The internet came alive for me during the web 2.0 phase almost ten years ago—when we stopped merely browsing sites and started interacting. We wrote weblogs, we posted photos, we filled out About Me sections and listed our favorite music and movies and heroes. We left comments.
Then we edited.
We realized on the internet we could be whoever we wanted to be. The internet can be a self-invention machine. We could create whole new personas if we wanted. We could decide what we post and where we post it. We projected out into the vast digital landscape. We carefully considered how much to share. We are on the verge of being more connected than ever before but for some reason, somehow, it didn’t feel real.
But I’ve noticed an interesting shift over the past few years as technology has developed and our desires for the internet have changed. The tools we use are just as much about reflection now as they are projection.
We check-in our Foursquare.
We take pictures of our brunch on Instagram.
We tag our friends on Facebook.
We track our steps with our Fitbits.
We track our calories with our Nike Fuelbands.
We scrobble our music to Last.fm.
It’s not a complete shift, but it’s getting there. The tools we use today are for posterity—to remember. We’re accumulating piles of date about ourselves—our own lives!—and we can go back whenever we want to look at it and remember, much like looking through an old photo album.
You’ve heard people say a relationship becomes official when it’s on Facebook. Did you really take those steps if your Fitbit wasn’t with you? Were you really there if it’s not on Foursquare? If a tree falls in the forest…
If you’re like me, you know it can sometimes feel like events, moment, experiences that have not been documented, checked-in, tagged can somehow feel less real. In the switch from projection to reflection, another switch started to occur. These tools—these services that once connected us in a way that felt somehow less real—now are acting as time capsules, places to document and remember those moments that were real.
Maybe I’m too optimistic. Maybe we still filter what goes online to project an idealized image of ourselves. But I want to imagine that the person being projected out is becoming closer and closer to the same person I really am. And I like to imagine some place, somewhere, sometime in the future, my kids get a hold of this image—this data, those checkins and photos and steps—and get a picture of their father that they’d otherwise never get to see.
USA Today, the country’s second largest newspaper1 recently unveiled a new logo and brand system that spans their entire publication—crossing platforms between web, iPad, mobile devices, and, of course, the physical newspaper designed by Wolff Olins. Rebranding an organization this large is risky. Even riskier? Rebranding an organization so steeped in tradition in a field steeped in tradition, struggling to stay afloat in an increasingly digital world. It seems impossible for a rebranding of this scale to be successful right? Don’t you remember Tropicana? Or Gap? Those should be minimal compared to the backlash you’d think USA Today will get.
But the reception appears to be well-received2. The more I see the new branding and the more I read about the process behind it and plans for it to evolve, the more in awe of it I become. It’s bold, it’s daring, and, in my estimation, shows what the future of branding looks like.
Travis Alber and Aaron Miller have written an excellent piece on the book as a social platform drawing from their experience building BookGlutton. They propose that books are—and have always been—a way to make connections; connections with ideas, with stories, and with others. Through the act of reading is often a solitary activity, from that interactions with others almost always occur:
It’s a lofty publisher who tries to look above the bottom line to ask the question: but how should books be read? And not only to ask that question, but to understand that it’s not merely a question of hardback or paperback, or Kindle vs. Nook. It’s not merely about whether a book will be an app, or whether it will be available in foreign territories simultaneous with its U.S. release. It’s not about Garamond vs. Bembo either, or the colophon or dedication, or who you can get to write the introduction. It’s not an experiential question at all; it’s entirely metaphysical, and it might even be better to start with the question: why do people read books?
We think there is a very simple but profound answer to that question: people read books to make connections. This can be considered at a cognitive level, through simple, repetitive pattern recognition, or at a conceptual, spiritual level. Either way, the basic work of the reader’s mind is to make connections, and the basic mode of higher thought is to exist both in and out of the physical world for a bit, drawing lines between the two.
I watched Robin Sloan’s talk from the Do Lectures a few nights ago and I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Sloan discusses his work as a writer and why he feels it’s important to leave fingerprints for the future. It’s short—only about twenty minutes—and a talk I imagine I’ll return to often when I’m struggling with the reasons why I do what I do.
Angela Riechers, writing for Imprint, questions the use of nostalgia and skeuomorphic elements in design:
Maybe we pine for outdated mechanical items because featherweight digital objects and applications lack soul. Quickly obsolete (the average lifespan for digital products is 18 months before a new version becomes available), they acquire no patina, remaining devoid of the gentle signs of wear and tear that prove they were used and even loved. The Singer Company’s 160th-anniversary limited-edition sewing machine—made mostly of plastic, with digital components—borrows its look from the company’s iconic cast-iron machines from decades past. There’s no significant downside, looks-wise; the anniversary edition is a lovely homage to the Singer heritage. But consider how many Singers from the early part of last century are still in use today, working flawlessly—then try to imagine this latest version still operational in 2112. Its nostalgic design is tinged with even more sadness than usual; it becomes an unintentional memorial to a vanished age of durable products.
This is an interesting thought. One look at a few of Apple’s iOS apps and you’ll see old desk calendars, spiral bound address books, old school microphones, and leather notebooks. As we transition more and more of our interactions to screens, we design those screens to echo the analog way of doing things. This provides an interesting challenge for designers. We’ve been given the opportunity to develop new modes of interaction, new standards and iconography, new reference points, yet we are largely relying on the past to dictate where we go.
