asimpleframe

A Simple Response

Barack Obama, quoting Nelson Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…

George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, in a joint statement:

America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms … we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights.

Rejecting and denouncing hatred is not political. It is not Left versus Right. It is the appropriate response in light of the worth and dignity endowed to us by our Creator.

We should expect and demand this most appropriate response unequivocally from our leaders. More importantly, we must expect and demand it from ourselves.

While my voice is small, by grace I will use it to respond appropriately: I reject and denounce white nationalism, white supremacy, Nazis, and all others who hate based on skin or religion. To those targeted by hate: you are my neighbors. I will stand with you and for you. This land was made for you and me.

A Simple Idea

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation, in his book Creativity, Inc.:

Despite being novice filmmakers at a fledgling studio in dire financial straights, we had put our faith in a simple idea: If we made something that we wanted to see, others would want to see it, too.

As a team, work together to make the product you all want to use.

The Attention Web

In an excellent article on Medium, Jesse Weaver skillfully articulates the tradeoffs of using free tech products:

It’s the Faustian bargain we’ve all struck. In exchange for a “free” web, we give you our time.

Paying for products in the currency of our time – our attention – profoundly shapes their design.

Instead of streamlined experiences, filled with quality content, we’ve seen the rise of clickbait headlines, listicles and ad saturated UIs that are slow, cumbersome and sometimes down right unusable, especially on mobile screens.

While these outcomes are incredibly frustrating, the more notable issue is how it colors our approach as designers:

The drive for attention has also influenced the way we talk about products. As designers we’re expected to make things “habit forming”. Get people “hooked”. And turn monthly “users” into daily “users”. The only other people I know who call their customers users are drug dealers.

As I wrote in 2013:

Simply put, most digital products are designed with a bias towards eliciting as much use as possible.

Jesse continues:

This rhetoric has made companies more and more aggressive about pushing their agenda into our lives. Floods of emails, push notifications, text notifications, daily reminders, and weekly digests are the norm in the attention web.

“Pushing their agenda into our lives.” This is the phrase that gives me pause. To take someone’s time is to take something extremely precious.

Time is more precious than money. Money is a renewable resource. Everyone always has the potential to make more money. Time, on the other hand, is finite. There are only so many hours in a day. By definition, you only have so much time to give.

Therein lies the conflict. An ethical approach to product design results in providing as much value as possible in as little time as possible. But that’s impossible to achieve, when the viability of our businesses depend on providing as much value as possible in as much time as possible.

We aren’t creating human-centered experiences, we are creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer.

In 2013, I asked:

As digital product designers, what is the measure of our responsibility to encourage moderation (not just maximum use and profit) in the way we design our products to be used?

What would that look like – to provide as much value as possible in as little time as possible? Imagine what the world would be like if all products were designed this way.

Everest No Filter

A compelling use case for Snapchat: vicariously follow two climbers on their ascent up Everest. It’s as close to experiencing this journey as most people will ever come. What makes it special? It’s not a polished and edited documentary. It can’t be replayed. It’s more real than any reality TV. It’s an opportunity to take part in an experience as it happens each day – something you might look back on and remember.

Pivot Apartment

From Architizer:

Pivot is a pre-war studio revamped into a modern adaptable space containing a secret bedroom. The brief called for hosting 10 for dinner, sleeping 6, a home office, a private study, and an efficient kitchen for a client that loves to entertain, all within a 400s square foot studio apartment.

Incredibly inspiring and perhaps the best design I’ve seen for a small, transforming apartment. Kudos to the designers at Architecture Workshop.

Designed Reality

From New York Magazine’s cover story on Donald Trump’s campaign:

But one factor that’s been particularly crucial to Trump’s rise may be the way that reality television, cable news, and talk radio have shaped the culture’s sense of “reality” — in other words, its relationship to truth. If Ronald Reagan showed us that Hollywood was good training for politics, Trump is proving that the performance skills one learns in the more modern entertainment arenas are even more useful. Talk and reality shows are improvised operations, mastered by larger-than-life personalities expert at distorting and provoking, shifting and commandeering attention.

[…]

But a couple of things happen when reality­-TV standards are applied to politics: One is that the level of sleaze gets so high that nothing is shocking — casual racism, misogyny, a campaign manager charged with battery, allegations about candidates’ affairs or sexual orientations, constant gossip about “even worse” revelations on all sides to come (“Tune in next week!”). This primary season would seem implausible if it were fiction. But as reality TV, it’s spot-on.

As a society, the (entertainment) products and systems we design profoundly shape our perception of reality and truth.

Thoughtful Design Criticism

A call for more thoughtful design criticism from Michael Bierut that becomes more relevant with each passing year:

The basic starting point of Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport is “I could have done better.” And of course you could! But simply having the idea is not enough. Crafting a beautiful solution is not enough. Doing a dramatic presentation is not enough. Convincing all your peers is not enough. Even if you’ve done all that, you still have to go through the hard work of selling it to the client. And like any business situation of any complexity whatsoever, that process may be smothered in politics, handicapped with exigencies, and beset with factors that have nothing to do with design excellence. You know, real life. Creating a beautiful design turns out to be just the first step in a long and perilous process with no guarantee of success. Or, as Christopher Simmons put it more succinctly, “Design is a process, not a product.”

Doing design in the real world is rarely about design. It’s about working with people amidst complexity. Bierut writes about graphic design, but the same parallel he draws around the layman’s heightened awareness of graphic design extends just as much, if not more, to software design. People care deeply about their relationships with software products. Substitute “app” for “logo”:

But perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?

Where is the thoughtful, articulate criticism for software product design? Bierut’s quotation of Massimo Vignelli’s call to action is apt:

It is time to debate, to probe the values, to examine the theories that are part of our heritage and to verify their validity to express our times.

Inspired Aging

A contrarian (and true) view of the middle-aged:

They achieve a kind of tranquillity, not because they’ve decided to do nothing, but because they’ve achieved focus and purity of will. They have enough self-confidence, and impatience, to say no to some things so they can say yes to others.

From this perspective, middle age is kind of inspiring. Many of life’s possibilities are now closed, but limitation is often liberating. The remaining possibilities can be seized more bravely, and lived more deeply.

In life as in creativity: limitation is liberating.

Pitch Tips

A helpful list of five key narrative points for a compelling pitch:

  1. Name the enemy
  2. Answer “Why now?”
  3. Show the promised land before explaining how you’ll get there
  4. Identify obstacles—then explain how you’ll overcome them
  5. Present evidence that you’re not just blowing hot air

In the Bathroom Together

Josh Nissenboim, co-founder of Fuzzco:

This might get weird for a minute: some couples don’t go to the bathroom together. [Helen laughs] And that blows my mind! How have you never gone to the bathroom with that other person in the room? What I’m saying is, I believe you need to have an incredibly open and comfortable relationship if you’re going to go into business together.

Fuzzco’s other co-founder, Helen Rice:

Exactly. You have to be vulnerable and feel like the other person is truly your partner. You need to be aware of avoiding power struggles and making sure each person has their own, defined role. That’s the best way to work together.

Josh:

And when you’re in the bathroom together, you can get some shit done.

Having long admired Fuzzco’s work, it was a delight to read this husband-and-wife team’s TGD interview.

Radical Candor

Radical Candor is one of the most impactful articles I read last year. It’s one I foresee revisiting frequently. Here are several of my key takeaways:

Focus on guidance.

The single most important thing a boss can do, Scott has learned, is focus on guidance: giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is usually called “feedback,” but feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance is something most of us long for.

Aim for radical candor.

Picture a basic graph divided into four quadrants. If the vertical axis is caring personally and the horizontal axis is challenging directly, you want your feedback to fall in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where radical candor lies.

Avoid ruinous empathy.

The vast majority of management mistakes happen in the quadrant that I call ruinous empathy

Being critical is a moral obligation.

Challenging others is difficult for many people; saying anything short of positive feels impolite. But once you become a boss, it’s your job to do be equally clear about what’s going wrong, and what’s going right. […] I would argue that criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it’s actually your moral obligation.

HHIPP!

HHIPP: “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” That last P makes a key distinction: “My boss didn’t say, ‘You’re stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There’s a big difference between the two.”

​Care personally, but be willing to piss people off.

Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off.

Links for Small Living

Some helpful links for living small:

Inspiration

Furniture

Spaces

Pope on the Wall

Last month, my evening bicycle commute up 8th avenue was interrupted by the face of Pope Francis emerging from the whitewashed side of a building. I pulled to the curb, snapped a picture with my iPhone, and continued home. I repeated this ritual four times the following week, thus documenting the painting of a wall mural advertising the Pope’s visit to the USA.

Why did I stop and take notice? Years ago, before living in New York, I watched the short film Up There, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the rare individuals who hand paint walls for a living. It fascinated me. The opportunity to see many hand-painted walls – and their progress – first-hand is one of the unique joys of living in New York.

