Posts tagged with: design

My impressions of Semi Permanent 2017

In their own words "Semi Permanent is the Mecca for creatives, entrepreneurs and future thinkers."

It’s a two-day conference with diverse speakers that range from start-ups to some of the world's top companies. In the past the topics would focus on creativity, art and design but in recent years there has been an increase in talks about business, strategy and technology.

The conference has been around for 14 years and has chapters all over the globe, so it's pretty cool to have it come to Auckland every year.

Usually when I describe it to people, I affectionately like to call it "a poor man's Webstock". This has much more to do with the affordable price tag than the quality of speakers though. Semi Permanent offers much better value for money in that regard.

Below I picked some of my favourite speakers and my key takeaways for each.

Lucy McRae

Lucy is a science-fiction artist, Body Architect and creator of the Swallowable Perfume. She's responsible for a variety of projects that explore how the human body will evolve in the future.

She started off her talk by mentioning that she recently wrote her own funeral speech which gave her a unique perspective on life and how she wanted to be remembered.

Lucy also advised not to let labels define you. That's essentially how she got her job at Phillips by the way. The recruiter asked her what she did and initially she couldn't really answer that question as she wasn't a designer, developer, product manager or similar. She spent a week thinking about it and came back convincingly as a Body Architect–she was hired on the spot.

Through her projects, such as Future Day Spa or Make Your Maker she showed that art can help overcome someone's personal limitations. She believes that what it means to be human will be redefined in the future.

My favourite quotes:

“Design from a place of doubt.”

“Push your body.”

“Move out of your habits.”

“Are we doing what we want right now?”

Learn more about Lucy McRae.

Erik Klimczak

Erik is the Creative Director of Advanced Technologies and Data Design at Uber. He shared insights about the design process at Uber and emphasised the importance of truly getting to know your users by conducting field research on a global scale. Their design teams interview people all around the world to identify their specific needs and problems.

For example I learned that in India, Uber offers a service called MotoX where drivers pick you up on a motorbike, which is the most popular (and most practical) vehicle in the country.

He also mentioned how Uber is constantly creating new opportunities for people. It enables women in Saudi Arabia to travel independently or helps poor households generate additional income to make ends meet.

His talk was very visual and a prime example of telling stories with data. If you're into that sort of thing I highly recommend checking out deck.gl which is the framework the team uses to create interactive maps. Often they end up looking so good that Erik prints them out to make posters for the office.

There were also animations of Uber driving routes showing things like people getting dropped off randomly around their chosen destination because of inaccurate directions.

What really stood out to me though, was the huge amount of data Uber has at their disposal simply because of people using the app while driving. They can track pretty much everything as you can see in this video of a day in the life of Uber Los Angeles. Whether it's road conditions, traffic jams, potholes or even the driver's habits.

Yes, that's right. Uber can even tell whether or not you're an aggressive driver. In that regard, Erik noted that the human mind is unreliable as there is always a gap between what people say they do and what they actually do. I've found this to be especially true when conducting intercept interviews, where asking the right questions is key to get valuable answers from people.

Fortunately Uber uses and shares this data openly for the greater good. Cities can access the platform Uber Movement and improve their infrastructure based on accurate stats sourced from millions of cars on a daily basis.

Finally he talked about his experience in a self-driving Uber car which felt surreal. Their research showed that people need to be re-assured that the car knows what it's doing so a screen was added in the back of every car so that passengers can see what the vehicle's sensors are showing.

Also:

"Ask better questions."

"Learn from data."

"The impact on a single person leads to an impact on a whole city."

Learn more about Erik Klimczak

Instrument

This talk featured three directors of the design agency Instrument: Steve Denekas (Executive Creative Director), Kara Place (Executive Director) and John Brown (Technical Director).

To kick things off they showed us their recent reel which is simply amazing:

This talk was full of little gems and takeaways around the design process, team work, client relationships and innovation. I found Steve's part the most interesting and relevant so that's what I'm going to focus on.

