Category Archives: design

iOS 7 hints Apple gadgets will soon be all glass


If history repeats itself, then in a few years your new iPhone or iMac will be made entirely out of transparent glass. This is easy to predict, because Apple hardware always mirrors its operating systems, and Apple’s latest OS looks like glass — and Apple has at two previous times in its history made major changes to OS that preceded gadget-hardware design shifts.

First, let’s look at the newborn operating system. Last week Apple’s lead designer Jonathan Ive unveiled iOS 7, a new version of the background software that runs iPhones and iPads filled with translucence. The interface (which hits the market this fall) has already won rave reviews for its stunning simplicity; fonts and icons have been minimized, leaving the main “feel” of layered transparency. System menus are slightly dissolved, showing apps running beneath, and behind everything your background wallpaper shifts as you tilt the phone, creating a parallax effect. Peer into the new iPhone and you feel like you’re looking into the liquid layers of the machine itself.

Such revolutions in OS have always led Apple to new hardware designs. In 2001, Apple launched Mac OS X version 10.0 — a reboot of its computer operating system which ditched the layers of code from the 1990s, and included onscreen window frames that looked like ribbed white plastic. Apple computer designs of the time were being simplified into pure white plastic. Software matched hardware.

Then, in 2003, Apple rolled out Mac OS X “Panther,” where onscreen windows now were surrounded by what looked to be brushed metal. Apple concurrently began shifting all computer hardware designs to aluminum, starting with high-end laptops until in 2007 the lower-end iMac was all metal. Again, software matched hardware.

Now, here comes a new Apple OS that shows layered glass. Apple launched it on its mobile gadgets, the most fiercely competitive space. Will transparent hardware follow? Hm. We know Steve Jobs loved glass; the staircases in high-end Apple stores are entirely translucent, and he demanded that the first iPhone have a scratch-resistant glass screen — rather than the plastic originally used in the iPhone prototype. The new $5 billion Apple headquarters planned for Cupertino will be filled with curved glass. And Apple has patents for curved glass gadgets, including a phone with a wraparound 360-degree screen.

Glass gadgets would set Apple apart from the rising tide of thin-rectangle competitors. A phone with a screen viewable from any angle wouldn’t appear as a thin metal slab — it could look like leaves or grass or clouds or anything. Curved glass would support radical new gadgets. Corning, which manufacturers the tough Gorilla Glass used in iPhones, has created a flexible product called Willow Glass that allows digital displays to bend into nearly any shape, such as a watch, bracelet or necklace. Glass would also support larger products; Philips has created digital windows that let light through with electronic “shades” or “leaves” that appear to block light when you need them. Big or small, round or flat, glass would push digital displays into the future.

There are still technical challenges. Transparent glass would reveal the batteries and electronics that make up the innards of mobile devices. Glass still can scratch, chip or shatter. But dissolving technology into such design nuance that it disappears into the environment completely would certainly be elegant. We hear Apple is into that.


Apple predicts the death of the CD

Notice anything new about the logo above?

With all the chatter about new Apple iPods and Ping and pricing this week, you may have missed this nuance: Apple removed the CD image from its iTunes logo. The little desktop icon has featured a music note over a compact disc for a decade, but no more. The CD is now a blue circle. Apple takes every design element seriously so it’s a move to watch — after all, Steve Jobs telegraphed the shift to aluminum casings for most Apple products by preceding them with an updated Mac OS that used brushed-aluminum color around the OS windows (you know, so it all matched like neat socks). Based on this little new music icon, soon your MacBooks may not have slots for CDs.

If you miss the old iTunes logo, you can follow @itunes10icon and @iTunes9icon on Twitter. The new and old icons have come to life and are arguing with each other over which is better.

Goodbye, gadgets

Around 1998 or so a funny thing happened to personal computers: they all started to look alike. Same plasticky keyboards, same ashen boxy monitors, and Dells and HPs all began to blend. Gateway resorted to opening retail stores with farm themes and shipping packages splotched with cow designs. PCs were slapped with stickers touting — wait for it — Intel chip speed to stand apart. But then flatpanels came along, and then Apple tweaked first colors and then glass-like translucent shells and then carved aluminum, the same cheap material you wrap leftover fish in — but, today if you peer above Engadget for a moment, you might see it.

