Sunday, July 28, 2013

Vertical = Print, Horizontal = Screen

(It’s been a long time, blah blah blah.)

If you are a designer of paper or screens, here is an easy UX issue: vertical pages suggest (or encourage) printing while horizontal pages suggest on-screen reading. (This is a generality, not an absolute truth.) Early in the process, ask the question “what would we like our audience to do?” (You might also ask “what can we realistically expect our audience to do?”)

People still print things. So if you are designing a piece that you really don’t want people to print, try starting with a page size that better fits the screens they are likely to see it on.

Clever computer trickery, such as online “flip books” (those clever things that look like books and even make noise when you “turn” the page) may be sexy, but they get in the way of ordinary people trying to get to real information. The same is true of PDF files that use security features to prohibit people from doing almost anything but reading the file online. By taking control away from the audience, you are effectively saying “I don’t trust you.”

And speaking of PDF fails, PDFs with “reader spread” pages are also part of the “I don’t trust my audience” family (or worse, “I don’t really understand how this will be viewed”). If you are designing a booklet that benefits from people seeing facing pages, use the Acrobat Initial View feature to set the file so that page layout and magnification display what you want. That way, if (or when) your audience goes to print your booklet, they won’t be printing 11x17 (or A3) pages reduced to letter size, then struggling to ready the tiny type. Alternatively, if you think most readers will be viewing your publication on a screen, design for that, not print.

Compared to the structured content and flexible layout required for e-books and responsive design, choosing the right page shape is pretty simple, but it reflects the same user-focused perspective that designers are well-suited to help clients think through. Separating content from form while maintaining some control and influence over the style and presentation of information is a change that many designers and clients are struggling with. Starting with the right page shape is a place to start.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shokunin Kishitsu

More on making real things.

I follow Daniel Pink’s twitter feed, where he recently mentioned “the best 82-minute movie on mastery I’ve ever seen.” He pointed to a documentary about Jiro Ono, one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs. In a clip, Jiro mentions the term shokunin, that I recall from some other corner of my brain. A search leads to a 37signal’s Signal vs Noise (really good blog) post, that in turn points to another site’s (iA) post on Japanese aesthetics.

I don’t speak Japanese, but as far as a I can tell, Shokunin Kishitsu is more than just great technical skill (the 10,000 hours sort that Gladwell wrote about). It also is about a deep sense of purpose and pride in doing something as well as one can because that’s what the craft demands, not just because the client or customer requested it.

The respected Japanese woodworker Toshio Odate says:
“The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan’, but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skill, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. These qualities are encompassed in the word shokunin, but are seldom written down. … The shokunin demonstrates knowledge of tools and skills with them, the ability to create beauty and the capacity to work with incredible speed. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” 
This can be challenging for some folks to understand. For some, they haven’t done the 10,000 hours. They may be young, or impatient, or young and impatient. I trust that will work itself out. More problematic are those that lack an actual craft or don’t recognize there is an actual craft to what they do. Such are the awful presentations we all suffer through. If you don’t know a better way, and those around you don’t value a better way, why would anyone expect things to change?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What Mr. Rogers Can Teach Us About Presenting

I recently watched Mister Rogers & Me, a wonderful documentary about a wonderful man. Fred Rogers has always had a special place in my heart – and I suspect many people feel the same way – and it got me thinking about the lessons we can learn from the humble and wise master of children’s television.

1. Respect the audience. Though most of us knew Mister Rodgers from speaking to children, he always respected the ability of his audience to understand what he was talking about. He used simple language, but was never simplistic.

2. Tell the truth. Even for difficult subjects, Fred Rogers spoke honestly about whatever the subject was. He didn’t try to “dumb it down” or speak in euphemisms – he spoke honestly and directly.

3. Be authentic. I never met Fred Rodgers, but everything I have ever seen, read, or heard makes me believe that the public person we knew was the real person he was – and that his authentic character came through in all his work. There is a deep power in being that genuine.

4. A great presenter doesn’t have to be a big personality. When writing or discussing great presenters, many people (including me) often cite larger-than-life personalities like Steve Jobs, or masterful storytellers like Aimee Mullens, or great orators like Barack Obama; but Mister Rodgers shows us that you can also be a simple, deep, and humble presenter and still make a heck of a dent in the universe.

To paraphrase a line from the documentary, Mister Rogers was completely present, absolutely authentic, and made even the most difficult subjects seems safe. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of better praise for any presenter.