"Good ideas come from bad ideas."

At Instrument they believe that ideas come from everywhere. Whether it's the newly hired intern or someone from the accounting team. Everyone can contribute their ideas and thoughts regardless of job titles.
This really resonated with me as I've found that in the past some of the best ideas or solutions came from developers.

"Find the truth and build it."

When it comes to the design process, Steve advised to "move quickly from talking to doing." Instead of wasting time in random meetings, start producing something tangible that you can talk about in a meaningful way. I believe in doing just enough research to start iterating on a solution and getting feedback as early as possible.

“Tell clients that you don’t know.”

The process has a beginning and an end, but it's the middle that's undetermined. Steve and the team are honest with clients when approaching a new problem.

In my experience the truth is that often we know the problem but we'll have to diverge and iterate to come up with a solution. This part often makes people uncomfortable and they like to see a solution upfront which achieves little more than setting false expectations.

I loved that he embraces the unknown of the process and communicates it clearly to clients.

Finally, the team talked about their recent project with Google where the brief was to showcase power of the Google Cloud in innovative ways.

This led them to try out all sorts of weird experiments with those apps. For example they managed to do animations within Google Sheets and found out that it has a frame rate of 20FPS. (Something that even Google engineers didn't know – why would they?)

Also:

“Make complex things simple.”

"Give people something to react to.”

“Don’t use Lorem Ipsum.”

“Love the problem.”

“Sweat the details.”

“Ask the right questions during discovery.”

Learn more about Instrument

Generating design elements from code with React Sketch.app

Airbnb's design team released a new open source library for Sketch based on React. It allows to generate templates, components and assets directly from code instead of drawing them in Sketch. This eliminates the need to maintain their design language system across Sketch files for designers and Github repos for developers, so that everyone uses the exact same elements from a single source of truth. In the past we've seen many plugins try to generate code from Sketch files in order to bridge the gap between design and development, but the React Sketch.app is doing the opposite.

Once you dig a little deeper you start to see the many advantages of this new approach, especially for big international platforms like Airbnb. As their design system grows, new components can require changes that include colour, typography or spacing. Imagine having to redraw things like that in Sketch every single time to see if it'll work across thousands of devices and hundreds of languages. You can use code to do the heavy lifting for you and generate content on many artboards with different sizes instead.
The library also makes designing with data really easy by allowing you to use traditional APIs and GraphQL endpoints. The same goes for internationalisation if you want to see how titles or button labels fit across your design system.

Even though I'm not too familiar with React I'm very excited to explore the possibilities that come with this open source library. It further reduces the gap between design and development in a radical way. Head over to airnbnb.design to read more about "Painting with Code" where Jon Gold explains the framework in more detail.

Drawit, a drawable user interface

Drawit is a user interface exploration imagined by MIT Media Lab Research Assistant Marco Exposito. His bachelor's thesis project takes visual programming to a whole new level.
In fact, it allows you to create your custom interface by drawing shapes on a tablet. These shapes are defined by the user and can be seemingly random. They then connect to physical objects like a lamp and allow you to change its properties remotely. In the example above, a big circle represents the lamp and a smaller darker circle acts as a button. Drawing a line between these two shapes essentially connects them with one another and make interactions possible. Linking multiple physical objects together is just as easy.
I really like how this approach makes no assumptions on the users background and can be whatever they want it to be. This method of user input appears to be the purest form of UI customisation.

Is Adobe improving the wrong software?

Yesterday I updated to Adobe CC 2015 and couldn't wait to try out the much anticipated new features in Photoshop. This is coming from someone who uses Illustrator almost exclusively these days by the way. Without further ado, let's have a look at what I thought were the most interesting ones.

