December 31, 2003
Finally, a favicon!
Better late than never? I've finally gotten around to creating a favicon for IDblog (see right for the 32x32 version). Now that I'm using bloglines to stay current with my various RSS feeds, I began to suffer from serious favicon envy.
December 29, 2003
I was browsing IDblog's activity log and noticed that a visitor had searched for Florence Nightingale. In case you weren't aware, Nightingale was an early pioneer of information design, specifically in the field of statistical graphics. I had mentioned her in the chapter I did for Content & Complexity (primarily citing Robert Horn).
Finding this search entry prompted me to do a bit of Googling, and I found a handful of interesting resources. First, there's this gallery of historical milestones in data visualization from York University. In it, there are stories and graphics from those you may be familiar with (Minard, Playfair) and those you may not.
An excellent article for ID history buffs is this Nightingale biography from the University of St Andrews, where I retrieved the image at right, an example of what Nightingale called a coxcomb. In this graphic, each pie-shaped wedge represents a month from April 1854 (just north of 9 o'clock) clockwise to March 1855 (just south of 9 o'clock). The outer greenish wedges represent deaths due to diseases such as cholera and typhus, the inner pinkish wedges represent deaths due to wounds, and the brownish wedges represent deaths due to other causes. This illustrated clearly that the major cause of death in British field hospitals during the Crimean War was not directly attributable to battle.
Statistics fans will also find Florence Nightingale's Statistical Diagrams an interesting read. Finally, real fans may want to stay tuned, as the University of Guelph is undertaking an effort to publish the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale. It looks like the volume related to her statistical work is one of the later ones (volume 14?).
December 22, 2003
A Google hat-trick
How's this for the joy of a strong brand? You can obscure over half your logo and still have it be recognized:
This makes the third Google logo I've commented on (here are the first and second). There are many more worth mentioning (like the one for the Wright brothers anniversary). You can check out the whole series at Google's holiday logo page. If you visit, do be sure to read the 2002 interview with Dennis Hwang, the creator of all these fab images.
Al Gore and the Internet
Speaking of things I didn't know, I only recently came across the backstory for "Al Gore invented the Internet" (where Gore was basically raked over the coals for what he didn't say).
Seth Finkelstein has a comprehensive resource page on the matter. Two articles that I spent some time with were Phil Agre's analysis and Richard Wiggins' piece for First Monday. Not a flattering picture of both the media -- and our -- fascination with the quick sound bite, particularly if it is at someone else's expense.
This item is relatively old (the original reference is from the JAMA in 1990), but I hadn't seen it before...so wanted to pass it along for other visual mystery fans. The question is: did Michelangelo paint God over an image representing the mid-sagittal outline of the human brain, and if so, why?
The nice thing about Bloglines is I don't have to plow through a bunch of posts I've already read at one computer when I switch to another.
The one bummer is that Bloglines quickly gets you in the habit of reading entries in its style-stripped bare RSS reader, since you have to do two clicks to launch the weblog itself...the first shows you all the recent entries. But since Bloglines has a feature that lets you export your feeds in OPML, I've at least not had to worry about building up a resource that is tool-dependent.
December 21, 2003
Tim Bray on PowerPoint
If youre going to escape the tyranny of the bullet point, you have to get away from the idea that whats in your slides is the content of your presentation. Slides arent big enough or rich enough or smart enough to themselves contain any presentation worth listening to for more than about ten minutes. Instead, your slides are a visual auxiliary to your material; no more, no less.
Am I being crass for suggesting this is another "not the tool, but the toolsmith" perspective?
Happy holidays, Boxes and Arrows!
Evan ("Blogger") Williams commented on this interesting application of PayPal technology: using it to pay for your web hosting (see right). The advantage? You can:
rest assured that your donation will only be used to pay for this site's hosting fees. The site owner won't be able to run off and spend your donation on DVDs, fine steak dinners, or anything else completely unrelated to their web hosting bill!
Since the site that is experimenting with this is Boxes and Arrows, I decided to forget how far behind I am with my Christmas shopping for friends and family and get into the giving spirit by helping out for one of the best resources around for fans of IA, ID, UX, ED, or whatever related TLA (three-letter acronym) you can come up with. Congrats to them for their continued success!
December 19, 2003
Mentor points to an Australian piece about information literacy and notes that tools are not the end-all, be-all. In the article, author Nathan Cochrane takes the position that for many of us, our skill sets may not be equal to the amount of information at our disposal:
Despite having more information at our fingertips than any generation before, there is little evidence that our ability to make good, timely decisions has improved. ... We have computer hardware and software but often ignore "wetware" - the first, most important, cog in the information seeking machine is ourselves.
