A few thoughts on authenticity
I’ve been thinking about authenticity in design lately. What does that even mean? What does authentic design look like on the web? What’s this mean for designers in 2013? These questions keep me up at night and I don’t have the answers, none of us do; we’re all just figuring this out as we go. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
In his 2012 Build talk, Robin Sloan looks at what it means to be a “media inventor” (with quotation marks) and why we are living in the Black Maria. I love the way Robin thinks about creating form and content together and where we are going as content makers.
Blurry Edges and Leaky Containers
I recently purchased David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’ve been a fan of Wallace’s writing for a few years, mostly his non-fiction essays1 yet up until now, I didn’t have the courage to take the plunge into his magnum opus. Infinite Jest is a big book—coming in at 1104 pages, the paperback is almost two-inches thick. According to Amazon, it weighs two and a half pounds.
A book of that size commands attention—both mentally and physically. It has a mass and a weight. It takes up precious space on my bookshelf. My bookmark taunts me, always reminding me how much farther I still have to read. It’s intimidating. But it’s also not unapproachable.
And when I do finally finish, there’s a feeling of accomplishment. That space on my shelf now serves as an award of sorts, a medal of honor reserved for those who complete these two and half pounds of words. The bookmark comes out knowing I have read it all. It’s finished.
Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, has created The Magazine, a brand new technology magazine in the form of an iOS subscription app and in doing so, brings up some interesting thoughts on digital publications
Many iPad magazines are carrying unnecessary and expensive baggage from their print days. Some born-digital magazines even took on print baggage simply because they thought they needed it.
The Magazine is leaving behind a lot of what magazines “need”. And many magazines really do need them. But I don’t think this does.
Where most digital magazines are just ports of the printed version, because Arment is building all this from scratch—with a focus on iOS—he is able to design a publication that feels better in its container: fast load-times, selectable text (and user preferences for text size), sharing functionality. Starting from a digital point of view allows him to abandon the magazine format legacy and create something completely new—another interesting addition to the ever-growing digital-native publications.
Also, the first issue is great.
BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti recently sent out an email to his employees congratulating the team on their success and laying out their long-term strategy. What I love about this email is it’s more than just cheerleading the team—the whole thing reads as a manifesto of sorts laying out what it means to be a content company in the twenty-first century. I love the thought process behind what they are doing and hope more companies follow this lead.
Allen Tan has a great piece over at Contents Magazine on the struggles between full art direction on the web and the restraints of CMS templates. Using the metaphor of a tailor, Tan proposes templates that adjust to content:
If we compare digital editorial design to the craft of men’s shirt-making, art-directed pages would be bespoke shirts—luxury items uniquely made for an individual. On the opposite end of the spectrum are off-the-rack shirts, idealized designs manufactured en masse. Like article templates, these are ill-fitting, because standard-sized shirts can not fit every wearer’s body. But there’s also a middle path, which is to buy a good off-the-rack shirt and entrust it to a specialist, who takes the wearer’s measurements and then shortens and sculpts the shirt to fit. The shirt is, in other words, tailored.
We’ve learned that art directing articles online is a laborious and expensive endeavor but templated design separates content from form making for ill-fitted online publications. This concept fits into a lot of things that interest me: art direction on the web, frameworks, online content, and improvisation.
The idea of tailoring the form can act as the glue pulling design and content together:
Technologically, a tailoring approach isn’t very different from the design work we already do, but it opens new possibilities. By combining flexible templates with talented tailors, newspapers can begin to introduce strong design on a scale unseen so far: not the plain, minimalist layouts we see in read-later tools or Flipboard, but truly platform- and content-aware work. Magazines can benefit just as much, if not more, since tailored design can reflect pacing and rhythm across an entire issue as well as within individual articles. And, just as web type services allows rich typography to flourish online, tailoring permits designers to draw on more of print design’s history without ignoring the benefits of the web. By pushing hard on understanding what specific content wants, we will get to confront more interesting problems.
“We use novels, not old newspapers, to get a sense of what life was like 100 years ago. I believe 100 years from now, future generations will still use novels the same way. They’ll use novels, not tweets or posts like this. And they’ll use the rich ones — the ones that have things to say things about culture and politics, the ones that absorb and synthesize.”
“[I]t has to be said that the movie science fiction of the original Apes era, with its now laughably primitive effects, in some ways benefited from its technical crudeness: the spectacle rarely got in the way of the ideas, and when the ideas are engaging, as they are in the first “Planet of the Apes” and “Escape,” the simple effects function like sketches, indications of some greater, not fully realized, narrative and intellectual architecture. (When the ideas are no good, you get “Plan Nine From Outer Space.”) Spectacle and thought aren’t mutually exclusive, by any means. But we humans are, at this stage of our evolution, mighty distractable: so many bright, glittery things to see, so little time.”
“Every magazine, television network, or radio station with an archive is sitting on gold. Get that stuff out of the basement and put it online for free, where people can link to, remix, and use it. But don’t just dump it there. Take advantage of what the web can do. Structure the work so that people can improve on your collection.”
Products like Flipboard are attractive because they are consciously and carefully designed to highlight the content, instead of crowding the experience with UI tools. The design of these experiences is being driven by new thinking in interaction design, where visual design is central to the experience, rather than painted on at the end. Once the traditional elements of UI are torn away, designers can concentrate their efforts on working iwth the content that remains. And it ends up looking a lot like Print. If we pull Visual Design to the front of the product creation process, we can break free of the bad design habits that surround us. As Interaction Designers we can stop polishing our icons, and focus on communicating the content inside, clearly and with style. The rewards are simple: more beautiful products that are easier to use, and beautifully branded experiences with more room for self-expression.
