Wednesday March 27, 2019

Who hurt you, John Maeda?

Design personality John Maeda made waves recently in an except from his Design in Tech Report 2019. There’s a lot to unpack, but a couple themes rose to the top for me.

Influence as Leadership

“The role of design is to not aspire to be a leading actor — it’s goal should always be to become a great supporting actor. Imagine a movie or TV show without any supporting actors. It wouldn’t be a particularly interesting piece of entertainment. Yes?

So indeed — I don’t believe in ‘design led’ as the winning paradigm. My primary goal in leading Design at Automattic is to aspire for design to be as awesome a supporting player as Jennifer Connelly or Mahershala Ali. Not bad, huh?”

First of all, “design should be a supporting actor” is a pretty broad brush. Design doesn’t — and probably shouldn’t — lead in every instance, but let’s leave some room for nuance. Sometimes design should absolutely lead. Like all things design, it depends on a lot of factors.

Secondly, “Not bad, huh?” is not the way anyone wants their profession described. There’s a weird “just give up on your dreams” angle to this analogy, and a (probably false) assumption that supporting actors are perfectly content to never have a lead role. As if Jennifer Connelly arrives on set every day with the goal of being ONLY a great supporting actor as opposed to a great actor, and never expects more, desires more, or would elevate a movie if she could be more than that. I know analogies can be easy to pull apart, but this one seems especially brittle.

Perhaps I am far outside the loop on this one, but I have never heard a designer colleague say that they need to be promoted into a position of authority or final decision-making to be a design leader. I always saw the push for design to increase its influence (and perhaps lead, in some cases) was not exclusively about roles or power, but about the value that informed design input can provide. That important “seat at the table” that design has been struggling to get is not about wrestling control or ignoring the contributions of other disciplines, but ensuring that teams are infused with the trove of valuable insights that design has to offer — beyond of the head-patting realm of UI prettiness. Being teammates and leaders are not mutually exclusive roles. Designers can be leaders while being equals.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means

Maeda’s interview in Fast Company gives a closer look at the influences that are shaping his assertion of design as a supporting role:

“I find that any company that wishes to be design-led is going to index high on experience quality. If [the company’s] audience is designers, and people with high standards of quality, then fantastic. But if they do that, maybe they won’t worry about the tech stack, that actually it’s a brittle tech stack and maybe it works 99 times out of 100,” he says. “If they’re so focused on experience, maybe they’re not going to be asking product questions about is this going to help us break even.”

Frankly, that’s just a description of poor design, where the focus is on disproportionately fixed on the veneer of the product. Every designer should care about the materials they are working with (technology) and seek out & synthesize the knowledge held by stakeholders and subject matter experts (business requirements & strategy).

Maeda’s conclusion that design should not lead seems born out of observations of dysfunctional, imbalanced teams and immature design behavior. On the one hand, it’s kind of sad that there are enough design divas out there to perpetuate this stereotype of the uncooperative, selfish, misguided designer. On the other hand, this kind of designer is not normal in my world, so it’s weirdly comforting to recognize that.

But not comforting enough. Who are you, designers who hurt John Maeda?

Sunday March 3, 2019


Portrait of Dieter Rams by Gary Huswit
Dieter Rams by Gary Huswit

My copy of Gary Huswit’s “Rams” arrived the other day, and I finally got a chance to sit down and watch it. If you’ve ever read Sophie Lovell’s “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible”, the contents of the film will be familiar to you. Rams’s wartime childhood, his grandfather’s carpentry influences, his study of architecture, and his chance encounter with the Braun brothers that kicked off his product design career are all covered quite well.

There were a couple of things that took more shape for me, seeing them in film:

The Rams garden

There were some pictures in the book but the film showed a lot more. It has, of course, gathered more of a patina since the book’s photographs were taken, and shows more details and angles. It’s an impressive garden, and an undertaking that shows more of Rams’s original passion for city & environmental design. While I appreciate all the inspiring work Rams was able to produce at Braun and Vitsœ, that garden makes me wonder what kind of amazing neighborhoods or cities he could have designed. I also appreciate the garden’s Japanese-inspired style, which reminds me of Rams’s insistence that it’s important to be inspired by the beauty & ingenuity of the past (and other cultures, I would add).