Design Space

Design Space looks like it's the slimmed down version of Photoshop, that screen designers in particular have been waiting for. You can toggle between the regular view and the new mode quite easily which is neat. In order to have access to this new space, you have to switch it on in the preferences panel as this is still considered a "technology preview feature".
Since a video tells more than a thousand words, I encourage you to check out this screencast commented by Photoshop Senior Product Manager Zorana Gee:

Artboards

You've seen them in Illustrator and you might have seen them in Sketch. Now they're finally available in Photoshop. What I like about their implementation is that the Artboard panel is similar to Sketch which is what I’m used to. Besides that, nothing much to see here so move along.

Stacked layer styles

Similar to Illustrator's Graphic Styles panel, Photoshop now allows you to have as many as 10 instances of gradient overlay, colour overlay, drop shadow, inner shadow and stroke. You can add these either to a single layer or a layer group and edit them at any time. I'm surprised there is a cap, but it makes sense from a performance perspective.

Export as

This option is replacing the well-known Save for Web which is labeled legacy and should disappear fairly soon. I used plug-ins like PNG Express or Slicy for exporting PNG's in the past, but this should do just fine when it comes to automated exporting, without having to rely on third party software. Be warned that it doesn't allow to export slices anymore if you're into that kind of thing.

Glyph panel

Some may not even care about this addition at all, but if you appreciate typography you will love the glyph panel which allows you to browse all available glyphs in a font, view alternatives and basically have fun with OpenType features. InDesign has it, Illustrator has it and Photoshop was long overdue.

Why Photoshop though?

I'd argue that Adobe has been focusing their attention on the wrong software for the past couple of years. Killing off Fireworks a while back infuriated many web designers, many of which have since moved on to the competition. Now turning Photoshop into something it wasn't meant to be in the first place is a huge undertaking. At least it shows that the company has been actively listening to the community, even if all the new Sketch evangelists this might come as too little too late. However I'm very surprised that product isn't getting more attention from Adobe. Seriously.
What about Illustrator? A few improvements could really push it over the top and make us forget about Photoshop entirely. It's arguably the best software (next to Sketch) to address mobile and responsive web design that we have right now.

Consider this:

  • Artboards have been around since 2009
  • It has Layers just like Photoshop
  • It has Graphic Styles
  • It has Symbols
  • It is vector-based

Khoi Vinh recently conducted an unofficial survey among design teams in New York City on the State of Design Tools. It turns out that while Photoshop is still widely used, Illustrator is not far behind.

Adobe Illustrator is surprisingly popular. It used to be rare, at least in my experience, to find digital designers who used Illustrator, but in one of the bigger surprise findings from our visits, we encountered a sizeable contingent of folks for whom Illustrator is their tool of choice. This seems to be a function of the popularity of responsive design, for which Illustrator's support for multiple artboards is well suited, and Retina screens, for which Illustrator's vector-based tools are a natural fit.

This 2015 update is certainly a step in the right direction and should keep many designers satisfied for some time. As far as I'm concerned, Illustrator will remain my go-to design software until something better comes along. There's always next year, right?

The future of touch screens is in good hands

I stumbled upon this video about the possible future of touch screens by Chris Harrison from CMU and found it amazing. You can see him demonstrating their TouchTools and TapSense apps for tablets.

The device they put together is able to achieve something really cool: anticipating what a user wants to do next. By positioning their hand as if they were actually holding a physical object over the glass users get access to that same object except on screen. In fact, the smart screen recognises the grip unique to a product and its intended use.

While some of the examples shown may provide little real-world use, such as a camera or a mouse, this little experiment makes you think about all the possibilities associated with this type of technology.

What I find even more impressive though, is the precise recognition of different types of touch input such as fingertip or knuckle by the device. This opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of interface interactions, as a single button could output various results depending the nature of the touch and essentially triple the amount of possible actions on a given screen.
I can't think of a current app that would directly benefit from this, except for something like Knock maybe. And even then it's a long shot.
Nevertheless, it's going to be really interesting to explore new ways to interact with screens in the future.