All posts filed under “Design


Last night someone I don’t know got in touch with me, politely and humbly to ask for some advice on a professional matter. This is not uncommon, and I always make time to offer what help I can; I can’t promise I’ll actually ever help, but what I’ve got is yours as much as it’s mine.

Most every time I do this I think of Susan Kare, the quite literally iconic designer best-known for creating the icons and visual feel of the original Macintosh. When I was writing my dissertation at university, on the influence of UI design on the creative process, I emailed her to ask a couple of questions. I don’t know where she was working at the time, but she would have been busy and important, and yet, magically, she replied. Two important things for me flowed from that email. The first was small and specific, but fascinating: Kare said that when designing icons, it was less important that what they represented was immediately, intuitively obvious, and more important that, once you’d learned what that icon represented – what the link is between that little grid of pixels and the action that will result when you click it – it is a strong, unbreakable semantic association.

The second was something that has only grown in the 20-some years since I dialled up the internet and polled my POP3 server to receive that email. As I have myself got busier, and more senior, and with more calls on my attention, I more appreciate the time Kare took to reply. If ever I feel like I can’t be arsed, if ever the person getting in touch is presumptuous or even rude, if ever I feel like I should be getting paid for what is in effect some free consultancy that seems to devalue the experience and knowledge I’ve built up in my career, well, then I check myself. Dear god, if Susan Freaking Kare can take 20 minutes to read and reply to an email from a green undergrad, I can carve out some time to offer the best I can to someone who asks about what mic to buy, how to get into journalism, or wants me to sense-check their CV.

I’m still besieged by impostor syndrome, and I worry I give bad advice, but so long as I caveat what I say, then surely far better that I make time to try to help, and give someone the basic courtesy of one’s attention, rather than, embarrassed, denying folks whatever I know out of my own neurosis.

I don’t, I hope, solely do this because I want folks to think of me kindly for as long or as often as Kare’s kind act has made me think of her, though I’m not a good and self-contained enough person that that doesn’t play a part in it. But rather, I remember how shocked, delighted and excited it felt that some far-off, remote figure I contacted read and replied to my message, and I want to always honour that feeling. Absolutely fuck anyone who pulls the ladder up behind them. And thanks again, Susan.

Affinity affinity, or, why I’m a Serif fanboy

Affinity Photo screenshot

This morning I tweeted to congratulate Serif on the release of Affinity Photo, its new image-editing app which joins the vector app Affinity Designer (already out) and DTP app Affinity Publisher (out later this year). I said, within the 140 character constraint, that the apps in the Affinity suite are genuine challengers to Adobe’s market-dominating apps, and I worried for the rest of the morning about how that comment was interpreted. Hence this post which, uh, expands on the point.

There are two things to consider here. First, are the apps actually good enough for people to consider them instead of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, and second, what is the nature of the ‘challenge’?

To the first: yes, with familiar caveats. Affinity Designer, the only one I’ve used, is not merely as powerful and flexible as Adobe Illustrator is but in many ways it’s more so. Yes, there are likely edge cases where certain Illustrator features and workflows won’t be available or will be clunky in comparison, but it’s even more likely that Designer’s advantages – fast, consistent, modern and easier (for me at least) to use – will offset these for many, many people. In any case, Serif is iterating hard. If you’re familiar with Illustrator, there will be a slight learning curve in switching to Designer, but the app is generally so much of a delight to use that not only will you grasp it quickly but you’ll also wonder why Adobe didn’t do things like that years ago. Serif is fortunate that they put themselves in a position to start with a completely blank slate in creating this fully integrated suite, instead of, as with Adobe, having to deal with millions of lines of legacy code which, crucially, often originated in different companies and had to be made to feel and behave like a suite – and the effect is wonderful.

The other caveat is one we know well from the Office story; in commercial workflows, consistency of tools and file formats for interchange are important, and you might suggest that while one-man-band illustrators or small studios could make the switch easily, it’s much harder for full-scale agencies and publishers. And this is likely true, but for far fewer cases than you might expect, in part because the native formats for the Affinity suite are widely compatible, but also because Serif knows this is a problem and puts a lot of stock in robust import and export of even the Adobe formats such as .psd and .ai. Still, while I haven’t done enough in-anger work to know empirically, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that busy, fecund companies ran into a few small but important glitches in fitting into the Adobe-dominated industry workflows if they switched to Affinity.

(Of course, plenty will start with Serif’s apps rather than switching from Adobe’s, and there’s a fair bit of friction involved in getting people convinced they should even entertain switching if they’re comfortable in Creative Cloud.)

My second point, though – what do I mean by saying Serif challenges Adobe? – is the one that worried me more.