“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people.”

This is one of the first things Rams says in the film, and it’s a striking opening statement. An understanding of users’ needs & aspirations may seem like an obviously critical ingredient to good design, but it’s still much more of a battle than it should be. That this was understood by designers over 40 years ago, albeit in a different field, is both encouraging and disappointing. 40 years on, it’s hard to end up in a place where we are designing for people we don’t understand. No matter the form of design being consumed, it cannot be its best without understanding people.

The film also inspired me to crack open “As Little Design as Possible” again and marvel at Rams’s Vitsœ system. It’s amazing how forward-thinking it continues to be, and the clear parallels between it and our current boom in design systems thinking as applied to digital products.

Dieter Rams’s status as a design icon is well-deserved. This film is a wonderful summation of a career that has served as a beacon for so many to follow.

Tuesday February 5, 2019

Musical Notes, 2018

2018 was an unexpectedly exciting year for me, musically. The most interesting part is how impactful these discoveries were, and how serendipitously they came into my life.

Andrew W.K.

You’re Not Alone on Spotify
You’re Not Alone on Apple Music

The year was already pretty rough thanks to a certain Cheeto-colored man-child and his tornado of deplorables, but some personal stuff also went down during the spring & summer that was especially difficult. That’s undoubtedly the reason why Andrew W.K.’s latest album You’re Not Alone resonated so deeply and so immediately.

For those not familiar with Andrew W.K., you may still faintly recall him as the white-clothed, dirty, sweaty, bloody, headbanging “Party Hard” guy. That’s certainly how I remembered him. I had listened to “Party Hard” many times over the years; it’s fun, it’s primal, it’s loud, it’s aggressive, it’s… really good. That’s undoubtedly why Spotify surfaced the new album to me.

You’re Not Alone still has plenty loud and fun stuff, but there is also an unexpected amount of life-affirming, persevering, and positive messaging — themes that were present in a way on Andrew’s first album I Get Wet, but now in a much less hedonistic fashion. This positivity comes through loud and clear in songs like “Keep On Going”, “Music Is Worth Living For”, and “Give Up On You”, but it’s even more amplified by the three spoken word interludes peppered into the album. Here’s a sample, from “The Feeling of Being Alive”:

If you ever feel like something is very, very wrong — wrong with life, wrong with yourself — I understand. I have that feeling too. But in actuality, that feeling isn’t wrong. That feeling is just being human. That intense feeling inside is the feeling of existing, of being alive, of being a person. It’s a mountain to climb, it’s a test to pass, it’s a challenge we are ultimately worthy of. And rather than dread or resent this challenge, we can embrace it, we can learn from it, and we can celebrate it. Life is very intense, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Understanding this is what partying is all about.

It’s corny as hell, but I still get goosebumps reading that. It’s been my emotional response all along, and the feeling that helped me get through that summer. But as good as it felt, my first logical impulse upon hearing these positive messages was that he couldn’t possibly be serious. This was some kind of act. It was cheesy and overblown and dramatic, and there had to be a catch.

And maybe there is some element of meme, or showmanship, or whatever. There are really dissonant combinations that make it easy to question the authenticity of the message: this intense, muscled, heavy metal man with the most sensitive of thoughts; this huge, loud music paired with encouraging, persevering lyrics. I think that’s what makes Andrew W.K. so interesting.

What definitely exists in these words & music is sincerity. I spent a fair amount of time on Youtube watching Andrew W.K. interviews, and it became clear to me that in contrast to his cartoonish, goofy, and sort of caveman stage persona, he is completely sincere about making music that lifts people up and brings them joy.

Andrew’s made a ton of music, and it’s all worth checking out. You should also take a look at his weather report and guest appearance on FOX News. You will laugh, I promise.