Irving Harper

Before this week, I had assumed that the Nelson Marshmallow Sofa and the Nelson Ball Clock were designed by their eponym, George Nelson.1 This is untrue, as I learned in an epitaph written by Michael Bierut this week:

RIP Irving Harper, quiet designer behind George Nelson’s iconic products

Irving Harper, the designer responsible for these objects, passed away last week at the age of 99. An obituary in the New York Times describes his role working with Nelson:

Mr. Harper was famously obscure, working as an industrial designer from 1947 to 1963 for George Nelson, who was often credited with the company’s creations for the Herman Miller furniture line.

Researching Harper’s career reveals a body of work that is as diverse as it is inspiring. For example, he designed the iconic Herman Miller “M” logo, without necessarily intending to do so. DWR’s profile of Harper describes the circumstances:

One of his early projects for Nelson was Herman Miller’s first-ever ad. There was not yet any photography of the furniture, so Harper instead rendered a large “M” – for “Miller” – which is essentially the same logo design that the company uses today. “There was no project to do a logo,” he says. “It was probably the cheapest logo campaign in advertising history.”

Harper described himself as a generalist and executed an impressive body of graphic design work in addition to his industrial design work. Perhaps even more astounding is the world of sculptures Harper created within his home over the span of 40 years. These works are incredible and prompted both a gallery exhibition and a book. However, this was never Harper’s intention. His sculptures were private works created as an antidote to the stressful projects he worked on during the day. He initially considered knitting, but the medium of paper proved a more natural fit for his hands. In a video made for the exhibition, he describes the effects of his work:

Many of the things I do require repetitive behavior, and then they build up to something else. The reason I like the repetition is that I found it relieves stress, and it was very soothing. (5:12)

He didn’t think of himself as an artist:

I never thought in terms of being an artist. I never envisioned myself as an artist. I just made them as they occurred to me and then I went on to the next after it was all done until I ran out of space and I stopped. (6:12)

And he never stopped to think of the commercial value of his creations, as quoted in Herman Miller’s WHY:

“I never sold any of my pieces,” Harper says today. “I had all the money I wanted. Then I would have lost my sculptures and just had more money. I just wanted to have them around.”

If Harper was born of this generation, I can’t imagine him ever tweeting or Instagramming his work. I don’t think it would have occurred to him. In a world where over-sharing is the norm and every creative act is seemingly purposed to exhibit, sell, or self-promote, not only is Harper’s incredible body of work inspiring, but his quiet approach is a fresh breath of air.

Also, be sure to read Sam Grawe’s personal remembrances of Harper in the last years of his life. Taken together with Herman Miller’s video, it offers a heartwarming glimpse into Harper’s home and life.


  1. It is worth noting that both Herman Miller and DWR credit Harper in their descriptions of these products.

History of the Chemex Coffee Maker

Some friends recently purchased a Chemex coffee maker, prompting me to remember that it was created in the 1940s (1941 to be exact). Details from the story of the design and its designer, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, are fascinating and include:

  • Its design was influenced by Bauhaus principles: “A table must be a table; a chair must be a chair; a bed must be a bed. … A coffee maker must make coffee.”
  • Ironically, Macy’s initially rejected it because it did not look like a coffee maker.
  • President Roosevelt played a hand in the success of the Chemex. He granted access to production materials during wartime, after being personally persuaded by a Latin pun written by Schlumbohm.

These details are not to be found on the History page of Chemex’s website. Instead, they’re found in One Hundred Great Product Designs (1970) by Jay Doblin. Doblin corresponded with Schlumbohm to get the full story. As the book is out of print, I scanned the relevant pages. View the PDF.

Frequency Failure

Though a fruitful exercise, it is difficult to examine one’s failures. The process begins unpleasantly enough, with the admission that success has not been achieved. The thing that was intended has been left undone. The fault lies close to home.

Delving deeper, patterns of failure and contributing behavior emerge. The temptation is to despair and give up. However, lack of success is not the same as utter defeat. Failure often leads to more insight than success.

An insight from my own failure: frequency is a powerful tool that I underutilize. In Manage Your Day-to-Day, Gretchen Wilson lists seven benefits of frequency. Two in particular stand out:

  • Frequency keeps ideas fresh.
  • Frequency keeps the pressure off.

The idea of frequency is this: do a small amount of work in short intervals instead of large amounts of work in long intervals. My modus operandi, unfortunately, is the latter. As a result, I forget where I left off and rework the same parts of a project. My ideas have grown stale. When a deadline comes, much work is left to be done in a condensed period of time. The pressure is high. Stress, and at times incompleteness, results.

Interestingly, frequency also provides the power to move forward. Success doesn’t have to be achieved in one, monumental effort. It can be reached one small, frequent step at a time.

To Start Again

It’s a new year. Though it’s somewhat artificial, I feel the optimism of a fresh start and the possibilities for change. It’s time to simplify and reduce the cruft and clutter that’s accumulated over the past year. It’s time to imagine what can be accomplished and reshape my routine. It’s time to say no.

Last year was characterized by massive change – a new city, a new job, a new baby. All of these were very positive but also incredibly disruptive. Now the dust has settled. Now there is space to pick up what was put down. Now is the time to renew failed efforts.

Regular, intentional writing is the first effort to be revived. I intended to write once a week for two years. I wrote consistently for three quarters of one year instead. I failed, yet I also experienced success. Here’s to starting again.

Imperfection

Since last June, I have followed an arbitrary, self-imposed schedule to write four articles each month. I’ve kept to this schedule and haven’t broken from it – until last week.

I didn’t even realize I had broken my schedule until it was a day too late. The day following the deadline, it dawned on me for no apparent reason. Being preoccupied with a move to a new city, I completely forgot to write. The streak was over.

Coincidentally, that same week, I read an article on the topic of failure. Specifically, it talked about the benefits of letting kids fail. The opening paragraph summarizes its recommended view of failure:

[…] first, to give ourselves the permission to take on challenges where we might very well fail; second, to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out. This is, I argue, vital on a personal level, as well as vital for the economy, because that’s where innovation and growth come from.

What would the world look like if we never tried anything unless we knew we would succeed? In short, we would not reach our full potential because we’d never push against its boundaries. This is what the author observes happening to kids in our current culture. One B in high school might doom their chances at the perfect college which will in turn doom their chances to a perfect career and any hope of a good life. Or so the thinking goes.

We need permission to be imperfect. As designers, we need it doubly so. There is no great design that is not preceded by failure. It’s a lesson I wish I had learned sooner.

Before learning to embrace failure as part of the design process, the natural inclination is to hide our work. Don’t let anyone else see it until it’s finished and perfect.

We feel this way because, like it or not, designers are judged by their work. It’s not the resume that counts, it’s the work. This is how it should be. However, the worth of our work is too easily confused with the worth of our selves. When these two things are confused, critiques on our work feel too close and too personal for comfort. We seek to hide our imperfection.

Ironically, however, imperfection is where the best design comes from. You have to try, fail, and try again. Each time you try, you get closer to a more elegant solution. The term is iteration in design jargon. The sooner you can get something out on paper, the sooner you can begin refining the idea or realizing you need to start with a different idea altogether.

It’s the same with writing. First drafts are almost always terrible. But the first draft gets the ideas out. It’s a whole lot easier to edit a poorly written text with the seeds of good ideas than it is to edit a blank piece of paper. Getting out those first, scattered thoughts provides a crude outline of what one is actually writing about and trying to say. That’s not always apparent at the start.

It’s the same for design: the solution only becomes clear through a process of creation and failure. The only way to arrive at a great product is to travel down the path of imperfection.

Have I followed my schedule of four articles a month perfectly? No. Have all the articles I have written been perfect, even good? No again. But am I closer to reaching my potential as a writer? Yes. If I waited to write until I could do it perfectly, I never would. I’m getting better because I’m writing. Not the other way around.

Design With Care

Earlier this week, I purchased a new cable modem. Normally, I would have ordered online. However, not having the time to wait for a shipment, I was forced to find a nearby brick and mortar store. The two choices were Staples and Best Buy. I chose Best Buy, as my wife had received an online coupon for the store. I went to Best Buy, picked up the modem, and handed the cashier the modem and my coupon. There was just one problem: he wouldn’t accept it.

You see, after printing it onto a sheet of paper, my wife had cut out the coupon on the dotted lines. And thus, the cashier would not accept it. He wanted the whole sheet of paper, not just the coupon portion. The reason? The rest of the page contained a bar code he needed to scan in order to accept it. This was frustrating.

Never mind that discount amount in question was small. Never mind the corporate policies that prevent retail employees from being empowered to actually help their customers. Never mind the manager at the store who also refused to accept the coupon. Do, however, mind the designer who created the coupon.

