I’m back.

August 25, 2010

For the past few months I’ve been messing around with Adobe Illustrator. I’ve learned the basics of it, and am using it to design things that I think would look cool, such as a few t-shirts I’ve done.

The idea of this project is for me to show off my favourite fonts and the people who remind me of them. The font OCR Std A reminds me of Kraftwerk. If you knew their music you’d understand.

I’ve become completely engrossed by fonts and typography. Fonts are like people, in the way that they have families, share common characteristics, and also in the way that they don’t share common characteristics.

Here I was measuring the exact differences between Alte Haas Grotesk and its grandchild, Helvetica.

Alte Haas Grotesk and Helvetica pangrams.

It’s hård to see the difference at this level of zoom, but watch what happens when we zoom in at 1200%.

Alte Haas Grotesk and Helvetica lowercase r.

If you can blur your eyes, do it. You’ll see very little difference between them, but at 1200% zoom, we can see the beautiful and perfect intricacies that made me fall in love with Alte Haas Grotesk. Look at the little imperfections on it… the little lump at the base of the arm… the curve of the parts of the letters where they connect to the main stroke of a character… It’s so rugged and unpolished and organic. I love it.

So yeah, that’s what I’m up to these days. I’ve also started a company with Aileen named Light and Space photography. I’m the Chief Executive Officer, and she is the Chief Operating Officer. Basically, the company is an extension of my own vision, and I apply my vision, while she tells me what I need to do to have this vision realized to its fullest.

So far, we’re off to a great start. I’ll link to the website once it’s decently completed.

Image from MacPerformanceGuide.com

Right now, it is very likely that there is a spinning disk in your computer. Most desktop hard drives spin at 7200RPM, but some can get up to 15,000RPM. Think about that for a minute. At what RPM does your car switch gears? Maybe 4500 or so?

That quickly-spinning disk has all of your important information on it: pictures, email, documents, maybe even your home business. Desktop hard drive density is now at a maximum of 2 terabytes. That’s 2,000 gigabytes. My first computer had .5mb floppy disks the size of a small dinner plate. Notebook drives currently max out at 500GB, although there are 1- and 1.5TB drives in the works.

Here’s a brief overview of how a hard drive works:

Image from wikipedia

A traditional hard drive has one or many spinning disk platters that vary in data density. They rotate at speeds up to 15,000RPM, and there are little readers called ‘heads’ that sit very close to the spinning platters. By close, I mean tens of nanometers. That’s the width of a few blood cells. Some notebook drives are equipped with motion sensors, to detect when the computer is being dropped, and will ‘park’ the read/write head in a safe place where no damage to data can be done.

SSD stands for Solid State Device. These drives can store large amounts of data, although not at densities that can compete with traditional, spinning hard drives. The SS in the SSD implies that there are no moving parts, so these drives don’t suffer the mechanical faults and bottlenecks that traditional hard drives do, such as power consumption and the possibility of data corruption due to shock.

Some of the characteristics of hard drives are noise, vibration, and data seek delay. The delay is caused by the read/write head having to move around the disk, as well as the time it takes to spin up a hard drive that is ‘asleep’ for power conservation reasons. Samsung, which has pretty much cornered the market on flash memory, along with Toshiba, lays it out pretty nicely in this diagram:

As you can see, a flash-based SSD drive is much different. It uses no moving parts, so there is no danger of a disk head crashing on the surface of a platter. In fact, there are no platters. No spinning. It acts the same way as RAM in a computer uses, except it’s non-volatile, meaning that when you turn off your computer, the contents of a flash-based SSD remain intact. It’s also much lighter, uses much less power, can withstand much more powerful shocks, and operates at a wider range of temperatures. The one difference: Cost. A 500GB 7200RPM laptop hard drive will cost about $200, while an SSD drive would be nearly $2000. More reasonably priced SSD drives are available, but at the cost of capacity.


