Looking for a great, quick-to-read design book? Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School takes less than an hour to plow through, but its multitude of ideas, quotes, and counter-points reinvigorated my design thinking this week. Each page is a single distillation of insight into architecture with an accompanying sketch to illustrate, and even though the title says architecture you could apply most of these nuggets of wisdom to any of the design disciplines. The advice ranges from broad suggestions like #17 (this is one of the more verbose entries, by the way):
The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be.
Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in a creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.
Design a flight of stairs for the day a nervous bride descends them. Shape a window to frame a view of a specific tree on a perfect day in autumn. Make a balcony for the worst dictator in the world to dress down his subjects. Create a seating area for a group of surly teenagers to complain about their parents and teachers.
Designing in idea-specific ways will not limit the ways in which people use and understand your buildings, it will give them license to bring their own interpretations and idiosyncrasies to them.
to the tersely practical, like the drawing advice from #50:
Windows look dark in the daytime.
When rendering an exterior building view, making the windows dark (except when the glass is reflective or a light-colored blind is behind the glass) will add depth and realism.
Things I Learned is another of those books that I wish someone had handed me in early art school, before I moved beyond the foundational 2D and 3D design classes. (I found it via a quote used in the Music of Interaction Design talk given at SXSWi 2011 by Cennydd Bowles and James Box, which is also well worth listening to if you need some design inspiration.)
Any other titles along these lines that I should keep an eye out for? What simple primers have inspired you lately?
I’m pleased to announce that another of my long-term projects has launched: the latest redesign of the University of Texas School of Law website. This was the first major refactoring of the information architecture, HTML, and user interface of the site since 2003, and is a significant departure from the visual refresh of 2005. (My other major project was the new UT Law Events Calendar, which launched on the same day — it’s been a busy summer!)
The UT Law site holds anywhere between 3500-6000 pages (depending on how you want to define a “page”) spread amongst dozens of departments and organizations, with very little of the content in a CMS of any kind, and it’s accompanied by a dozen or more in-house custom applications written in three or four different programming languages, so this major change to the code was quite an undertaking. After consulting with our stakeholders, conducting some user testing, and evaluating other top-tier sites, I began the redesign with the intention that we’d need a great foundation to build off of, while retaining enough visual familiarity to the old site to not confuse our users needlessly.
Highlights for this project:
Brand new HTML5-based templates using clean, semantic markup with hooks for a flexible (but optional) grid-based CSS layout system
Completely redeveloped visual design, color scheme, and branding, with improved typography and layout
Newly designed universal UT Law header and footer, improving usability while taking up less vertical real estate
Standardized look-and-feel for internal law school departments and organizations, along with cleaner information architecture (many URLs have been shortened considerably)
Easier navigation through simplified, consolidated landing pages
Google Custom Search Engine integration available across the entire site, letting users search without leaving the UT Law site
Google Analytics’ new asynchronous code now site-wide, including subdomains, with dual tracking to forward stats on to the main campus Development office
Lighter HTML, smarter handling of cacheable resources, and browser throughput performance tricks give end users much snappier page load times (who loves image spriting? I do!)
Universal use of UTF-8 for better foreign language and other specialty character encoding support
Much work remains, however: the content across the site is currently being reevaluated as part of this project, and we will be working hand-in-hand with each department to ensure that the offerings are up-to-date, relevant, better organized, and more media-rich (where appropriate). Also, the homepage is a temporary placeholder while we work with our communications office to develop new material and focus this Fall semester.
Many thanks go out to my supervisor Mark Gunn, teammates Austin Kleon, John Croslin, Brian Borowicz, and awesome student worker Laura Davila for helping with the porting and making sure that everything looked as snazzy as possible for the launch date!
For the past six months my co-worker John Croslin and I have been hammering away at this project, and it’s finally launched: the new University of Texas School of Law Events Calendar. After comparing many popular (and not-so-popular) open source and commercial calendaring projects, it was determined that none of them fully met UT Law’s specific needs and infrastructure, so we tried to figure out which features worked best in each, and started from scratch.
On the surface, the public view has all of the trappings of a fairly generic calendar (grid + list views, date-based navigation, multiple “calendars”, iCalendar downloads), but behind the scenes there’s a fairly impressive feature set. A quick list of what’s going on:
Entire system designed and built from the ground up, using cross-browser-friendly HTML, CSS, and a dash of jQuery
Object-oriented PHP with an Oracle backend (which is what we’re running now, but it could be modified easily to use MySQL or PostgreSQL instead)
Custom workflow routing that hooks into our faculty / staff / student directories and makes efficient use of our special events and media services departments’ resources (if an event requires catering the system notifies our Special Events department for approval, student-submitted events are first screened by the Student Affairs Office, etc.)