Coupons, if you weren’t aware, are traditionally printed on paper. They can be contained with an advertisement or printed together with other coupons in a booklet or flyer. Printed coupons use the convention of a dotted border to indicate what part of the paper should be cut out with scissors so that it isn’t necessary to take the whole booklet or flyer to a store in order to use it.

My wife’s behavior to cut out the coupon on the dotted line was entirely logical and sound. She didn’t want to carry a whole sheet of paper around with her, so she cut out just the portion that she would need as indicated by the dotted lines. After all, that’s how coupons work.

The designer who created the coupon did not understand (or take the time to think about) the function of the dotted lines. Presumably, the designer used dotted lines simply to make the coupon look more coupon-y. But the designer did not consider the function of those lines. If a barcode is indeed needed to process the coupon, it should have been placed within the dotted lines.

This is design. Seemingly small design decisions impact people’s lives. In this case, a decision about dotted lines lead to consumer frustration, an erosion of brand loyalty (not that I had much in the first place), and blame being cast on the wrong person. My wife should not feel blame for having cut out a coupon correctly. The designer should feel the blame for being careless.

Though this example is small and insignificant, the underlying lesson extends to more important contexts. Every detail of a design has the power to affect and influence other people tremendously. It is a large responsibility, and one not to be taken lightly.

Please, design with care.

Simple Means

This morning, I read the following:

Still another step toward simplicity is to refuse to live beyond our means emotionally. In a culture where whirl is king, we must understand our emotional limits. […] Let us repudiate the modern image of the person “on the go,” whose workload is double what any single person can possibly accomplish. Let us reject the delusions of grandeur that say we are the only ones who can save the world. We must learn our emotional limits and respect them. Our children and spouses will love us for it.

Now, as I write in hopes to meet a self-imposed deadline, I simply stop. In a world full of hurry and busy and multi-tasking, I choose to stop, fold up my laptop, and rest. So, instead of the time you would have taken to read a longer article, consider whether you’re living beyond your means emotionally.

I’ll leave you with these words from Richard Foster, who authored the above and below quotes in his book Freedom of Simplicity:

Purposefully, we can cultivate the life of reflection. […] Thinking is the hardest work we do, and among the most important.

It’s not easy to do, but I dare say it’s worth it.

Discovering the Unexpected

Downtown Palo Alto, California is home to a delightful series of street paintings that I recently discovered. Pictured above is the first one I noticed – a man carrying a garbage can with an alien inside. It’s located on an unassuming wall near a street corner. After observing similar paintings around town, I asked a few people about the story behind them. As it happened, the people I asked didn’t know anything more than I did.

The next step in finding more information was obvious: I should Google the paintings. But I held off. I even stopped asking people about them. Why? I realized that part of the fun of the paintings was the surprise and delight that coincides with unexpected discovery. The paintings provide a beautiful and whimsical addition to the ordinary. Not knowing where they came from or where I might see another added to the sense of fun.

As it turns out, the artist who painted the murals, Greg Brown, felt the same way:

I call it the Palo Alto Pedestrian Series because it’s actually geared toward people being on foot, walking around, and discovering these things. People would ask me – they’d say, “I’m coming into town and want to take some friends around. Can you tell me where all these things are, and we’ll drive them around? And I said, “No, don’t do that. That’s not the way to see them. Just go downtown and see how many you stumble upon.” 1

It is interesting to know the way I chose to view the paintings aligned with the artist’s original intentions. And it brings home a good point. Good art can be for no other reason than to have fun and put a smile on someone’s face – especially when it’s unexpected.

Fruition

Feelings, thoughts, and desires that slowly build over a long period of time and culminate in radical change are difficult to describe.

However, legitimate desires are marked over time. They persist rather than fade. Tastes leave you hungry for more. Foreseen difficulty fails to intimate. Gradually and steadily, they grow until they cannot be ignored.

Waiting for fulfillment is difficult. Deep desires don’t come to pass overnight. Day after day, no movement is observed. Days turn into months turn into a year. Suddenly a shift occurs. Standing in the middle of fruition, the past doesn’t seem so long.

For me, personally, the shift has occurred, foreshadowed by a realization. I am moving to New York City to work as a Product Designer for Palantir.

Realization

Exactly one year ago, I sojourned in a monastery in Kentucky for a weekend of silence, prayer, and meditation. Why? I had many questions about work and wanted answers. Was I in the right line of work (digital design)? Was it really what I wanted to be doing? Should I pursue something else? I tried not to get my hopes up that I would return with answers.

While there, I read Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor. In it, he distills the Biblical view of work. Two key points stood out and helped guide my thoughts:

1. View yourself as a garden to be cultivated.

Of the talents and gifts that you’ve been given, which have the most potential to be developed? For example, I can play the piano well, but is my gifting such that I could develop enough to play professionally? In my case, probably not. My most potential-laden gift is probably design. I should do my best to cultivate and develop it.

2. View work as a way to help other people.

Work is the primary way in which we serve others. What are the implications? Keller makes it practical: If you have a choice between a job that helps more people but pays less money and a job that pays more money but helps less people, you should seriously consider taking the job that helps more people.

Meditating on these two ideas brought me to a realization: Design is my foremost gifting, and I should pursue design work that truly helps other people.

Suddenly, I had clarity. Design in the digital space not only afforded me the opportunity to develop my skills the most, but to impact the most people. I could now take steps in the right direction. All that was left was to put one foot in front of the other.

Transition

Big transitions in life don’t happen every day: graduating, starting a new job, getting married, having a child, moving, etc. Instead, most days are comprised of ordinary moments: repeating the same routines, habits, and tasks over and over. The repetition makes every day feel like every day. All the mundane details fade from memory.

Transition points are not normal days. When life is disrupted, ordinary details become new again. Traveling the same route to work each day, we stop noticing the scenery. On a new route to work, however, the scenery becomes alive and interesting once again. This is the special, unusual effect of transition points: the power to notice, reexamine, and reevaluate the details of life.

As reported two years ago, Target (and other retailers) do their best to take advantage of the unique nature of transition points:

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs.

Routinized shopping patterns and brand loyalties are only the tip of the iceberg. Amidst the disruption of day-to-day routines, decisions that were once on auto-pilot are overridden by thoughtful control. Choices are reevaluated. Routines are changed.

Today marks one such transition for me personally. My role as a Visual Designer for HGTV has come to an end. Monday marks the beginning of a new adventure (details soon).

It is an exciting time – a transition point. Though all is seemingly in flux, reinvention and renewal awaits. Taking notice anew of everyday details makes each day longer and more vibrant.

Ultimately, transition is adventure – bidding farewell to the familiar and welcoming the unknown. Though difficult, it is rewarding. The lows can sink lower, but the highs soar higher.

Focus on each new day, don’t worry about tomorrow, soak in the details, and move forward one step at a time. Onward.

Plans

Consider the following quotation from the Psalms:

As for man, his days are like grass;
    he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.

And the following teaching from Jesus:

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Meditate on how these two ideas come together:

To you who boast tomorrow’s gain
Tell me what is your life
A mist that vanishes at dawn
All glory be to Christ!

Plans – we make them for a future we can’t control. Plans are necessary and good, but they often become a source of false security. We feel secure when we have a plan. But a plan is not a promise of what tomorrow will bring.

It’s tempting to boast in “tomorrow’s gain.” Yet the fallacy of doing so becomes clear when circumstances are in flux. The true nature of a plan is revealed: uncertainty. A plan is an educated guess, not a guarantee.

To look to the future with certainty is, in a word, foolish. To accept this truth is to be humbled, acknowledging the limits of human knowledge. We desire to know the future but are forced to look outside of ourselves to seek it.

What plans have you made recently?

Edit Ruthlessly

A year ago, I wrote the words “Edit Ruthlessly” on the chalkboard wall in our house. These two words have become an informal family motto, challenging us to live more simply.

The idea came after watching Grant Hill’s 5-minute TED talk: Less stuff, more happiness. Hill makes a compelling case for the freedom afforded by having less (admittedly, a first-world problem). His first point of advice? Edit ruthlessly:

We’ve got to cut the extraneous out of our lives and stem the inflow.

This process is slow and unending. Like any other discipline, simplicity gradually takes root as new habits are formed. Over time, store shelves and “buy now” buttons become less and less alluring. Purchases are made with more and more discernment.

Two other sources of inspiration have been helpful. The first, The Minimalist Mom, challenges the cultural norms of stuff in the context of family and children. The other, Moving Upstairs, is an essay by Jack Cheng that outlines a helpful framework for evaluating what stuff is truly useful.

Living with words has power. Passing the chalkboard wall everyday, both consciously and unconsciously, gave resolution to our goals. They are words that have yet to be erased.

Good Service

A lot of companies and brands talk about good service (putting the customer first, adding delight, etc). Unfortunately, real-life experiences often fall far short of marketed promises. The truth is: if your service is great, you won’t need to talk about it. Your customers will.

