In 1980 graphic designer and typographer Helmut Schmid produced packaging design for Otsuka Pharmaceutical. these examples, featuring Univers, are amazing exercises in typographic clarity and a beautiful example of graphic design boiled down to information and clear communication. Nice colours too.
There is a great book covering the design of Helmut Schmid, ‘Design Is Attitude’ not sure if it’s still in print, details here. You can check out more of his work in the archive section of his website.
My last post on user experience methodology was on wireframing. I described my preferred method of sketching, or ‘low–fidelity wireframing’ (or the ‘appropriate fidelity of wireframing’, depending on how you look at it). I wrote that wireframing should be quick, throwaway, collaborative and iterative: the first step in a process leading on to the much more serious business of prototyping.
I ended that post with the caveat that UX methodology should be flexible in its focus and scope. Beware of those who preach a unified prescriptive UX or design methodology. Product or service, client and end user: all change, however subtly, with every project. Understanding and adapting to this is vital. Although Bill Buxton was referring to his definition of ‘sketching interaction’ with the following quote, and Buxton makes a clear distinction between sketching and prototyping (“sketch to get the right design, prototype to get the design right”) this quote could also apply to most rapid or lean UX techniques:
“There may be as many approaches to sketching interaction as there are products to design.”*
How we approach prototyping at my current place of work, digital publishing solutions provider Semantico, is defined by the nature of our content platform. Our platform is set up to enable our front end developers to take a concept from our UX team and quickly implement it into a working prototype. These concepts could be expressed through sketches on post-it notes, high fidelity Photoshop mockups or simple interactive wireframes built in HTML. What is important is the speed in which they can be turned into a working prototype in context with all the other elements and features our platform provides, ready for testing, either by a group of users or our own QA department.
Data, data, data
Another great advantage of prototyping on our platform is that we can easily load our clients data sets. By supporting standard markup definitions such as NLM (JATS), TEI and DocBook we can quickly load client data into our platform. By mapping each of these standard markups into a defined standard for metadata (Dublin Core) we have a solid basis on which to build features without having to worry about the original encoding of the data. This even comes in useful when loading data that is not in a supported standard, as we just have to perform a mapping from the supplied data into Dublin Core and it will then load into our platform.
Once loaded, we can perform quick data analysis using the Apache Solr search index. This enables us to pull out lists of values from the data and spot anomalous values. So as well as being able to quickly realise concepts from our UX team, we can also quickly see how our clients data is being displayed. From my point of view as a UX practitioner having access to client data early on in a projects lifecycle is invaluable. Our user testing activities – A/B or comparative testing, task based user testing and so on – all benefit by being able to put an accurate simulation of the end product in front of our testers.
Paper is best
It‘s not all about code and data and our prototyping activities are not restricted to our platform. We sometimes do a little paper prototyping, mainly around specific UI considerations. How an advanced search unit could work across different platforms with different data sets, for example. By moving and folding paper and making simple drawers, windows or sliders we can quickly get a feel of how an interactive element behaves. I have always been a fan of this ‘low fidelity’ approach (as you might be able to tell). I see paper prototyping like this as a simple extension of the sketchbook activity any decent interactive designer or UX professional undertakes.
I have also had the pleasure of working with a game designer (and Existential Psychotherapist) by the name of Ciaran O’Connor. Ciaran is a fan of paper prototyping for the testing of game mechanics – playing with Ciaran’s paper prototypes was always an insightful exercise. Issues in game mechanics that would previously only be evident on playing a build of the game could now be identified and ironed out at a much earlier stage. But what was really interesting to me was not the problem solving, but ideas for the addition of extra features that resulted from ‘playing’ the prototype. So the power of ‘playing’ a paper version of a digital game was twofold – a method of identifying and solving issues and as a creative tool for improvements and embellishments.
So at Semantico we are lucky to be able to rapidly prototype on an existing responsive platform with real client data, across a variety of devices. Without the usual fidelity issues and by using our clients content we can serve up a much more authentic experience for the user groups we test on.
We also see the value in simple interactive prototypes and paper prototyping for testing interface functionality. And with all our prototyping methods the aim is not only to detect and fix problems, but to see opportunities for the future development of our products and features.
A final comment – we also try not to get hung up on deliverables – we don’t fetishise the process. What is of real interest is the user insight we can gather and how quickly we can add that insight into our production processes.
A version of this post first appeared on the Semantico blog.
* Quoted from Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton.