Here are a few resources I found with a quick Google search that seem interesting re this subject: National Forum on Information Literacy (San Jose State University), Sheila Webber's information literacy weblog, and the ACRL Institute for Information Literacy.
Doc Searls on presentations
First, I've got to say I love PowerPoint, just like I used to love Persuasion, and before that I loved MORE, which was the original presentation program. In fact, I'm one of those guys for whom no software ever got in the way of anything other than the time I should spend away from the computer.
There's a lot more useful information about actually doing presentations, which I think supports my position that the problem is not the tool. The real issue is the lack of emphasis on designing something that really supports the audience rather than the speaker. Doc's got some useful real-world suggestions for changing the focus...check it out!
December 17, 2003
Norman in Scientific American
Just a quick lunchtime entry while blogsurfing. I just read Fred's blog entry in response to my previous mention of Don Norman's new book, Emotional Design. Fred notes that "Scientific American claims [Norman] may be off the mark; the January issue includes a brief, mildly critical article based largely on Don Norman's keynote address at the closing plenary at CHI2003."
I just did a quick search, and this article is online (for now): Why Machines Should Fear. The criticism is directed at Norman's ideas that machines should have some sort of emotions "for the same reason that people do: to keep them safe, make them curious and help them to learn." There's going out on a limb!
But emotional machines are only one (or maybe two) chapters in a book that otherwise makes an interesting point that emotions impact product effectiveness. The other criticism--that designing for emotion actually creates the kind of complexity that more directly impacts usability/effectiveness--is less of a criticism and more of a Catch-22 with design.
December 15, 2003
A history of the Internet
It's history night. Here's one version of the history of the Internet.
Perception is reality
I part company with Tufte when he blames this kind of sloppiness on PowerPoint itself. He compares it to a drug with "frequent, serious side effects" of inducing stupidity, wasting time and degrading "the quality and credibility of communication." He's wrong. PowerPoint doesn't corrupt; it concentrates. If you have something useful to say, it helps you say it in a more effective way; if you're ignorant or confused, PowerPoint makes it more obvious, but only to an audience that isn't in the same condition. Moreover, I'd argue that it's easier to be deliberately obscure, and to cover one's self against every possible outcome, in a document laden with footnotes and appendices than it is in a 40-word chart.
Thanks to Dave Weinberger for the pointer...and check out Dave's entry to find out why Hamlet wouldn't work as a newspaper article.
We're not worthy!
A history of information design
Conrad Taylor has generated another fab document for the information design community: it's his perspective of a specific information design history, based on his work for the UK-based firm Popular Communication. He writes:
The process of choosing which communication principles to teach, especially for our design and writing courses, has caused me and several of my colleagues to align ourselves with the Information Design movement. At the same time, we've drawn inspiration from people who are not usually identified as part of the Information Design community, such as Jan White (on publication design), David Ogilvy (on advertising writing and design), and various proponents of Plain English.
ID history buffs may also be interested in an ID timeline I put together a while back for STC's Information Design SIG. It needs updating, but I may wait until the new year, when the InfoDesign countdown elapses and we're treated to the next important step in ID history!
December 13, 2003
Poking fun at Jakob
Ah, the joys of being Don Norman. His new book, Emotional Design, isn't yet available (will be released on 12/23), yet it is now 20,578 on Amazon's sales rank. Contrast that to the little academic book that Mike Albers and I worked on...which a year later has hit 580,099...woo baby, time to quit the day job (not :).
Seriously, Amazon's offering Emotional Design for under $20 for a hardcover. Such a deal! But if you're not yet convinced, you can take a look at some sample chapters on Don's site.
Still more Tufte
I'm not sure how I missed this...I must have added Design Observer to my latest RSS aggregator after this entry. Anyways, early in November, William Drentel added a part 2 on Tufte as a sequel to Jessica Helfand's part 1. I did blog the part 1, particularly since I didn't exactly agree with the point (nor did others...see the comments with the entry).
But I find a lot more to agree with in part 2. In particular, I think this is spot on:
...I want to suggest that PowerPoint was probably not a major contributor to the Columbia tragedy: it is pretty clear from the investigation and its final report that many people within NASA and Boeing thought the leaking foam was a (more) dangerous problem, and that the culture of NASA led to these voices being ignored.
