Category Philosophy

The Treachery of Representation

Recently, there was a shakeup inside Apple’s iOS software development group. Scott Forestall, its leader left Apple and industry watchers connected his departure with Jonathan Ive’s displeasure of Scott’s use of user interface elements such as leather, stitching and other adornments that mimicked historical objects in Calendar, Contacts and other Apple software.

Skeuomorphism is the use of iconic representations from the physical world to connect digital functions and details to what is familiar to users. For example, Apple used leather and stitching for their Calendar application, or the use of drop shadows for a curved page and multiple pages to represent dimension for contacts or for books. It is here that many users have been vocal about these faux details that seem to look backward and in the end make these software applications look quaint and kitchy.

This issue came into focus when Microsoft released Windows 8 using a more graphic and flat user interface language called “Metro”. If one compares Metro to Apple, there is a stark contrast between the two and Apple’s visual language looks dated and even quaint – especially in context to the industrial design of Apple products which are sleek and minimal:

” . . . Apple veterans, and industry insiders hostile towards Apple’s approach to software design. Equally eye opening was the number who genuinely praise Microsoft for its novel approach for Windows 8, the most radical redesign to date of the world’s most ubiquitous operating system. The criticism and controversy, much of it revolving around a trend called skeuomorphism, reveal chinks in Apple’s armor rarely visible to those outside One Infinite Loop.” Source

What I find intriguing is that even Metro uses iconic representations of extinct analog objects buried in its colored tiles. The industries use of visual metaphors is nothing new. Steve Jobs visited Xerox Parc in the late 1970s to see their Graphical User Interface. Xerox used windows, icons, and menus (including the first fixed drop-down menu) to support commands such as opening files, deleting files, moving files, etc. In 1975, Xerox engineers demonstrated a Graphical User Interface including icons and the first use of pop-up menus.

The first metaphor Xerox used was the term desktop to compare a computer screen to someone’s actual desk. A desk would have a working surface, a file drawer with folders (or directories) and a trash can. This was a common sense way to understand how a computer could be relevant to a general user. The die was cast for both the GUI (Graphical User Interface) through a WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) which we still use now and is considered by many users as natural. Source

As personal computers began to proliferate, the desktop and WIMP metaphors proliferated along with them through operating systems and the software that was designed to operate with them. In the 1990s icons began to proliferate where it seemed like every function needed to have an iconic or symbolic equivalent as a way to connect computers to everyday life.

Print = A Printer
Email = An Envelope
Save = A Floppy Disk which then became a paper clip, or a down arrow
Delete = A Trash Can

These icons have been in use for years, but there have been discussions about using a floppy disk icon for save as floppy disks have not been used for over a decade. If a user has never seen a floppy disk, then will they know that it means save? The larger question is when does a medium begin to have its own language and vocabulary, even if it replaced previous technologies? Every new medium emulates a medium that came before it:

Johannes Gutenberg created movable type in 1439, an innovation that speeded up book production and allowed for multiple copies of one book. However, Gutenberg emulated calligraphic letters, which propagated large books and continued to decorate books after they were printed as people’s expectation was to have the feeling of an illuminated manuscript. It was not until Nicholas Jensen in England and the development of typography that abstracted calligraphic writing styles into a more modern, and smaller scale alphabet that made books smaller, cheaper and more contemporary.

• Early photography emulated the rules of painting in terms of subject matter and composition. It was not until photographers like Alfred Stieglitz broke with the visual narratives of painting and started photographing every day objects and situations did photography become a medium in its own right.

• In recent developments the SteamPunk movement is the contemporary world in reverse. Here, there is a desire for a victorian world of gears, pumps, tubes and other mechanical representations that act as theatre for human interaction. They are not like modern day Mennonites with a victorian veneer but rather a niche group that wants texture back in a world of increasingly abstract digital experiences.