Recurring events are possible with more flexibility than what’s found in Outlook: you can edit most of an event’s details without requiring the removal of the whole series, and you can choose whether changes affect only the single occurrence, if changes ripple forward, or if the changes ripple to all sibling events in the series
Integration with our Exchange server via Exchange Web Services to provide room availability (free/tentative/busy) info to users when creating new events, to help with room selection
“Pretty” permalinks that are navigable for all calendar views (for example /calendar/today/ lists the current day’s events, /calendar/2010/08/ displays August, 2010, in a monthly grid view, /calendar/2010/08/faculty-events/ narrows that further to faculty-specific events, etc., and using the date navigation controls doesn’t kick users out of the specific view)
Coming real soon: iCal/RSS feeds, embeddable calendar widgets, better Exchange integration, mobile views, and more
One week in, it’s already shaping up to be a very useful resource for our users. We might have the code available as an open source download at some point, especially if there’s interest in adapting or extending it. If you’re looking for something right now, you might be interested in the great work being done with UNL Events Publisher and Bedework, two open source projects I took inspiration from. Otherwise, feel free to take a look at what’s happening at UT Law!
Working over the past few months on a fairly large web application with a lot of moving parts, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about abstraction in the design process, about how best to break it down so that my co-coder and I don’t go crazy wrestling with the complexity. Thankfully, I found a book written over 40 years ago that addresses these design problems directly, in a formal writing style both lucid and technical.
Patterns and models
Christopher Alexander, the architect and theorist best known for popularizing the pattern language method of analyzing design problems, wrote Notes on the Synthesis of Form in 1964, when he was 28 years old. The book was hailed as a breakthrough in design theory, but it also quickly gained notoriety in computer science, as the pioneers in that field recognized that the framework could be adapted to the nascent language structures they were developing (Alexander’s later book A Pattern Language is cited as one of the most influential works leading to the invention of modern object-oriented programming). Instead of a bottom-up approach that seeks to gather existing pattern recipes from those working in the field, Notes outlines a process by which you can methodically break a problem into related sets of diagrammed models, yielding a top-down solution.
To understand the human body you need to know what to consider as its principal functional and structural divisions. You cannot understand it until you recognize the nervous system, the hormonal system, the vasomotor system, the heart, the arms, legs, trunk, head, and so on as entities. You cannot understand chemistry without knowing the pieces of which molecules are made. You cannot claim to have much understanding of the universe until you recognize its galaxies as important pieces. You cannot understand the modern city until you know that although roads are physically intertwined with the distribution of services, the two remain functionally distinct.
One of the comforting sentiments in the book is his recognition that individual humans are unable to intuitively solve complex, modern problems without a visual model or mathematical structure to illustrate how the individual components interrelate (Alexander includes some nifty diagrams and sketches throughout the work). The epilogue of the book states his focus succinctly:
My main task has been to show that there is a deep and important underlying structural correspondence between the pattern of a problem and the process of designing a physical form which answers that problem. I believe that the great architect has in the past always been aware of the patterned similarity of problem and process, and that it is only the sense of this similarity of structure that ever led him to the design of greats forms.
A design problem is not an optimization problem
A basic tree of possible requirement sets for a kettle
His approach to design is essentially from the negative: given the yin-and-yang interplay of form (e.g. ‘teakettle’) and context (e.g. ‘person wants to boil water for tea in a kitchen’), the best way to the design the form is to develop sets of intuitively clear misfit variables, binary “good/not-good” properties. He describes this relationship in terms of “goodness of fit”:
Again, it is obvious that a kettle which is uncomfortable to hold causes stress, since the context demands that it should be comfortable to hold. The fact that the kettle is for use by human hands makes this no more than common sense. At the opposite extreme, if somebody suggests that the ensemble is stressed if the kettle will not reflect ultraviolet radiation, common sense tells us to reject this — unless some special reason can be given, which shows what damage the absorption of ultraviolet does to the ensemble. […] A design problem is not an optimization problem. […] For most requirements it is important only to satisfy them at a level which suffices to prevent misfit between the form and the context, and to do this in the least arbitrary manner possible.