Being a ‘regular’ hard drive user, I was interested to spend a weekend with a computer that uses a flash-based SSD hard drive. The difference between my computer and my coworker’s were pretty minimal. Mine is an early 2008 MacBook, and hers is a late 2009 MacBook. It has a wider system bus (the “road” between the processor, RAM, and hard drive), and a faster CPU. That’s where the differences stop. I have a high-speed 500GB 7200RPM hard drive in my laptop, while she has a 120GB SSD. The difference was nothing short of incredible:

I hate the sound of my own voice.

Anyway, in conclusion, flash-based mass storage devices carry many advantages over traditional, ‘moving’ hard drives. Like anything new, they cost a lot. And also like anything new, in a year or two the price of these drives will be low enough, at significant enough capacities, to fully replace traditional hard drives altogether. I’ve had a few drives fail on me in the past. One’s motor died. I have years of photos sitting on those platters, inaccessible to anyone without the proper skill to get inside it and fix it. It would also require a clean room to fix.

More iPad thoughts

February 3, 2010

Image © Mission Repair

Oh what could have been…

Video chat

Turns out the iPad’s chassis has room for a camera, much like the 3rd generation iPod touch does. Looks like Apple pulled the decision to integrate a camera at the last minute. I can’t really guess why. It would really be a killer feature. Video chat in a tablet. The real issue would be that video chat would have to support more than just iChat, since Apple computers still only account for a small percentage of the market. It would have to support MSN and Skype. Out of the box, Mac OS X only supports iChat. Another consideration would be the network traffic generated by video chat over a 3G cellular network.

In Asia, video chat on cell phones is a pretty popular thing, as impractical as it seems. AT&T is already having enough trouble coping with the huge volume of traffic generated from the iPhones on its network. And make no mistake, the iPad will be a gigantic success.

Video conferencing on the iPad would be a cool feature, but more of a novelty than something that’s actually functional. I can’t imagine having a serious meeting with coworkers on a device like the iPad, especially as I mentioned before, it will likely only support iChat, which only runs under Mac OS X.

Jailbreaking and customization

In April 2008, Apple acquired a company called PA Semiconductor for the low-low price of $278,000,000, a mere drop in the bucket in comparison to Apple’s cash reserve of about $20,000,000,000. This company designs custom chips. Apple’s iPad is the first device to have a chip built in-house.

It’s called the Apple A4. Of course, details are few and far between, but it’s a ‘system on a chip’ design that houses an ARM-based CPU as well as a GPU. My concern is the kind of built-in security that is possible with a chip that’s specifically designed for the hardware. There could be some kind of fishy hardware-software handshaking, much like the security on the Xbox 360 that has made it nearly impervious to hacking and modification. Here’s how it works, from what I understand. Each Xbox 360 game is ‘signed’ by Microsoft with  special code. The DVD drive in the 360 has a unique key, as does the processor. The system checks the DVD key against the CPU key. If they match, the game will run. If they don’t match, the game won’t run. Something like that. I don’t really know that much about this stuff.

Anyway, theoretically, Apple could lock each application to the unique CPU identifier embedded in each A4 chip. This, combined with boot ROM signing, could be very effective in preventing unauthorized modification to the system software. If the boot ROM checksum fails against the CPU, the system could simply refuse to boot.

Before George Hotz hacked the first iPhone, the above picture was the only way to unlock an iPhone: a physical hardware hack, complete with soldering.

Part of what made the iPhone so successful wasn’t only its impeccable design and software, but its ability to be split wide open, and to be able to install applications that weren’t sanctioned by Apple. The iPhone hacking scene actually had 3rd-party applications out before Apple even opened their App Store. This shows the ambition and innovation that exists. With each firmware update, Apple strives to patch the tiny little holes in their baseband firmware (the software that lets the iPhone make calls). And each time they release an update, some genius finds a way to crash the baseband, allowing for an injection of custom code, which is why we have unlocked iPhones today.