Mike hits the nail on the head in this fantastic essay on what interactive designers can learn from the rich history of print design. In the end, however, it all comes back to content. The problem with a lot of interactive design—especially in regards to editorial work—is more than typographic (though that is also lacking). The struggle is getting that interactivity out of the way so the content can return to the focus. I wrote a little bit about this this past November:
I think the time of calling ourselves print designers or web designers or interaction designers is coming to a close. We are all now content designers.
Secondly, I think using Flipboard as an example is perfect. Flipboard is easily my favorite app and when I pick up my iPad, nine times out of ten, Flipboard is the first app I open. Why is that? The guys as Flipboard have figured out how to remove extraneous interactive elements allowing me to easily get to the content I want. It has quickly become my go to place for the latest news.
The Content Designer
Bill McKibben, in an article for The New York Review of Books on public radio, wrote:
Radio receives little critical attention. Of the various methods for communicating ideas and emotions—books, newspapers, visual art, music, film, television, the Web—radio may be the least discussed, debated, understood. This is likely because it serves largely as a transmission device, a way to take other art forms (songs, sermons) and spread them out into the world.
Design is a lot like radio. It’s a language of sorts. It’s vessel that can be filled with any type of content. As designers, a lot of our work is actually finding a way to communicate and transmit someone else’s content.
For years this is how our profession has operated—design means working for clients—but it doesn’t have to be like that and I think we’re headed to a world where designers make the vessel and fill it up themselves.
I’m about halfway through an independent study I’m doing for my senior year of school. I’m designing a series of books but I’m also producing all the content for these books. I’m involved in creating every single piece of this project from concept to completion. This is profoundly different from the way we are used to working. There is a new push and pull between the design and the content. I can do more than design around the content, I can now make the content fit the design as well. They constantly can influence each other.
Sure, designers will always work for clients because clients will always need designers and designers have always worked on self-initiated projects but the future is pointing towards the idea of designer as content creator; the designer who has an opinion and pushes that opinion out into the world.
If design is a language, and I believe it is, we now have the chance to create our own content and shout it into the void. With the economy the way it is, clients aren’t coming to designers as much as they use to and this is pushing us into the role of content creators allowing design to be finally be it’s own language and not simply an empty vessel. I think the time of calling ourselves print designers or web designers or interaction designers is coming to a close. We are all now content designers.
“The creative act is no longer about building something out of nothing but rather building something new out of cultural products that already exist.”
That is from Wired Magazine’s 7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College section on “Remix Culture.” I’ve been thinking about meta content recently; work that is based on preexisting frameworks and products. How many people make a living and spend their time writing critiques on movies and music and books? How many people spend their free time writing fan fiction based on their favorite television shows? How much art is built on preexisting works?
This bothers me. It frustrates and unsettles me. Is there nothing new? Are we simply left with dissecting work that’s already finished? I wonder how much time is spent (wasted?) making fan art, producing work that honors old content, or reviewing and critiquing new work that could be spend crafting new original art. I guess this is why I’m blown away when Sufjan Stevens writes a 25 minute song or a show like LOST comes along or that at half way through, I still can’t put down East of Eden. It’s like a breath of fresh air. A wind of new and original feels good amidst a culture of meta content.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of work. There is a place for it in culture. I just pray to God that Wired is wrong and there are still people producing amazing work from nothing.
And for what it’s worth, the seven principles in Wired’s feature are fantastic. I think each one is important in today’s culture. It’s especially interesting to look at them through the lens of design. Each skill is critical to today’s working designer; more proof that the creative fields are needed now more than ever.
He Not Busy Being Born is Busy Dying - Part 1
(This part one in my two part series on the future of printed media, content consumption and how technologies must constantly reinvent themselves if they fear death. Part two will be posted tomorrow.)
In 1995, David Carson famously declared that we have reached ‘the end of print’ with the release of his book of the same title. This seemed to suggest that printed design was dead and the field had moved to motion, interactive, and multi-media productions. Of course fifteen years later, print is still hanging around. Carson’s book has sold over 200,000 copies, has become the best selling graphic design book of all time and I believe is somewhere in it’s ninth printing. Ironic, isn’t it?
However, now in 2010, we may be closer than ever to the print’s demise. Just last month, Amazon announced that for the first time, sales of it’s Kindle books surpassed hardcover sales. And with the rise of the iPad (and eventually other tablet devices, I’d imagine) the way we consume media–specifically the written word–is going digital. Newspapers and magazines are slowing printing in favor of digital components, whether that be iPad apps, websites or some other electronic medium.
“So let’s talk about ink on paper. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but here is what I want to see: I want to see things earn the privilege to be objects. If we have the option of things being “real” and “not real,” I want the real stuff to be really good. I want the times when ink hits paper to always be beautiful, useful, and desirable. It seems like such a shame to cut down a tree to print this Land’s End catalog, with the thin model coyly smiling at me on the back in her awkward swimsuit. I bet it bunches up in the wrong spots. It seems silly to give permanence to a thing that was meant to be ephemeral to begin with. This goes for junk mail, beach-books, handouts for students, whatever. If your shelf-life is shorter than forever and ever amen, I think we need to think about whether or not it needs to be printed.”
—Frank Chimero responding to a question on the future of print design. I 100% agree with him. As we move into an era where printed material could become second to digital content, we need to make sure the printed content is really, really good. Jaw-droppingly good. It needs to be worth the extra cash. I’d be very curious to hear what Mr. McLuhan would say today because he was talking about this stuff fifty years ago.
Frank ends with the real kicker though: “Here is my tip to you: stop thinking of yourself as a print designer. You’re not designing for print. You’re designing for content.” Brilliant.