I recently experienced truly great service. I stepped into an unfamiliar coffee shop, failed to notice the ordering instructions, and stood in the wrong line. I should have felt foolish and embarrassed, but the first employee I spoke with didn’t let me. He rearranged the ordering process to accommodate my mistake, as if I was correct all along. A second employee who finished my order acted the same. They didn’t just make me coffee. They helped me have a good day.

Such experiences of good service are powerful. They linger in your memory. You share them with your friends and anyone who will listen. After all, I’m still thinking, and now writing, about my experience. That’s the best advertising (branding, etc) money can’t buy.

12 Projects in 12 Months

More than three years have passed since I first acquired the itch to learn how to screen print. In that time, I’ve purchased books on screen printing, read about screen printing, and planned the layout of a screen printing studio in my garage. I even purchased a small refrigerator to store photo emulsion. Despite all this activity, there is one thing I haven’t done yet: screen print.

As embarrassing as it is to tell this story, it hints at a broader truth. Namely, in order to say yes to something, you must first learn to say no. Over the past three years, I’ve said yes to several side projects that left no time or space for screen printing. These side projects have been for worthy causes, and I’m glad to have completed them. However, they were ultimately draining.

In my current stage of life, I’m learning that it’s okay to say no to worthwhile projects for the sake of joy and creativity. There needs to be space in life to work on energizing projects of a more personal nature. It’s not self-absorption. It’s creative rejuvenation – simply taking joy in the act of creating.

To this end, I would like to make an announcement. Over the course of the year, I will complete one personal project each month: 12 Projects in 12 Months. The reasoning for this structure is straightforward. Twelve is a number large enough to significantly dent my growing backlog of project ideas. One month’s time will force me to limit the scope of each project to something realistically achievable.

I will document the end result of each project on the 12 Projects in 12 Months section of this site (simply a placeholder at the time of this writing). Additionally, follow me on Instagram for updates and process photos throughout the year.

This marks the jumping off point. I don’t have the whole year’s projects planned out perfectly yet. Some projects will be more successful than others. Some might fail. But each project will be an energizing adventure into the unknown. When the year is done, I likely still won’t have my own screen printing studio. But at the very least, I will have screen printed something.

Attention

Attention is extremely valuable. The valuations of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat prove it. Consider Facebook’s offer to buy Snapchat:

$3 billion in cash, according to people familiar with the offer, for a two-year-old app with no revenue and no timetable for revenue (emphasis added)

Attention (with a median age of 18 in the case of Snapchat) is valued far more highly than revenue.

Think about advertising. Advertisers spend tens of billions of dollars to buy attention. Your attention. It’s that valuable.

How do you value your attention? Who or what has your attention? How do you allocate this most valuable resource?

Three takeaways…

  1. Value your attention highly. You likely undervalue it.
  2. Be discriminating when you give your attention away. Your attention is too valuable to watch a TV show you don’t care about, not to mention the commercials.
  3. Give more of your attention to people and meaningful work than to consumptive screens. Keeping your phone in your pocket while talking to someone is perhaps the ultimate way to affirm a person’s worth in our culture.

If I have your attention, thank you. I’ll do my best not to waste it.

Saying No in The New Year

The dawn of the New Year marks a time to look ahead and dream about the future. Often involved are making resolutions and setting goals. I once encountered some advice on this topic that has stayed with me through the years. Initially, I didn’t fully grasp it, but its meaning has deepened over time. The advice? It is more important to think about what you’ll stop doing rather than what you’ll start.

Ultimately, setting goals is an attempt to budget our most valuable resource: time. What we spend our time on, and thus our attention, determines how we live our lives. When we say yes to one thing, we also say no to hundreds of other things at the same time. And there is only room for so many yeses.

Resolutions and goals are often only about saying yes. What are the things we want to start doing in the New Year that we aren’t doing already? Missing from the equation are the things we will say no to in order to make room for the new yeses.

Consider Dieter Rams’ famous dictum: less but better. Saying no to the unessential frees us to focus our time and attention on what is most important. Thus, we do what is most important better, because there is less to distract us from it.

This concept lies at the heart of A Simple Frame – a name inspired by Jim Collins’ excellent article Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List:

Looking back, I now see Rochelle Myers as one of the few people I’ve known to lead a great life, while doing truly great work. This stemmed largely from her remarkable simplicity. A simple home. A simple schedule. A simple frame for her work.

Collins’ article is the best articulation of the idea of saying no in the New Year. Do yourself a favor – read it.

Ask yourself these questions: What does simplicity look like in your life? What is unessential that can be cut away? What is the best use of your time and attention?

This New Year, what will you stop doing in order to reach your goals?

Cost and Value

Writer Pro was released this week. It’s the follow-up to one of my favorite apps – the excellent iA Writer. Aside from interesting new features like syntax control, there was one aspect of Writer Pro’s release that caused me to pause and think: the price.

Writer Pro costs $20. That’s $20 for the Mac version and another $20 for the iOS version. In a world of 99¢ apps, the pricing of Writer Pro is somewhat unique. It is decidedly not an impulse buy.

Why $20? Oliver Reichenstein, founder of Information Architects, explains:

We want people to think before they buy Writer Pro. Writer Pro is not for everybody. It is a professional writing suite for professional writers. Don’t buy it if you’re just interested in testing cool stuff.

The more I think about this pricing strategy, the more I like it. By setting the bar a little higher, Writer Pro’s price helps ensure that people who purchase are thoughtful and serious about the app.

This leads to an important realization: paying for something costly changes your perception of it. The more costly something is, the more you appreciate it. The more you invest in it before disposing of it. The more you care for it over time. For example…

Music

When streaming music (low cost), I am quick to move on if an album doesn’t immediately interest me. If I purchase an album outright (high cost), I am much more likely to give it repeated listens before giving up on it. This can be rewarding, as often the best albums are the ones that grow on you over time.

News

The Information, a technology news site, makes its articles available to subscribers only, at a cost of $39 a month. Aside from this business model’s impact on journalism, it completely changes the relationship of the reader to the reporter. The reader is likely to be highly engaged – reading thoughtfully and providing feedback – in addition to having higher expectations for the quality of reporting.

Furniture

Vitsoe makes “long-living furniture, always striving to be better rather than newer.” As a result, Vitsoe’s furniture never goes on sale and is relatively costly (at least in the short term). The cost, however, is what allows Vitsoe to fulfill its mission. It enables the high level of quality required for it’s furniture to last. It also ensures that customers have thoughtfully considered their purchase and will be invested in using it for a lifetime.

All of the above characteristics are true of app purchases. In the case of Writer Pro, the costly price will result in a group of thoughtful, engaged people that expect a lot out of the product and are invested in using it and seeing it improve over time. This is good for all involved. The makers of Writer Pro can focus on satisfying a thoughtful, engaged user base. The users of Writer Pro can enjoy a well-crafted tool, knowing that its development will be sustainable.

I haven’t purchased Writer Pro yet. I’m still thoughtfully considering it. If and when I do, however, it certainly won’t be on impulse.

Limiting Digital Clutter

I read an article on Medium this week that helped me do something I really needed to do: reduce digital clutter. The article, entitled The Noise of Stuff and written by Mikael Cho, explains “How clutter affects you and what you can do about it.” Much is described about the psychology of clutter, but the first point of application packed the biggest punch: Apply constraints.

Imposing constraints on oneself can be very beneficial, especially creatively. In Cho’s words:

One of the principles of good design is constraints. You can apply this same theory to create a system for mastering consumption.

One of the worst things that can happen to a creative project is to be given no constraints. It may sound like a dream to have no deadline, budget, or creative restrictions. However, such freedom is almost always paralyzing. Without constraints, there’s nothing to push against or work around to stimulate creativity. Without a deadline, there’s no motivation for completion.

The same is true of clutter and consumption. Given the constraint of a small living space, it’s harder to accumulate a lot of clutter because there’s simply no room to store the unessential. Unlike the physical world, however, there are often no practical limits when it comes to digital spaces. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great to not have to worry about deleting emails for the sake of having a place to store new ones. The downside comes with the boundless current of digital information.

With the unending flow of great information (articles, videos, tweets, etc), I struggle to balance the time I spend consuming information with my desire to spend time creating. For example, I find myself spending much time reading when, arguably, my time would be better spent actually writing.

Though not a novel idea, Cho’s advice to apply constraints proved quite timely to me personally. It highlighted a growing problem in my digital life. Namely, my personal streams of digital information had become cluttered. Early this year, I intentionally paired down my information diet, but its lean size has slowly grown and become more and more bloated the more time has passed.

The best example is my saved-for-later list in Pocket. It contained over 200 items – a number which was beginning to feel overwhelming. The clutter had reached a tipping point, and negative associations were building in my head about my list. Cho’s advice provided the clarity and inspiration I needed to take action.