Once again, gadgets are all starting to look alike.

They’re becoming frames. Just screen casings. Droid phones and iPhones and, yes, the best current example, the Apple iPad, just shells for digital content. (That’s right, you’re considering dropping five Benjamins for a black electronic frame.) Which makes us wonder, as we approach the singularity of device transparency, when the iGenie gadget of 2020 morphs from handset to laptop to big screen to projection on the wall of your bedroom, cradling content like a slender, almost invisible mother, will hardware designs even matter? Ludicrous to suggest, perhaps, as we still battle over cell phones with sliding keyboards or Kindleish left-right e-reader buttons. But the singularity is coming. How will device manufacturers compete when the view inside the window becomes more important than the border around it?

Image: Gizmodo via Photo Giddy.

Confusion as a design feature

Ever wonder why Facebook redesigns its interface every six months, often adding more complexity?

Deliberate confusion can be a positive design strategy. We’ve been thinking of this for several years now, tipped off by the annoyingly elaborate user interfaces at weather web sites (where you must click through three pages of busy links to find a simple forecast). Today’s most promising portals often require users to work hard to understand how to use them. Twitter? Yes, it’s only 140 characters, but try explaining retweets and @’s and DM’s and search and lists to a new user, and you realize the microblogging service has cleverly ensnared you in a complex learning curve. Facebook is even more confusing, yet consumers have responded in droves. The SharesPost marketplace, which places valuations on startup firms, recently suggested ubersillynetwork Facebook is now worth $11.5 billion due to its vast lattice of people poking and tossing Farmville updates at each other.

Part of this is psychological — humans feel rewarded when they solve puzzles or score points (um, Twitter follower counts anyone?) — and so complexity in design can make each experience feel novel again; the charm of Facebook, after all, is never knowing exactly what the hell you’ll find when you show up. Another rationale for complex designs is business strategy; if you force a user to spend more time on pages solving the puzzling interface, like on a weather site, you can sell more ad inventory. But the deepest driver of design confusion is human desire to make anything complex. We want more information built into human conversations or our physical space, which is why when you log in to work on a Monday morning you must now check work email, voicemail, Gmail, Google chat, cell phone messages, Facebook, Twitter, the physical mail and the fax just to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Confusing interfaces might drive the great visual thinker Edward Tufte nuts (he called superfluous design “chart junk“). Yet as the world of knowledge evolves, we hunger for more nuance to allow us to dive deeper into information. It will only get worse as data begins flowing into the real view of the surroundings around us. See the video above, a graduate thesis project by Julia Yu Tsao at Art Center College of Design.

Chart junk, we may hate you, but you are here to stay.

Inspired by Len Kendall.