Communication tools are substitutions for primary experience which allow humans to extend knowledge by documenting the world through media. Pablo Picasso once stated that art was a lie that told a greater truth. Jean-Luc Godard, in Le Petit Soldat stated that The cinema is truth 24 frames per second which quickly became twisted into The cinema is a lie at 24 frames per second. Marshall McLuhan also rightly attributed media structuring human discourse and in many ways constricting a greater understanding of the world. In the ultimate conundrum, René Magritte in his painting The Treachery of Images which had an image of a pipe with text underneath it stating Ceci n’est pas une pipe, or This is not a pipe beautifully articulated the tension between secondary representation and primary experience. Media are essentially syntactic structural metaphors that point back to primary experience through semantic ideas contained within it.


When is a metaphor appropriate?
When does it become an embellishment?
When does it become cliche or kitsch?
It depends who you ask.

From my perspective, a drop shadow, a glassy reflection, or a brushed metal background or element could be an appropriate language for user interface elements. In other situations they can be considered an embellishment. When a visual effect is used too much without questioning its appropriateness, it can quickly become cliche or kitsch simply because elements call too much attention to themselves and get in the way of intended meaning.

It’s important to note that not all visual metaphors are bad. Rather, it’s the excessive UI adornments of these visual metaphors that many insiders I’ve spoken with find distasteful and inherently confusing. Source

In the case of Apple, using wooden bookshelves as an iconic reference in their bookstore feels cliche and kitschy. While I am sure there are many wooden bookshelves, why does it have to be in an application that is on millions of phones, tablets and laptop computers? Wood, leather, stitching, faux book pages and drop shadows and reflective elements are not extensible as a language to other applications and actually get in the way of using applications. They also become dated and highlight a past period, rather than feeling contemporary.

What are the limits of skeuomorphism? In many website, tablet and smartphone platforms, I have been sensing a move towards abstract graphical user interfaces that rely on color, typography, grids and rules as the main vocabulary accented by arrows and supporting icons. We still have icons, which in many cases need to be supported by textual equivalents. While an envelope is a historical representation of letter, it is a convenient and accepted metaphor for e-mail, which is in itself a representation of mail. So an icon, turns into an index, which then turns into a symbol. The overall effect is that these applications feel more contemporary, streamlined, and focused.

As a good friend of mine, Dave Zihlman stated:

In general, the desktop metaphors have been losing potency as operating systems such as iOS step back from exposing applications and file systems as separate elements. Opening applications, opening files, managing windows all are fading into the past as applications that are specific in tasks, rather than general as tools, become the standard. This task centric world is managed by the “app” with expectations for the app to gather information off the web, perform a task, manage the result, and socially engage a community, all managed within a tidy container. The Macintosh interface has slowly morphed towards these notions as typical actions such as save and save as have been confusingly moved toward the iOS paradigm.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous and convergent as more and more of our media is digitally integrated, the use of metaphorical representations will also change. As the internet has become more sophisticated and rich internet applications have become more frequent, a new series of behaviors began to appear : digital objects exhibit certain behaviors such as modals, dynamic expansion, and also trigger a series of events. A move to design patterns as a way of creating standardized libraries is a systems approach to modifying object containers that have:

- graphic representation
- object behavior
- events handling code
- underlying client/server code

These patterns can have infinite strains as the four layers can be modified for customized objects. So the visual will become less important and will be balanced by other sensory interactions that will need to be integrated into Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines:

After all, Apple’s Human Interaction Guidelines (HIG) has never been just about the aesthetics of icon shadows or button alignment, but also about the behavioral aspects of application design in general. A generation ago, especially prior to the ascendency of web design, HIG was far more respected and adhered to both by Apple itself and its developers. Loyal users also noticed deviations and complained. HIG debates on public forums were not uncommon . . . iOS ought to have much better inter-application management and navigation than users fiddling with tiny icons. Source

There has been a move to create digital equivalents to touch and the way physical objects behave in the real analog world called haptics. It’s purpose is to enhance the accuracy of how digital representations of physical objects behave and any tactile feedback to users that these objects may generate. Haptics is a type of communication and could be a variant of skeuomorphism by making iconic representations of touch and physics and doing for the sense of touch what computer graphics does for vision.

