Archive of February 2015

Notes on How the Web Works & Native vs. Web

Now that class is over, I finally have some time to look over what my students have been posting this past month. Melbity has some great notes from a lecture I gave.

These technology-oriented topics are always a challenge for me to address with design students because there is a very real question as to the extent to which designers should be familiar with the underlying technology that their work gets built in, even whether they should be able to build out designs themselves.

My medium of choice is clearly the web, although I have a great deal of respect for designers who work with other media. To me, there isn’t a large gap between designing for the web and designing for native apps, since they both tend to be screen-based and interactive.

At any rate, I was happy with how my approach went this time, and I’m glad Melbity was there to take notes.

Midnight Breakfast Issue 7

Rebecca Rubenstein, in her introduction to the issue:

Maybe it’s because I fundamentally believe books have the power to alter us, to shape us, and yes, to even save our lives. Maybe it’s because I know the ways in which words can affect us—the ways sentences and stories can crawl inside of us and live there forever. While bookselling may not be known for its urgency—we’re not EMTs and no one is going to jail if they leave a bookstore empty-handed—a recommendation is still a gift. A book passing from one hand to another is not just an action; it’s an invitation to experience something transformative.

Brilliant work, as always.

Jan Middendorp on tools for designers

From LettError, a way of looking at the question that I see less frequently:

Artisans of the past — the predecessors of our designers’ guild — were rarely satisfied with tools as they found them in the shop. They always had the tendency to personalize their tools, to appropriate them by honing them, converting them or expanding them. The more specialized the work, the greater the demand for customized or individually made instruments. For instance, letter-cutters in the past thought up methods of working faster and more meticulously, and to that end they designed not only new fonts, but also counterpunches and other new tools. It must be possible to do something similar with software. After all, programming graphic programs is much too important to leave to programmers.

Earlier today I was reading Duckspeak Vs Smalltalk: The Decline of the Xerox PARC Philosophy at Apple Computers by J.V. Toups1. This bit seems relevant:

The designers of Smalltalk (Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, and Adele Goldberg principally, and others), given the resources and freedom of Xerox PARC, worked actively to reverse this trend. Whereas a hodgepodge of cultural and technical realities constrained the way most other programming languages looked and felt, both Smalltalk the language and the system were written from the ground up to be so easy that a child could use them (hence the name). It was much more ambitious than just that, however. Kay saw Xerox PARC as being on the vanguard of a real revolution in human/computer interaction. In “The Early History of Smalltalk,” Alan Kay writes of this “Xerox PARC” vision of personal computing:

… the user interface would have to become a learning environment along the lines of Montessori and Bruner; and [the] needs for large scope, reduction in complexity, and end-user literacy would require that data and control structures be done away with in favor of a more biological scheme of protected universal cells interacting only through messages that could mimic desired behavior.

… we were actually trying for a for a qualitative paradigm shift in belief structures — a new Kuhnian paradigm in the same spirit as the invention of the printing press…

Python for (typo)graphic designers

Joancarles Casasín and Gustavo Ferreira:

Software is developed mainly by engineers, not by designers. This makes the designer constrained by the engineers’ thoughts and ideas, not by his/her own. Programming gives the designer more control over his/her tools, and therefore over the design process. It allows one to follow the own workflow and think beyond the resources included in the software.

Probably you don’t need to know how to program to be a better designer. But it might help. And it won’t hurt, for sure.

“And it won’t hurt, for sure.”

I’m not so sure. And I think I know why these kinds of arguments back and forth about design and programming ring a bit of a bell and seem honestly somewhat tired.

I design mostly for the web, and I know its languages reasonably well. But I’m afraid that I will always find my own eye for design and taste informed by things like “build quality” and my design ideas strengthened and stunted by my knowledge of the possibilities of the medium. There’s a tradeoff: I know intimately what can be done and so am more likely to push the medium based on my own understanding of its limitations. I also always have the feeling that my creative instincts may be cut short by that same understanding.

The back and forth sounds old because it reminds me of questions like:

  1. Do musicians need to be able to read music to be great musicians?
  2. What is the role of technique in the work of a great painter?
  3. When composing dance, do we need a set of already-established movements, or should we create new vocabularies?
  4. Should we first learn and master the rules so that we may later break them? Or should we commence with open minds and experimental hearts, discovering and rediscovering as we go?

The Newsroom’s Crazy-Making Campus-Rape Episode

Emily Nussbaum at her best:1

Look, “The Newsroom” was never going to be my favorite series, but I didn’t expect it to make my head blow off, all over again, after all these years of peaceful hate-watching. Don’s right, of course: a public debate about an alleged rape would be a nightmare. Anonymous accusations are risky and sometimes women lie about rape (Hell, people lie about everything). But on a show dedicated to fantasy journalism, Sorkin’s stand-in doesn’t lobby for more incisive coverage of sexual violence or for a responsible way to tell graphic stories without getting off on the horrible details or for innovative investigations that could pressure a corrupt, ass-covering system to do better. Instead, he argues that the idealistic thing to do is not to believe her story.


  1. I had to stop watching “The Newsroom” at the beginning of the second season, which is rare for me. I’m glad she hung on long enough to deliver this gem. 

Design doing

Speaking of Jeremy Keith, this piece from 2007 recaps an earlier round of “Should designers know code?”

Perhaps the question will just remain for people to continuously rediscover.

The Long Web

Jeremy Keith still does a great job articulating the need for progressive enhancement. As a bonus, he plays some traditional Irish music in the first 10 minutes—kudos on that.