When music occupies so much cultural space, you yearn for any noise that wasn’t meant to be music, that is fresh and complicated and free from intention (and therefore available for aesthetic invention).
I have a strong belief that physical media will in some form make a comeback, whether it will be records or something else. I just can’t imagine a future where one’s music and book collection are only digital. It sort of misses the point of having a collection. Part of the fun of collecting is finding these physical objects that are tangible. While watching the new Comic-Con documentary, I had this thought that no one values PDFs of classic comic books, or JPEGs of hard-to-find baseball cards. The real physical item has great importance. This is why we love to collect records. I think people will start to miss that the more it disappears.
I wanted better to understand why some visual ideas work and some don’t. I wanted to learn more about the juxtaposition of shapes and colours, and investigate the science behind structures and layouts. I believe that perception and meaning cut through disciplines, so something learned decades ago by an architect or furniture designer could help me understand elements of my work on the web. I’d rather we investigate experiences and ideas than simply leverage everything from print design, as some suggest.
I was presenting a ‘finished’ version of a site to another designer I trust to be honest. He loved the ideas and layouts, but suggested that I was “cheapening” the concept by overplaying too many textures and extraneous ideas. So rather than launch, I sat with the design for ages, assessing, simplifying, sieving it down and reducing it until I only had left what I really needed. I now consider that contemplation and simplification period as one of the most vital aspects of my process.
The sky turns deep blue, the world freezes, and a progress bar marches slowly across it from horizon to horizon. Ethereal runes written in aurorae six hundred metres high scrawl across the heavens, updating reality, and for a moment your skin crawls with superstitious dread. Someday we’re all going to get skin implants and access this directly. Someday everyone is going to live out their lives in places like this, vacant bodies tended by machines of loving grace while their minds go on before us into strange spaces where the meat cannot follow. You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars: a Final Solution to the human condition, an answer to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it’s a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you’re a sucker for it: isn’t story-telling what being human is all about?
One late evening, about 10pm London time, I was sitting on the crew bus with the rest of my crew. We had just arrived home from the States on an unusual schedule: normally the flights from there come in overnight and arrive in the morning.
Anyway, it was a nasty night with drizzle and occasional heavy rain. The bus had to stop at a control point before crossing an active taxiway. As usual at that time of night the taxiways were busy, and on this particular evening we sat in the stopped bus beneath the wingtip of a 747-200!
We sat there with the airport lights shining at us through the rain, the bus wipers swishing, the traffic lights illuminating the interior, and this enormous aeroplane just next to us with its large engines humming at idle. I looked up at the cockpit but was unable to see anyone because of the dimmed lights I knew they’d be running. I thought: there are just three men sitting there listening and alert who would be flying this lovely aeroplane all night to Africa.
It was one of the most impressive visions I’ve had of the 747 and what it was like to operate it, despite all the training, walking through it and around it, and knowing in detail how it works. I just wish I could have a picture, somehow with the sound, to show you and to keep myself. Obviously I will always remember it, but the thrumming and gentle rocking of this monster almost at rest, itching to go into the night when it was given full power—oh boy! I’m glad I don’t have to do it now.
Just a memory, from me to you. Keep well please.
Edwin Hazel 1933-2009
What exactly is an interface anyway? In its simplest sense, the word refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other. In other words, the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than physical force. Digital computers are “literary machines,” as hypertext guru Ted Nelson calls them. They work with signs and symbols, although this language, in its most elemental form, is almost impossible to understand. A computer thinks—if thinking is the right word for it—in tiny pulses of electricity, representing either an “on” or an “off” state, a zero or a one. Humans think in words, concepts, images, sounds, associations. A computer that does nothing but manipulate sequences of zeros and ones is nothing but an but an exceptionally inefficient adding machine. For the magic of the digital revolution to take place, a computer must also represent itself to the user, in a language that the user understands.
Representing all that information is going to require a new visual language, as complex and meaningful as the great metropolitan narratives of the nineteenth-century novel.
Put simply, the importance of interface design revolves around this apparent paradox: we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp. Our only access to this parallel universe of zeros and ones runs through the conduit of the computer interface, which means that the most dynamic and innovative region of the modern world reveals itself only through the anonymous middlemen of interface design.
[Quote adapted from Johnson, S. (1997) Interface Culture. Harper Collins (pp.14-19).]
When reading a book or even a sentence, there is a beginning step. A book and a sentence both have a beginning that is formally denoted. There is a middle, and, hopefully, there is a solution to a problem that is posed. The reader is recognizing symbols and making associations. The reader controls the pacing, the level of participation, and the dwell-time. But, essentially, the part that interests the reader are the symbols and finding the solution to the problem: that is, making meaning.
Launching an application follows the same steps as reading, with the user of the program recognizing symbols for the sake of solving a problem. The user determines the pacing, the level of participation, and the dwell-time, but in the end is only concerned with the symbols and the solution to the problem.
Simply put, running an application is an interactive form of reading.
Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, while adding the meaningful.
This month’s quote is another by-product of the D&AD Xchange 07 conference as discussed in the last two posts. One of the threads running through the conference was that of sustainable design, and this emerged as the central them of presenter Ken Garland, venerable design maven, photographer, toy designer, educator, and writer.
Called Subtraction, his presentation was theatrical, very amusing, anecdotal, and highly improvisatory—even though he was clearly well prepared—and highlighted a strategy we often recommend to students: bring in loads of props! This included a wind-up radio, sweets, piles of junk mail and catalogues he’d picked up off his doormat, and the inevitable dustbin. He had an alarm clock that he used as a comic stooge. However, the intellectual centre of the presentation was a mood board, or at least what appeared to be a mood board: as he went to refer to it he just ripped away the array of images and revealed this quote:
Why should we so gratuitously assume, as we constantly do, that the mere existence of a mechanism for manifolding or of mass production carries with it an obligation to use it to the fullest capacity? […] To achieve control we shall even, I suspect, have to reconsider and perhaps abandon the whole idea of periodic publication [for] we cannot continue to inertly accept the burdensome technique of overproduction without inventing a social discipline for handling it; and that until we do this our situation will steadily worsen.