Essays On Design

Hans Hartmann, classic design and Machiine

is Machiine
If you don’t mind being embarrassed, you can learn anything.

What is it about some designs that they become more beautiful as time goes on. The same could be said of some artists, and some musicians and some songs. It’s true too of some humans. I think of Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela.

If there is one consistent theme to this blog, it is this: If you don’t mind being embarrassed, you can learn anything.

While playing with the above design on photoshop I stumbled upon the work of late Swiss designer Hans Hartmann.

Little is known about Hans Hartmann. Yet his work evokes the sense that their must be a compelling understory to his work.

Einspuren - Spur Halten (1963)
Einspuren – Spur Halten (1963)

“Einspuren – Spur Halten”, which roughly translates as “Meshing – Keep Track”. That is according to Google. It’s a telling image.

Sometimes I try too hard to create perfect solutions that will stand the test of time. It’s an easy trap for me to fall into, whether programming or renovating my home.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time you will notice that the posts are on seemingly random topics. The reason for this is that I want this to be an outlet for writing and sharing that will remain relevant as time and my interests change. While I was advised to write on just one topic, it doesn’t work for me. And, in return I’ve been very lucky. Machiine has had over 300,000 visitors and 536 interesting comments.

I think it comes down to this. If I wrote about a specific topic, I would be doing it for some result, such as to generate web traffic. Whereas, by writing about any topic that I’m actually interested in, I keep writing irregardless of the traffic. Any extra outcome is just a neat bonus.

So, I’ve just been writing and the themes that show up have been occurring naturally. Today, I had the thought about the heart of Machiine. It comes down to a natural interest in classic designs, in true and meaningful biographical stories, and sharing/recording what it is I am learning.

Thank you for your visits, comments and emails. They are appreciated. Most of all, I hope that you find the articles on this blog useful and meaningful to you.

Essays On Design

The beauty of imperfect

What do Christmas, responsive css design, National Geographic and a walk in the forest have in common?

The internet turns 25 and people are connecting via their PCs, tablets, phones, game stations, e-readers, … (you name it). The world of devices has changed. Yet, it feels like only yesterday that I met my first client curious about designing for mobile.

In those days research revolved around Nokia phones (as they were the most advanced at the time) and good ol’ flip phones.

So it felt odd when I realized that the internet was turning 25 years old and this blog wasn’t mobile friendly. Not to worry, Christmas was coming, and if there is one thing I love – it’s a good project. Converting a website to a responsive design is easy… child’s play really.

Maybe that’s how all great miss-adventures start. Pack light, plan for a day trip and then get lost.

Starting with the Mobile First Approach, I created a responsive WordPress theme. This is a really simple approach, simply put, you design the website for the smallest screen sizes first. When you are happy, expand the screen, and use media queries for the larger sizes.

Why’s this a good approach? Well, it reserves media queries for devices that are built to handle them (tablets and PCs). Secondly, the bloated design code that often comes when designing for larger screen sizes extends the clean css in the media queries. This is much better than the Web First Approach. Where the same css code is often written multiple times in order to remove style attributes for smaller screen sizes. As it so often happens.

And so the redesign began.

Off to a great start, the newly minted theme completed, a mistake followed. I asked my wife what she thought of it. Her reply came as a shock, “A bit boring” she said frankly.

I’ve always believed that honest feedback makes for a much better design.

So I took a step back and tried to rethink my approach. Maybe it could be better.

1 week later, 5 major redesigns, and nothing to show for it. I couldn’t believe how tough the redesign had become. Nothing seemed right about it.

Yesterday it started snowing. The mountains looked beautiful. Crisp and clean. And I decided to go for a walk.

Deer jumping in the forest

There’s something magical about nature. Nothings perfect and it couldn’t be made more perfectly.

Spend enough time there and it will reduce even the toughest problems to simple solutions.

I came across this deer while walking through the woods. It was painfully aware of my presence. Beautiful and graceful the quiet forest became alive as it leapt into the distance.

As it disappeared so too did my thoughts.

It seems that we love asking kids the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s possible you were asked this question too. So I’m going to ask you it again.

What do you want to be?

Take a second to think about it. Are you on your way to achieving it? Are you already doing what you love? Maybe you haven’t asked yourself this before.

For me, I love capturing moments. Growing up I wanted to work for National Geographic. I didn’t tell people this because it seemed too much of a dream. Instead I would say a doctor or a scientist. This seemed to please people and I came to believe that this was the answer they wanted to hear anyways.

 There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion Edgar Allan Poe

Photographers from National Geographic seemed to have mastered documenting imperfect moments.

National Geographic I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I look at one of their articles today it seems that they have given up on the idea of perfect and have captured something far richer instead. A story.

This brings me back to web design. By the time I returned home I was full of energy and a new direction. I embraced imperfect, threw out my code, and found a theme called Independent Publisher that was good enough.

