Staying beginners

Tony Fadell, the former Apple employee who led the original iPod team, talks about the importance of “noticing” in this TED Talk about design.

He refers to his old boss, Steve Jobs, and his continual exhortation to his staff on “staying beginners”, to constantly try to see the world with fresh eyes and as the customer might see things. 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” –Shunryu Suzuki

Beautifully empty

Our living room right now: IMG_7017We are not moving. We just had our floors repaired after our water heater died and tried taking as much of the rest of the house with it as it could.

We’ve been in this house for thirteen years. In spite of the hassle of fixing the floors, it’s worth it for the delight of seeing this floor look like new again.

But now I’m loving the stark emptiness. I’m not eager to have our furniture and stuff returned to where it was.

Of course, it’s not a museum piece. We live here and need somewhere to sit. 

Or do we?

The photo above reminded me of this famous photo below of a young and newly rich Steve Jobs, who was so loath to possess anything of merely average beauty that for a while he lived with just this Tiffany lamp and his stereo in his living room:

WOODSIDE, CA - DECEMBER 15: CEO of Apple Steve Jobs sits at his home in Woodside, CA on December 15, 1982. IMAGE PREVIOUSLY A TIME & LIFE IMAGE. (Photo by Diana Walker/SJ/Contour by Getty Images)
WOODSIDE, CA – DECEMBER 15: CEO of Apple Steve Jobs sits at his home in Woodside, CA on December 15, 1982. IMAGE PREVIOUSLY A TIME & LIFE IMAGE. (Photo by Diana Walker/SJ/Contour by Getty Images)
No worries. We will not be living like Steve. But we will use this opportunity to rethink what goes back in. If it’s not useful or beautiful to us, it really shouldn’t make the cut.

Roman Mars on flag design

This talk about flag design — yes, flag design — by Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible podcast made my day.

Some of these design principles can be directly applied to presentation slide design. Don’t put text on a slide that is hard to read. In most cases a strong, simple, clear image will be more effective than text on a screen, especially if that text is small or redundant or is read word-for-word (no way, right?) by the presenter.

The presentation, of course, is not about the slides, it’s about the interaction of the speaker and the audience resulting in a transformation. Only use slides if they support and enhance that interaction.

Your slides are your flag, your visual symbol of you and your message, but they’re also a tool that should serve your message and not detract from it.

Don’t be like San Francisco or Milwaukee or, holy smokes, Pocatello with their mishmash abominations of design dereliction. Be like Amsterdam, instead, and go for kick-ass.

Jony Ive and the moral purpose of design

It’s Apple Watch week with Monday’s event approaching rapidly and many eager to see just what the final details will be.* And the Jony Ive press tour continues. (Has Apple ever granted this much access to Ive or any of its top people? This is a new era of openness in Tim Cook’s Apple.) Here’s a profile in The Financial Times and a bit about Ive’s view of the big picture of design?

I would hazard a wild guess that 19th-century neogothic ecclesiastical architect and designer Augustus Pugin is not frequently discussed in Cupertino, but Ive invokes his name to discuss the moral purpose of design. He chooses his words carefully. “This is difficult to describe and it could be misinterpreted very easily, but there is a sense of almost serving your fellow humans. While people might not be able to articulate why they care and why they prefer one thing over the other, I really think that most people are very discerning.”

Some may take it as self-serving or hollow or PR, but I take his claims of serving humanity with design and with Apple’s creations as wholly sincere. And refreshing. Of all companies, Apple can most likely claim adherence to a standard beyond mere market economics and pursuit of profits. Maybe it’s easy to proclaim such lofty motivation if you represent the richest company in the history of the world.

It does seem the leadership at Apple are uniquely obsessed with making truly great products, products that offer remarkable value to their customers. And, yes, they make a lot of money by selling those products. But that is likely the key to their success. Focus obsessively on the creation and continual refinement of transformative products and trust that the humans they’re designed for will respond with delight and with a willingness to pay a premium for designs that resonate, whether those humans know exactly why or not.