Alas, I'm not quite ready, as Drentel seems to be, to buy into the view that PowerPoint is evil. One point that seems to be rather absent from these discussions is the fact that PowerPoint has other options than the bullet point to display information. The fact that speakers and corporations all over the nation (or globe) rely too heavily on bullet points is perhaps properly more an indictment of our bordering-on-zero visual design/literacy skills. There also seems to be very little discussion of the likelihood that the majority of slide authors make slides as a speaker's aid, rather than an audience (or reader) aid. From my current perspective, I wonder whether this might not be another "blame the author, not the tool" situation.
For others interested in this subject, I'm sure you'll want to check out the resources Drentel mentioned: Tufte's recent interview with I.D. magazine and Ian Parker's essay, originally published in the New Yorker: Absolute Powerpoint: Can A Software Package Edit Our Thoughts (published May 28, 2001).
Update, 12/14: Well, according to the NYTimes, PowerPoint isn't evil, instead PowerPoint Makes You Dumb. Yikes. Score another one for the Tufte/Nielsen "isn't spin great?" machinery.
Update, 12/15: Over on heyblog, Andrew echoes my thoughts re Helfand's issues with Tufte (though I didn't use the term "buttheaded rant" :). He does add some additional useful commentary re Tufte's Ask ET forums that's worth checking out. BTW, I work with Andrew's dad...how's that for small world?
December 11, 2003
One hot design book
Here's a new book that's making the rounds: Universal Principles of Design. Mike dropped by my office a couple days ago to show it to me, after having heard about it from Victor (who heard about it from Adam).
The buzz may well be justified. Here's a blurb from Amazon:
Universal Principles of Design is the first comprehensive, cross-disciplinary encyclopedia of design. Richly illustrated and easy to navigate, it pairs clear explanations of every design concept with visual examples of the concepts applied in practice. From the "80/20 rule to chunking, from baby-face bias to Occam's razor, and from self-similarity to storytelling, every major design concept is defined and illustrated for readers to expand their knowledge.
Courtesy of one-click ordering, it's on its way to my mailbox!
December 10, 2003
More power to the people
The miserable failure Google bomb was an amusing application of grass roots power on the Internet. But one enterprising, and pissed off, consumer has leveraged this power to -- dare I say it? -- the greater good.
Evidence: www.ipoddirtysecret.com by the Neistat brothers (one of whom is the said pissed-off consumer). As they note, it's not obvious that it was their action -- a great QuickTime movie -- that led Apple to change their policy re iPod battery replacement. But the ability for a consumer to get out their complaint in such an amusing way that it becomes fodder for the greater weblog community, and eventually get picked up by tech media is evolutionary if not revolutionary.
All this said, I'm not sure it was actually a battery problem. Back in the spring, my first-generation iPod wouldn't hold a charge, and my Internet research turned up a design flaw related to some capacitor. There was a great site that showed you ow to pry your iPod apart and disconnect the right connector that allowed this capacitor to discharge. Voila...no more battery charge problems. I apparently didn't bookmark this great resource, or I'd link to it now. (Bummer...I may need it in another 12 months!)
Thanks to Capulet Communications for the pointer.
December 09, 2003
Fortune: From drab to fab
Is it just me, or is design getting some fab press? In late October, there was a design issue of Newsweek. Then at the end of November, there was a design issue of the New York Times Magazine. This Fortune article is a nice complement. Some highlights from this piece:
How do the savviest companies come up with designs that excite consumers and spur sales? For starters, they don't make the design department a product's last stop after it has already passed through the engineering and manufacturing departments. ...
December 08, 2003
Myth of doomed data
Okay, if you haven't picked up on this before, I'm an old fart. Not eligible for AARP yet (gotta be 50), but still pretty damn old. Like, I remember punch cards, DECtape, 8" floppies (back when they really were floppy), and monster magtapes. In other words, I've seen just a few digital formats in my computer lifetime.
Given that, I was interested to read this piece from MIT's Technology Review on the Myth of Doomed Data, whose sub-title reads "The handwringing about obsolete formats is misguided. The digital files we create today will be around for a very, very long time."
If this isn't one of the most interesting questions about society and technology, I don't know what is. When you realize that we can still look at found documents that are hundreds (or thousands) of years old, it is a bit disconcerting to wonder what generations in the distant future may make of some of our digital artifacts, when we're lucky to convert an 8-track if we want.
Thanks to mgk for the pointer. BTW, he writes:
Ive said it before and Ill say it again: digital preservation represents a significant technical challenge, but its first and foremost a social challenge.
Now there's something I'd like to see more about!
Over on the interaction design list, Hans Samuelson offered up two interesting resources in a discussion on beauty and transparency.