I’m always sceptical when someone claims an app can challenge an incumbent. It’s hard to do, in part because of the reasons above, and also because usually there’s a good reason the incumbent is the incumbent. It takes a lot of hard work, fresh ideas and money, and a long time, to challenge one. Usually the new app just isn’t very good, whatever the PR exec tells you.

The Affinity apps actually are very good, and they definitely can challenge Adobe’s. Be careful how you define ‘challenge’, though. I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see Serif any time soon doing to Adobe what InDesign did to QuarkXPress; the current Adobe apps aren’t as stagnant as XPress was then, and nor is Adobe as arrogant as Quark at the time. That’s not what I mean. You don’t have to vanquish a competitor to be a success; this isn’t a zero-sum game.

Affinity Designer, though, absolutely and completely is a viable, pro-level alternative to Adobe Illustrator. It’s not a ‘have-made-an-app-that-can-draw-vector-shapes-and-lines-so-ship-it!’ effort from a lone developer. It’s not a weird open source excretion, powerful but ugly and opaque. It sprang fully-formed, mature, polished and easy to use, into existence. Indeed, it’s not just an alternative to Illustrator, I find it faster, easier and more pleasant to use than Illustrator. I expect the same is true of Photo and will be true of Publisher.

The first time I met with Serif to talk Affinity Designer before its launch, I confess my sceptic-o-meter was registering high. This was an old company I associated, fairly or not, with cheap PC software found in those big bins of £5 CD-ROMs in Tesco or given away on magazine coverdiscs. But I sat in the meeting room and went from scepticism to surprise to interest to amazement to excitement. I came out a convert and walked round the office telling people how awesome Designer was.

The app itself, though, was just part of it. I’ve met plenty of software bosses, and have come to expect either greasy, unpleasantly macho douchebags who might as well be selling fish fingers for all they apparently care about the product rather than the company, or technical neophytes who you suspect can’t even use the software never mind answer any vaguely technical question about it. Neither was true of Serif’s managing director, Ashley Hewson. He was clearly wildly proud of and excited by what they were doing, and could talk both knowledgeably about the products, and with frankness about strategic plans and business.

Serif also earned Brownie points with me for bringing along lead developer (technically, Head of SerifLabs) Tony Brightman, a man whose passion and pride shone like a beacon, and who with a little coaxing would go into delighted detail about why this works like that and why it’s important that this does that.

The vibe I get off the folks I talk to there isn’t the shellac of professional, because-I’m-being-paid-to excitement; it’s the real deal. They’re making all sorts of decisions – cheap but sustainable pricing, no subscriptions, commitment to upgrades, no bolt-on cloud service because we’ve all got Dropbox, right? – that serve the customer first, and they seem so very happy to be doing so.

I can root for Serif and I can root for Adobe. Inertia and familiarity, having been using Photoshop since I got 3.0 bundled with a SCSI scanner when I was a teenager, will keep me using Photoshop for a long time, and it’s important I note that it is still the pre-eminent image manipulation tool for good reason.

It’s rare that I can be so completely positive about a company and its products, but I am here. I encourage you to check out Designer and now Photo – the latter of which, as I write, has introductory launch pricing of £30/$40/€40, 20% off – and challenge you not to be as excited as I am about these products and the company that makes them.

They’re doing things right. They’re bona fide. They deserve every success; whatever the company’s ambition in the industry, I hope the market will reward such customer-centricity, quality and heart.

Personality and playfulness in tech

A few days ago, I spoke at the terrific Lightning Talks night at SWmobile, and my pitch in my 10-minute talk was to make today’s devs think about rediscovering the joy and delight that comes from personality and playfulness in software and hardware. I’ve recreated the talk above, and I’d also encourage you (especially if you’re a dev, and doubly especially if you make iOS apps) to watch the talk from my friend Paul Hudson, from the same night, on UIStackView and why it makes iPad multitasking much easier. I adore Paul’s presentations, and I think you’ll see why when you watch it.

A postcript: I’d like to explain the technical gremlins that prevented me from using the audio I recorded on the night in the above video, which was my original intention. I was using the Sennheiser ClipMic digital, and the app it plugs into uses a clever but flawed demo model. It’s free, and by default it’s limited to 60 seconds’ recording, which you can unlock with an IAP. Plugging in the mic also unlocks the full app, but as I discovered, you do have to plug in the mic to unlock it; you can’t just have it already plugged in then launch the app, as then the restriction-lifting unlocking isn’t triggered. I didn’t realise till after, having tested it sitting in the audience, gotten my gain right, and confidently walked up to the front, that I had merely recorded 60 seconds of shuffling and throat-clearing.

Photoshop’s effect on our gullibility

I remember seeing ads for Photoshop in a magazine in the nineties – fantastical photo montages of impossible scenes. Impossible as they were, though, I remember marvelling that I ‘couldn’t see the joins’. And that’s because as a child of the eighties, I was used to photo montage techniques in general being so ropey that unless you suspended your disbelief, it was painfully clear that they were faked.

