More thoughts by Jon Tan
Just before Christmas I saw a BBC article where a man in Ireland found a letter written to Santa by his mother, when she was 10 years old, 100 years ago. When I saw her handwriting in the photo, it seemed like a part of her was embedded into the faded, yellowed paper. The artefact felt like an extension of her. In a world where we type more than write, I wondered how I could embed a facsimile of that physical connection into my work on Mapalong. I wondered if, in a hundred years time, the data people create now could have the same resonance that hand written letters do, today.
Last year, I (re)discovered scan paths, or the route our eyes follow through interfaces. I’d come across research in the area before, but hadn’t delved in too deep. An important moment was re-reading Dr. Kevin Larson’s article on The Science of Word Recognition.
The roughly Z-shaped path our eyes take when navigating an interface fascinates me. It relates directly to understanding text at the legibility or micro typography level, and composition at the readability, or macro typography level. It aligns with a dual concept I’ve been thinking a lot about: I call it impact versus immersion. Or display versus body. Or emotion versus comprehension.
The immediate, emotional, subconscious feeling we have about an interface when we first see it is powered by the amygdala — one of the oldest parts of the brain also known as the lizard brain — which can receive sensory input and generate an emotional response in us often without the words to describe what it is, or why we feel the way we do.
The utility we find in interfaces creates an emotional response, too, but through function, and delight in use. When the information is legible and readable, the interface’s character becomes invisibly useful. The style fades into the background, and the utility comes to the fore.
It’s a little like perfect service in a restaurant. The expert waiting staff don’t impose, or interrupt the great conversation we’re having with friends, or intimate moment with partners. Our glasses are refilled, and the dishes arrive almost invisibly, gently, and fluently.
I think we’re often designing for both. Composing with scan paths in mind helps us do just that.
Perfection doesn’t exist, but there is a moment when imperfections become charming characteristics, rather than just flaws. We like people for their good qualities, but often love them for their frailties.
Fonts are like wayfinding apps for emotions.
This month’s thought may be a rant or two, and a plea, or rather, a dare.
Flash died, I heard. The only thing is, suboptimal interaction design wasn’t some kind of child of Flash. It was the offspring of designers; the decisions some of us make. Some of those offspring are still very much alive. The only difference now is that instead of those decisions being encapsulated in Flash, they’re being coded into HTML, CSS, and JS by wily front-end developers at the mercy of their agency overlords for their daily bread: Animations that just…won't…stop. Un-mutable music (hello Geocities, again). Sliding, jumping, bouncing, parallax-ing, hiccuping, flatulent decorations and controls. Force-fed, on-message advertising, masquerading as interaction, with accessibility something that might be mindfully included if the developer has time. Stop it! Please!
Let me pick up on one more bug in the system: The white-labelling of freelancers and subcontractors by agencies. That insidious situation where, under the dubious restrictive practice of perma-NDAs, some companies hoover up the credit for every aspect of a piece of work, and do not allow the freelancer to talk about what they’ve done. Stop it! Give credit. Let folks own the right to talk about their work as long as everyone else gets a mention, with a link, and a note to say exactly who did what at the start of the case study.
Let’s create an ecosystem of credit where it’s OK that ad-hoc teams come together around a project. In fact it’s something to be proud of! That’s the reality after all. That’s the truth. It’s OK to say so-and-so did this bit, but we did that. It worked out fine. No reputations were harmed in the making of this website, app, or service by an ad-hoc team. In fact, they were all the better for it. If companies like the ones I’m scolding dare to give a little credit, I’d bet they’d find it comes back with interest. Go on agencies, I double dare you with extra whitespace.
If we design for humans, then we need to know humans. Good design decisions are helped by research, and access to the latest research of others, like that from the academic world. What we might call intuition is the effervescence of hours of absorbing information, experimenting, and applied curiosity. That’s why it galls me that some of the best research into how humans process information is locked into academic journals. Yes, professional peer review is necessary and useful. Yes, it costs money to review, edit, and publish papers. However, who exactly benefits from the current practice of locking research data and results into walled gardens on the Web behind a paywall?