The (un)controllable, (de)coherent path to multiverse results

If fate like any marketing campaign is a series of unexpected twists within a long story as unstoppable as a run-on sentence that could be stopped if only it had an editor, then you know that tossing two dice leads to 36 possible combinations of which only one will land on the table unless you buy in to the multiverse concept, the longer chain of our universe in which the world constantly divides into alternative, splitting realities (say, in this one you have a job but in the other one you’re a rock star) which of course bends the mind until you realize multiple universes are based on real physics experiments by scientists who discovered that small (yes, very small) subatomic particles behave strangely when observed, as if moving so fast they can’t be pinpointed in any single spot in space but instead randomly exist in two places at once until you view them and they settle down, like necking teenagers freezing under a cop’s spotlight, an idea best illustrated by putting a cat inside a steel box, as Erwin Schrödinger suggested in a horribly famous thought experiment, and also adding a vial of poison tied to a hammer to be whacked by a Geiger counter which in turn is connected to a single atom that might or might not decay radioactively in a given hour and then have the fate of the poor cat (do NOT try this at home) hinge on whether and if the atom does decay, tied to the whims of the elementary particles which as we said earlier in this sentence exist in two places at once, then the cat is both alive and dead in the box at the same time because its fate depends on the unrealities of the subatomic particles, until you open the door and observe it, in which event fluffy little Whiskers either meows happily or is looking a little gruesome soaked in hydrocyanic acid, as distasteful as tech geeks hitting up Cougars at a bar, because your act of observation has cast you into one fixed future, now the present (although in another reality you see exactly the opposite), which of course brings the reality chain back to ad campaigns in which marketing managers must align a series of events that are problematic because every tiny action in the chain can lead to an alternative reality, and a lot can go wrong in this multiverse coined by psychologist Williams James way back in 1895 in which Schrödinger’s dead-and-alive cat co-exists (or not) with your dead-or-alive marketing results, meaning you probably should focus less on the tagline in your creative and worry more about whether the entire response chain is working from ad impression to awareness to inquiry to call center to lead capture to hairy sales guys stepping in to credit check to ecstatic purchase to fulfillment to damn-we’ve-got-buyer’s-remorse, because this is our real point: in a world where every second splits the future into different pathways so much can go wrong that you have to control all the variables to get the process right, like an obsessive Six Sigma cheerleader in an ill-fitting suit squeezing potential errors out of the timeline such as whether wasted, spent consumers who carry mobile phones around in their pockets can dial a number easily from your ad and speak with a knowledgeable sales rep and not just type in the URL (although your hip agency says the web is hip and no one prints unhip phone numbers anymore), which of course is as silly as expecting online readers with social-media-attention-deficit-disorder to read a long blog post without clicking away to Google “necking teenagers”, because it’s damn near impossible to type on a laptop while driving in a car and who wants to get up from watching TV to boot up a computer anyway, so campaign designers must carefully plot the path to a future chain of events in which everything works perfectly like an improbable run-on sentence if your reputation, hell, job depends on avoiding a radioactive meltdown because who doesn’t want marketing results that act like lucky dice or sweating teenagers who never were discovered by the cop in the only perfect future that you want: the one that will make your CEO go meow?

Image: Spacepleb goes too far

We understand the challenge. has one main page, and few tricks (like to pull you deeper inside for multiple clicks to sell lots of ad inventory (although it is trying here). So has to get big bucks from its home page ad impressions.

But damn. Push ads too far and users will run away. Reminds us of the Clear Channel radio push in the late 1990s, in which commercial breaks crept to more than 12 minutes per hour, that led to diminished ratings and the radio network eventually backing down with a “Less Is More” campaign. In 2005 Clear Channel’s then-CEO John Hogan told USA Today “I distinctly remember driving to work in San Antonio and listening (to the radio) and thinking, ‘There’s no way that people are going to listen to this.’ ” What happened when Clear Channel reduced its commercials? Why, listeners came back, with ratings shooting up 5.3% in the Top 10 markets. Clear Channel defended revenues by raising rates on :30s to about 75% that of :60s and telling advertisers the impact would be largely the same. (Still, not all is well with the media giant thanks in part to a difficult recession.)

Worth a listen, Now excuse us while we look up a word on our Mac’s desktop widget.

Via Make the Logo Bigger.

We’ll have the 1960s Corn Flakes, please.

Marketers often chase consumers as if they were individual targets, like apples to be shot with an arrow.

But what about context? What if that apple is floating in a sea of changing demand? Consumer response is often swayed by environment, and environs swing wildly. Gas-guzzling trucks in the 1990s vs. efficient hybrids as we near 2010. Long-haired macho inspired by free love vs. short-haired crew cuts inspired by corporate wars. Ties vs. T-shirts. Paisley vs. plaid. If global warming turns out to be real and oil rises to $200 a barrel, or the world re-cools and gas falls back to $0.50 a gallon, how will consumers change then?

Design is in the air around us, pulled by vast winds. Does your marketing plan map contingencies for potential storms in the next decade?

Graphic: Guardian. Via: Swiss Miss.

The trouble with authenticity

The trouble with authenticity is it exposes your soul.