Although I had thought in fuzzy terms about limiting items in Pocket, I had never assigned a specific number. Specifity is very important and shouldn’t be underestimated. By setting a real number to each stream of information, the abstract desire to reduce clutter and consumption becomes a concrete reality.

In my case, I decided to set my Pocket limit to 50 – a reduction of over 75%. I combed through my list and deleted or archived the majority of items. This achieved two positive results. One, it ensured that the contents of my Pocket list are truly relevant and interesting. They are the items with the most value, thereby maximizing the time I spend consuming. As a second benefit, I am once more excited and engaged to open Pocket. The negative feeling of clutter has evaporated.

One other line stuck with me from Cho’s article, and it’s helpful to remember when discussing self-imposed limits:

Everyone’s tolerance for clutter is different.

This is so true. I tend to keep a lot of tchotchkes around my workspace. To some, it would appear very cluttered. To me, however, it makes my space feel creative and calm. The same is true of digital clutter. My limit of 50 might feel cluttered to someone else. Conversely, 200 items – which felt very cluttered to me – might be totally okay for a different person.

In addition to Pocket, I also placed specific limits on the number of people I follow on Twitter (50) and the number of rss feeds I follow (30). I hope to reduce these limits incrementally over time. Again, the specificity is most helpful. It’s not possible to continually add without asking the question of what must be taken away. In effect, specific limits ask, “Is this information really worth your time?”

Using an Old iPhone

“An iPhone 3GS? Seriously?” – so said an incredulous coworker when I pulled out my phone. As a fellow designer, it was unfathomable to him that I would be using such an archaic piece of technology. To be clear, “archaic” in this instance refers to a phone that is four years old.

Four years is forever in technology years, but as photographer Steve Huff recently commented regarding camera technology:

Just because a new camera bettered an older model does not mean the older model is no good. It is still as great as it always was and is still capable of amazing results.

The iPhone 3GS is an amazing device – at least it was when it was new. Yet, conventional wisdom says to upgrade your phone every two years when your contract renews. Conventional wisdom also says to judge other people and ourselves by the things (ie phones) we possess.

The purpose of this article is not to explain why I own an iPhone 3GS – as if the mere fact of a digital designer owning an old iPhone necessitates a defense. Instead, it is to challenge a bit of the aforementioned conventional wisdom. It’s not hard to find reasons to buy the latest iPhone. It is quite rare, however, to come across the advantages of owning an old one. So, in the spirit of challenging assumptions and perceptions, here are seven advantages to owning an old iPhone…

1. A Refined OS

Forget flat vs skeuomorphism for a moment. Think about iteration and refinement. The visual style of iOS 6 is the result of six major releases worth of visual refinement. Love it or hate it, it’s polished. I love the philosophy and direction behind iOS 7, but it’s first incarnation is definitely not without its flaws or critics. It will be improved and refined over time. For now, however, an old iPhone is the best way to enjoy a higher level of OS polish.

2. Low Cost

Buying any new technology is costly. For example, my dad paid $30,000 for his first business computer in the eighties, and it could do very little. The cost of a new iPhone (plus Apple Care) plus the protracted cost of a 2-year contract adds up. Relatively, old iPhones cost very little (mine was free) and can be used with a low-cost, contract-free carrier.

3. Few Updates

Though iOS 7 updates apps in the background, there’s less reason to care about updates at all with an old iPhone (running iOS 6). Most updates are targeted for iOS 7 compatibility and some new apps won’t even run on iOS 6. While this can definitely be a disadvantage, one benefit is the lack of change. An old iPhone gradually eases into a more static system that doesn’t require updates.

4. Maximum Use

Our culture is in the habit of replacing things long before they reach the end of their useful life. It’s easier to buy a new pair of jeans than it is to patch them. Put bluntly, we are wasteful. An iPhone may still be useful, but we’ll toss it or trade it in if there’s a newer one available. Using an old iPhone encourages getting the maximum use and life out of a product, which can even be fun if you like taking things apart.

5. Less Use

This advantage may seem counter-intuitive. Old technology is slower than new technology. In general, this is a negative characteristic, but slowness can be a virtue. For example, I don’t want to spend every waking hour glued to my iPhone. I want to be connected to my family and the world around me. Using an old iPhone helps me achieve this. It’s slowness puts more friction between me and unnecessary interactions, helping prevent overuse.

6. Less Precious

Buying a brand new car causes worry about every potential scratch and dent that might mar its perfect surface. Those same worries are far less prevalent with a used car. The same is also true of an iPhone. An old iPhone carries less risk and worry of loss or damage than a new one.

7. Perspective

Why do I feel slightly hesitant to write this article? Am I afraid of what other designers will think of me if they find out I use such an old phone? Though I wish I could say I didn’t think these things, owning an old phone makes you come to terms with these kind of questions. It’s a good reminder that a new iPhone is just a thing, not an identity – a luxury, not a need.

Do I want a new iPhone? Yes. Do I need a new iPhone? No. There’s nothing inherently bad or wrong about desiring a new piece of technology. But it can become bad if we place too much weight and value on our desires for new possessions. Jesus taught “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Likewise, one’s life does not consist in the phone one possesses. The time will come to buy a new phone, but I’m perfectly okay – and even better off in some ways – until that time comes.

The Power of New

New. Few concepts are more powerful, especially in today’s world of digital technology. The stream of new devices, new apps, and new gadgets is as relentless as it is endless. What is new today will be old tomorrow, and tomorrow keeps coming faster and faster. There is no time to rest if you want to keep up with what is new. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

New Changes Perception

A new version, a new model, a new product. The things we own don’t change, but we see them differently in light of what is new. What was once fast, small, and impressive is now slow, cumbersome, and so-so. In the words of Apple’s Phil Schiller:

Isn’t it amazing how something new makes the previous thing instantly look old?

In an instant, your iDevice has lost its luster. It still works as well and looks as good as it always has, but why would you want to keep using it? It’s no longer new.

New Demands Attention

New, new, new. Few adjectives command our attention with more authority. The subject rarely matters. The immediacy demands our time. Aptly named, news is the archetypal example. Seldom is “the news” truly noteworthy or even interesting apart from its timeliness. But we watch, listen, and click because it is new.

Much time is given to what is new. Time is spent learning about new gadgets rather than using the ones we already own. It’s easier to spend our time consuming social media news feeds rather than creating meaningful work. Intentionally allocating time is difficult and disciplined work. It requires the willpower to look away from what is new in order to focus on what is important.

New Cultivates Discontentment

What is new deprives us from enjoying what we already have. Using an old gadget, our thoughts are filled with how much better, faster, and more enjoyable it would be if only we were using a newer one. Gnawing dissatisfaction grows within. What we already have may be what is best, but the prospect of greener pastures prohibits us from realizing it.

The promise of what is new is not a passive message. Advertising tells us how much better life would be if we only had what is new. In the US, we pay lip service to being thankful for what we have, but we’re certainly not content. It’s hard to be happy with what we have when something newer can be had.

Reflections on Newness

Newness is not an end in itself. It is equally faulty to universally embrace or reject based on newness alone. A healthy perspective begins with reflection and ends with balance. Newness has the power to negatively influence our perception, time, and contentment. At the same time, newness gives us hope for improvement and a future better than today.

Perhaps what is new captivates us so powerfully because, deep down, we long to be satisfied by something better than what exists today. A new world, a new life, a new hope. What is new ushers in progress, innovation, and improvement and promises the redemption of what is old, failing, and fading away.

Sketchbook Notes, Volume 2

The act of putting pen to paper helps plant information in my brain unlike anything else. Just like my previous notebook, the notes below are a window into my reading and thought patterns – highlighting ideas that resonated strongly with me from the past three to four months. Hopefully they resonate with you as well.

80/20 & Parkinson’s Law

These two related principles are outlined by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week. The 80/20 principle states that 20% of your efforts/inputs result in 80% of the desired results. By focusing on the 20% of tasks that yield the majority of results, you can be more effective while doing less work.

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” By limiting the time you have to complete a task, you are forced to focus on what is most important (instead of procrastinating – see below).

Avoiding the Important

The work that is most important is usually the work that is most difficult. Particularly if too much time has been allotted, we invent unimportant work to keep ourselves busy in order to avoid the hard work. Tim Ferriss recommends periodically asking yourself this question to keep your focus in check.

Poverty of Attention

I don’t remember where I first encountered this quote from Herbert Simon. Our culture suffers acutely from poverty of attention, and the valuation of digital products provides concrete evidence of this fact. As shown again just this week, attention is valued far more highly than profitability.

Success

What is success? In Offscreen No. 4, Dave Greiner of Campaign Monitor defined it as noted above: the right balance of time with loved ones and meaningful work. In an industry that too often values work to the detriment of all else, it’s inspiring to see such balance championed by the leader of a profitable, well-designed product.