If our community of Web professionals has demonstrated anything it’s that amateurs can become professionals by participating diligently in the informal peer review system of the empirical Web. By testing ideas and solutions, publishing results openly, and providing review and feedback, we have grown into a profession. The crucial ingredients are the free sharing of knowledge, and our own curiosity. Paywalls retard sharing, and inhibit curiosity. The €208 for the three ‘online only’ issues of the 2012 Information Design Journal are one example of many. If the academic publishing industry had been the de facto route to sharing our experiments I would not be a web designer today. I would simply not have been qualified enough to be published, and would have struggled to find the money to buy the journals holding your research.
So, I urge you to support campaigns like that of Cambridge mathematician, Tim Gowers — documented in an excellent article in The Guardian in April this year — that want to free research from the paywalls of journals.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. Their thoughts and work make us better. Set it free!
My thought this month is not mine, but it belongs to Satwant Singh Kaleka, one of the six victims of the tragedy at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on the 5th August, who tried to stop the gunman. His son remembers his father saying:
‘You make a living by what you make, but you make a life by what you give.’
The August sun was fierce, the water cold, and I was sitting under a tree cooling down next to the Lac du Salagou. My boys were throwing themselves around in the water on giant blow-up crocodiles, and my wife and mother-in-law were quietly talking and sunbathing next to me. It was supremely peaceful. My mind wandered to all the times I’ve been away and all the moments I wished my family were with me. Fireworks in Montreal. Walking between 1300 year old trees in Vancouver. The view from the Space Needle in Seattle.
I reminded myself how lucky I am, but I also reminded myself who I’m working for, and why. Sure, I work for my own satisfaction as well as my family, but fundamentally they have to come first. As the industry we work in accelerates, I try to keep learning, attending and talking at events, and working on what I love, but I know I love my family more. Fireworks, ancient walks, and awesome views are a joy, but lessened by their absence. So, later that day, I managed to get a data signal on my phone, and cancelled a few talks and trips I had coming up. I put off some other things that would take me away from my family. I said no to work, and yes to them, and by doing so, felt better about the work I will do, and what I’ll achieve by doing it, in their name.
I grew up in the middle of the UK in the 70s and 80s reading authors like Tolkien, Asimov, and Dumas. Dumas’s adventure via adversity stories were a band-aid for the almost-daily racial slights of school life at the time. Asimov’s grandeur distracted me from feeling dislocated at the irrelevant fact of me being mixed race. Tolkien’s nobility sustained me as I helped my Mum run a one-parent family.
When I was the age my eldest son is now, my father would cane me for staying up late reading after bedtime. Granted, I pretty much ignored his more polite requests, and used to hide under the covers with a torch, trying to listen out for the creak of his step on the stairs. It was impossible to simultaneously be immersed in the world on the page, and have the sensory keenness of a sentry in an observation post. My Dad always managed to catch me. I would grin in embarrassment, and almost admiration at his silent skill. Later, I would tightly coil up inside with trepidation when I was caught. A caning was my father’s perverse expression of love, demonstrated by his determination that I should get some sleep so I could concentrate in school. I needed to concentrate because I needed to do well in school. I needed to do well in school to have a good life. Education lead to wealth, and that would insulate me from suffering. At least, so he believed. Books were just too good to resist, though. I was addicted. I took the canings yet still read. My father left soon after. Books became an escape as well as an addiction.
When I got older I discovered authors like Kim Stanley Robinson. His optimism for the near future was overwhelming. Visions like Pacific Edge may be utopic, but they are seductive and emblematic. I wanted to live in a world like that of Blue Mars. I read Neal Stephenson and marvelled at the erudition of Cryptonomicon, and the raw power of Snow Crash. I wanted to know the things he and his characters knew.
I started to realise that I was an optimist, too. I had to be, because my disquiet at the world around me gave me scant choice. I had to believe in our innate humanity and potential for empathy, compassion, and goodness. I started to believe that if you remove the suffering and stress from people’s lives, the vast majority of people would do right by their fellow humans. I believed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s vision for a future where a revolution by law and evolution in technology would remove suffering. I believed that characters like Hiro Protagonist, even if they were outside conventional power structures, could help bring that about. I think I know and work with some of his real-world avatars today.