Skeuomorphism is a necessary concept to make digital applications more accessible and familiar. However, heavy reliance on visual iconic, indexic or symbolic representations are not enough with contemporary digital platforms. Not taking into account emerging sensorial alternatives or additions to visual graphical user interfaces that create more immersive experiences need to be explored. All sensorial functions speed up understanding, engagement and retention of users in their interactions with digital systems.

Finding Meaning Naturally : An Interview with Jeannette Hanna

Jeannette Hanna is one of the brightest brand strategists I have known in my professional career. We first met when I interviewed for a position at Spencer, Francey, Peters in Toronto. My impression of the company was a smart, laser-focused company integrating organizational design, brand strategy and identity systems. Jeannette had a lot to do with this impression presents herself as thoughtful, infusing intelligence into conversations about the purpose and focus of branded systems. She is also an American that has become a cross-cultural translator between two countries that often are seen as the same (Canada and the United States).

Since the first time we met, Jeannette is now part of Trajectory, a brand consultancy that continues to create sustainable brands in a world of commoditization. Strong intellectual scaffolding around purpose, goals, and actions is what Jeannette thinks and consults about. These efforts led her to co-author Ikonica, A Field Guide to Canada’s Brandscape, the first systematic look Canadian brands and their cultural distinctions. Hanna’s thesis in the book – that culture, commerce and community mores are highly inter-dependent – transcends the Canadian context.

Thinking with Your Gut

I recently attended an AIGA Chicago Design Thinking lecture series held at Morningstar with Julia Hoffmann, design director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Being interested, I attended this lecture to understand how Julia would frame design thinking. The first thing she prefaced about design thinking is that she did not use the term or concept and had to quickly understand what it was. She stated that from what she understood, design thinking focused on three attributes : empathy, creativity and rationality.

Searching for Context : Interview with Sharon Poggenpohl

Sharon Poggenpohl has had a lifelong fascination with design. She is a dedicated educator that has focused her career on working with masters and PhD design candidates in the United States and internationally.

I first met Sharon while attending graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design where she became an advisor on my thesis activities. Her accessible style and genuine interest in collaboration was of great benefit to me, both during school and afterward when I had to collaborate with many disciplines in creating large digital systems.

She taught at Rhode Island School of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, and until recently at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design. Her experience in teaching and administering both masters and PhD programs gives Sharon a unique perspective on the challenges and potential of design education. Her desire to both understand and create the context for design and support that context through research and collaboration is rarely discussed. Addressing actual empirical behavior — rather than remaining at an abstract rhetorical level is Sharon’s focus. Sharon is co-editor of the recent book, Design Integrations: Research and Collaboration and publisher of Visible Language, one of a few high-standard journals in design.

What struck me about the interview with Sharon was how thoughtful and disciplined her answers were; they reinforced my direct experience with her at RISD and over the years. Design education has been at a continual crossroads for decades and the cacophony of design educational models, skills and outcomes at an undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level feel in many ways insurmountable bordering on a wicked problem. Sharon has very common sense foundations to address the continual problems that degrade the value of design education and how focusing, assembling, editing and delineating educational goals and methods can increase the level of rigor of design programs.

From the Tanagram Archives : When Thinking is Making

Please Note : This post  from the Tanagram Spill blog archives, which was deactivated recently, is being reposted on my blog.

Nate Burgos sent me a link about a new institute that is being created between Stanford University and the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design to investigate design thinking. They defined it as a methodology that melds an end-user focus with multidisciplinary collaboration and iterative improvement to produce products, services or experiences. Their theme is – innovation – which is no surprise.

This got me to think about how this term has fluctuated since I heard it twenty years ago. My approach to the topic was around several attributes:

• Wicked Problems
• A Focus on Customers
• Users Finding Alternatives
• Ideation and Prototyping
• Qualitative Performance

The question is how is design thinking different from other types of thinking? If we take a Western European approach to thought, then we have critical thinking models of observe, ask questions, research, make connections and create a model that integrates new insights.

