Rob Weychert is a Brooklyn-based designer, evolving in the worlds of both pixels and paper. A former Creative Director at Happy Cog, Rob now hangs out with the Studiomates crew. Besides being a talented web developer, Rob has an alter-ego named Windhammer, which is a three-time US Air Guitar national finalist. He admittedly doesn't like to shave.
I recently saw the band Swans live for the second time. They were promoting a stellar new album (The Seer) which essentially encompasses all of the varied and challenging music that bandleader Michael Gira has made under a few different monikers over the last thirty years. In the two years since I saw them last, I had gotten to know their oeuvre better, and coming to this show with a more educated ear paid off. Swans’ allure can be difficult to explain since their output is generally pretty ugly by conventional standards, but their live show has helped me fill in a piece of that allure’s puzzle: their music is intensely physical.
Part of it has to do with the sound being produced organically, from musical instruments and non-instruments alike, and the ability of that sound to embody the physical act — from delicate precision to chaotic, flailing abandon — with which it was derived. Modern production techniques have a way of making music sound like it just happens, but one never doubts that a Swans record is the result of manual labor, and that labor is made manifest in the band’s apocalyptic live show.
But there is another not-so-secret physical ingredient that pushes a Swans show into transcendent territory: extremely high volume. How loud is it? Well, it occurred to me that a deaf person might get nearly as much out of the show as I did. It is loud enough to make your insides rumble, effectively forcing you to listen with your entire body. And this makes the experience that much more immersive: if you’re already attuned to the emotional and intellectual qualities of the music, the volume will penetrate you physically as well. A Swans show can and will overtake the whole of one’s being.
Later, I wondered if the experience was made more acute by physicality’s diminished relevance in a modern life dominated by abstract interactions with pixels behind glass.
A wide range of experiences that used to be physically distinct from each other now share the homogenous tactility of our digital devices. Not so long ago, I couldn’t possibly mistake my copy of Slaughterhouse Five for my telephone’s handset, but now, when I reach for one, I am inescapably reaching for both. Granted, these experiences do have a fundamental thing in common — the movement of ideas — and the paper and plastic that accompanied them in the past were artifacts of less efficient means of distribution than what we have now. Consolidating the material components of these experiences was the right thing to do.
But that doesn’t mean our senses of touch, taste, and smell aren’t every bit as important as their siblings. We may be living in the Information Age, but our organic matter doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Weight, shape, texture, and so many other physical properties are valuable experiential devices and information transmitters. So I’m looking forward to the day when information technology can replicate and manipulate more than just sight and sound.
This is a continuation of some thoughts from last month about inefficiency by design.
I have an information retention problem. I absorb a lot of it, all of which is presumably stored somewhere, but not nearly as much of it remains available for unassisted recall as I would like. Not surprisingly, the stuff that is best remembered has been reinforced, usually through some kind of repeated application or extensive immersion. In other words, if something is retained in my long-term memory, I probably had to work for it. Fair enough. Accordingly, my long-term memory is full of stuff that has been experienced with regularity, has spoken directly to my natural curiosity, and/or has given me a meaningful challenge that I’ve managed to meet.
Many of those meaningful challenges have come from various forms of art, and a recent visit to a Quay Brothers exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art offered a good reminder of why that is. One of my favorite films from the Quays is a short documentary called Anamorphosis (or De Artificiali Perspective). It explores the artistic application of anamorphosis, a technique for producing distorted imagery that can only be comprehended by viewing it from a particular angle. While this technique could easily be dismissed as a gimmick, the Quay Brothers make a point of discussing its value:
Anamorphosis is a most powerful device for controlling understanding. It may be used whimsically to amuse, or else it can provoke and instruct. An image grasped too quickly might not leave a lasting impression. To lead the eye slowly through incomprehension and then to offer a resolution – that is insight.
My interest in design grew out of my interest in art, and I’ve spent my share of time pondering the distinctions between the two. Most would agree that an artistic technique like anamorphosis, which intends to (at least initially) obfuscate information, has no place in any form of communication design, which intends to make information as clear and easily accessible as possible. And that seems like a reasonable boundary: the amount of work required of the audience for comprehension is determined by the content creator, and the designer’s job is to find the best way to present that content appropriately for the audience. Indeed, the mantra designers project on the audience is, “Don’t make me think.”