The Best Conversations

Sharing a meal with someone positively affects the way we communicate. Also from Dave Greiner’s Offscreen interview, this comment speaks to Campaign Monitor’s culture of providing lunch for their entire team each day. It’s a brilliant way to foster camaraderie and collaboration in a workspace where each person has their own office.

Talent + Vision

Timoni West, also interviewed in Offscreen, offered this question as a metric to evaluate potential job satisfaction for a designer. In short, align yourself to work on products that reflect your skills and principles.

Notice Beauty

This quote comes from storyteller Jay O’Callahan as recorded by Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen. In short, it’s a reminder to look for what’s right in a piece of work instead of what’s wrong. For the complete story, read Focusing on Beauty.

Quit Waiting

Yet another bit of inspiration from Offscreen, this positive command comes from an interview with Brad Smith. In his words: “Today is truly all we have. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.” This encouragement to taking initiative speaks for itself.

Arbitrary Deadlines

As I write, the time approaches ten o’clock on the evening on November 14. I must complete and publish this article by midnight in order to meet my deadline. What happens if I don’t? Absolutely nothing. The deadline is self-imposed. It’s also completely arbitrary.

The fact of the matter is that I wouldn’t be writing at all if it wasn’t for the arbitrary deadline. I started with the goal to write about design and constructed constraints that would force me to do so. As the Writing page reads:

Thoughts on design, published on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th.

It’s the 14th, so I’ve got a deadline to meet.

Thus far, the great consequence has been that I have, indeed, written. I’ve written more than I ever have in my non-student, adult life – twenty-two articles to date. I’ve accomplished my goal, thanks to arbitrary deadlines.

There are downsides, however. A busy schedule, coupled with procrastination, has lead to stressful, last-minute writing sessions, all in an effort to meet the arbitrary deadline. This affects not only myself but my family – who sees less of me as a result. In particular, my wife has felt the burden of doing the things I’ve left undone because I’m writing.

The worst situation came while attempting to meet last week’s deadline – November 7. I underestimated the work of writing notes from Ampersand NYC, which necessitated four articles. Instead of meeting my deadline, I broke it. Publishing four articles in the same week also broke my one-per-week schedule.

For all my efforts, this technically wasn’t the first time a deadline was missed. Confession: I’ve taken small liberties with dates in order to maintain the facade of my weekly publishing schedule. Did anyone notice? No – no one is waiting for this article to be published. Does that remove the uneasy feeling that I’ve been dishonest? No it doesn’t.

Writing on the internet is a strange thing. Starting out, your reader is both no one and everyone at the same time. The fact that your words are “published” and accessible to anyone to read is motivating. Simply knowing that your words could be read promotes a higher standard of quality.

After all, motivation is the end goal. Arbitrary deadlines are a motivational tool, but at what point do they cease being helpful and become overly burdensome? When does positive stress (that forces action) become negative? If a deadline is compromised one time, it becomes easier to compromise a second. If there’s no positive pressure to meet a deadline, it’s no longer useful as a motivational tool.

Limitations and deadlines are necessary. To not have limitation is the illusion of freedom and the tyranny of infinite choice. To not have a deadline is to never finish. What must be remembered is that we are human beings and not rigid machines. We need deadlines, but we also need a degree of flexibility. Arbitrary deadlines are to help us, not control us.

Ampersand NYC: Jen Lukas & Christian Schwartz

This article is the fourth and final in a special series covering my notes from Ampersand NYC: The Web Typography Conference.
See also: Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3

The final set of speakers at Ampersand NYC was comprised of front-end developer Jen Lukas and type designer Christian Schwartz. Lukas shared what she’s learned about implementing webfonts from a developer’s perspective. Afterwards, Schwartz closed out the conference with thoughts on type design, webfonts, and the future.

Jen Lukas: On Icon Fonts & Working with Designers

Jen Lukas, a front-end developer with Happy Cog, offered discussion points on how designers can best work with developers to implement type on the web. She used the quirky metaphor of a sandwich – an Ampersandwich that is – to structure her talk, with every topic relating to a sandwich ingredient. While I won’t attempt to reconstruct her metaphor, here are some highlights from her talk.

Setting General Styles

Lukas starts projects by creating general styles. This means setting a base style for every element, creating a foundation of styles that can then be further modified for special cases as needed. A benefit of this method is that it ensures no element will ever be displayed without a style (ie when a client starts using the cms). Additionally, Lukas pairs all heading tag styles with corresponding class names. For example, the primary heading style would be mapped to both the h1 element and a class name of “alpha.” That way, heading styles can easily be reused via the class names, independently of the specific heading tags.

Icon Fonts

Lukas also gave a good survey of the many methods and services available for implementing icon fonts. There are so many, it can be hard to know which one to choose. She cited working with one service that changed drastically, with no warning, during the middle of a project. Her recommendations based on the experience? Do your research. Learn the difference between services and remember to choose one with good customer support and a track record of stability. As an aside, I wrote a detailed tutorial on how to use IcoMoon, my current tool of choice for creating custom icon fonts.

Working Across Browsers

Regarding the implementation of webfonts, Lukas offered some helpful tips. For example, she recommends using -webkit-font-smoothing cautiously. While it can improve the rendering of text in some situations, it can harm it in others. Be sure to always test on actual devices. Additionally, should webfonts look exactly the same on every device? The answer is the same as an even broader question:

dowebsitesneedtolookexactlythesameineverybrowser.com

Separating Font Kits for Context

Another practical tip dealt with serving font assets. When designing experiences for different device classes, it can be advantageous to create multiple font kits. One font kit, small and basic, can be served to mobile devices where bandwidth limitations are a potential concern. Another kit, larger and fully-featured, can then be treated as progressive enhancement and served to desktop devices.

Christian Schwartz: Webfonts Are Just Fonts

The last presentation of the day was given by type designer Christian Schwartz, partner at Commercial Type. Included among his notable projects is work on Guardian Egyptian for The Guardian. In his talk, Schwartz surveyed a number of points regarding type design, webfonts, and the future of typography.

Good but Not the Same

Echoing a point made by Lukas, Schwartz noted that differences in operating systems render subtle difference in type on screen. Therefore:

Our goal should be to make everything look good but not the same. After all, a typeface looks different on coated and uncoated paper.

Variation in the way type renders is not a new issue, which is a good, grounding thought when working with webfonts.

Typefaces Aren’t Magic Bullets

While using the same typeface on screen as in print for a brand can be great, it’s not a magic bullet. In Schwartz’s words:

Identity also comes through the structure of the content.

He pointed to The Guardian’s website as an example. Even though it uses Georgia as the main text face, it still looks like The Guardian due to other design elements such as grid and color. It was an interesting perspective to hear coming from a type designer.

Two Types of Typefaces

Towards the end of his talk, Schwartz offered a great framework for thinking about typefaces. He stated that there are two kinds. The first kind are typefaces that will do whatever you want them to do. Helvetica is a good example. It can be shaped to do a lot of different things and can be found in a broad range of identities and contexts. The second kind of typeface is one that does most of the work for you. These are typefaces with much more inherent character and flavor. They do more out of the box, but are also less malleable. It’s harder to adapt them to different identities or contexts. Both kinds have their place, but it’s good to be aware of what you’re using.

In making this point, Schwartz noted that he would like to see more of the second kind of typeface on the web. He noted that Commercial Type’s two best-selling webfonts are Atlas and Graphik. Both typefaces are of the do-whatever-you-want-it-to-do variety that possess similarities with Helvetica and Arial. It will be interesting to see how the general character of type on the web evolves in the future.

Ampersand Elsewhere

Since the conference, I’ve run across a number of links from other people who attended the conference:

Closing Thoughts

Attending Ampersand was a great experience. The mix of speakers struck a good balance between focus and diversity. Each talk was relevant to the topic of web typography, while covering it from a broad range of expert perspectives that kept things interesting. Knowing that there will be no Ampersand 2014, I feel especially fortunate to have attended this year’s event. As Nick Sherman stated in his talk, it is truly an amazing time to be working with type on the web. We’ve come a long way, and I’m optimistic for what the future holds.

Ampersand NYC: Trent Walton & Nick Sherman

This article is the third in a special series covering my notes from Ampersand NYC: The Web Typography Conference.
See also: Part 1, Part 2 & Part 4

Trent Walton, a web designer, and Nick Sherman, a typographer, were the next speakers at Ampersand NYC. Walton discussed what is possible now with web type while Sherman discussed what he hopes will be possible in the future.

Trent Walton: Get Your Hands Dirty

Trent Walton, founder of Paravel, explored techniques for manipulating webfonts in the browser to create a range of effects for display type. If you’ve read his articles, you know they’re a showcase for his many and varied experiments. He shared what he’s learned and gave a detailed overview of the css properties and JavaScript techniques available. He was kind enough to share both the slides and coded examples from his presentation.