If you agree with this foundation, then there would be little differentiation between design thinking and other forms of thinking. Can non-designers do design thinking? What is the role of the designer if design thinking is practiced by a wide variety of disciplines and professions?

What has remained constant about design thinking is linked to an improved future. Victor Margolin, in his book The Politics of the Artificial stated Design is continuously inventing its subject matter, so it is not limited by outworn categories of products. The world expects new things from designers, that is the nature of design.

I used to have conversations with fairly progressive designers twenty years ago about design thinking and that design was as much about frameworks, strategies and approaches as about media artifacts. At the time, they were not ready to embrace this idea and only wanted cursory approaches that could add more legitimacy to the making. Contemporary designers have finally embraced in enough of a critical mass that design is as much about thinking as making.

Even a few years ago when John Thackara ( proposed for the London Design Council an the Project Red Initiative that would have the design community address specific social, political and economic issues facing the United Kingdom. The backlash from the design community that the initiative was not in the bounds of design.

The good news is that design thinking, design methods, and design management are all coalescing to create new opportunities for designers to collaborate effectively with other professions around wider areas of interest that are not discipline specific.

Designers have an ability to interact with the the unknown, and the shifting relationships between the meaning of things. The design objects program is trying to link design (as a plan) to objects (as an outcome).  It is here that methodology can help and this is where design thinking comes into play.

Maybe there is hope after all.

Losing a SmartPhone, but gaining trust in the Cloud

We never really think about losing our smart phone because it is never supposed to happen to us. It seems as if we only have a 5% chance of losing a phone based on most statistics.

I was walking to the train the other day and had my phone on a belt case. As the train approached, I went for my phone and it was gone. At that point my mind experienced a type of parallax effect, where a level of disorientation overtook me.

I decided to retrace my steps back to my home. Part of me was looking at the ground and part of me was mulling over the options of how to best proceed if I could not find my phone. As I approached my home, I kept thinking, “oh, it must be on the steps.” When none of these magical thoughts converted into reality, I decided to act.

I logged into my iCloud account and went into Find my iPhone. It pinged my phone and saw the geolocator find it traveling on a highway away from my home. It prompted me to send a text to the phone which I asked for the person to call my home number for a reward. I then called AT&T to cancel the phone. While I felt great that I could track the phone, it also highlighted the helplessness that nothing could be done about it.

After a few hours, I decided to do a remote wipe of the phone, which worked perfectly. Not having a phone highlighted my dependence on the many applications that I use every day. This heightened my situational awareness as I tried to project on a future using existing information that I did not have.
I walked to a local AT&T store and purchased a replacement phone. After logging into iCloud, all of my contacts, calendars, mail settings and bookmarks appeared within one minute. Walking out of the store, I was able to immediately interact with my data and become productive. When I hooked up my phone to my laptop and synchronized with iTunes, all of my applications were clustered into groups, alarms and third party mail settings configured. Within eight hours my phone was back to the way it was with very little effort.

What this whole empirical experience demonstrated was the credibility of iCloud and that having an integrated digital platform developed by Apple actually exceeded expectations. It reduced my iPhone to a hardware platform that can be replaced (an expensive platform) and that my data and all my customized settings were saved in the cloud and made my new phone my old phone (except now I have a 4S with 4G data transfer).

Maybe we are actually progressing on cloud based storage and retrieval.

Two Views on Reading’s Future

I recently attended two lectures on the future of the book. This topic is close to me for two reasons : first I am an active reader and collector of books and second my original background in design was in book publishing. There is over 500 years of history of the codex using movable type and over 2000 years for the book, which was developed in ancient Rome. There is so much pattern, established behavior and supply chains, that the printed book is still an archetype for a carrier of knowledge.

Anthony Grafton from Princeton gave a lecture during the Chicago Humanities Festival. He views books not just as a holder of texts, but as objects with a rich materiality. He credits books with creating trading zones through cafe culture that brought people together to discuss what books contained and expanded knowledge. He also commented on the role of libraries as serving a similar function and the challenges to the meaning and use of contemporary libraries. Take for example the new plan for the New York Public Library where they will move many books to a warehouse in New Jersey and place more computers and meeting spaces in the main library building.