We all know that baseball fans love their nostalgic ballparks, and I certainly like the human scale and sense of place that the best of these venues provide. But do those values always have to arrive smothered in old fashioned wrappings? Sooner or later someone has to take a risk on something new.
Perhaps the problem is that we stopped believing both in a better future and in design’s ability to further it. The thread is broken; terrorists have shoe bombs and bioweapons, and we’ve lost hope in the promises of flying cars and glittering cities hovering in the sky. The world’s climate and environment seem headed on a crash course to ruin. And so we cling to design that relentlessly references days gone by because we know what to expect—the scary challenge of the new has been removed from the equation. We seem to want design to give us the reassurance found in the recognizable.
Design is about movement. It’s about building a new future and a better tomorrow. I long for the past — the easier times, the vintage photos, the classy suits, the sound of a cassette rewinding — just as much as the next person but is this longing preventing us from moving forward, from developing new systems in which to interact?
“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.”
“You cannot be a cynic or a skeptic when you build a building. You cannot be a pessimist, which you could be in almost any other endeavor. You could compose in a minor key or you can write a poem that has a darkness to it. But because architecture require foundations, because it requires construction and it is a communal activity, it always is an assertion of a future that is true, that is good.”
With a bit of extra time this Thanksgiving weekend, I was able to finally finish Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography Steve Jobs. Filled with emotions, I preordered it the night Steve died and had been working through it ever since. No one has had more of an influence and been more an inpiration on my work than Jobs and I was excited to get an inside look at his life and work.
I knew I would love the book and I did. I had a hard time putting it down many nights and stayed up much later than I should have reading four, five, six chapters in one sitting. But then there were other times—and this I didn’t expect—where I had to put the book down, where I couldn’t bring myself to read another page because I suddenly had the urge to go make something of my own.
A constant thread through Steve’s life was his focus on making great products, on “putting a dent in the universe” by making a product that would change the world. This book made that passion and that focus palpable and contagious.
I laughed when he would berate employees when they produced anything short of perfection and I cried when the cancer returned and kept him in bed, slowly eating away his body. But more than anything, I closed the book inspired, knowing I have work of my own to do and that I need to start now because I don’t know what the future will bring. But if I work hard enough, I can create my own future, and though it will pale in comparison to what Steve gave us, I can put my own little dent in the universe.
I fell asleep last night with tears in my eyes. The world had lost a visionary and an innovator that we have no problem comparing to Edison, Ford, Disney, or Henson. My heart was heavy. It hurts when we lose someone who changed so much. It feels like something much bigger than one man is lost; we’ve lost his vision of the future.
One thing I learned from Steve Jobs is that you can’t look back, living in the past. He was ridiculed when people thought he cut features prematurely; the floppy drive, the optical drive, Flash. Little did we know the future he saw didn’t need these things so they had to go. We always came around. He was just looking forward when we couldn’t. And maybe that’s why it hurts when you think his most prolific years were his last. It feels like he was just getting started.
But maybe that’s the best way to honor his legacy. He was never thinking about yesterday and he wouldn’t want us to. The tools he helped create showed us a vision of a new tomorrow but they also invited us to help build that future. The tools Jobs helped conceive helped us to live better but they also helped us create better.
So while yesterday was about mourning and grieving and crying. Today is about creation. Today is about looking forward and building a new tomorrow. A better tomorrow.
That’s how Steve lived. And we’re all better off for it.
If while wandering around the inside of an art museum I come across a door that’s solidly locked shut, what do I do? Well, if I’m emotionally immature, I might wrestle with the door’s handle, or maybe fall to the floor and try to peer beneath it. I might throw a tantrum because I can’t get into that locked room. I might squat beside the door, fold my arms, and determinedly try to imagine everything inside the room. There are all times of ways I might waste my time outside that door.
But if mature, I will simply assume that those in charge of the museum know what they’re doing, and for whatever reason don’t want people going in that room. And that would be good enough for me. So I would turn away from the door, forget about the room, and go back out into the museum where all that wonderful art was waiting to enlighten and inspire me.
Why worry about the future, what’s next, our five-year-plans and what’s behind all those locked doors when there is so much here, now, that is wanting to inspire and enlighten us? That door is locked and I’m learning to be okay with that.
I couldn’t tell you anything particular about that day. It was late May and the weather outside was similar to the weather today—sunny and warm. A spring day that makes you long for the summer. It was my junior year of high school and I was in Mrs. Zelinski’s English class. I sat second to the back in the second row from the wall next to the large window that looked out over the courtyard where the seniors ate their lunch. I’d get to eat out there next year. Mrs. Zelinski had an array of plants sitting in the window sill on little plant stands and hanging from the drop ceiling. All high schools seem to have those drop ceilings.
The window was opened and there was a breeze blowing in from the courtyard with the sounds of the seniors eating their lunch making Mrs. Zelinski’s plant arrangements rustle and sway. I sat there in the second to the back seat in the second to last row and a feeling of nostalgia came over me, blowing in from the courtyard. I don’t know what it was. It wasn’t a particular memory but it reminded me of what it was like being a kid. Mrs. Zelinski was talking about Ernest Hemingway but I was thinking about something else.
Where had my childhood gone? Wasn’t it just yesterday I was playing in sandboxes and drawing cities on my driveway?