I mention this because Photoshop (and its users) have become so good since then that today’s teenagers have probably never known a world in which utterly convincing but equally utterly false images can be conjured up with comparatively little effort.

What I can’t work out, though, is if the effect on our gullibility has been a positive one – that is, we’re aware that you can’t trust a single pixel of an image, and so always even just subconsciously question their veracity – or negative, both in that manipulated images are so ubiquitous that we just throw our hands up, and because we’re so ready to believe viral images that spread through social networks.

Designing prompt cards

Prompt cards

When I was preparing to record the video on HyperCard I shot for Macworld, I created some little prompt cards, and I liked the design solution I came up with – so I thought I’d share.

On one card I outlined my rough plan for the video – bullet points, essentially, with a proposed narrative flow in place. It’s on the left, above. On the other cards I printed the tweets from Macworld readers and some other snippets that I wanted to be able to quote as Keith and I talked.

I needed to be able to find my way back to my master card at any point, so I did two things. One was make it blue so it stood out, but the more important thing was to cut the bottom corner off the other cards, as you can see above. Now, wherever in the stack my master card was, I could feel for it with my left thumb, and shuffle it to the top, even without looking at the stack. In this way, as I could sense that one segment was coming to a close, and still while chatting with and maintaining eye contact with Keith, I could get my master card ready so that I could glance down at it briefly to remind myself of where I had thought we should go next.

Bruno Maag on font piracy

Computer Arts asked me to write about font management for an upcoming issue, and I spoke not just to the companies that develop font management tools and to the agencies that use them (or don’t!) but also to type foundries to get their take on font piracy. As always, I got far more good stuff than I could fit in the feature, so much of the raw interview stuff will go up on Creative Bloq soon. But (with Computer Arts’ permission) I wanted to publish my favourite one here; this is Bruno Maag, the Swiss typographer who is chairman of Dalton Maag, and I think he says smart, pragmatic things that deserve to be heard.

(An aside before we go on: it always strikes me that the Qs in a Q&A often come across as anodyne and facile, as is indeed the case here, but – as is the case here – they can prompt thoughtful insights. The below is unedited, save for some light grammatical and typographic clean-up.)

What’s your attitude to font piracy?

The cost of pursuing commercial piracy is immense, with no guarantee of success or return, but where we know of unlicensed use of Dalton Maag fonts, we must enforce our licence terms and pursue appropriate compensation.

However, we deal with casual piracy at source, through education and explanation, by building business models which understand real-world needs, and by trying to avoid the known causes of casual piracy: geographic restrictions, differential pricing, opaque terms, uncertain suitability, inaccessible products, and so on.

Do tools such as Extensis’ Universal Type Server actually help – specifically independent foundries? Do you support initiatives such as Typekit?

I find that IT departments are always concerned about legal compliance for any software used in their organisation. Font management tools clearly simplify their task and give them control of what fonts are used in their organisation. It can be good for the font developer because it means that there is no ambiguity with corporate licences, but can lock out unapproved but legal fonts from being used.

Typekit and other fonts-as-a-service providers do open up new markets and do take our fonts to more desktops than before. It is a new model for licensing, and it is good for font developers because they will have a guaranteed revenue.

What would you say to a designer who has a deadline to hit and is tempted for speed just to copy the fonts from a colleague’s Mac?

Today there really are no excuses. Every font developer has their fonts available online where licences can be purchased in just a few minutes.

How can we reconcile the need for agencies and their designers to be experimental with fonts (in ways that might never actually get used beyond the initial brainstorming stage) with foundries’ need to ensure they get paid?

That’s exactly why Dalton Maag introduced its free trial licence this year. Designers and agencies can download fully-functional trial versions of our fonts for free for pitching and testing. It is then the agencies’ responsibility to ensure to budget for font usage should the project progress, and to purchase the correct size and type of licence, for themselves and possibly for their clients.

What’s the biggest issue facing foundries and their intellectual property today and tomorrow?

As we try to understand and cater to more needs from a wider and more international audience, the functionality of fonts and the cost of their development increases exponentially, but the risks of commercial failure remain the same.

But I do believe that the biggest threat in the industry is from the industry itself. Many typeface designers are overly protective of the fruits of their labour, even for those who possess a valid licence; there seems to be a lack of appreciation that without the honesty of the paying customer we wouldn’t have a business at all, and no real understanding that the value of our work isn’t truly realized until the fonts are used in the real world.

Add to this impenetrable licence agreements with gotcha clauses and terms which will never work in the real world, and it’s no wonder that so many users feel that font foundries aren’t on their side.