One was Alexander Nehamas' An essay on beauty and judgement, which Hans describes as "one of the best discussions I have found on the philosophical concept of beauty [which is] anchored in enough pop-culture references to make the Kant palatable."
The other, which I'm looking forward to exploring, is Caroline Hummels' doctoral dissertation on Gestural design tools: prototypes, experiments and scenarios (scroll down to 2000). Her abstract:
Digital products are generally controlled by buttons and icons, which emphasises the user's cognitive skills. I propose to take respect for the user as a whole as my starting point, including his perceptual-motor and emotional skills. Designers should create a context for experience rather than a product. Aesthetic interaction becomes the central theme. As a consequence, I believe that design tools should change, too. To create a context for experience, the designer needs tools which allow him to explore beautiful and engaging interactions. In this thesis, I have documented this experiental design framework and my search for such tools, especially gestural design tools.
I've only looked at the intro, but it looks like she has carried through the idea of beauty and design into her published dissertation. Thanks to Hans for the pointer...it may be a useful counterpoint to Don Norman's Emotional Design.
December 05, 2003
Lies and statistics
Jeffrey Veen pointed to Jonathan Corum's fascinating analysis of California's state-issued, but misleading, graph of votes by county in the recent special election. A must-read for information graphics fans.
A very brief exploration of the term "information design" found the clusters a bit frustrating to navigate, but I liked the preview links to the right of the returned pages.
The opposite of miserable failure
Now, the weblog community is adding insult to injury. Taking Dick Gephardt's commentary (picked up by The Atlantic), bloggers are taking advantage of Google's search algorithm so that links like this one -- miserable failure -- make the president's official bio the top site returned by a search for 'miserable failure' on Google.
BTW, the first site returned on a search for 'weapons of mass destruction' is still online.
December 04, 2003
Blogging the semantic web
I was going to write up an entry on Lou Rosenfeld's and Peter Van Dijck's responses to Clay Shirky's latest on the semantic web. But then I saw that Carrie had beaten me to it over on paper & pencil. Never mind!
Aging eyes and tiny fonts
Over on Digital Web Magazine, Nick has a pointer to this article: Font Size: No Happy Medium. In it, Dave Shea argues that, at some point, it stops being the designer's fault if people aren't happy with text sizes on web pages:
The current standards movement seems to place an awful lot of responsibility on the designer. Its up to the designer to work around browser flaws by not using pixel-value text. Its up to the designer to consider people with perfect vision, low vision, and no vision. Its up to the designer to account for different monitor sizes and resolutions. Its up to the designer to make sure their layout doesnt break when fonts are at 100%, or 150%, or 200%.
Reading the comment trail (at 44 so far) has been quite interesting. I'm very sympathetic to the point that Jim Dabell is trying to make:
The issue of avoiding the users font size isnt about too small fonts. Its about the difference between font sizes on different websites. I have a good browser. I have a good font size. I dont like having to adjust the font size for every new website I visit just because lots of different designers have lots of different ideas on what the best font size is for me.
I have to admit, this has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I'm happily surfing along with my 11pt Verdana type and all of a sudden, I'm on an unreadable site. Here's how this looks...you're at a website like Digital Web, which is very readable:
And yes Virginia, I know how to resize type in my browser (I have to...bloug is too tiny for me to read by default as well). But I wish I didn't have to manually set it and unset it while surfing.
However, unlike Jim, I'm actually quite happy with the workaround that Jeroen Coumans provided -- set a minimum type size in Mozilla. For me, Verdana just isn't readable at 8 pts or less on my monitor (1280x1024, 20"). But 9 will do in a pinch. As Jim points out though, this may cause the page to lose relative sizes between styles. Unlike him, I'm willing to put up with this to make my life easier.
December 02, 2003
Patrick Whitney on HCD
Another failed weblogs.com ping sent me browsing MT's activity log again. Today's failed search term from the log is Patrick Whitney, who is Director of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
I've just printed out an interview he did with the Danish Design Center last spring on Why Human-Centered Design is the Design of the Future (pdf).
This page from IIT is probably full of lots of other interesting fodder as well, but I'm off to one of my last classes for the semester.
First Monday goodies
The December issue of First Monday came out yesterday with a number of articles in the society & technology space. Looks like some good reads! Here are the articles on my list, along with parts of their abstracts.
IDblog is Beth Mazur tilting at power law windmills. A little bit Internet, a little bit technology, a little bit society, and a lot about designing useful information products. Send your cards and letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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