So, let’s hope Apple gives us a few little holes so that we can have a wonderful, open device. I’d love to see Apple embracing open-source software. After all, Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD…

Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Alright.

Apple has finally announced its tablet computer.

It will be available in 2 flavours: WiFi and WiFi + 3G. The WiFi version will obviously be able to connect to 802.11* wireless networks, and the 3G model will have WiFi connectivity as well as 3G cellular data access, which will enable you to use the iPad nearly anywhere where there is a 3G cellular network.

At first, my response was what everyone else has been saying… that it’s just a big iPod touch. This may be so, but think about what an iPod touch is. It’s a computer. In your pocket. At first, it, as well as the iPhone that came a few months before it, had only the very basic applications that Apple shipped with it: the Safari web browser, a notes application, a stocks application, a calculator, a weather app, a mail app, a YouTube client, and a clock.

Then came the jailbreaking scene, which opened up these devices and gave us a preview of what they’re capable of. Then, on October 17th, 2007, Apple released the iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK). The SDK opened up development to anyone who wanted to give it a shot, and many multi-million dollar companies have had huge success creating applications and content for the App Store.

75,000,000 people already know how to use the iPad.

I see the iPod touch and the iPhone as Apple testing the waters for what would be their entry into the ultra-mobile computer market. They wanted to see what worked and what didn’t in terms of touch gestures and applications. Don’t get me wrong… the iPod touch and the iPhone are both huge products for Apple, but I really think they were testing out people’s reaction to a touch interface.

They have absolutely nailed it now, with the iPod touch and iPhone software reaching version 3.1.2. The level of refinement is unparalleled.

So, Apple is now in a position where about 75,000,000 people know how to use the iPhone and iPod touch software. Their multitouch technology has been implemented in their notebooks as well, and you can use familiar iPhone and iPod touch gestures within Mac OS X itself. Their new Magic Mouse (which is absolutely the best mouse I’ve ever used) also uses multitouch technology. I believe it has the same touch processor as the iPhone.

So, what does it do?

… aside from the obvious

The iPad is first and foremost a computer. You can do word processing, web browsing, watch media, and play games with it. It’s more than the sum of its parts. It is a real media machine, and makes use of Apple’s App Store, which has sold over 3,000,000,000 applications since its inception about 18 months ago.

eBook  reader

It also functions as an eBook reader. Apple will launch the iBook store, alongside the launch of the iPad. eBooks will be a joy to read on its 9.75 inch, nearly 25 centimeter diagonal screen. I don’t know how it will fare in the outdoors, because of its glossy glass display, in comparison to Amazon.com’s incredibly successful eBook reader, the Kindle, which uses a 6 inch, or 15.5 centimeter display. The difference, aside from size, is that the Kindle uses a grayscale display with a matte finish, which makes it much easier to read in the sun.

Image from Kotaku

Gaming system

The iPad also features the same hardware accelerated OpenGL support that the new iPod touch and iPhone 3GS use. This allows for awesome video performance in games and other graphically-intensive applications, such as presentation applications. During the introductory keynote, EA showed off an awesome demo of the iPad in action playing a new version of Need for Speed. They didn’t give any technical information, but it looked to be running at a good 30 frames per second, at least. I don’t know, I can’t count that fast. It looked awesome, and took advantage of the accelerometer built into the iPad to facilitate steering.

Mobile web browser

Image © 2010 Apple Inc.

Apple promises that this will be the best web browsing experience around. Judging by the keynote, it will definitely deliver on that promise. The iPad uses a slightly modified version of the mobile Safari that’s included with the iPhone and iPod touch. All of the reviews I’ve seen marvel in its speed and ease of use. With iPad’s custom 1GHz processor, I can imagine it flies. It still seems to lack Flash support. For me, I don’t really use Flash much, so it’s not a big deal. For others, this is a pretty big deal breaker. I can’t really see why, because I find Flash to be a resource hogging pile of crap, and I find it’s over-used in web advertisements. So a lack of Flash support to me means that I won’t be seeing many ads. Nice.

