Frostcast Interview

Episode 44 of Jonathan Nadeau’s Frostcast podcast series is up and features an interview with yours truly. I think it went fairly well with some discussion about free software, design and some other things. No doubt there will be some criticism about the quality of the guest. After all Jonathan’s been busy interviewing actually important people who run projects and communities. Hopefully I didn’t pull down his batting average too much.

The episode page can be found here:

Thanks Jonathan!


Building a Crappier Sports Car (or Minivan)

Let’s say you and I set out to design a vehicle. I think it would be wise for us to choose what sort of vehicle we were designing and who we were designing it for. Are we serving young fathers just getting into their parenting years? Or maybe 55 year old balding men knee-deep in their mid-life crises. Those two groups would likely not want the same vehicle.

Let’s say we come up with a killer soft top sports car tailored to the 55 year old. It handles well, it’s a little easier to get into and out of than a typical low-slung sports jobbie, and it has a windscreen specifically designed to protect that combover at highway speeds.

Now, how would you feel about the following:

1. Weld on a hardtop, making sure to add about 10″ more head room.
2. Soften the suspension.
3. Add another pair of rear doors.
4. Expand the rear to carry several unassembled items from Ikea along with a stroller and about 115pack of diapers – or two extra rows of removable seating.

How do you think that would affect our original design? Would the 55 year old be pleased with the result?

I’ve been hopeful that Ubuntu was heading down a design path where they were becoming more focused on who they wanted to design for. And make no mistake, I don’t think I’m in that group, but still I wanted them to stick to their guns, ignore the naysayers (even if I’m one of them) and plug on with their plan.

By the sounds of this post from Jono Bacon though, it sounds as though they’d like to hedge their bets. It sounds like:
Hey, we’re still designing the best dang product for group A, but hey all you guys in the entirely opposite Group B.. don’t go anywhere. We will add stuff for you guys too!

Now with Ubuntu I suppose the inverse of my initial analogy is more apt. They’re aiming to build the best damn vehicle for new fathers, but hey all you sports car drivers.. we’ll add alloy rims and a spoiler, stiffen the springs a bit and put in some oil pressure guages for you!

That results in a crappier minivan. And a crappier sports car.
I’m not sure how you could see it in any other way. But by all means, I’m completely open to enlightenment.


ps. I didn’t mention that it’s a significant conundrum when the Group B guys are supposed to be the guys actually building the product for Group A.

pps. I could be wrong about this whole idea:

OpenSchedule for Android

Back in mid-February, I was offered the opportunity to create some graphics for an Android application called OpenSchedule. It’s an application which lets you view and manage information on upcoming conferences and events registered with the OpenSchedule web app. This tied in nicely with the Linux conference stuff I’ve worked on (more on that in some upcoming posts), so I was glad to help out.

I had done a little bit of Android graphical work a while back for the ILF App which consisted of coming up with some background images and an icon. This was a little big more involved in that I needed to create the launcher icon, tab icons and promo images for the Android market.

As usual I learned a few things along the way:

  1. Eclipse can seem like a mystery inside an enigma wrapped in a straitjacket to the non-developer like me. I jumped through my fair share of hoops to get updated resources to show up properly in the emulator. This mobile development thing is not something you come at likely. Full respect to those who do it well.
  2. Guidelines for the creation of Android launcher icons can be found here.
  3. Guidelines for the creation of Android tab icons can be found here.
  4. Likewise, a good description of the promo image requirements (as well as other graphic requirements) is over here. And lastly,
  5. Daniel Frey (the creator of OpenSchedule) is one patient bastard. I peppered him with a stream of newbie questions related to point #1 and he didn’t flinch. – Thanks Dan!


So I ended up creating this launcher icon:

And for the Event, Schedule, and Venue Tabs, the following icons (selected and unselected versions as per guidelines):

And once that was all out of the way, Dan pointed out that there were some optional promo/feature graphics. These show up when you see the app’s market page on your phone and what you see on the web market page as well. Again, sticking to their requirements, I came up with the following two versions:

180px x 120px version:

and a 1024px x 500px version:

All in all a very enjoyable little project.  Thanks for the opportunity Dan.