Potato peelers and pruning shears
One of the crazier diagram sketches from the book's appendix, depicting an optimal layout for a rural Indian village that was planned by Christopher Alexander
If you’ve seen Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified, about industrial and product design, you might remember the segment about potato peelers and pruning shears. The designers relate that in their work they seek out the “outliers” first, in this case that these tools need to be comfortable and usable in the hands of a hypothetical elderly, arthritic mother. If you’ve baked in that level of accessibility into your design, then a fortiori you’ve already solved much of the problem for the rest of your users.
In the field of web design and development, this is implemented as progressive enhancement, layering additional presentation and functionality layers on top of an already well-formed, accessible system.
Alexander’s method of breaking down the problem into functional sets makes it easier to recognize these widest-angle “misfit” outliers, and to design with them in mind from the outset, before you begin to design the actual physical form of the building, city, software, etc. If you apply this approach to all of the other aspects of the problem, an individual designer can achieve a solution that is inherently simple and orderly, rather than having to prune down and optimize a cumbersome structure. He makes a compelling case, and I see myself doing a lot more up-front consideration before jumping into my next large project. One final quote to tie things together:
Consider the design of the now familiar one-hole kettle. The single wide short spout embraces a number of requirements: all those which center round the problems of getting water in and out of the kettle, the problem of doing it safely without the lid’s falling off, the problem of making manufacture as simple as possible, the problem of making manufacture as simple as possible, the problem of providing warning when the kettle boils, the need for internal maintenance. In the old kettles these requirements were met separately by three components: a spout for pouring, a hole in the top for filling and cleaning, and a top which kept the steam in and rattled when the kettle boiled. Suddenly, when it became possible to put non-corrosive metals on the market, and cheap, available descaler made it unnecessary to get into the kettle for descaling, it became apparent that all these requirements really had a single center of physical implication, not three. The wide spout can be used for filling and pouring, and as a whistle, and there is no top to fall open and let scalding water out over the pourer’s hands. The set of requirements, once its unity is recognized, leads to a single physical component of the kettle.
(Image at top adapted from photo by Flickr user Todd Ehlers)
I once again had the honor and pleasure of working with my favorite contemporary artists, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, this time to redesign and refresh the duo’s web presence. I created the first version of their site back in 2004 and it was time for an overhaul. This design is much cleaner and brighter, highlights their excellent body of work, and creates a framework that can be built upon as new pieces and publications are added. Some portions of the site are still a work in progress, so check back soon for further additions.
Always an honor to get to improve upon a personal favorite!
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of reading the newspaper comics: youthful confusion about the differences between Garfield and Heathcliff, Marmaduke and Howard Huge, the Lockhorns and the Family Circus, wondering who was reading those giant-yet-boring Prince Valiant strips on Sunday, pondering the bizarre evolution of Robotman. I’ve read the comics religiously ever since, missing only a handful of days over the past 20+ years. But there were so many strips I simply ignored, convinced they were stodgy hangers-on from decades long past, or else that they were unfunny legacy soap operas not worth the time to investigate.
Thankfully in 2004 Joshua Fruhlinger started reading the comics so we wouldn’t have to. His curmudgeonly commentary had an opposite effect, though: hundreds of thousands of people suddenly began to appreciate Mary Worth for all of her meddlesome glory, found themselves able to recite the sordid back stories of the girls of Apartment 3G, and learned new ways to determine whether or not you might in fact be a Plugger.
The Comics Curmudgeon is one of the few sites that I visit multiple times a day right in the browser (despite its handy RSS feeds), so it was a great honor to be given the chance to do a facelift of the site. Since I look at it so often, I figured I’d better do a good job. Not to mention that if I broke what was already a cherished site, I’d surely be mauled by his sizable community of rabid comics fans!