Thank you Mister Rodgers (and Benjamin and Christofer Wagner) for reminding me that great doesn’t have to be grand.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Venn Diagrams, SmartArt, and A Call for Graphic Excellence

Two unrelated items converged for me today:
  • Recent failure of the Romney campaign to create a valid Venn diagram. (Ezra Klein reviewed on the Rachel Maddow show July 3rd, referencing fantastic post on Upworthy.) 
  • Proliferation of meaningless “SmartArt” diagrams and bad charts in files that come through my inbox. (SmartArt: neither smart nor art.) 
Both represent a bad and growing habit in business, politics, and culture that involves “spicing up your text” without the requisite critical thinking about why and how to do it. It’s part of a broader trend that I call the template culture that confuses actual design skill with the ability to use hackneyed software features and bright colors to create something ”that really pops.“

Unfortunately for all of us, cardboard cutout designers get it wrong. Frequently.

It’s bad for their clients and customers, it’s bad for the design profession, and it’s bad for civil society at large when flash and bullshit take the place of good design – the kind of design that helps clarify and reveal ideas instead of clouding and concealing them. At best, this kind of graphic nonsense is an amusing and colorful waste of space, but at worst it can actually do harm. It can misrepresent ideas and facts, confuse audiences, and generally muddy any topic.

Edward Tufte, the patron saint of information graphics, used the term Graphical Integrity to describe a sort of Hippocratic oath for designing charts and diagrams. It’s pretty simple: don’t lie. Of course, to not lie, one first has to think about and understand some things before jumping into Powerpoint world, such as:
  • What does the data mean (if you don’t have data, this could be an issue)? 
  • Who is the audience? 
  • What is the goal of the overall piece, the goal of the graphic? 
  • What s the most effective way to present that information graphically to help clarify an idea? 
Sadly, none of these questions can be answered with the SmartArt selector (or similar tools in Keynote, Prezi, etc.). It’s not Microsoft’s fault, they do a great job – and have gotten much better – at trying to embed some of this thinking into their products. But templates, no matter how well-designed, aren’t a substitute for a critical-thinking person, like an experienced graphic designer.

Marketing person, graphic artist, business person, journalist, educator – I’m talking to you. Here’s a challenge:

  • If you don’t know who Edward Tufte is, you should. Look it up, read one of his books, take his class. Dan Roam is a good substitute (less theory, more humor). 
  • If you’ve used SmartArt in any Microsoft product without first sketching something by hand, stop. Draw your next idea by hand first (a whiteboard is fine). 
  • If you have ever used the phrase “punchy” or “really pop“ when describing the need for a graphic, please avoid these and other similar phrases for the next six months. Instead, try this one: “what is the purpose of this chart or diagram?” 
  • If you don’t know how to edit every part of a Microsoft chart, including what to take out, please learn this skill and, more importantly, why you might want to do that. 
  • If you use charts and diagrams in your work, and you don’t know a genuine graphic designer, you should get to know one. They will help you succeed. (Hint: they often refer to what they do as “problem solving” and rarely lead with a list of software mastery or use terms like “innovative solutions.”) 
Let’s start a movement for graphic excellence. Everyone wins.

(I also discussed diagrams without meaning 18 months ago.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Corporate Templates Still Don’t Work

Since my original post, I’ve received good feedback on this (thanks) and had 22 months of additional insights and frustrations. I am changing some of my original recommendations, but in general most corporate Powerpoint templates still have a long way to go to become useful and usable tools for their intended users. (I’ll consider corporate Word templates in another post.)

Why? There are many reasons, but I think they all have a common root cause: developers (those who make the templates) do not fully understand or appreciate their customers’ world (customers = users: people who use the templates). Some broad issues to consider:

• Too many cooks. Between Corporate Communications, marketing, IT, operations, HR/ training, and senior management, many enterprise-level template initiatives have way too many well-meaning but unnecessary people involved. It’s understandable, particularly in large organizations, but it has two unhelpful consequences: 1) templates designed by committee (see camel) where, 2) the committee is usually made up of staff people with little or no experience in the organization’s real product development, sales, or service delivery – that is, they don’t do what the company does.