Just as with the iPhone and iPod touch, you can navigate a webpage through a combination of intuitive touch gestures, such as pinching and swiping. It behaves exactly the same as the iPhone and iPod touch do, but on a much larger screen. It looks pretty awesome to use the full reach of your fingers to navigate a webpage. This is the stuff I dreamed about when I was a kid. Which brings me to the next part…

Maps

Image © 2010 Apple, Inc.

When I first played with the Maps application on the iPod touch, I was damn impressed… almost giddy. Now we’ve got Google maps on this thing, and it looks absolutely incredible. One of my disappointments with the iPad is the lack of a true GPS chip in it. What’s the deal with that? They certainly could have fit it in there. The WiFi + 3G version does include assisted GPS, which can be pretty darn accurate. Still, there’s no real reason for them not to include a GPS chip, unless they don’t want to step on TomTom’s toes.

Word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets

Image from Engadget

This is a big deal. Apple announced iWork for the iPad. It looks absolutely awesome. Some will argue that the virtual keyboard won’t allow for fast and comfortable typing. However, this has long been an argument against the iPhone… and again… over 75,000,000 people are already comfortable using this kind of keyboard, so I can’t foresee it being an issue. I was at first a bit skeptical about the virtual keyboard on my first iPod touch, but I quickly grew accustomed to it, especially its autocompletion and automatic spelling correction. I can type a lot faster on an iPhone than on a Blackberry. I think I would be quite comfortable using the iPad as a note taking device in class (if I had classes). Touch keyboards are good for some, bothersome for others. Luckily I’m one of those who doesn’t have much of a problem with them.

The word processing aspect of the iWork suite is pretty self-explanatory. I wondered how they would implement a presentation application on this thing. Much to my delight, the demo that Phil Schiller did during the keynote sold me on the fact that this is a very capable piece of software that can do anything that the desktop version can. It uses intuitive gestures to add and arrange content. I was very impressed at the cleverness of the way they implemented touch gestures into this. The spreadsheet application is also pretty awesome, both on the desktop and iPad versions. You can easily tell that Apple spent a lot of time and attention to getting this just right, as they always do to every product.

Design

Image © 2010 Apple, Inc.

It’s clear that this piece of hardware is the brainchild of Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of design. It’s as minimalist as it gets. As he put it… there’s a display, and then… nothing… or something like that. The whole thing is based around the awesome screen. There is a power on/off/sleep button, a home button, a volume rocker, and a mute button. That’s it.

The iPad has an accelerometer built in, meaning it’s orientation-aware, so you can use the iPad in portrait or landscape mode, and the device will organize the screen content to fit. It uses a 4:3 aspect ratio, so landscape orientation may be more suitable for times when you need a wider view, such as watching movies or reading a book.

Image © 2010 Apple, Inc.

I’ve read a few complaints that the aspect ratio isn’t 16:9, or another widescreen configuration. This wouldn’t make sense as a device that’s designed to read webpages as well as be portable. I’ve also read some criticism about the bezel, the black area surrounding the screen. I have one thing to say about that:

Our blessed thumbs...

Humans and higher primates have been blessed with opposable thumbs. We use them to grasp things such as tools, beer, and the iPad. If I’m holding it, I don’t want my thumb to activate that part of the touch sensor and mess up my input. The bezel is there for a reason; to allow us to hold it. Imagine it had no bezel:

Sorry for the awful Photoshop job.

Actually that looks pretty awesome. But imagine holding it. Your thumb would definitely interfere.

Its dimensions are as follows: 9.56 inches (242.8mm) tall, 7.47 inches (189.7mm) wide, 0.5 inches (13.4mm) thick (!!) That’s as thin as an iPhone.