Grafton’s view on the current trend to digitalization of information and new printing technologies has created new niches for the book. For example, the Espresso Book Machine, which is a print-on-demand machine can publish out of print books printed and bound in about 20 minutes. Now with new ways to write, edit, print and distribute books, authors can self-publish and create markets based on their reputation without the need for a publisher.

Grafton ended up discussing the role of reading, and reading habits. There are different types of reading – for research, for quiet time, or for information and scanning. The dynamics of reading from Grafton’s perspective can be served by physical books, ebooks and screens. He does not subscribe to the view that the book is dying, but has observed that the quality of writing and curatorial dimensions to content development is uneven.

In another lecture I attended about the rise of e-readers by Nicholas Carr at the Newberry Library, Carr’s thesis was diametrically opposed to Graftons. He has published books such as The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr is concerned about the degradation of the act of reading defined over 500 years of book use, and the introduction of new interactive features and functions of multi-use tablet computers like the Amazon Fire.

Carr believes that e-readers are destroying the act and meaning of reading. 2000 years of stability is being violently disrupted by e-readers and that since the Kindle was released five years ago, now 20% of all book purchases are e-books. He discussed how e-books are emulating the physical book as every new medium imitates the old medium it is replacing.

Carr’s thesis is that the intellectual dimensions of knowledge is radically being changed and that our ethic of reading is being degraded and quickly affecting our brains. He feels the printed book is a shield against distraction and allows us to be in quiet for a deeper type of reflection due to the printed book’s main role – which is the intimate printed page as a sensory experience.
The structure and dissemination of information is always in flux and the dynamics of how this information is consumed is also in flux.

Printed books have been stable from a production standpoint, but their distribution and availability have been continually changing. We have a Kindle and there was a learning curve to use this platform. Having an integrated dictionary is most helpful to understand words as you read the text; having multi-font capability; having an ability to annotate particular passages is also convenient. Being able to read a book on a smart phone/tablet and a dedicated e-reader – all synchronized with one another is also convenient. Yet, when we want we turn off the wireless and can just read the book as a book.

Reflecting on the two lectures, I did not find Nicholas Carr’s thesis mature or a compelling argument against the rise of digital books. His arguments were grounded in fear and a thin polemic. Yes e-readers are changing the meaning of reading and how content is structured and delivered to people who read. Yes, content is moving from static written words, to hyperlinks, images, sound and video as a more immersive experience.

Grafton’s thesis in contrast is a much more mature and reasonable position that values the history and meaning of books and reading, but also recognizes the shift to digital content as not a threat, but as a progression of the structure and dissemination of content. He believes that reading in all forms is the most important thing we can do and leaves the either-or thesis that Carr seems to embrace behind.

A wordsmith and a worldly thinker : Interview with Todd Lief

Todd Lief is a unique bundle of skills and experiences – and he is fun to collaborate with. I have known Todd for about 17 years since we first met at Michael Glass Design while working to reposition Columbia College. I was impressed with his ability to listen, distill and create simple and powerful phrases that amplified the creative quotient. Since then we have kept in touch and have collaborated at Andersen Worldwide and on a few projects at Trope Collaborative.

Todd is a writer, but is more than that. He has a deeply curious humanistic mind that soaks up all sorts of knowledge and aims it at creative endeavors. He was shaped by the golden age of advertising where writers and other creatives collaborated on a wide variety of campaigns trying to articulate the essential truth about products and services to the public. This interview is one of my longest, not due to more time with Todd, but that he packs in a lot of thinking in the same amount of time.

He has spent time and effort exploring creativity and what goes into the act of being creative. With his work in Gestalt psychology, Todd developed a diagnostic tool called Working Impressions (a great name for a service) to focus on areas of agreement. It is a Swiss Army knife as it can be applied to any situation or industry with different meanings using the same tool.