• One size does not fit all. In many organizations, Powerpoint is used to produce lots of different types of outputs. At the least, most organizations would benefit by having one version for ballroom-style presentations and another for boardroom-style documents. When you also consider people’s individual skill level (e.g., ordinary vs expert), you could easily imagine a simple 2x2 (below). This suggests at least 4 different “base” templates.

Expert user

Ordinary user

• Built as a tool, not as a system. To be effective, good template files need to be part of a larger system that supports your organizations’ visual identity and brand. Depending on the size and culture of your organization, this might include: training and support materials (e.g., video how-to’s, reference documents, central repository/ website, etc.), a network of trusted internal advisers/ experts, and a change management plan (i.e., keeping up with customer and technology changes).

• Application development, not design. Today, templates are as much dynamic software as a branding tool, yet few marketing, communications, or even IT groups are comfortable with the rapid and continued iteration necessary to develop and maintain useful apps. A useful enterprise template cannot be a static file (or group of files) that doesn’t evolve or continue to change based on feedback from its user community and their needs, including those who represent the organization and its evolving needs.

• Not meeting people where they are. Many corporate templates that I come across are either too complicated or too simple for their audience. Too complicated: people ignore all the embedded wisdom or maybe avoid using the template altogether. Too simple: people make up their own rules about what to do under every circumstance, undermining one of the reasons for having a template. This is the audience/ user side of “one size does not fit all” – developers of effective templates really need to understand their audience (i.e., “customers”) and the everyday worlds they live in. Even in small organizations it’s worthwhile to map the various users and uses.

Designing for the organization or enterprise is a complex and artful process, no wonder we see so few successes.

Friday, March 30, 2012

I’m Back

For the few dozen of you who have followed me in the past, I apologize for not posting anything in the last five months. It turns out that Season Affective Disorder is real, and combined with depression, can really kick your ass. I have been wanting to write something for the last few months but just haven’t had the spark. All my creative mojo has been like listening to headphones muffled by a pillow – it’s there, but there’s no dynamic range. It’s flat and edgeless.

But I think I’ve turned the corner, at least for now. It’s spring, we’re back on daylight saving time, it’s getting warm here in the northeast (U.S.), and I even had to mow my lawn (ok, I had to mow down the onion grass in the front yard that was embarrassingly high). And I have a backlog of stuff to say (being depressed doesn’t mean you’re not thinking). Hopefully, in the next few posts:
  • Corporate templates, version 2
  • A plan and planning
  • Prezi: wow v substance
  • Brevity: skimming v condensing
  • and many more
I hope you’ll stay tuned. In the meantime:

Real beautiful science. In the U.S. these days, some people seem to think real science (you know, the stuff most people don’t really understand) is suspect at best. These people often like to pick on NASA – an extraordinarily good investment – as somehow unnecessary (seemingly oblivious that they live in a world enabled by the science and technology that NASA helped create). This is real science not only helping understand and solve real global issues, but also revealing some beauty and art in the world we live on.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Design Victory: Type for Dyslectics

Great short article on Fast Company’s Co.Design about a typeface designed for people with dyslexia designed by someone with dyslexia. Talk about user-centered design.

The face is awkward-looking by traditional visual typographic criteria, but using Louis Sullivan’s Form Follows Function criteria, it seems like a masterpiece. The article said it best:
If it works, it works. And according to an independent study by the University of Twente in Boer’s native Netherlands, it does work.

For your next presentation: if, for any given population, approximately 5–10% have some sort of dyslexia and another 7–10% have some sort of color deficiency; that’s potentially 20% of your audience that doesn’t see things the way you do, literally. I’m exaggerating a bit, but try to consider all the ways your audience is different from you and your worldview.

Monday, October 17, 2011

West Coast Attitude

From a Rolling Stone interview with Bono on Steve Jobs (emphasis added):

What's the essence of his legacy? 
This dude, my friend, and I’m proud to say, my colleague – he changed music, he changed film, he changed the personal computer. It’s a wonderful encouragement to people who want to think differently, that’s where artists connect with him. The picture of Einstein with his tongue sticking out, that’s actually the very heart of the brand, and that’s the punk rock piece, the attitude, and the anarchic mind that dreamt up the 21st century. That’s a real encouragement for people who didn’t go to an Ivy League school, who don’t know how to use a knife and fork, who don’t have the right accent. That anarchic West Coast “fuck off” attitude actually rules the 21st century. That’s what's happening on the streets of Cairo, that’s what's happening in North Africa – received wisdom is being balked at. A gnarly, singular point of view, like Steve Jobs, feels like a lighthouse spinning: When you’re in the fog, you just go, “I'll go over there.”
Business leaders take note, I’m not sure it’s only artists who identify with this point of view.