Thoughts on the creative possibilities of the future textbook
There is a slightly tatty paperback on my bookshelf. It doesn’t often get to see the light of day but in its time it’s hung around various design studios and has been passed around any number of creative types. It is the 1975 paperback edition of Josef Albers’ teaching tool The Interaction of Color.
Originally published in 1963 The Interaction of Color presented Albers’ theory that colour was governed by an “internal and deceptive logic”. Alongside the texts and commentary in the original edition Albers included 150 silkscreened plates intended for use in the classroom.
However, it’s my tatty 1975 paperback (with its small number of illustrations) that many would best know: a limiting format that doesn’t do the work any justice. The Interaction of Color was never meant to be read in such a limited, linear fashion, divorced from its rich illustrations. As such it is a perfect work to be given the interactive treatment – and in July this year Yale University Press launched the The Interaction of Color iPad app.
As a designer working in digital publishing this is an exciting project. The impact of digital on the industry is obviously huge, and projects like The Interaction of Color iPad app are significant pointers to the capabilities of the future textbook.
Albers’ exercises are all included in the app. Users can create, compare, save and share their own colour experiments. And of course functions that enable linking, annotating and bookmarking are all included – as is video. This is an addition that Albers could have never anticipated and it is to the app designers’ credit that this video content sits seamlessly alongside the texts and interactive studies. The ability to create studies is the most powerful tool in the app. Studies can be saved, commented on and shared. Colour pallets can be created and saved and used across studies.
The app does not pander to the book metaphor. There are no page curls or skeuomorphic page turning animations and so on. Unlike much of the digital publishing industry, it does not wholly align itself to the physical and metaphorical. It is the kind of design project that rises above the hackneyed ‘flat vs skeuomorphic’ debate. This app has great visual design – with enough affordance and signposting to understand the interactive model without relying too heavily on metaphors.
The Interaction of Color feels like an appropriately designed experience. It does not simply pander to current design trends and is a fantastic example of the level of design excellence that can be achieved at the intersection of hardware and software.
It is obvious tablet usage is growing as the technology gets cheaper. Tesco has just launched a £119 tablet with the questionable name of Hudl (‘the whole family can huddle around the Hudl’). Tablets and smartphones are becoming ubiquitous and integrated into our lives in a way unimaginable just 10 years ago. There is a mass of evidence pointing to the rise of tablet and mobile devices in the realm of education.
I was lucky enough to catch postgraduate medical student Joshua Harding talk at UKSG 2013 back in April. His presentation described his transformation into a paperless student. He very succinctly summed up his issue with the printed textbook by showing a photo of the entire set of textbooks and ringbound notes from his first degree – a rather large pile.
His problem was obvious: how to quickly find information within that pile. So Joshua abandoned paper and went 100% digital. His iPad ‘study buddy’ was with him always, allowing him full access to all his texts wherever he might be. He could quickly find information through the search capabilities of his iPad. His notes and annotations were also made on his iPad – and could be linked and cross referenced with his textbook content.
Based on such experiences its easy to imagine the value of tablets in the classroom, and the opportunities digital brings to both instructors and students.
The networked device
There is a growing ‘standard’ feature set for digital texts. You can bookmark, highlight and annotate just like you could do with a paper textbook. But with digital you can also cite, track, organise, share, discuss and generally exploit the interconnectivities of the internet. No longer constrained by the linear format of the printed book, students can construct their own narratives individually and collectively and tailor the multitude of shared user generated narratives to their own needs.
The Kindle provides an excellent example of the usefulness of annotation tools within a networked environment. When a sentence gets highlighted everyone sees it – the more people that highlight the same sentence, the more affordance is given to the highlight that everyone sees. This functionality opens the door to user generated hierarchies just as link tracking helps generate user defined navigation.
To be able to align these sorts of social, utilitarian feature sets with the design consideration of texts such as The Interaction of Color and apply them to digital books that live online (and are therefore updatable, live, and delivered seamlessly across multiple devices) should be the utopian aim of today’s etextbook designers and developers.
In Future Shock (1970) Alvin Toffler argued that the accelerated rate of technological and social change caused people to be ‘Future Shocked’ or left in a state of “shattering stress and disorientation”. It was hard not to think about Future Shock when I attended the recent AGI Open panel discussion on the current state of editorial design. There seemed to be a little bit of Future Shock in the eyes of the venerable members of the AGI when digital was discussed.
But they were reassured by strong evidence that print is not dead, or even dying. Hyphen Press and Unit Editions provided perfect examples of publishers producing small runs of beautifully crafted books for a niche audience. A smaller run means more care over design and construction and has a parallel with music formats. Vinyl had been long pronounced dead but a new audience has now embraced this (apparently) anachronistic format. Sales are up and so is the quality: todays pressings all seem to be of the 180g variety – reassuringly thick and heavy. A little like my huge Unit Editions Herb Lubalin book:
So the book is not dead. It has a little life yet. It’s possibly going to be more specialised, more niche.