It weighs about 1.5 pounds, or ~.7 of a kilogram. I think this is the ideal weight for something like this. I wouldn’t want it to be too light, or it would feel cheap. Too heavy and it would be awkward to hold.

Conclusion

Awww... look how proud he is.

Many people are going to doubt this, but I think that the iPad will change the way we look at portable computers. Netbooks have made some great progress, but as Steve Jobs himself said, they’re not really good at thing, aside from being portable. They’re generally outfitted with small, low-quality displays, cramped keyboards, and run Windows. Apple has made an effort in the ultraportable world with the MacBook air, but this is by no means a true ‘ultraportable’ in my eyes. It’s still got the same footprint as a regular MacBook.

The iPad is a good product to sit between a full-sized notebook and a smartphone. One major gripe I have is the fact that it doesn’t run Mac OS X. I can understand the need for a mouse in such a situation though. I can’t imagine how I would make OS X work without a mouse, but I’m sure Apple can figure out a way.

The iPad doesn’t offer the flexibility of a netbook, and is locked down by Apple’s ungodly DRM (to what extent we will soon find out). One big selling point for me would be its ability to be jailbroken, open wide so that I can install any application I want on it, and do other things that Apple would deem inappropriate, such as WiFi wardriving. The controls that a company has over its devices are ultimately the weakest point of a device.

Apple has dropped a bombshell on the computing world. The iPad is about 10 years in the making, and it shows that Apple has spent every minute carefully calculating and designing this product to be the best in its class. What else is in its class, actually? I can’t think of anything.

This will change the way we interact with computers, and will popularize the use of touch technology. This device is the culmination of much experimentation with the iPhone and iPod touch, and I see the iPad as a stepping stone to the ultimate introduction of touch screens in Apple’s future desktop and notebook offerings.

Braun: An industry pioneer

January 27, 2010

Braun HF 1, Germany 1958

For my money, aside from Apple, there isn’t another company in the world that takes design as seriously as Braun. Their current designs are pretty cool, but their design in the 50′s, largely done by Dieter Rams, are still some of the most succinct and communicative designs in appliances and electronics that I’ve ever seen.

Take this radio for example. I showed some 7 year olds this picture, and asked them what it is. They immediately said ‘It’s a radio!” I asked them why they think it’s a radio. They said that the music comes out of the circle, and the other circle is to change the station (roughly translated). This is exactly why the design is so great. It communicates its exact usage in a very simple way. Look at that thing! It was designed in the early 1960′s. I would love to have one of these things today, just because of how cool the form is. A simple brick, with simple controls.

“Order rather than confusion, quiet rather than loud, unobtrusive rather than exciting, sparse rather than profuse, and well-balanced rather than exalted.”
- Dieter Rams

A great sentence fragment from a great designer.

After doing some research, I found something quite interesting…

Hrmmmm...

Interesting, no? That’s the Braun T3 Pocket Radio next to Apple’s first-generation iPod. If you don’t see the similarities between these two, I advise you get your glasses checked.

Gizmodo did a great article a while back on Apple’s Braun-inspired designs in basically all of their main products, including the iMac, iPod, and the Mac Pro.

To close, I’ll leave you with Dieter Rams’ 10 design principles:

  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design helps us to understand a product
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is long-lasting
  • Good design is consequent to the last detail
  • Good design is concerned with the environment
  • Good design is as little design as possible

Application design

January 26, 2010

Google Chrome under Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Computers have become a tool we use every day for word processing, browsing the internet, games, and so much more. We use them so much that we probably don’t pay much attention to the way that applications are designed.

The common applications we use are typically pretty well-designed. They use icon and text buttons to allow us to perform different functions. The design of the buttons is very important, and must convey a clear meaning of the tasks they perform.