If you want to try out the app, you can get it here, or hit the QR code below with your Android phone:


New Theme for a New Year

Well I think I made it over two years with the same self-designed blog theme. But alas, it was starting to feel clunky and somewhat rusty to me. That, and the fact that it displayed the odd quirk (likely due to my amateurish wordpress theming skills).

I’m no spring chicken, and as such I’ve got to pick my battles wisely. So for now at least I’ve hunted down a swiss-ish theme that doesn’t annoy me too much. I figured I’d plunk it up here before year’s end – scraping by here.

I will surely give it a tweak or three (I’m not 100% happy with the fonts at the moment), but for now it will suffice.

I hope everyone out there has a great and safe New Years Eve, and a great year to come.

Iterative Design – What is it?

Iterative design. It’s a relatively simple process. You come up with an idea, then have a go at it. Analyze it, test it, figure out what’s wrong with it, and if you’re lucky, how you might make it better. Then you refine it, circle back, and carry on the cycle.

Iterative design is not throwing up 150 ideas and picking what you think is the best one. And it’s not simply about adding new things (actually, many iterative steps may involve removing things). Good iterative design should involve thoughtful, considered analysis and judgement – not a straw poll of features getting voted up and down a list.

Every suggested change should be backed up with a good reason. What am I trying to accomplish? What is this piece attempting to do? Is there a statement that it’s making? Does the thing I’m adding (or the thing I just added) contribute to that or take away from it? There are a dizzying array of questions you can ask during the design process. It can get daunting. Quickly.

In the Libre Software world we seem to be able to incorporate the iterative process into software development rather comfortably. When a new search routine is required for some functionality in a program, does the team canvas its members for multiple complete working prototypes and then choose one to use? I would think they’d take some sort of working prototype and then begin the iterative process refining and improving it. Why don’t we do that with things like visual design more often?

There seem to be a lot of people (in the circles I run in anyway) that are none too happy with what Ubuntu seems to be doing lately. And while I don’t agree with every design decision they’re making, I do respect the fact that they seem to have chosen a path and are proceeding to refine it.

Yes. It would be nice if the starting point of that path was happily decided by everyone and his uncle. But that’s simply not practical. Not everyone gets a say in that starting point. The tenets of Free Software do not guarantee you that – thankfully.

So what about the power of community? Where does it play in here?

We need to up our game when it comes to the thoughtful, considered analysis. We need to provide, discuss and discover the reasoning behind our analysis of things. We need to demand a statement of audience and then do our best to plunk ourselves into the shoes of that audience when formulating our analysis and criticism. Without an accepted target audience we’re just shouting about how “We” don’t like feature XYZ or “We” don’t like the look of dialog XYZ. Knowing audience you can step back and remove a great deal of personal emotion from the analysis. I think this sort of ethos, even in specific projects can lift all Libre boats design-wise.

Perhaps you would step back and discover that Ubuntu is NOT targeting you. Maybe Ubuntu is NOT designed for me. I don’t know their target audience (but I wish they’d tell me). However that doesn’t mean they don’t need all the valuable, thoughtful criticism they can get.

I think we need a better way of getting involved in the analysis part of the cycle. Not everyone can do the refining, not everyone can do the prototyping. But let’s not ignore the considered analysis part of this. There needs to be better tools or a better system for seeking out that sort of analysis, and making use of it.

The Real Question

The question is, are you interested enough in the success of Libre Software to find out you’re not the target of a given project and still provide that considered, reasoned analysis so crucial to the iterative design process? If so, speak up and let’s start raising the tide.

While you should feel free to comment here, I highly recommend you bring your comments over to Librescope. We’re trying to build a community of people interested in discussing Floss design over there.

Bitter Designers and Where We Need To Go

The recent Smashing Magazine post “Designers, ‘Hacks’ and Professionalism: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?” is an interesting one. I urge you to read it. It brings up several different issues but one that struck a chord with me was the whole feeling about the commoditization of design.