And with digital the opportunities and possibilities are there for all to see. The Interaction of Color app is an assured step into the future and hopefully a sign of things to come.
An edited (therefore probably less meandering) version of this post first appeared on the Semantico blog.
There is something weirdly odd but satisfying in seeing the aesthetic results of technological failure being realised as artefacts in the ‘real’ world. Glitch art has been kicking around as long as technology has been failing and recently there seems to be a new bunch of designers and artists creating some interesting glitch inspired art.
These self referencing, technical and cultural mashups are painfully post modern. As exercises in extreme cultural navel gazing they remind me of Ouroboros, the mythical snake that is constantly eating itself, the perfect symbol of eternal recurrence (and possibly postmodern regurgitated self referencing art culture …)
Here are three projects/artworks that I have come across over the last couple of months through various design blogs that are inspired by the glitch:
Glitch textiles by Phillip Stearns
These are just great, and what a good idea. Glitch art faithfully re-created as textiles. The lines of corrupted pixels make a great weave and Phillip Stearns is a clever man for making seeing this possibility and using Kickstarter to get this project up and running. Buy his glitch textiles here. … Also check out his Year Of The Glitch blog.
Abstract paintings by Beverly Fishman
Beverly Fishman produces abstract paintings that look just like corrupted bitmap images. I would imagine these 84″ wide, enamel on steel paintings would look impressive seeing them for real and I’m sure that glitched images are not her only influence … they kind of make me think of Koons and his aluminium ‘inflatables’ in an odd way – especially as I am looking at her paintings on a computer screen – they really do look like glitched out jpegs and I have to trust the accompanying copy telling me she’s an artist and these are paintings, just like I had to trust the little bit of text telling me a Koons’ ‘inflatable’ caterpillar was made of aluminium. Here is some serious art speak:
“The patterns of Beverly Fishman paintings are transcriptions of EKG, EEG, and neuron spike readouts, with some bar codes thrown in to add a social measure to the disembodied bodily data. And, for good measure, some of the patterns are derived from the modular shapes of the pills and capsules that are supposed to cure us of our ailments, mental as well as physical. The pattern registers time, giving it spatial form, a geometrical objectification that suggests that all our problems are subjective and thus of no great consequence, however fraught with understated consequence the diagnostic patterns are.” – Donald Kuspit.
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An architecture of density
These photographs of Hong Kong by Michael Wolf are just lovely. I cannot read any reference to glitched images on his site, so the inclusion of these images in this post is directly because of the meaning I put upon them. To me, they look like glitched out jpegs. Whether this was intended, whether glitch was an influence or reference I don’t know, but to my eyes, they certainly look like it.
A few recent sketchbook pages. I have been slow in my sketchbooks recently and after about six years of using Moleskines I have ditched them. Mainly because of the hefty prices Moleskines now charge – I feel I am subject to some kind of hipster tax. Moleskines recent crowd sourcing marketing fail also contributed to me moving on …
So more skulls (again) and Blondie.
A small disclaimer. I am an Apple user, and have had an iphone for a number of years now. I get on with the current interface but do find it a little over decorated. With ios7 I was hoping for some toning down of the various visual embellishments. I was excited about the more minimal approach Apple were said to be taking: I was looking forward to the dumping of the leather effect, the stitching and the green felt …
as flat as I could make it
I am using a slightly buggy developer version for this review (7 Beta 2), I will not comment on the really flaky bits as I am sure these will be fixed once the final version is launched. There has been a lot of talk around the interaction detail and I don’t want to add to the noise, but with so much chat over the design – chat all based around the same static images – I wanted to experience the operating system myself, on a device in my hand, interact with it and hopefully offer up a few salient comments.
I guess its a little harsh reviewing the design of a product still in development, I will try to keep this to a critique of the general aesthetic – what it looks like and how it feels to use. it’s difficult to judge what is a know issue and is going to be ironed out, and what are deliberate choices by Apples UI team.