What’s the gift we can give in our work? How can what we create and the experiences we deliver serve a meaningful purpose beyond putting food on our tables and paying our bills?

If you consider your work as a way to serve humanity, to make life even a little better for someone, you can transform a mere job into a calling. Tasks you previously took for granted, or undertook half-heartedly, become almost sacred and imbued with new energy when you instead see them as part of your gift to the universe, your legacy in the service of humanity. And your work likely will rise to new levels of excellence and accomplishment.

*I haven’t worn a watch since 2008. I’m assuming I don’t want an Apple Watch. But I’m also smitten by delightful technology. I’m a pushover for uniquely great things. I will be intrigued to see how this new device is being pitched to a generation that doesn’t see a watch as a necessity any longer. 

Offscreen Magazine: Analog treasures for digital denizens


After being intrigued by a Shawn Blanc post about it, Offscreen Magazine, Issue 10, arrived in my mailbox yesterday. It’s a delight, a touchable treasure of insights about and for people whose work revolves around the internet. The creator, Kai Branch, decided he wanted to do more than push pixels and digital wares that seemed to have no meaningful shelf life. He wanted to make something real, that you could hold and share tangibly and that might have some staying power. From Offscreen’s “About” page:

Originally a web designer by trade, Kai Brach launched the first issue of Offscreen in early 2012. Feeling disconnected by the fast pace and the ephemeral nature of digital, after ten years of freelance work Kai wanted to create something more tangible. With Offscreen Magazine, he combines both his love for technology and the web, and the unique experience of printed magazines.

In the span of three months, Kai “converted” from a UI designer to an editorial art director, not only publishing and editing Offscreen but also designing the magazine from the ground up. As such, Offscreen is still a one-man operation, and a proudly authentic indie magazine supported by amazing contributors and curious readers. Kai hopes to reinvigorate printed magazines as a choice of media that provides a welcome break from our always-on society.

I’m impressed by the content in this magazine. And that it’s a one-man operation makes it even more impressive. There are insights on seemingly every page. It’s stuffed with meaty interviews with interesting people and is scattered throughout with thoughtful touches like this:

THIS was on the page following the table of contents! (The obstacle is the way.)

And this…

FullSizeRender 2
A wise insight from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield in the current issue of Offscreen Magazine

And it’s beautifully made and a pleasure to hold. Quality paper, crisp print. The size is just right, too. Clearly, a lot of thought and care has gone into making this magazine.

Those of us who share on the internet are regularly reminded how fleeting our creations are. Of course, there’s poetry in the impermanence. Online creations are like a mandala, a Buddhist sand painting that’s intentionally scattered after being painstakingly created as a reminder of the impermanence of all things.

But there’s a grace in great things, things you can hold and tuck under your arm and put on your shelf to enjoy again and again. A thoughtfully crafted thing has a beauty that endures and offers a distinctive pleasure that a flickering screen cannot adequately match.

What will my web site, for example, have to offer of value to anyone ten or twenty years from now? I suppose I could still be adding to it regularly. I envision making this as long-term a repository of my writing as is possible. And the intrinsic value of notching new posts every day has meaning for me whether anyone else reads or not.

But the web is like a river. You never surf the same web twice. It’s constantly changing. On the internet, everything flows and nothing abides for long. Such is life, of course.

Enjoying this magazine has sparked a bit of curiosity about making more permanent things. I don’t know if “Excellent Journey: The Book” is in my future, but it’s worthwhile to consider what I might create in a more fixed form. Seth Godin’s recent book along with this magazine are great examples reminding me of the value of the touchable and the beauty of old-fashioned words on paper.

The printed word will, I venture, have a much more enduring presence than, say, vinyl records, which seem more of a novelty for a narrow niche of aficionados. No technology is required to use a book. But, I think people eventually will treat paper books more like souvenirs of ideas and memories. Electronic reading will be fine for most occasions. Real books, though, will become more special, for selected experiences and more valued ideas, for gifts that endure, that touch and can be touched.