With sites like which leverage design contests and with logos coming to the apparent cheapening of the graphic design profession is unrelenting. On one hand I understand the ‘world going to hell in a handbasket’ sort of view, but the pragmatist in me tries to step back and see how this is not unique and not at all unexpected.

There is the sentiment that any fool with some graphics software and half a brain can hang his shingle out as a “designer”. Whether they will be successful or not is another matter entirely. There is also the view that design work becomes undervalued and commoditized when clients see that they can get an acceptable logo for $50.00 instead of the $1000.00 the top grade designer may want to charge. Do you want to buy your shoes at Payless or head over to Gucci? Well if the buyer can’t tell the difference (which is the designer’s job to describe), then hell yes I’d expect him to head over to Payless. This is not ideal, but completely expected.

It can be a difficult rationalization. Why should graphic design escape the same sort of trend as desktop publishing, journalism, writing or photography for that matter? What makes graphic designers so unique?

We have seen photography flourish as of late and yet there are still great photographers – in fact I’d say many more of them. Is the photography business as lucrative as it once was? I’d think not. Photographers have to work harder, be more creative and up their quality to survive. I find it great that so many more people are interested in photography – if I was a professional photographer I think I’d probably hate it.

And so it is with graphic design. I love the fact that design concepts start to enter the mainstream. It is no longer a black art. Sure, it would be more romantic if it was, but it’s not. Is it hurting things for professional graphic designers? Sure. But again, I value the proliferation of skills over the health of an industry.

Granted I am not a professional graphic designer nor am I a professional photographer. It’s easy for me to hold these views. And since I’m a shit programmer by any measure, I could just as easily say the same thing for programmers as well (and writers and desktop publishers). Progress and technology lower the bar. That enables more people to participate. I think that’s a good thing, but that dilutes the market for those who’ve been in the pool the longest. I feel bad for them. Sincerely I do.

I am lucky in a way that in my own profession (structural engineering) there is greater liability. When I design a structure I am legally responsible for that design and its performance over the life of the building. This affords us signficantly more protection against the democratization of structural engineering (ha – now there’s a far-fetched idea). This sort of liability is rarely there for software designers, and probably even more rare for graphic designers. I don’t see that changing.

So where is the positive in all of this for our little FOSS corner over here? We already have a community built around voluntary contribution and knowledge sharing. We can take this time to weep about passing industries and shrinking job markets, or we can take a bunch of people who are already part of the Libre Software community and who are passionate and eager about design and teach ourselves great things so we can create even better things.

I think the first step is to admit we have a lot to learn. And perhaps we should just take that statement as fact since we may be the worst people to judge our own skill levels (as John Cleese put so well). Many would also say quite rightly that as far as design goes, Libre-land has nowhere to go but up. So let’s start climbing.

Some things to chew on in no specific order:

We need to learn to provide quality criticism, how to accept it and how to use it. No more ‘put up or shut up’ nonsense. Listen to criticism, evaluate it, discuss it, elevate it.

We need to stop thinking we know everything about design when we clearly don’t. We are smart. We can learn these things.

We need to encourage designers**, but hammer on basic design concepts. Audience, goals, colour, flow, etc.

We need to treat design seriously right from the start of our projects and stop treating it as a suit of clothes.

We need to look at the ‘why’ of good design going on outside of FOSS land. Why is something good? What is the concept at work? Not copying, not being unique for the sake of uniqueness. Let’s try to understand the ‘why’ of good design and apply that.

** I am conflicted about design contests. I understand the problems with them – if you don’t, I highly recommend reading this post. But I still think there needs to be a viable way for those eager to build their design skills to work on meaningful things. If you have ideas in this regard, let’s hear them and get a proper discussion going.

79 Great Design Reads – and all in one book.

While recently on vacation down in Las Vegas (yes it was hot, and no I didn’t win anything), I managed to pick up a copy of Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Michael Bierut. I have utterly enjoyed reading this book.