To start there is the obvious talking point – the turning anti-clockwise of the Skeuomorphic dial and the flipping on of the Flat switch (sorry). I feel this whole skeuomorphic vs flat debate is overcooked, a generalization and focusing debate away from more important matters. And as for skeuomorphism, this overused term is one I look forward to seeing the back of (I am guilty of adding to the skeuomorphic noise myself). None of Apples design has even been truly skeuomorphic (can anything digital be skeuomorphic?) but I guess the word has a new life and a new context … in reality Apples OS has been heavy on the use of metaphors. These metaphors still exist in ios7 no matter how ‘flat’ the design. An example is the dials for setting time on the alarm. exactly the same as they were, a forward facing dial, receding on the top and bottom edges giving a 3D effect. So a metaphor then. Of a real dial. A stylistic change rather than a conceptual one and not exactly ‘flat’ at all.
So onto the ‘flat’ design. There are many instances where the minimal design really does look quite beautiful – the easily accessible settings screens look lovely, and the weather app certainly looks ‘nice’. The calculator, with its simple functionality, really benefits from the minimal aesthetic and the subtle ‘tapped’ animation on the buttons game me one of those nice ‘ahhhh’ moments.
The icons suit this minimal thin lined aesthetic but the thin Helvetica just doesn’t work for me (more on that later). With the weather app, a cloudy day means white thin Helvetica on white clouds renders the text unreadable – hopefully something that will be fixed on the final release.
… And talking of the Weather app, if I swipe down to reveal the overview panel, the weather is shown as a description. Without any visual clues I missed it … and tapping on the description takes me to the weather app – an interaction with absolutely no signposting – a slightly concerning issue.
The calendar, music player and Messages app are examples of how white space and pure typography doesn’t always work, especially for small screens with dense information. For all its cleanliness the reduction of structure makes it all look a little out of focus – with no clear delineation of content the elements on the screen feel a little lost. When looking through the messenger app I was hankering for a little decoration or colour (I never thought would write this but … ) a little drop shadow to lift the design and separate out the content a little.
The use of colour seems a little haphazard. In places garish colours seem to clash (the horrific Game Center homescreen) within other apps (the music player, Messages app) the lack of colour and predominantly white and grey colorway contribute to the lack of structure evident on these screens.
To be frank, I am not getting along with the thin Helvetica. Retina displays mean the screen resolution can do a good job rendering thin typefaces but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
I am not sure of the rationale for choosing this typeface – I am guessing that it was because connotations of slickness that Helvetica thin has are values Apple shares and aspires to, but unfortunately there are other connotations. Helvetica thin is the typeface of makeup counters, lipstick ads in fashion magazines, flyers for cheezy house clubnights … not all high flying fashion expensive watches and ‘aspiration’. My initial gut feeling was that it felt too much ‘fashion’, too ‘cheeze’.
I have seen the word ‘Holographic’ used for the subtle animated effect of the homescreen icons and background. again, this could be memory issues, but it was a little glitchy. It also felt a little Flash Parallax effect circa 2003 rather than 2013 cutting edge tech. Overall a little gimmicky. I felt the same about the number pad in the previous Beta version. Tapping a number makes made the numeral and its circular holder become transparent, briefly showing the parallaxing background behind. This should have been one of those lovely tactile moments you associate with a slick Apple Interface or transition but it just came across as a little, well, cheap. In the updated Beta version flat colour is used instead of the background – an improvement, but with a lovely ‘tapped’ animated effect in use for the calculator other conventions are really not needed – I hope these conventions are reduced and Apple go for one effect for each interaction.
There seems to be the addition of depth in the overall design strategy – the animated background that sometimes peeks through the layer above, all hint at navigating through, into, rather just from side to side – when transitioning in and out of apps, scale is part of the animation transition, again, hinting at navigating ‘through’ – this 3D aspect of the navigation is a possible clue for future development into interaction models and is the one genuinely exciting thing I get from i0s7.
The new minimal ‘flat’ (arghhhhhhhh) design almost works, most of the time it looks lovely. There is a slight lack of visual clues for interaction, rather worryingly so. For all the over-embellishment of the previous OS at least thought had gone into wayfaring and signposting. A little more thought needs to go into the design of the more dense screens but from what I have seen so far small tweaks will fix these, and I am confident the final release will have these issues solved.
The thin type just does not work. A bespoke face, designed for screen must surely be in the pipeline if Apple really are claiming to be leaders in mobile design. Culturally and practically, Helvetica Thin is just not suitable or appropriate.
The hints of navigating through a 3D space are intriguing even though it is just a hint, and it will be interesting to see if this ends up being just gimmick instead of a clue for future innovation.
I am looking forward to the final release, my main hope is that the interaction signposting and wayfaring is much clearer, I have confidence this will be so, and that at some future point they dump Helvetica Thin for a bespoke face designed by Apple for Apple devices. The Helvetica fanboys may not like it but it just ain’t right.