfaces people are increasingly interacting with. Maeda cites a blog post from last spring, in which UX designer Susan Stuart makes the case that writing and UX design aren’t so different. “Here’s where I’d like to draw the parallel with writing — because a core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios,” she said. “These are the skills of a writer.”

This year, Maeda goes deep on this idea of skills, focusing his own on the growing field of computational design (a field he’s pioneered since the mid-1990s). In the report Maeda makes the distinction between “classic” designer, the makers of finite objects for a select group of people (think graphic designer, industrial designer, furniture designer) and “computational” designers, who deal mostly in code and build constantly evolving products that impact millions of people’s lives.

This piece has a deliberately threatening and clickbait-y headline: ‘John Maeda: If You Want to Survive in Design, You Better Learn to Code.’

Maeda’s report doesn’t say designers have to learn to code in order to survive. What he focuses on is the importance of ‘computational design’ in the worlds of technology and business and about how we need to evolve the way we solve problems.

The never-ending question “should designers know how to code” is vague and moot because if you’re someone who makes money as a digital designer (website, mobile app, user interface), you already know something about code.

There’s a wide spectrum of ‘understanding code’ and a digital designer can lay at any point along that spectrum. You could be fluent in PHP and know how to hand code custom WordPress themes, or you might only have a basic understanding of HTML and CSS. Both scenarios can lead to you being a valuable designer.

The most important thing designers need to know is what technologies exist and are emerging, how those technologies work, so that they can apply that knowledge to their problem-solving.

Dammit, Apple. You’re Supposed to Be the Ones With Good UI Design.

The grand appeal of using an e-reader is the ability to own a large library of books without adding to the colossal weight of one’s possessions. Ever since I moved away from print books I’ve been able to remove hundreds of pounds of clutter from my apartment and from my life. Storing books digitally has improved my quality of life. That being said, the various e-readers that are out there have an obligation to provide a good user experience, and they do that through design.

In the past I’ve taken Amazon to task for user interface design that I felt was subpar. Since it’s introduction, Kindle for the iPad has gone through numerous updates to its UI, and while still not perfect, it provides a fine balance of text and whitespace. The only reason I don’t use the app regularly is because Kindle doesn’t have continuous scrolling. Enter iBooks, the e-reader app from Apple.

Apple prides itself on the quality of its design. One can see it from the look and feel of Apple’s signature hardware, to the way fonts render in OSX, and everything in between. Which makes this so inexplicable:


That is a screenshot of a page in iBooks, with continuous scroll turned on, after an update to iOS 10. The margins to the right and left are too small, leaving the text crowded to the edge of the screen. When using one of the new model iPad Pros, the text is less than an inch from the edge of the device. The width of the text also interferes with the eye’s ability to flow from one line to the next. What happened to all that whitespace that designers value so much? It used to be there. This is a screenshot of the same text taken in iBooks from an iPad running iOS 9:


The second screenshot shows a much better use of margins. I know there are charlatans out there who prefer text to be much closer to the edge, but they’re wrong. Luckily, a solution that satisfies most users should not be that difficult for Apple to implement. The Kindle app already has a margin selector in the same menu where a user adjusts fonts and background colors. The settings in iBooks does not. As of right now, the experience in iBooks on the iPad has been degraded by the decision to close the margins. Were Apple to add a margin selector, it would be a vast improvement to the app.

You’re Only As Diverse as What You Choose to Look At

Morgane Santos sees (and feels) the unbearable homogeneity of design:

Here’s a random sampling of the top posts on Dribbble at the time of this writing. We have lots of illustrations done in the exact same style: evenly weighted lines, flat, minimal, geometric, symmetric. A few samples of mobile design that were carefully edited to look slick and show the best possible state. Lots of blue: a nice, safe color.

At some point, any one of these work samples would have been revolutionary. At this point, not a single one of them is. And yet! This is what we think of as “good design”.

Hold up.

I’m with Sacha Greif:

In that screenshot I see an awesome circular badge with great composition, an illustration inspired by church stained glass, a 50s-style illustration with a great color scheme, some kind of blackletter-inspired logo, a very weird illustration that looks to be animated, a set of vintage-style badges, and an amazing psychedelic drawing.

I’d also like to add that popular design runs the risk of looking homogeneous because it’s just that: popular. This is the same reason popular (pop) music sounds all the same and one reason (of many) I haven’t listened to FM radio in a very, very long time.

Finding culture—music, art, design—that isn’t homogenous takes effort. You literally (or metaphorically) need to dig through crates of records to find the good shit. If you’re lazy you check out the news aggregators that compile the popular stuff. I find the great influences of my favorite artists are long dead, but I make the effort to dig up their work because more often than not it’s worth it. I don’t necessarily look for or expect great design to always be happening right now.

I think Morgane Santos is giving Dribbble too much credit. For me, Dribbble is but one of many sources of design news. The same goes for design trends. Trends are trends. Don’t try and eliminate them, because new ones will always pop up like wack-a-moles.