Transform Toolbox

Walton’s talk was very practical and explored specific ways text can be transformed with css. The range of manipulations you can make in the browser is quite impressive. Masked textures can be applied to give type a distressed look. Text shadows can be used to apply sign-painter-like shade effects. Walton’s examples were beautiful and inspiring, making me want to do some experiments of my own. One quick tip I jotted down: the best way to control color and transparency with css is to set color values using rgba (red green blue alpha) and hula (hue saturation lightness alpha). The A in each stands for alpha – as in alpha channel – providing easy control over the opacity (transparency) of a color.

Targeting Type

In order to transform text, you must first be able to target it. There are some helpful selectors in css that provide a good measure of control. For example, you can target the first letter or first line of an element using the pseudo selectors ::first-letter and ::first-line. However, pseudo selectors can still be somewhat limiting. For example, there’s no way to target every even or odd letter within a word. Walton ran into this problem while working on Lost World’s Fairs, a beautiful showcase of typographic explorations sponsored by IE9. The designs are very complex, and a solution for better targeting was needed. As a result, lettering.js was born. In Trent’s words, it’s a “glorified span injector,” offering fine-grain control for targeting type.

More Tools

Walton’s talk covered a wide range of specific selectors, techniques and tools. While checking out his slides or demos is the best way to really dig in, here are three specific tools that stood out:

  • FitText – Designed for display typography in responsive layouts, FitText is a jQuery plugin (created by Paravel) that resizes headlines based on the parent element’s width.
  • CircleType.js – Built on lettering.js, CircleType is a jQuery plugin for setting type in a circle. I like the arcs – reminiscent of painted signs – that can be achieved with this.
  • OpenType sandbox – Created by Ampersand conference organizer Richard Rutter, this tool is a great way to explore css OpenType features within the browser. It’s definitely something I want to explore more fully.

Nick Sherman: The Future of Responsive Typography

Nick Sherman, of Font Bureau and Webtype, was up next. Being a Webtype user and having read his articles for A List Apart, I was excited to hear him speak. It was obvious from his presentation that he wants typography on the web to be better. To begin, he pointed out that “everything is amazing” and that we’re living in “one of the most exciting times in type history.” At the same time, there are some things that we can’t do today that just don’t make much sense. He explored the problems, what we can do to solve them, and ideas for the future.

Basic Typography Support

One problem with current web typography is that it still lacks basic typographic controls. We should be able to reliably use OpenType features such as small caps and ligatures on the web. The reality, however, is that browser support is still spotty. The solution? “If enough people make enough noise to the browser makers, we can make them work the way we want.”1

Guessing About Size

One frustrating problem of setting type on the web is knowing so little about the size at which it will ultimately be displayed. In Sherman’s words, “Decisions about size of type are largely guesses.” Although we can query the size of a the user’s viewport, we know very little about the screen’s pixel density and physical size, much less viewing distance. It’s possible to set units like inches and centimeters in css, but they don’t correspond to those measurements in practice. Along this line, Sherman (along with other presenters) demoed Marko Dugonjić’s experiment to use face detection to adjust the type size.

Size Calculator

Nick also demoed a project he created (in collaboration with Chris Lewis) called Size Calculator. It allows you to make calculations centered around the perceived size of type (or anything for that matter). It’s a fun tool that has practical applications. For example, if you wanted type on a billboard to be a certain perceived size, you could calculate font size, provided you knew the billboard size and viewing distance. To prove its efficacy, Sherman showed off the results of a test to render the letter A on multiple devices at the same perceived size. For more, check out Jefferey Zeldman’s post on Size Calculator written after the conference.

Dynamic Fonts

In thinking about fonts for the web, Nick proposed an interesting idea: dynamic fonts. The premise is that font families are usually designed as flexible systems – often with a large range of weights. However, these flexible systems are delivered statically on the web in the form of individual fonts. For each weight, a separate font has to be called. Instead, what if fonts were delivered in a format that could be dynamically adjusted based on a set of parameters? One font file could be served and then adjusted dynamically based on the context. This isn’t an entirely new idea. Sherman made mention of multiple master fonts, an antiquated font format that allowed you to dynamically interpolate between the “master” font styles. In talking with him after the conference, he told me that, surprisingly, multiple master fonts are still supported in InDesign.

Up Next

The last two speakers of the day were front-end developer Jen Lukas followed by type designer Christian Schwartz. Continue reading.

Ampersand NYC: Jonathan Hoefler & Luc(as) De Groot

This article is the second in a special series covering my notes from Ampersand NYC: The Web Typography Conference.
See also: Part 1, Part 3 & Part 4

The second pair of speakers at Ampersand NYC was comprised of two people who create typefaces and webfonts – Jonathan Hoefler and Luc(as) de Groot. Not being a type designer myself, it was interesting to hear their perspectives.

Jonathan Hoefler: Putting the Fonts into Webfonts

Jonathan Hoefler, founder of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, was the third speaker of the day. Using the metaphor of an early, rudimentary bicycle, he explained the difference between putting fonts on the web versus designing fonts for the web. It was a rich and well-articulated presentation that I wish I could watch again. Jeffrey Zeldman called it “the greatest presentation I’ve ever heard on fonts for the web.”

Hoefler Text

It was interesting to learn the origins of Hoefler Text early on in the talk. In comparison to hundreds of years of rich typographic expressiveness in print, fonts on the Mac in 1987 were very limited. The goal of Hoeffler Text was to bring that expressiveness to a digital font by including a wide range of features such as ligatures and small caps. Over twenty years later, Hoefler’s goal was to similarly bring rich typographic expressiveness to the web, where it is largely absent.

“You Make Things in One Way to Experience Them in Another”

Hoefler explained that in type design, it can be required to “deform the typeface to get the result you want.” For example, when designing an f for newsprint, the shape of the strokes is deformed where they intersect to create ink wells. When printed on highly absorbent newsprint, ink absorbs into the paper to fill these gaps. The end result is an f that looks normal.

H&FJ took the same approach to the creation of their webfonts. In order for their fonts to render well on screen – the way they would ultimately be experienced – they needed to “deform” their letters for better results. Their ScreenSmart fonts have been completely redrawn to display well on screen. It was quite striking to see an overlay of the standard and ScreenSmart versions of the same font. The divergence of letter shapes and spacing was quite profound. When viewed separately, however, they still looked like the same typeface.

Clarity at Small Sizes

Hoefler also explained that “typefaces are designed to solve problems.” On the web, lack of clarity is perhaps the biggest typographic problem to solve. Fonts are at their weakest when set at small sizes due to the limited resolution of computer screens. Unfortunately, small text sizes are also precisely where fonts are meant to be read the most.

In order to achieve clarity at small sizes, H&FJ redrew their fonts as described above. This led them to create their own set of in-browser tools, which allowed them to see live previews of their fonts in the browser while they worked. These tools helped enable them to achieve their goal of creating fonts that performed as good or better than standard system fonts. In Hoefler’s words:

If the font you might use isn’t as good as Helvetica, why use it?

Family Weight Problems

Translating multiple weights of a font family to the web can also pose problems. The range of weights in a font can become muddy when viewed on screen. Different weights look lighter or heavier than they should due to limited resolution and anti-aliasing. The result is indistinct visual steps between each weight. To solve this, H&FJ reevaluated each of their ScreenSmart font family in terms of weights. Instead of attempting to maintain the range of weights from the original family, they designed new ranges based on how it would render in a browser. This ensured distinct and clear steps between each weight. As a result, some ScreenSmart font families have more or less weights than the original.

Expressive Features

Hoefler’s love for rich typography expressiveness – especially small caps – was woven throughout his entire talk. To him, features such as small caps shouldn’t be optional in a webfont:

Small caps are essential and not progressive enhancement. If you want small caps, it should work on your mom’s browser.

To ensure they could deliver this kind of typographic expressiveness, H&FJ decided to build their own tools and interface to serve their webfonts. “We had to design the interface to give control over the features of the font.” From the looks of it, their user interface for setting font characters and features is unparalleled.

Luc(as) De Groot: Readability Per Square Centimeter

The next speaker was Dutch type designer Luc(as) De Groot, founder of LucasFonts. Among many notable projects, he designed Calibri, which is the new default typeface of Microsoft Word. One of the first type catalogs I ever acquired was from LucasFonts, so I was excited to hear him speak. In his talk, he surveyed the parameters of a font that can be manipulated to optimize the balance between efficiency and readability.

Adjusting for Readability

The main focus of De Groot’s talk was the idea of “readability per square centimeter.” Starting with a set amount of text and a fixed column size, how can a font be custom-tuned to work its hardest? The goal is to fit the most words in the same amount of space while maintaining maximum readability. Given De Groot’s history of work with various newspapers, you can tell this is a topic he’s thought about a lot.