But should design always be an invisible liaison between content creator and audience? Can its focus on ease of use do a disservice to an audience who would benefit from a challenge? If we retain information better when we work for it, are there occasions when design should obstruct rather than elucidate?
There is a popular myth in geek circles which claims that the QWERTY layout standard for Latin keyboards was actually designed to slow down typing, since early typewriters were prone to jam. While this is a misunderstanding (jams were caused by the mechanical proximity of common letter pairs, not the speed of typing), it has occasionally made me wonder: could technological shortcomings that ostensibly get in the way of the user experience actually, ultimately, be good for the user?
Over the years, I’ve used several different content management systems for sites I designed for clients or for myself. But lately, I don’t seem to have the curiosity or patience to learn new CMSs or even to integrate my designs with ones I’ve used in the past. So when I was redesigning my personal site last year in the hopes of getting back to writing regularly, I decided I would launch without a CMS and make updates to the site the old-fashioned way by hand-editing text files. For me, the long-term inconvenience of this relatively archaic method was preferable to the short-term inconvenience of dealing with CMS integration.
As a result, when I post a new piece of writing on the site, I usually need to update about five to seven text files with varying degrees of hassle and redundancy. This probably sounds like a nightmare to anyone who has ever had to manage a web site in any capacity; this kind of inefficiency is antithetical to the goals of modern computing. But the year I’ve spent publishing with this system has been my most prolific one yet, even more than those halcyon days when the site was running on a robust CMS and the blogging zeitgeist was in full force.
There are two specific, external factors that have had a substantial impact on my site’s recent fecundity:
- The Pastry Box Project, a blog that collects the wisdom of thirty-one influential web professionals, which asks that I submit something once a month, and which you’re visiting right now.
- Letterboxd, a social site for film buffs whose thoughtful design has encouraged me to write frequent short-form film reviews.
In the last year, 83% of the posts (and 73% of the word count) on my site were republished content I created for The Pastry Box Project, Letterboxd, and a few other external sites, so I clearly have publishing systems other than my own to thank for the lion’s share of the writing I’ve done. Still, I’ve grown to enjoy using my site’s laborious non-CMS, and I think it’s encouraged my writing in its own way.
For one thing, there’s a hand-crafted element to working in static text files that’s very satisfying. Marking up the semantics of my writing in its native HTML environment feels like a more personal endeavor than typing into a WYSIWYG interface meant to shield me from the complexity hiding beneath it. For another thing, the sizable inconvenience of editing several files for every site update makes each post feel more consequential, which has paradoxically made my approach to writing both more and less precious: I take extra time to make sure everything is just right before publishing and I rarely get bogged down in minutia-driven revisions after. So once something is done, it’s done, and I can move on to the next thing.
Creating a system that increases the work necessary to complete a task is understandably rare. But in this case, I’ve found the extra work to be more rewarding than the sensibly efficient alternative. Whether or not my non-CMS is comparable to the differences between manual and automatic transmissions or artisanal and manufactured products, there can be benefits to adding complexity to our relationships with the things we create and consume. So I’ll be on the lookout for other areas where inefficiency is my friend.
A bout of insomnia last summer led me to sign up for a free trial of Hulu Plus, which would let me use my iPad to catch up on episodes of Bob’s Burgers I had missed earlier in the season. When I inevitably failed to kill the subscription before the negative option billing kicked in, I decided to make the most of the month I accidentally paid for by devouring the entire combined run of the classic Canadian series Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. Hulu Plus’s subscription model offers more content and access on more devices (such as mobile devices and set-top boxes), but the same amount of advertising as experienced by those with free accounts, which varies from about three to five minutes for a standard twenty-one- to twenty-two-minute episode of a TV show. This might be bearable with a wide assortment of ads, but Hulu’s ad model is not about variety. So for each of Degrassi’s seventy episodes, I was treated to multiple pleas to buy car insurance from Geico. If you haven’t had the experience yourself, just imagine a litany of thirty-second visits from the least funny standup comedian in existence (to put it very, very kindly).