The faith and optimism of my core beliefs are one of the reasons why I do what I do. I never did stop reading. I left university early, and didn’t stop reading. I wandered around the world, and never stopped reading. I ended up here, now, and still keep reading, but now I read more widely and variously than ever before, because of the Web. I believe what my friend Chris Shiflett believes, that ‘The Internet is the opportunity of our generation.’ I believe that our work building the Web can contribute. I believe human beings are fundamentally good. I’m not sure how that will manifest itself, but I believe that if we remove the stress we may find out. I believe we can do it, and I always will.
I was a late-comer to Macs. Until 2008 most of my design and development was done on a Windows machine. For the first time in a long while I recently did some web fonts testing on an entry-level Windows 7 laptop. Ignoring the culture shock of the OS, and seeing the Web through the filter of Windows on a lesser-quality display, I re-learnt something: To design and develop on Windows machines is to work in the most adverse environment first, and that is a good thing.
It was emphatically demonstrated when I visited some sites I like. They worked for the most part on Windows, but they inevitably didn’t feel the same. In some extreme cases, the design was significantly degraded in terms of type and contrast. Some work that I thought looked beautiful on my Mac lost its beauty on Windows. It made me wonder if there isn’t too much disdain for Windows in many designers’ mindsets, causing them to dismiss how their work looks on Windows. I know I’ve been tempted by that fallacy in the past.
A decade ago with Windows as my primary operating system it was very different. I started to get pretty good at defensive development. I automatically wrote CSS that worked in alternative browsers, but would not create IE layout issues, leaving very few problems to fix. I set type for the adverse Windows environment first, making sure it was acceptable to me there. My attempts to understand the nuances of screen fonts prompted me to learn what was going on with rendering engines, and try to explain it to fellow designers. It was similar to testing type at the smallest size first, because, like writing CSS for IE, if it renders well there, it will almost certainly render well at larger sizes — in more advanced environments. Inevitably, when I tested sites on Macs they worked. The type worked. The layouts worked.
My recent experience with Windows made me wonder if I shouldn’t switch back. I’d be working in the most adverse environment first. Designing around the problems first. I can’t though. I can’t live with the operating system anymore. I don’t like seeing the Web that way. I don’t like how type renders. And yet, that’s how most of the world sees my work. It’s a conundrum.
I won’t be switching back. I spend my days using my machine, and although I know I’d adapt, I just don’t want to spend it looking at Windows. I will be looking at Windows a lot more, though. On a Windows machine, and not just through VMs. It’s a purely self-indulgent choice, but perhaps by acknowledging how using Macs has skewed my perspective, I can make sure I serve Windows just as well as I once did when I used it every day.
This last year of Pastry Box thoughts started with a story of a letter written by a 10-year-old girl. A letter that was discovered by her son over a hundred years later when he was an old man. It was about the intimacy across time between them, and how seeing the shape of her writing somehow gave me a sense of knowing her a little, too.
I think intimacy is something we strive for, and as designers we facilitate with our work. From projecting a simple message about a product into the minds of our audience, to helping people reach across time and distance to share an experience, intimacy is our business. To do it, we work on our own capacity for empathy. We design for other people, and in trying to do so put ourselves behind their eyes, under their fingertips, and project ourselves into their experiences. Maybe that’s why many designers seem so liberal to me. Liberal in the literal sense of generous and open, for the most part.
This month is the festive season, the season of goodwill; a celebration. I’m not religious. I’m a secular humanist if anything. For me the festive season is a celebration of our human capacity to be inherently ethical and moral without religion. Part of that is recognising my own good fortune, and celebrating the inherent goodness in all of us. It’s the season where I try to refresh my own empathy and compassion, and try to hold on to that for the coming year, as a human, father, husband, and designer. I hope you feel somewhat similar. Thank you for giving me your time when you read my thoughts this year.
May the best of your past be the worst of your future!