Over the years, Todd has never been far from my thoughts as I can count on my hand individuals that have had a concrete impact on my thinking. His career choices are very close to my own career choices and our restlessness in finding new challenges and building on experiences for greater value ties us together.

Todd in his accessible and relaxed style exudes true professional empathy, curiosity and a desire to make a real impact. He once told me he is also a charter member of American Express where membership has its benefits. It has been a real benefit to know Todd.

A Contemporary View on Curatorial History : Interview with Paul Gehl

Paul GehlPaul F. Gehl is the custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing at the Newberry Library, the wonderful imposing structure just west of the Goldcoast across from Washington Square Park. Most people who walk by it do not know what goes on inside, so for many it is a mystical place. However, for those that are interested in railroads, the history of printing and even geneology, the Newberry is a wonderful living repository of collections.

I cannot remember exactly when and where I met Paul, but he is one of the few people that has remained in my memory as an interesting figure whose curatorial perspective is a rarity. Paul has always been engaged with many communities that intersect the large History of Printing collection, including designers in Chicago. It is in this context that Paul has been supportive of typographic courses that I taught and hosting visits to view the rare Duke of Parma’s collections printed in the Bodoni typeface.

In an age of digitalization and polyanna ephemera, it is refreshing to visit a place that still places value on printed books and their related design, typographic and production value. Yet, the Newberry is not a static place of dusty books frozen in time, but an intellectual laboratory of scholars and researchers reinterpreting ancient artifacts with contemporary questions.

An example of this phenomena is when Paul and I collaborated on an AIGA Chicago article that focused on buildings that used to be painted with typographic advertisements and company messages called “When is the façade a fallacy?.” Paul and I walked west on Madison Street looking at storefront churches and shops that still used typographic vernacular as a way to communicate with their environment and asked where has all the typography gone from buildings?

Paul continues to engage with researchers, designers and many others about the collections at the Newberry and has shown an interest in willingness to make it an active and contemporary place where history and possible futures can meet.

A Thoughtful Explorer : Interview with Victor Margolin

When I was in my early twenties, I set out to create a cosmology. My intent was to explain the relation between the different forces in the world, from the most noble to the most base. Overwhelmed by the hope and expectation that I, a young dropout with a good undergraduate education, might be the one to accomplish what no philosopher in the past had successfully done, I plunged into the vast sea of knowledge and grasped intuitively at straws that held the promise of unraveling the universe’s mysteries
Victor Margolin in the introduction to The Politics of the Artificial

We live in a cacophonous age of ideas, globalism and multi-channel discourse, yet how many enlightened individuals do we personally know? Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a prime example of someone who is questioning, exploring, and articulating theoretical and practical dimensions of design within larger social, political and economic frameworks.

I met Victor when I was an undergraduate student in his design history courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What made these courses valuable was his rigor, humor, and balancing the showcasing of designed objects and the larger discussions of intentional and unintentional effects these objects had from a social, political and economic perspective. Victor did not teach a streamlined view of design and designers, but the complexity of designing and delving into thoughtful questions and discourse that is rare in today’s design discourse.

His writing is cogent and compelling and he has written, edited, or co-edited written nine books. He was the founding editor and is now co-editor of the academic journal Design Issues, one of the few soundly curated publishing conduits for global perspectives on design since it’s inception in 1984. Victor takes the best of sincere humanism, an unwavering belief that design is important and merges it with a variety of topical areas such as sustainability, service design, and even larger areas of inquiry. One of my favorite books of his is The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies, which codified many things I was thinking about, but did not have specific models or concepts for. This book provided me clarity on many levels as both a practitioner and one who is interested in theoretical aspects of design.

While Victor has been retired from teaching for five years, he has not retired from lecturing, editing, traveling and writing. He is currently writing a three-volume World History of Design, which he plans to finish in more two years.
We have been meeting over the years to discuss design and I finally wanted to ask him specific questions and document his responses. Our conversations tend to be convivial, spirited, and focused meandering.