Not all of the essays are about design directly, and in fact you’ll not find a single photo or illustration within its hardcovers. But it is chock full of great writing. And the fact that each essay is only two or three pages long has made this a perfect book for my nightstand and allows me to jump freely to and fro from essay to essay which I like.

While not necessarily an indicator of the typical tone or voice of the author throughout the book, I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I think is a great passage. In essay No. 46 titled “I Hate ITC Garamond”, lies this little diddy:

The most distinctive element of the typeface is its enormous lower-case x-height. In theory this improves its legibility, but only in the same way that dog poop’s creamy consistency in theory should make it more edible.

Each essay is set in a unique typeface (this info is indexed in the appendix), and of course essay No.46 is set in ITC Garamond. :)

I’m probably 50 essays into it thus far and loving it. I highly recommend it.

ps.That cover shot was taken with my Nexus One under a halogen desk lamp with only a quick resize for posting. I am pleasantly surprised at its quality. You can click it for a slightly larger version – still not original size.

The Showstopper To Your Showstoppers

Usability testing seems to be the new black in Libre Software Land these days. And while I won’t discount its importance one bit, I am a bit frustrated reading this recent post titled “When users first encounter Ubuntu: six showstoppers” over on the Canonical Design blog.

Why am I frustrated? There is no real information about the testing itself (perhaps it’s published somewhere else?). Who are the ‘users’? How many were part of the test? Are they part of the Ubuntu’s target audience? (Who is that anyway?). What age are the people? What are their backgrounds like? Where are they from? Were they female or male?  There are a million questions (and perhaps even some answers) that I think should go along with any report about usability testing. The post gives some typical remarks and a summary of what are apparently major problems, but without context these seem just like the myriad of assumptions we make about “users” all the time anyway. These results would be much more meaningful with context and focus. And like I said, all that info may be recorded and published somewhere else. Why not provide it?

Now a few comments (not necessarily answers) about some of the “showstoppers”:

1. File compatibility

I would think this is largely an OpenOffice concern, at least in the context of Office documents. I’m not sure if this will ever be solved without moving to an open format anyway. At work I have dealt with several people who can’t open docx files in their version of Office. File compatibility is a concern even for MS-Office users on Windows.

2. Lack of feedback on system behaviour

This is one of those areas that we could do a lot better than our non-free OS competitors. There is nothing holding us back from providing something that solves the problem creatively and uniquely.

3. Use of jargon

This problem is rampant all over FOSS-land. Thoughtful consideration of every menu and dialog is required, at application and OS level. Again, this would be so much easier with a defined audience.

4. Getting flash

Rather than addressing the problem, I have to take issue with the summary of this point. “Most didn’t know what to do at that point.” Most of who? How many tried? Are we talking about 3 people or 30? And if most didn’t, does that mean 2 or 16, or 29? This is where context would be so helpful. And maybe the more pressing question is: If ‘most’ people didn’t know what to do, then at least ‘some’ actually did. And if they did, why is it that none of them were able to download it? I don’t get it.

5. Software centre

I think a good chunk of this point relates directly back to 2. and 3.

6. Adding a printer

I don’t remember encountering any of this. I opened the printing dialog from the Administration menu, clicked ‘New Printer’ and chose my model and driver. While not perfect, I don’t remember having to list anything about device URI’s etc. Were these people installing an unsupported printer model? Maybe a network printer? There is not enough in the description to tell. It sounds like the printing dialog is horribly broken for everyone and I just don’t think that is the case (again – publish the data and let’s see).
Well, I guess it’s good that there is some usability testing. But how good is the question. And without more information about the testing itself there is no answer to that.

Ubuntu’s Visual Identity Guide

Did you know that there is a visual identity guide for Ubuntu? I didn’t. But perhaps I never looked.

It’s currently at revision one, and you can find it here. It’s nice to see this aspect of the design taken seriously. I wonder how many other Linux distributions have one.

There are a few things of note on the second page of the guide. It’s a decent attempt at being inspirational and higher-minded, and those are not bad things in my book. Imagine that, trying to get your product to generate emotions, who-da-thunk it.