In no time at all I had updated my blog and started writing instead. Sometimes running after the holy grail of web design – perfect code and a perfect design – leaves a person with a missed opportunity.

While walking in the woods I saw the analogy to life. At least to my own.

On Design

Why design matters a lot, but not the way we think!

The notion of UX design has been thrown around a lot in the web for the last few years. User experience is important, that’s easy to understand. The last time you had a negative experience at a restaurant or hotel did you go back? On the web it is no different, especially in a space where millions of people are landing on new websites for the first time every single day. If they have a bad experience they will probably never return. But the kind of design that I want to talk about is for the user who is already actively interacting with your product. Have you ever wondered if you designed it the best way possible? Why does that even matter if users are actively using it every day?

There is a guy named Timothy Presterograduated from MIT, who set out to solve a really important problem. Over 4 million babies are dying every year around the world for completely preventable reasons. Turns out half of those kids would make it, if you could just keep them warm. When Timothy, along with his team, created a solution it got on the cover of TIME magazine. Pretty good start, right?

Timothy quickly discovered that while they had created a really beautiful product designed to inspire, it never got used. In short, Timothy learned a really good lesson. Design a product so that it will be used, not so that it will win design awards. To do that he needed to change the way he thinks about design.

there’s no such thing as a dumb user,.. there are only dumb products.

We most often think of design as it relates to beauty. However, we need to think of design in multiple ways, including function. One of the things that Timothy learned is that “there’s no such thing as a dumb user,.. there are only dumb products.” We need to start creating products that are easy to use correctly, and hard to use wrong.

Have you ever noticed how programmers tend to create incredibly efficient code that is incredibly hard to use? Or how graphic designers often create truly stunning pieces without much thought into the real world ramifications.

Design matters a lot, it matters to users. Could you imagine how different an application like Photoshop would be if they created a product that was easy to use correctly and hard to use wrong. I’ve heard numerous conversations about the frustrations of Photoshop over the years.

Later, this same Timothy had another opportunity, this time to create a product to cure children of Jaundice. Apparently it’s very easy to cure. All you need to do is shine a blue light on an infant for a couple weeks. However, it’s also easy to use current products wrong. Because of it, children are needlessly dying. Timothy and his team designed their product so that it was easy to use right. The bucket only fits one child so the light covers all of the child and the design looks trustworthy so that doctors will trust it and use it.

Often when we think of design we focus on how it looks or what experience it gives the user. We know it’s a good design when it wins awards. However, people like Timothy are discovering that awards are not always the best way to judge design. Instead, if our goal is to create designs that make the world better then we need to focus on designing them to be used, not just to be admired.

On Design

Why products become classics.

Classic Raleigh Sprint

Why is it that some designs become classics while others do not? Some classics were loved right from the beginning while others were little loved and mostly ignored until much later. Yesterday I was greeted by my old polish neighbour, “do you want this bike? 10 bucks.” In our transaction that briefly followed I quickly realized that what he saw as an old, somewhat useful, bicycle while what I saw was an icon of British 70s culture and a classic.

This lead me to ask the aforementioned question, what is it that makes a product become a classic? I believe there are three elements that a product must have that will lead it to becoming a classic. I also believe that it is one of these elements that will answer why some classics are only recognized as such later.

The three elements are as follows:

1. Be beautifully designed.

2. Embody an ideal.

3. Visually represent the culture of its time.

What do these elements mean? Lets start with the first one, beauty. Beauty is rightfully relative to the beholder, yet some designs capture near universal appreciation. This is a core requirement for a design to become a classic. The design of a classic is appreciated by nearly everyone. Furthermore, the design of a classic stands the test of time. It doesn’t merely embody the design of a fad, but has universal principles of design, such as smooth contours or balanced color schemes.

Secondly, a classic usually embodies an ideal. Let’s think about the classic VW Beetle, “the car for the People”. Or the Porsche, “the car to show the world you made it”. Some ideals were respected, some hated and some were ignored. But usually later, as new products saturate the marketplace, the ideal of the classic stands out and becomes more attractive. The form of the classic becomes a visual representation of that ideal.

Lastly, a classic visually represents the culture of its time. Just as the ideal of a product becomes more obvious over time, so do the ideals of cultures. When those two ideals run in parallel a classic is formed. However, often a culture is not aware of the uniqueness of its time. Nor that the boring product that they take for granted will one day symbolize the ideals that they will become known for or believe in.

When an object, a product, captures all three of these elements it is known as a classic. We do not have to think of what makes a product a classic to recognize it as one. However, when you look at that 30+ year old bicycle sitting in the back of the yard, reminding you of a simpler time, a time before computers ruled the workplace and cellphones ruled the living rooms and buses, you realize it is more than a peace of art, its a symbol of hope and the simple life.