Let’s have a look at Google’s Chrome browser. I love this browser, aside from the fact that it doesn’t support ad blocking. It would be my main browser if it did, but it doesn’t, so I use Firefox most of the time. Google Chrome uses a pretty unique tab system to allow for multiple web pages to be open at the same time:

Here I have 4 tabs open. Each tab is a different webpage, with its title displayed on its respective tab. Hurray for Captain Obvious, right?

Chrome does it differently than Firefox and Safari. The tabs are kept in the titlebar. This is neither better nor worse than the way Safari does it:

Anyway, the idea behind this is to have everything you need in one area, for quick access. Firefox has a really simple yet effective way to change tabs without having to use the mouse. This can save a lot of time. Under Mac OS, you press command-# to switch tabs. So if I want to view tab 3, I press Command-3. Neat.

In my mind, a properly designed application should leave very little to the imagination. You should know exactly how to use it within 10 minutes of your first use. Microsoft Word is a very good example of proper application design that communicates various functions.

As you can see, they tried to put all the main functions together. It’s pretty cramped, so they used icons instead of text. You can see very easily what the various buttons do just by looking at their icons. Font size, alignment, spacing, and font properties can all be changed from this main toolbar.

The goal of software designers should be to make the applications as concise as possible, and to avoid confusion by using very clear icons that convey the meaning of the function that the individual buttons perform.

I don't have any retarded cousins, but you get the idea.

There was a time when Comic Sans was cool. I think it was back in 1995 or so when Microsoft shipped it as part of the default font pack for Windows 95, and then in Microsoft Office, as part of the Publisher program.

It was created by a guy named Vincent Connare as a font designed for comic books, and similar usage. That’s just about the only place it;s useful.

In the documentaries I’ve watched about typography, I’ve heard something said again and again; that a typeface should be like a crystal wine glass, where the typeface is like the glass, and the actual content is the wine. A well-designed typeface becomes almost ‘invisible’, or uninvolved in the conveying of the message. In other words, the glass is transparent, so we can make adequate observations about the wine itself, which is what we use the glass for in the first place.

Comic Sans is like a gaudy, gold, jewel-encrusted goblet. It distracts us too much from the wine itself.

I notice it used a lot in the educational materials I deal with day to day. I’m sitting in front of a box covered in it, talking about how this product will ‘allow for processes which help their perceptual development, which is a necessary skill for learning to read and write.’ This is of course targeted at kids, so alright, the use of a non-serious business font is ok with me.

It’s when companies use it in their logos that I start to get confused. I can’t show you concrete examples, but here in Seoul, many companies use it where it’s completely uncalled for. A candy store, ok. A restaurant that isn’t targeted to children? No.

Inspired by a documentary I saw, I’ve whipped up a couple of common logos, using Comic Sans, instead of the typeface that the company chose. Here are the results:

It’s kind of hard to imagine someone trusting their important documents with FedEx in Comic Sans, isn’t it? Same for Adidas.. it makes the brand feel kinda fat and slow-moving.

I shouldn’t say I’m against the font itself. It does have its uses. But what gets me is how it’s overused, and used in situations where it’s not appropriate.

Typographers will criticize its default kerning.

To be honest, I don’t know nearly enough about typography to start talking about that stuff, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, lest a real designer visits this site someday.

I think this post will be a work in progress. I’ll see if I can dig up some examples of Comic Sans used when not appropriate.

Automotive genetics

January 19, 2010

Image copyright Coconut photography

Since I was a kid, I’ve noticed that cars have certain features that they share with the rest of the cars by the same manufacturer, that is if the designers care. As each year passes, the cars evolve new looks, but those looks are deeply rooted in the past.

Take the Ferrari 300-series for example. Pictured above is the Ferrari 328GTB, first introduced in 1985. Its successors have followed a very similar design in terms of the main lines of the design. Here’s the Ferrari 360 Modena.