Some of the highlights of the redesign:
An awesome new logo up there in the header depicting Josh as drawn by Ces Marciuliano, writer of Sally Forth and creator of Medium Large
Brand new, handcrafted WordPress theme, designed to retain some of the lo-fi, Verdana-heavy charm of the old site while cleaning up the layout and typography considerably
A new jQuery-based @reply system for the comments section, modeled after the ad hoc format that his community evolved and had been manually typing in — his posts often reach 500+ comments, so this helps keep track of who’s talking to whom a bit
A new Advanced Archives page that lets users build the archive they’d like to see (ex: “Show me this month’s posts about Mary Worth that contain the word “meddle”, in ascending order, five per page”), also allowing for easy bookmarking of their search query
Cleaner, lighter code and speed optimizations on the server side to help offset the time it takes to pull down the large daily comics
A flexible “jello” layout that expands and contracts depending on the size of your browser window, to add a bit of whitespace and breathing room without breaking things for folks on smaller screens
iPhone and “other” mobile versions of the site (which double as low-bandwidth alternatives for those on dialup who’d like a speed boost) with AJAX comment loading
Hopefully it’s all a change for the better (I think it is!), and I look forward to hearing the feedback!
Another freelance project from this Fall: a minimalist and crisp portfolio website for Austin-based photographer/artist Adam Schreiber. This hand-built site leverages clean HTML and jQuery to display his works in a custom set-based image gallery. He’s had great shows at the CRL and Art Palace, and is currently featured in his first museum show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston until February 7, 2010, so if you’re in the area be sure to check it out!
Directory Search — if you’re affiliated with UT Law School you can search our internal phone and email directory by name or department, using the native iPhone apps to place calls and send emails directly,
Event listings and Notices pulled from our existing calendar and Law Mail announcement systems,
RSS feed view of our press releases,
Recent Twitter posts from our Communications office (this will make more sense when/if we have more than one Twitter account posting official news, and can combine them into one stream here),
Maps: detailed building maps, Google maps that use the iPhone location services to guide you to our building, KML-based maps of public parking, nearby hotels, and restaurants,
There are a lot of things already in the works for the next iteration. The number one goal is to support other popular devices, to live up to the ideal of “one web, any browser”. As a developer who has wrestled against the wide range of inconsistent desktop browsers and all of their HTML and CSS inconsistencies over the years, though, it was really, really, nice to work with a single browser that already supports HTML5 and CSS3 presentation out of the box. Now I’m spoiled.
In one of the best eye-tracking technology projects I’ve seen, the folks from the Graffiti Research Lab and FAT Lab have teamed up with Theodore Watson, Zachary Lieberman, and Christine Sugrue to tackle a novel accessibility problem: enabling pioneering graffiti artist Tempt, hospitalized for over two years with the muscle atrophy of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), to be able to tag again. Out of all of the things I heard about at SXSW this year, I think this project was the thing that excited me the most — open source hardware + software hacking, vision work, accessibility concerns, graffiti and a great story!
The system they’re developing is using the excellent openFrameworks library and two small cameras: the left can be used as a “mouse button” event by holding that eye closed, and the right eye’s pupil is tracked for gesture. The result is a simple hands-free drawing app, which they will connect with the GRL’s laser tag tools, giving Tempt the ability to express himself through graf writing again.
You can check out the rest of their videos under the TEMPT1 tag on fffff.at (“Release early, often, and w/ rap music.”), but here’s a good one to get you started:
Freshened up my personal blog and portfolio site for 2009. While similar to the transitional look and content that you’ve seen for the past couple of years, this theme has been hand re-written from scratch and features many advancements over the old style. The entire site is better integrated through WordPress than ever before using features newly available in WP 2.7.1 (gravatars, per-post styles, threaded comments, etc), a handful of customized plugins, subtle jQuery enhancements, and Subversion to tie it all together on the backend. I’ve also moved to a new domain after about ten years of being at asnorwood.com. All of the old links should still point to the right place (or get you pretty close), but let me know if you find something missing.
The bulk of the improvements are behind-the-scenes, but I can at least say that the following changes make my life easier and me happier:
Uploading new portfolio work is much more straightforward.
No more need for a separate gallery plugin!
The category and link organization is more sensible! Tags, too!
Better error-handling — hopefully you won’t end up 404 Not Found, but you at
least have a sporting chance of getting unstuck now!
The search engine optimization (I hate that term) seems to be working
already, too. Thanks, Google!
The search form pulls up better, more accurate results!
All of this tech stuff is secondary, of course, and I’m still trying to decide how best to balance the blog entries between my different interests. Maybe I’ll eventually split off into two or more distinct sites to keep things from rambling together. I’d also like to figure out a better way to incorporate the side-channel links (currently I’m using del.icio.us) and scrap-collecting elements (I love Tumblr for gathering quotes and other detritus, but not sure how best to tie that content in with my main site). Being nearly the fifteenth anniversary of my first website, you’d think I’d have this all figured out by now!