Rolo Tomassi

Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It on Spotify
Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It on Apple Music

Rolo Tomassi came onto my radar late in the year thanks to a recommendation. I almost didn’t bite. I mean, look at those young twee faces. I figured I was about to take the on-ramp to Polite Indie Rock Town and fall asleep at the wheel. I should have learned my lesson by now and stopped judging bands by appearances. However, I was sufficiently intrigued by the latest album’s title — Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It — and the album artwork to give it a go.

The album starts out with the tranquil instrumental “Towards Dawn”, with its loopy blips, mellow keyboard, and breathy chorals. OK, cool, I think. I like blippy music. Then the second track, “Aftermath”, kicks in — a nice mid-tempo indie rock song with shimmery guitars and pretty soprano vocals. I actually like this song, I think. I’m glad I took a chance on this. I settle in to enjoy some nice melodic background music while I work. As the second track nears its end it begins to get epic as the guitars and drums get louder and layered with some keyboard. I’m liking this part a lot. Another fine decision, Jared!

“Aftermath” ends and the fading guitars give way to a pecking, ominous, and disconcerting keyboard riff leading into to the next song, “Rituals”, that makes me stop working and perk up. Something is definitely happening here. Then, unexpectedly, the keyboard slams into a grinding wall of slow & heavy drums and guitar, which builds and then breaks into a frenzy.

The screamed vocals definitely caught me off guard. This was probably the most genre-defying trio of songs from the same artist that I’ve ever heard. If you’d played them for me in a mixtape, I would have thought they were 3 different bands. What a journey.

Welcome to mathcore, a genre I’d never heard of but that is characterized as such:

Mathcore is a style of music that combines the speed and aggression of hardcore punk and extreme metal with rhythmically complex dissonant riffs and abrupt tempo changes. Although its roots can be traced to post-hardcore and math rock bands of the early 1990s, mathcore was eventually established in the late 1990s and early 2000s by pivotal albums of Botch, Coalesce, Converge and The Dillinger Escape Plan. It is often categorized as a subgenre of metalcore. Other names that have been used to refer to mathcore include noisecore and experimental metalcore, highlighting its connection to noise music and experimental music.


And screamed vocals. You’ll want to brace yourself for that part.

I haven’t branched out to many other mathcore bands yet, but Rolo Tomassi are apparently somewhat of a maverick in the genre, mixing in styles that don’t normally belong there (Exhibit A: those first two songs). Regardless, that definition of mathcore is pretty spot-on in describing this band. It is primarily very heavy music with aggressive vocals. The “rhythmically complex dissonant riffs and abrupt tempo changes” are brain candy; I can’t seem to get enough.

I’ve also been listening to Rolo Tomassi’s Grievances album, whose opening track is the antithesis of Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It — an immediate, blistering assault of drums, guitar, and dual screamed vocals.

I have a feeling that this kind of music is a visceral love/hate choice for most people, but I love it. It’ll get your blood pumping.

Metric – The Art of Doubt

The Art of Doubt on Spotify
The Art of Doubt on Apple Music

I’ve been a longtime fan of Metric and have written about their albums and shows at length. They’ve changed a lot over the years — as all artists should — and as a result there was a time when I just didn’t really connect with what they were putting out. Synthetica held a bit of my attention, but Pagans in Vegas lost me entirely.

So it was a pleasant surprise that I found out from a friend on Twitter that a new Metric album had come out, and — even more — that I liked it!

Watching Metric grow has been like watching more and more clay being added to the armature of a beautiful sculpture. In the beginning, the music was sparse and angular, but wholly enjoyable. Each album added a bit more substance, even as certain styles changed. Not all of those shifts agreed with me, but they are there, and they are important.

To me, The Art of Doubt adds more shape to what I think was probably the most polished, pleasing Metric album: Fantasies. In terms of songwriting, arrangement, recording, and production it’s probably the best the band has ever sounded. I love many of the other albums for different reasons, but that’s why I love it most.

Or do I?