(If you have five minutes, the entire Q&A is a good read.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs. 1955–2011

Like many people who work at the intersection of design, media, and technology, I am very sad to hear of Steve’s death. Though I never met the man, right now I feel like I have lost a mentor and inspirational friend. 

I first started using a Mac in 1986, with some new-fangled programs called PageMaker and Adobe Illustrator. I was a designer and typographer and thought I had no use for a computer – until I used a Macintosh.

And since then, I have seen and participated in almost every communication technology wave (always on the disruptive side – go figure). Most follow a pattern: old-timers pointing out shortcomings in the new technology, established players protecting their turf, up-and-comers trying new tools and techniques, old eventually giving way to new. And through each, I imagine Steve giggling because he saw it coming and loved to create great products that would help enable the new in ways that even he couldn’t imagine.

I am not a religious man, but I hope wherever Steve is now he is at peace, and smiling at the world he has most certainly made a dent in.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Your experience is your brand.

Irony: Wired magazine's iPad app keeps crashing.

Wired is in the magazine business. Or they were. But the second they released an iPad app, they also became a player in the app business, and the user experience business, and the "maintain your brand over more platforms" business.

Back when it worked (like three weeks ago), it was a good magazine app. Different content, optimized layouts, links and videos, etc. Print subscribers could download issues for free. Great.

But... Something happened, and now the Wired app is decidedly not wired. To use their own label, it's quickly approaching tired. It would be one thing if this were Vanity Fair, but this is Wired - aren't they supposed to be hip, cool, and tech savvy?

There's aother lesson here in brand: I'm pretty sure Wired didn't actually code this themselves, after all, they're in the magazine business. But it doesn't matter, it's still their name on the app, and their customers who are frustrated.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Groups of Fear

On Google+, Dave Gray asked about effective ways that humans organize themselves into groups. A combination of that question, the general political environment in the US right now, and some projects at work got me thinking (which can be dangerous).

One particularly effective way I think we humans organize ourselves is around common fears (or at least perceived common fears) – fear of an idea, a group, a person, a practice, etc. This is what political types call blocking coalitions, groups of people that ordinarily have nothing in common except their opposition to something (or someone). Their common fear doesn’t even have to be that well thought out or clearly articulated for such groups to be wildly effective. “Not this” or “not that” is usually sufficient, the enemy-of-my-enemy sort of thing.

As a group, people organized by fear can be a powerful force – though not always one for good.

Seems to me there is a design challenge in there. Because while these sorts of fear- or anger-based groups can be good at stopping things or steering a conversation to their interests, how often do they really address the root issue, rather than the thing that brought them together in the first place? My guess: not often.

This sounds like the sort of big meta-design problem we designers should be able to help reveal.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Microsoft Ribbon, what’s up with that?

Microsoft has created some great tools over the years, but the ribbon isn’t one of them.

Two trends make me wonder if the good people at Microsoft have been paying much attention when it comes to user interface:
  • Over the last ten years, the proliferation of LCD screens that are generally wider than they used to be.
  • HD TV has made the 9:16 aspect ratio much more common for lots of people.
Enter the ribbon. Putting aside the task-centric structure for a moment, the ribbon takes up valuable screen real estate and cannot be moved. On a laptop, the result is a smaller effective work area that is cluttered, visually noisy, very short and very wide. This is not useful for most work.

Other companies, like Adobe, have figured this out. These companies seem to realize that people have work to do, and that those people may want to customize the software interface to more effectively do their work. For these crazy need-to-get-work-done people (aka “users” or “customers”), these companies have built “palettes” into their software, allowing people to move and resize those palettes in a way that makes sense based on their needs.

Heck, Microsoft has done this before. Office Mac 2008 had (wait for it) a “Format Palatte.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was on the side, and you could move it. I guess that camp lost the UI Battle of Redmond. Pity.

The ribbon does reveal additional functions, as it was designed. But it does an equally good job of hiding existing functions from people that regularly use them. I’d argue the net effect is neutral at best (gain some things, loose others).

So now the ribbon infects everything and appears to be here to stay. I wonder how much productivity in business has been and continues to be lost because of the ribbon?