By Hulu’s own count, I have used it to watch nearly 1,100 videos of various shapes and sizes in the last four and a half years. I’m pretty sure each and every one of them came with at least one Geico commercial. Which means that in this age of unavoidably intrusive and sophisticated audience targeting (including an “Is this ad relevant to you?” option whose “No” button gets a lot of love from me), Hulu is still somehow unaware that I don’t even own a car. This is not only a missed opportunity for Hulu’s advertisers hawking goods that actually interest me (if there are any), but it’s a stark portrait of the not-so-fine line between brand awareness and overexposure. If I am one day in the market for car insurance again, I promise you Geico won’t get one thin dime from me, even if the value of its service is exponentially greater than all of its competitors combined. Thanks to the deadly combination of its advertising’s timbre and saturation, my contempt for Geico is unspeakable. And yet, Geico is in no apparent danger of going bankrupt, and I imagine most advertisers crave the kind of exposure it gets from Hulu.
Nowadays, most of our media universe exists online, and most of that universe runs on advertising. It is a testament to the level of compelling content being created that we’re willing to endure being bombarded by these kinds of sales pitches just to access that content. It is also an indictment of a consumer culture eager to offer up mindshare as currency to whomever stands between us and our media. Must the future of our digital economy really be this obnoxious?
Last month, I expressed some concerns about remix culture and the questionable value of much of its output. Shortly thereafter, as if in response, the juggernaut of skewed pop music known as Beck revealed that his next album, Song Reader, will be released exclusively as sheet music.
The songs here are as unfailingly exciting as you’d expect from their author, but if you want to hear 'Do We? We Do', or 'Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard', bringing them to life depends on you.
Beck is no stranger to user-generated content. In 2006, the CD version of The Information came with sticker sheets that encouraged listeners to create their own cover for the album (which, curiously, made it ineligible for entry into the UK Albums Chart). But Song Reader is considerably more intrepid, and may well be the boldest experiment in user-generated content yet. Making pop songs available to the public as sheet music is not a novel concept, but doing so in the absence of a canonical recording of that music is. Beck himself doesn’t yet know quite how these songs will sound; he has written them and left the rest up to us. Cynics might call that lazy, but I think it’s incredibly generous. Artists aspire to have their work be a dialogue with their audience, and this project allows him to be a part of the audience himself, to make the work not his but ours.
Doing this even a few years ago would have yielded very different results. There would have been no shortage of participants, but the fruits of their labor would have remained localized and isolated. However, when Song Reader is released in December, the flood of audience-generated recordings that follows will be made available globally online, on publicly accessible distribution channels that didn’t even exist at the beginning of Beck’s relatively short career.
Musicians are starting to understand that the internet is more than just a marketing tool. That’s kind of a big deal.
Ours is an age of cultural cannibalism. We have rather suddenly gained very convenient access to nearly the whole of human history’s significant creative output, and we are remixing it with careless abandon. We have introduced The Beatles to Jay-Z, Jane Austen to George Romero, and Abraham Lincoln to Bram Stoker. If something gets a modicum of attention online, it can count on being Photoshopped, captioned, auto-tuned, GIF’ed, pickled, bronzed, or arranged for ukulele and woodwinds a thousand times over before its originator has even had breakfast.
I don’t mean to dismiss this phenomenon out of hand. Every creative genius who ever lived was part of a continuum, standing on the shoulders of those who came before. And for every ten thousand tired Tumblogs devoted to recontextualizing Nicolas Cage film stills, there is one transcendent, visionary work like Paul’s Boutique. But regardless of remix culture’s inventive potential, I worry a little about the day the remixers noticeably outnumber the mixers. And it’s hard not to wonder if that day is coming.
We notice the sort of design that demands to be noticed, and make the mistake of proclaiming it to be some kind of “game changer”, glossing over its functional failings in favor of its unique approach to a problem. But the truth is that the game is much more likely to be changed incrementally, by design that doesn’t call attention to itself. When we wake up tomorrow, we won’t be greeted by a new and grand spectacle of human ingenuity. Instead, we’ll fit another tiny, seemingly mundane piece into a puzzle that will never be completed. The people who move things forward are the ones who can see spectacle in slow motion.