The Art of Doubt achieves some of the most gorgeous melodies, catchiest hooks, and stellar production of any Metric album and tempts to supplant Fantasies. I mean, the chord changes on “Risk” are just the most devastatingly beautiful Metric-y thing ever, only possibly outdone by the chorus of “Underline the Black”, with which I am hopelessly obsessed.

All “the blogs” are saying that this is Metric’s return to classic form after some experimental back alleys, and I have to concur. It’s not a throwback or a comeback, but more of a return to a brighter timeline. After not being able to say this for quite some time, it’s nice to say that I’m excited to see them play in a few weeks.

I hope they play “Risk”.


Update: THEY DID. And “Black Sheep”, which was a super bonus. 😍💯

Tuesday January 29, 2019

Recalculating Route

At some point over the last few years I decided that this blog should be reserved for design topics. It’s a curious decision to arrive at given my history of writing (about) some truly weird stuff. I think I looked at the smart design writing pouring out of some of my favorite design-minded peers and concluded that I should be doing exactly the same thing.

That decision has worked out great, as you can see; I’ve averaged 1 article per year over the last 10 years, and even then they were not all design-related. My lack of writing means that when I sit down to write down those oh-so-coveted design insights, the words are hard to find, the story hard to tell, because I haven’t been writing. About anything.

It’s truly obvious to say that writing about anything will strengthen writing skills more than waiting for rare moments of specifically-topical inspiration, but it’s also obviously true. That’s not to say that every random thought needs to become an article, but it does mean considering a broader range of topics. This may come as a shock, but there is more to life than design. Hopefully you’ll find those things as interesting as I do.

Recalculating route…

Wednesday October 18, 2017

Never Trust the Mockup (or the Demo)

You know this, y’all: modern design is no longer describable by purely static mockups. Touchscreens have fundamentally changed the expectations and interactions of software. Motion, gestures, & modalities are now commonplace in design. Mockups — as useful as they are for defining visual design and establishing patterns — are unable to describe moving, manipulative elements.*

My recent experience with iOS 11’s Control Center reminded me of this truth. Sometime in June, I saw an image of the new Control Center from a WWDC demo. My gut reaction was similar to others’: What is going on here? There are fat tiles and skinny tall tiles, and they all look kind of randomly placed. What is happening?!

And, yeah; all of that is kind of true. Based on a static image alone, it does looks a bit haphazard.

So I watched the WWDC demo. Craig Federighi got a whole 50 seconds for Control Center. That’s not a lot of time, but it was enough. He was able to show how Control Center works, and how many of the tiles interact with Force Touch. That added whole new dimension to the design that the static image could not describe.

It still seemed kind of wonky to me, but I began to come around to the convenience gains. After all, my personal experience with iOS 10’s multi-screen Control Center model of swiping over to get to the audio controls was pretty poor. I could see the utility of the new design.

But nothing beats using the product. After getting iOS 11 installed on my phone, I found myself going from reluctant skeptic to complete fan in no time at all. The convenience and utility of Control Center overrides any visual weirdness I felt about the differently-shaped and oddly-arranged tiles (which I truly don’t even care about anymore). I had seen Craig demo many of the same interactions, but the act of gesturing my own way through the experience really brought it all home in a way the image and the demo could not.

And in this tale is a prudent reminder for all of us who design for screens: you really can’t be sure you’ve made something great until you get it on a device, use it yourself, and validate it with users. Make mockups? Yeah, if that’s what gets you clear on visual design. Sit in on demos? Yeah! There’s a lot to be learned from seeing a developer or product owner show off what they’ve built. Stop there? NOOOOO. Touch, click, swipe, drag, and in every way interact with the design that is necessary for you to determine if it works as desired. This is your last and final step. Use it.

Good talk, everyone.

*(And yes, there are steps you can take between mockups and demos — animation tools like Principle are great for visualizing motion. You could even build out a prototype. Point is, you’ve got to get to a high level of visual and interactive fidelity to truly judge the success of design.)

« Older writing is available in the Archives.