Anyone who has started a blog pauses and stumbles initially, trying to find the right voice, because really — inside each of us — we are all multitudes of people. Which inner secrets are you presenting? You have a different mode when you send an intimate text message to your spouse than you do when emailing your boss. Blogs and Twitter and Facebook all create opportunities to present different faces to the world.

People are trained by society to pull filters on and off like masks, but something about the solitude-yet-connected dissonance of social media makes it very hard to maintain these illusions. The real inner being peeks out, and the best material emerges when you finally say, well, what the hell, let’s take all the masks off.

The most interesting bloggers have a consistent, firm grip on their self-presentation, and they often expose things about themselves that are startlingly real. Andy, Bill, Chris, Danah, Darryl, Darwin, David, Michelle, Robert, Ryan, Seth, and whatever mad geniuses are behind the New Shelton all pull off authenticity. The worst blogs, which we won’t mention, are those with agendas so focused on selling their wares that they neglect to learn the lesson from Gary, which is to give more than you take. Which is OK … because time and again, the real givers, not takers, are the ones who rise within the social media world.

Perhaps this is ultimately the best contribution of new social media formats to society: not information, not networks, not speed, but simply the gravitational pull of our peers helping us all return to honesty.

We’re still working on finding our own authenticity. So today, we changed our blog’s font.

(Image courtesy Buffalo Fine Arts Academy; the painting, Half the Time, is a single uninterrupted brush stroke by James Nares that simply blows us away.)

Why media planners are (not) better than creatives

We get phone calls occasionally from students who want to know the difference between creative agencies and media planners. We explain that for advertising to work, you need both (a) strong communication design and (b) a detailed plan on where to put the message. After all, you’re not buying advertising; you’re really buying a customer. If you don’t have a media plan on how, where and when to reach the customer, it all won’t work.

Ah, but then we admit — creative is just as important. The best designers we know think of communication in algebraic terms, even if they claim to be bad at math. Consider the creative below for Westport Country Playhouse, a regional theater in New England, focused clearly on a new demographic target: women in their 30s and 40s who make decisions about dragging their husbands out to the theater (where the men may discover a really good time).

This creative shop, Plaid, focused a simple print campaign on a keen logical flow: most theater ads talk about products (the play); so to reach a new audience, let’s talk about the experience (the date). The result breaks through, and ties offline media into a sexy interactive campaign.

We recently met with another agency, O’Halloran, who focuses on Yellow Pages strategy. (Yellow Pages, for the uninitiated, is an extraordinarily complex beast, and careful planning can free up hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad placement.) They noted a research study that showed people are influenced to respond to a print ad based on information, ad size, graphic design, and color. Subtle changes in copy alone can affect 79% of the people who see the ad.

The point is good design really has no incremental cost. You need to pay for creative anyway; but the selection of a shop that can move people to emotional response with a logical response pathway, or simply mail in a horrible layout, can make all the difference.

Holiday shopping: Simple shoes, camcorder complex

Beating traffic, we shop the Web. Brilliance over at Abercrombie & Fitch with one of the simplest ecommerce designs we’ve seen in years. Click on the category, all the options appear as a horizontal series, and you swipe the scroll bar right to see everything. Probably works great for college kids in a hurry before Friday night parties.

Simple provides the coolest Earth-friendly shoes we’ve seen, made from bamboo and organic cotton. We feel good plopping down $90 for a piece of rubbery canvas.

And a big bad boo goes to the camcorder industry, for the various mind-fuddling formats that make moving from still pictures into video so difficult. Apparently, mini-DV is going out, DVD has some troubles, AVCHD is hi-def DVD that is sweet but doesn’t allow editing from many cams to Macs, HDV uses some form of mini-DV tapes, and hard drives are the best devices but should not be confused with HD … which means hi-def … but hi-def is available on hard drives. Got it? Camcorder Info at least helps us figure it out.

Maybe the very spirit of innovation that allows technology to progress so rapidly also creates this enormous fragmentation in the marketplace, where every private producer has an incentive to be incompatible with the other products. Simplicity is hard to find in commerce because complexity leads to the next level.

Speaking of which, we’re getting eggnog.