I first gained access to the internet on the cusp of adulthood, a few months before I graduated high school in 1994. In the years that followed, it steadily gained presence in my daily life, and in tandem with higher education and venturing timidly into “the real world”, the internet helped expand my universe far beyond its humble origins.
Today, I live in a major metropolitan hub, have personal and professional relationships on almost every continent, and have a wide variety of interests spanning social, cultural, and political affairs the world over. Obviously, the internet is central to my ability to keep up with it all (to the extent that I can), and the argument could be made that there wouldn’t be as much to keep up with if there was no internet, that my universe would be smaller and simpler.
On those days when the inbox is overflowing, a smaller and simpler universe certainly sounds appealing, and there are plenty of resources like Cabin Porn designed to stoke fantasies of leaving it all behind. But as much as I enjoy the occasional quiet respite from the rapid-fire buzz of digital urbanism, for now, I only want my universe to grow larger.
In an article for Smithsonian magazine, renowned magician Teller (of the duo Penn & Teller) offers a handful of guiding principles for altering an audience’s perceptions. This one is my favorite:
Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.
This is the stuff great design is made of: lavishing a totally unreasonable amount of attention on even the most seemingly insignificant details.
Personal statistics fascinate me, and in the information age, I’m collecting a ton of them. Last.fm keeps track of what music I listen to and when I listen to it. Letterboxd does the same for movies, and the tagging system I’m using within it tells me how the movies were formatted, where I watched them, and more. Goodreads and Instapaper keep tabs on my reading, Foursquare and Tripit chronicle the details of my travels, and DICE’s Battlefield series knows exactly how many bullets I’ve fired in virtual combat, which weapons they came from, how good my aim is, and much, much more.
A smart person might be able to put together a decent psychological profile with this stuff. But if the subject has access to his own data in real time, is that profile reliable? I pore over my personal statistics somewhat religiously, and in many cases, it affects my behavior. I’ll be careful to space out an album’s repeat listens, even if it’s something I adore. I’ll go out of my way to rotate my reading between fiction and non-fiction. Ostensibly, I do this to make my experiences more well-rounded, or at least to give the appearance of well-roundedness to whomever might be looking.
But am I really doing myself any favors by paying attention to the play-by-play? Does such a calculated approach to these experiences rob them of their potential for serendipity? Does it needlessly impede the whims of natural curiosity?
Inspired by Daniel Markovitz’s Harvard Business Review article “To-Do Lists Don’t Work”, I have been “living in my calendar” for a few weeks now. While I’m still a long way from becoming as productive as I’d like to be, I’m definitely getting more done, and I’m also getting a clearer sense of my capabilities (read: my ideal productive self may as well have been born on Krypton).
In a nutshell, my (evolving) process works like this. At the beginning of each week, I assign upcoming tasks to days (breaking up bigger tasks into pieces that get spread over multiple days), and at the beginning of each day, I assign its tasks to specific timeframes. I leave some breathing room here and there for responding to e-mail and other little things that might pop up and need immediate attention.
So far, I have yet to accomplish a day’s tasks according to my schedule, and that failure is very valuable. On one hand, it lets me see precisely how far off my time estimates are for various sorts of tasks, and on the other, the pressure applied by the specific timeframe constraints (which Markovitz calls a “commitment device”) makes me more aware of the inefficiencies inherent in my work habits. The goal is to meet in the middle, where tasks are budgeted a bit more time (I don’t expect myself to be Superman) and my efficiency increases (I try to be a little bit more like Superman).
As I said before, my process is evolving and I’ve still got a long way to go, but, unlike my experiences with other time management methodologies, this time I actually feel like I’m on my way.
The whole of communication technology is merely an extension of pigment on surface, the fundamental technique of indirect language transmission. Radio and television and computers do more work for us, sure. They parse ideas into shapes and colors and sounds. But there is nothing they can do that can’t be recreated with a lump of mud and a fertile imagination, a method as viable today as it was five thousand years ago.
The only thing more amazing and beautiful than how far we’ve come is that we haven’t come very far at all.