With all this whining I’ve been doing lately about audience and goal, I almost chuckled aloud at the last line of the first paragraph,

“We stand for the very best operating system in the world, created by the expert few for the global many.”

I think the ‘global many’ is about as nebulous as you can get in terms of audience. And just try and tell me that ‘the expert few’ remark isn’t going to make a large contingent of the Ubuntu ‘community’ howl that this is further evidence that it isn’t being valued – When was the vote held on the content of this style guide anyway? Let’s hope it wasn’t.

Hmm.. reading along some more… what’s this? Apparently the guide is meant to help people create a consistent identity that will communicate Ubuntu values. And as of revision one these values are: FREEDOM, COLLABORATIVE, PRECISE, and RELIABLE.

I’m no linguistics expert but maybe it should be Freedom, Collaboration, Precision and Reliability. And no mention of Light, or Lightness at all. The previously described concept of light doesn’t seem to fit inside any of the above four. Maybe that’s a value for the wordmark and logo, but not for Ubuntu itself – my head hurts.

But let’s remember – revision One.

I went through the rest of it and a lot of it is spelled out quite nicely for a starting point document. I do wonder how strictly it will be followed by those outside of Ubuntu proper. There are a boatload of people out there who like to create Ubuntu-related visuals. I think a guide like this only helps them. But the “Free-means-I-can-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want” community contingent will likely spin this one off as too restrictive without thinking about the greater benefits of consistency and the potential for real, tangible forward progress.

I’m happy to see this document. With a little more focus and a well-defined [cough] audience [cough], that page Two could be a real zinger – almost dare I say it, a rallying point. Let’s hope they push this out into the community – not onto.. but into. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Let it languish and it’s wasted effort.

Pretending to “Design” and A Few Questions

Two parts to this, not nearly as tied together as I’d like, but heck, it’s been a month. First it’s pretend time, then a few things to ponder.

Okay, pretend time. Let’s pretend that you and I are designing a new Linux-based distro. So being good designers means that we’re going to immediately try to hone in on a definition of audience and goal (right?).

Let’s skip through the twenty coffee-laden, late night IRC meetings and pretend that we decided that the target audience of our distribution consists of 22-32 year old female stay-at-home moms who use laptop and desktop computers. The goal for our distribution is to provide an engaging, stable, virus-free platform which is exceptionally good at social networking and creative endeavours such as writing, photography and video editing for our target audience. (Whether that audience and goal are focused enough or well-defined enough is another matter entirely – and if you don’t think it is, let’s hear your ideas).

At this point, no matter how much fun it might be, we fight the urge to simply run off and design a pink logo for our new distro.

Now, you may not know me. But you’ll have to simply take my word on it that I am not in fact female and nowhere near the 22-32 year old age bracket. So while I could in fact design this mythical OS myself, I would have no idea whether the design was progressing toward its goal. I would need to either get a broad cross section of the target audience working for me, or perhaps more practically, seriously research the hell out of it.

In most parts of Libre Culture land I venture to say we don’t do either very well for our creative endeavours. I know that I personally don’t (at least not nearly enough – though by reading, learning and writing about it I’m trying to change that.).

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that as a 42 year old male, for me to say things like “I think this distro rocks!” or “I think this distro sucks!” really means a heck of a lot less than I might think or hope it does.

So let’s bring this back around to our Free Software community. Can we pay attention to the standard design practice of knowing audience and goal? After we choose an audience can we stop pretending that “we” are the audience and research the hell out of the actual audience?

Second, and perhaps more powerfully, a few questions.

It’s great that so much Libre Software was built by people “Scratching Their Own Itch”. It has been the driving force in building such a large army of so many smart and generous people developing so much great software.

What worries me is this: Can we rally groups of these smart people to design for an audience they are not a part of? Can we get Free Software culture to really scratch someone else’s itch? If not, are we destined to results that ultimately cater, even subconsciously to the traits and desires of the developers themselves?