200 Miles

Incredible desktop experience on 200miles.com for The Revenant.

It reminds me of the golden age of Flash websites from 10 years ago. Truly immersive experiences that pushed the boundaries of ‘what is a website?’.

We’re finally at the point where we no longer need ‘plug-in’ technologies (i.e., Flash) to fill the holes in HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.

Update: I just viewed it on my iPhone 6 Plus and they’ve adjusted the experience to work on mobile. Incredible.

Marketing Design Vs. Product Design

Meagan Fisher on the difference between marketing design and product design:

The majority of my recent work leading up to SproutVideo has been in marketing design. These projects are so fun because their aim is to communicate the value of the product in a compelling and memorable way. In order to achieve this goal, I spent a lot of time thinking about content strategy, responsive design, and how to create striking visuals that tell a story. These are all pursuits I love.

Product design is a different beast. When designing a homepage, I can employ powerful imagery, wild gradients, and somewhat-quirky fonts. When I began redesigning the SproutVideo product, I wanted to draw on all the beautiful assets I’ve created for our marketing materials, but big gradients, textures, and display fonts made no sense in this new context.

That’s because the product isn’t about us, and it isn’t about telling our story. Product design is about getting out of the way so people can do their job. The visual design is there to create a pleasant atmosphere for people to work in, and to help support the user experience. Learning to take “us” out of the equation took some work after years of creating gorgeous imagery and content for the sales-driven side of businesses.

‘Getting out of the way’ is a skill all designers should learn to use (when appropriate).

Students Rethink iTunes

[… ] when one of your flagship software applications is assigned in schools as a case in feature bloat, it’s crossed some threshold for acceptability.

Khoi Vinh on the rethinking of iTunes by the students of Fachhochschule Potsdam

The student redesigns can be seen here. It’s student work, so they’re not all winning designs but I agree with Khoi: Apple needs to fix iTunes.

As someone who has taught design at the college level, I love having students redesign existing websites/services. It’s a great exercise in problem solving.

Every Child is a Designer

Dean Vipond had to explain what graphic design is to a bunch of 4-year-olds:

I was surprised by two things: how readily most of the kids understood what design was for, and how they can express things through it; and also, for someone who specialises in explaining things to a target audience, how it took me doing a talk to children, to force me to confront my own profession, and explain its value in clear terms.

A week later, I was delighted to be sent a pile of work from a lesson the teacher had set, around the themes we touched on. Many of the kids really got it.

This brings to mind a quote from Picasso:

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

Things Connect Things

We don’t have to pour molten hot lead into copper matrices to make letters. We don’t have to typeset one page at a time, and we don’t have to make paper to print it all on. When an idea is ready to be published, we don’t even have to ship physical copies of that idea.

Once our brains put an idea into a computer, that idea can be on another computer in an instant. The bottleneck in this network of brains, then, is between the brain and the computer.

This is where design comes in. The clear presentation of the subtext of information (this is more important than that; that is related to this) through shapes, lines, colors, and spaces between pieces of information, strengthens the connection between brain and computer where language isn’t enough.

—David Kadavy, Design Connects Brains

Eli Schiff has an interesting multi-part series on the “Fall of the Designer”.

Here’s a bit from Part 3, Conformist Responsive Design and the shift away from shiny, roundy, textural UI elements and towards ‘flat’ design:

Similar to web design, application design is becoming homogenized. Where before, apps like Tapbots’ Tweetbot were worlds unto themselves, with robotic sounds and futuristic cartoon aesthetics, today the only remnant of that past is robotic sound effects, devoid of any rationale as to why they sound the way they do.

Paul Haddad of Tapbots seemed to laud the shift, explaining in 2013 that he and his team “talked about making the Mac version a little bit more…plain” too. This hesitation might have invited our skepticism about their approval of flat design. But in the following years, Tapbots announced proudly their newly flattened Tweetbot 2.0 for OS X.

Tapbots is not alone in castrating Calcbot and their Twitter client Tweetbot. The Iconfactory’s Twitteriffic and Twitter’s proprietary iOS app in earlier days all attracted dedicated followings based on expressive designs which each exposed unique feature sets. But with their new flat interfaces, they struggle to differentiate their brands. Even with custom glyphs, animation and functionality, at a 10 foot view, it is difficult to tell one of these flat UIs from the next.

Did these developers suddenly have an epiphany and conclude that their former designs were ugly and overwrought? Or was it instead an imposed, though convenient, ideological shift by operating system designers?

I respect the time and thought Schiff has put into this series on design, and I think the answer to this last question is simple: fashion. UI design, like clothing, goes through different different phases and trends. Thats’ really it.

If you’re afraid skeuomorphism is gone forever, fret not. All you need to do is look at the achievement badges in the new Apple Watch exercise app:

There are gaudy ways of using depth and shading in UI design and there are tasteful ways of using depth and shading just like there tasteful and gaudy ways of using chrome and paint on a car.

I think what we’re seeing, as Schiff has pointed out is not so much flat design as lazy, flat design.