This car was first introduced in 1999. If you look close enough, you can see that the main lines on the sides of the car have remained relatively intact. To me, this creates prestige for the brand. It shows a slow evolution in style and design that few other car designers are able to replicate. The lines evolve gracefully, and those paying attention can really notice the natural progression from one year to the next.

Porsche is another company that does this very well.

Note the graceful progression that the designs take during each iteration. Each of these cars is different, but still easily recognized as Porsche. In some cases, new designs will revert back to previous designs. Take a look at the headlights on this 2005 Porsche 911 Turbo (one of my favourite cars of all time):

Now look at the current design:

When Porsche changed the headlights back to the single-light design back in 2007 (I think), I was a bit disappointed because the design of the headlights was a very important visual feature to me. They looked… technological… complex. Definitely unique to Porsche. I had never seen headlights like the ones Porsche was previously using.

A couple of years ago, Dodge reintroduced the Charger. When I had heard the news about this, I was immediately disappointed, because the original design of the charger was striking and communicated the power and purpose of the car in a very clear way:

1968 Dodge Charger

Simple, boxy, with the aerodynamics of a brick. I love this car. Here’s the new Charger for comparison:

I was thoroughly disappointed. The car bears very little resemblance to its original design. That’s fine, because it’s a new car, but it doesn’t even carry the genetics of the original Charger. It doesn’t do the name justice. They should have kept some of the original design elements that made the original Charger look so formidable, like the front grill and the awesome mechanical headlights. The new Charger is a feeble attempt at rebranding a previous success.

So, there are my opinions on car design and genetics. I could go on and on, but I chose to focus on a few primary areas. Porsche and Ferrari are two companies that care deeply about design, and their cars reflect this in a very elegant way. Other companies, such as Kia and Hyundai pay little attention to design and lineage, and this to me is a big part of what gives cars their design value.

Website design also has its ups and downs. I judge a website’s design by a few factors: load time, visual noise, and functionality.

Google takes the cake in all of these areas. Even on a slow connection, google.com loads in seconds, with only one graphic, and a simple search box. It has virtually zero visual noise, with a white background. Its functionality is unparalleled. The page loads with the cursor in the search box, ready for your input. It even auto-completes your search using useful suggestions based on popular searches.

Then there’s Yahoo.

Look how cluttered that is. If I want to search for something, I don’t care about Julia Roberts.

The worst offender, however, is a very popular Korean search engine called Daum. Their homepage loads with flash animations, sometimes with sound. Animated GIF images, flashy ads everywhere. This site is the visual representation of a migraine headache:

Those 2 purple boxes are flash animations. There should be a warning for epileptic people on the main page. I understand that popular websites require a lot of bandwidth and engineering, but flashy animated, loud flash ads are just unforgivable. I’m so thankful for Firefox and the adblock addon.

A well-designed website should be simple and functional. I should immediately be able to perform the task that I set out to do when I visited the site, not navigate through a barrage of ads and flashy distractions. Let’s all hope that future website designers take note and design sites that are both functional and simple.

On minimalism

January 15, 2010

Minimalist chair from Evinco

I’ve always been a fan of peace and calm. Don’t ask my parents that, though.

In my eyes, minimalism is doing the most with the least amount of material and effort. Minimalism is making one part perform many functions. Minimalism is unobtrusive and timeless. Minimalism is utilitarian while still retaining a pleasing aesthetic. One of the best examples of minimalist and functional design, to me, is the MacBook Air’s topcase:

Apple's MacBook Air top case, bottom view

This one part is designed to perform the function of many different parts. It holds all the screw mounts (if that’s what you call them) that are needed to keep the whole computer together. The result is a notebook of unparalleled thinness. This is a testament to the complexity that a very simple design can hold. Here’s the MacBook Air when it’s put together:

Image copyright TechSassy

Nothing short of gorgeous. But why? It’s so simple. Aluminum with black keys. Thin. A uniform bezel around the screen. Let’s take a look at a Toshiba model that I find particularly ugly:

This is what most people are used to in a notebook. Why is it ugly to me? Look at how ‘busy’ it is. The speakers are clearly outlined with a different-coloured ring. The webcam is highlighted by a high-contrast metal-looking material. The trackpad button is also highlighted by the same colored bezel as the webcam. All the ports are clearly in view. Look at the labels on the optical drive. Why are these things there? To remind us that the laptop has speakers and a webcam? To remind us that it’s a DVD-RW drive? We already knew that when we bought the computer, so why do we have to keep an eye on them? We intrinsically know where the trackpad buttons are by now; we don’t need them contrasted from the rest of the computer.

The only way we know that the MacBook air has a webcam is the small dot, which needs to be there in order for the webcam to function. There is a hidden indicator light beside the laptop, which is only visible when the webcam is in use. When it’s not, you can’t see it.

In the documentary “Objectified”, Apple’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, explains why the indicators are hidden. He takes it back to the sole purpose of an indicator: to show when something is happening, or when something is in use. When nothing is happening, and a particular part is not in use, the indicator should not be visible, in order to keep all attention focused on the most important aspect of a computer, which is the display. It is in this way that Apple’s approach to design really appeals to me. They only have you look at something when it needs your attention, and hide it when it doesn’t. It’s like driving a car, and inside the car there are flashing lights telling you where the gas and brake pedals are. You already know where they are, so why would you need the lights diverting your attention to them?

This is me.

I take this same approach with my own ‘style’. My look reflects my attitude about myself and the world. I don’t wear jewelry or expensive clothing, and I have many pair of the same jeans. Most people would think that’s weird, but I dress this way for two reasons. One, my personality is much more interesting than my outward appearance, and two, for the simplicity of it. Many of the shirts I see for sale these days even have gold embossing on them. You would not catch me dead wearing something as noisy and distracting as that.

I myself exercise minimalism every day. There’s a reason that I have 4 pair of the same jeans. It’s the same reason that I only wear single-colour shirts. Only recently have I started wearing colored shirts; before then, it was only white.

I feel that our lives are cluttered and polluted by noise, bad design, and bad taste. I myself feel that I should exude my own displeasure with what is popular, and just wear things that I myself find appealing. Look closely. Relaxed jeans, a single-colored shirt. My shoes are kind of funky because I put some green laces on them. That’s me dressing up.

E.D. Hardy drank red metallic paint and shot diarrhea on a piece of cotton.

Take this shirt for example. It’s so noisy. What is it even trying to say? This shirt has the same personality of that annoying guy drunk and on drugs at the bar that you try to ignore. It’s saying “Hey! Listen to me!” Intrigued, you say “Yes, sir? What have you?”, to which he replies “FGSFDS”, and insists that those are the most intellectual words ever spoken. 20 years from now, people will reel back looking at a shirt like this, but now it’s popular. Oh, and that shirt is $100. My shirt was $5.

Ok one more thing. This is getting long. Yeah, Apple stuff and ‘designed’ stuff is more expensive. Shouldn’t minimalist things cost less? I agree. A simple design that uses less material should surely cost less than a gaudy, blown-out version of nearly the same thing. I don’t have much money, but it is my thought that a less-trendy, more timeless item with a well-thought-out design is going to last much longer, both aesthetically and mechanically, than a product that is thrown together quickly with the most bells and whistles that are available at the time.

Another one of my favourite computer designs that has certainly stood the test of time is IBM’s ThinkPad series. The computers have retained the same bloody design for nearly 20 years. Why mess with a good thing? It’s a simple, minimalist, utilitarian design that in my eyes is further evidence that design need not be busy and cluttered, but simple. The ThinkPad’s design fully communicates its purpose. It is a business-class notebook that is both robust and functional.

So yeah, that is my opinion on minimalism. I could go into minimalist art and music and such, but I will stick mainly with what I know best, and that’s computers and technology, and myself.

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