He showed a plethora of his own explorations with the concept. These explorations ranged from adjusting parameters that a designer has control over (eg type size, line length, line spacing, tracking, word spacing, etc) and parameters a type designer can change (eg shortening ascenders and descenders, varying letter width, and adjusting the grade of the font). His conclusion was interesting:

When you optimize all these parameters, it doesn’t really matter what font you use. It takes a little effort. It’s not necessarily elegant or beautiful, but it is necessary to make these adjustments to fit a lot of information in a small space.

In other words, if you can take control of all these parameters, you can bend most any font to your will in order to achieve a high readability per square centimeter.

Condensed Doesn’t Mean Better Readability

To achieve a high readability per square centimeter, one’s first thought might be to use a condensed typeface. Through his examples, De Groot showed that while a condensed font might fit more words in a space, they are often less readable due to their condensed letterforms. The takeaway is to explore adjusting the parameters of a normal-width font first to see if it can be adjusted to make a good solution.

Fingerprint of a Language

One fascinating section of De Groot’s talk compared the relative efficiency of different languages. English, for example, is very efficient while German is less so. Arabic is perhaps the most efficient. Additionally, the prevalence of certain letter combinations is unique to each language. Viewing the space in-between letters reveals the unique “fingerprint of a language.”

Foam Letters

De Groot interjected some varied, often humorous, asides throughout his talk as well. One of the most interesting was a brief section on foam-cut letters. Using blocks of foam and a foam-cutting machine, he creates large, three-dimensional letters. Using the foam as a form, he also created a large, concrete ampersand (I want one!) that lives in his garden. In talking with him after the conference, he explained that he is continuing to explore new materials, as the foam letters are quite delicate and the concrete letters are (obviously) quite heavy.

Up Next

Web designer Trent Walton and typographer Nick Sherman were the speakers for the next two talks. Continue reading.

Ampersand NYC: Michael Johnson & Mark Boulton

This article is the first in a special series covering my notes from Ampersand NYC: The Web Typography Conference.
See also: Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4

Last Saturday I attended Ampersand NYC: The Web Typography Conference. Being a “one-day event for knowledgable web designers and type enthusiasts,” it felt like a conference designed just for me. I couldn’t have been more excited to attend (a big thanks to Scripps for sending me) and nerd out with fellow type geeks.

The conference was held at The TimesCenter, an upscale venue in the heart of the Times Square District. The lineup was comprised of eight speakers, all well-respected names in web and type design. Each speaker had a slot of forty-five minutes, bringing the day’s total lecture time to about six hours. The talks were diverse and interesting – full of helpful information and thought-provoking ideas. It was a lot to absorb in one day.

The purpose of this series of articles (of which this is the first) is to distill the conference into some key takeaway points. I’ll write about two speakers per article, following the order and structure of the conference. These notes are in no way comprehensive. Rather, I will briefly summarize each presentation and list several highlights that I found particularly relevant or interesting.

Michael Johnson: Type as Brand, Brand as Type

The first speaker of the day was Michael Johnson of johnson banks. Johnson’s talk served as an introduction to the day, exploring in broad strokes the relationship between type and brand, while showcasing examples of his own work. Be sure to check out the summary of his talk on Thought for the Week. His key point was that webfont technology now enables brand and type to live on the web as never before. To use his words: “The gate is now open…”

Verbal and Visual Brands

Johnson views brands as both verbal and visual. They are verbal – meaning tone of voice (i.e. the words that are used). They are visual – meaning how they look (i.e. typography, color, photography, etc.). Focusing on the words a brand uses to communicate (tone of voice) and the way those words visually appear (typography) shapes the brand at its core.

Linking Brand and Type

Historically, the typography of a logo often had little or no relation to a brand’s general typography. Johnson’s approach is to unify them. Linking them together “takes some of the heat off the logo to do everything.” It allows brands to speak consistently across today’s many channels. While the web used to limit this form of expression (as Verdana, Georgia, or Arial), webfonts now allow brand and type to be linked together online.

Do Your Best Now

Though brand and type can now be linked as never before, it doesn’t mean conditions are perfect. There are still limitations and areas where compromise must be made (such as kerning). To this, Johnson offered some sage advice: use what you’ve got to do your best now.

Mark Boulton: Typography in Responsive Design

The second speaker of the day was Mark Boulton, founder of Mark Boulton Design and co-founder of Five Simple Steps. In his talk, Boulton discussed his approach to selecting and using webfonts. He offered many practical insights on how to go about the process, citing his studio’s work for CERN as a primary example.

CMS’s and Typography

To begin, Boulton described how “responsive design has fundamentally changed our process.” Instead of creating pictures of websites (Photoshop comps), work centers around building prototypes in the actual environment (the browser). This directly impacts typographic decision making. In his words:

You can’t make good decisions about typography if you don’t understand where it’s coming from and how it’s structured … The CMS has quite a bit to do with typography.

Real content inevitably reveals problems with a design that lorem ipsum obscures. By focusing on real content earlier in the process, it “brings the worry forward,” revealing issues when they can still be quickly and easily addressed.

Pressure-Testing a Font

See how a font performs in real situations where you will need to use it. Boulton’s preference is to start with the paragraph element and move on from there. What is your most critical content? Where does your type need to work the hardest? Make sure your font works well there first.

Find the Sweet Spot

It’s also important to find the sweet spot of a font. Where does it really sing? For example, Verdana sings at small sizes for body copy (because that’s what it was designed for) but doesn’t look good as a large headline font.

Many vs Few Typefaces

One small point that Boulton made stood out to me. With the advent of webfonts, we now have infinitely more choice. When there were only a few choices, we became very familiar with those typefaces and learned to do a lot with a little. Now, with a plethora of typefaces at our disposal, will we lose this knowledge? My takeaway from this is to remember to impose limits. Choose a few high-quality webfonts and get to know them really well.

Up Next

The subsequent pair of presentations at the conference examined webfonts through the eyes of two type designers – namely, Jonathan Hoefler and Luc(as) de Groot. Continue reading.

Why and How I Use TeuxDeux

I’m a believer, not a skeptic. At least that’s what I was told when I started paying for TeuxDeux last week. My free trial (of the neux version) was finally over, and I had two paid subscription options to choose from: skeptic ($3/month) or believer ($24/year).

Having used this “simple designy to-do app” for the past three years, the decisions was easy. I’m officially a TeuxDeux believer, making it an appropriate time to share why and how I use it.

Why I Use TeuxDeux

Before I dive in to the details of how I use TeuxDeux, allow me to share some of the reasons why I like it so much:

  • Just enough. TeuxDeux is simple enough to not get in the way. It’s just enough of an app to enhance my work and “compete with a piece of paper.”
  • Adaptable. Simplicity makes it flexible. It adapts to my methods of organization, not the other way around.
  • Easy on the eyes. It’s minimal and beautiful – characteristics I appreciate in something I look at all day.
  • Consistent. On its purpose page, TeuxDeux asks, “Can’t something on the Web be more or less finished?” This is a welcome philosophy for a product I use and depend on every day.
  • Bird’s Eye View. Seeing the whole week at one time allows my brain to comprehend to-dos in a unique way. Other apps show smaller amounts of information. Perhaps this is what makes TeuxDeux so brilliant.
  • Rollovers. Today’s unfinished to-dos automatically appear on tomorrow’s list. The only way to shorten the list is get something done and cross it off. Now that’s motivation.

How I Use TeuxDeux

The way I use TeuxDeux is an ever-evolving process. My current system is the result of years of use and will often look a bit different a few months from now. Here are some of the finer points of my method:

First Position

TeuxDeux is the first “pinned” tab in my web browser (Chrome). Though I used TeuxDeux as a Fluid app for a while, keeping it in the browser – where I see it more – helps me stay on task. 1

All To-dos are Action Steps

Every to-do must start with a verb (an idea borrowed from 99u’s Action Method). “Trash” is not actionable and, therefore, not an acceptable to-do. “Take out the trash” is more like it.

Weekly Planning Ritual

I begin every Monday morning by taking some time to plan and prioritize the week’s tasks. Prioritizing helps ensure that my time will be spent on the most important to-dos and not just the easiest or most appealing to-dos. Also, I find positive motivational pressure in feeling the weight of the many to-dos queued up for the week.

Small Chunks of Time

TeuxDeux is structured over the framework of a calendar. Each day has it’s own list of to-dos. Doing weekly planning, I discovered that it was helpful to break down each day into smaller, more comprehensible chunks. These smaller time segments allow me to get a better handle on what can be accomplished in a given day. If a segment is unavailable for to-do work, I fill it in with a note in brackets.

Inbox

I reserve the first column of the bottom row as an inbox for new to-dos. Instead of disrupting my flow of work to prioritize or schedule a new to-do that comes to mind, I simply add it to the inbox. Later, I can consider where it fits within my plan for the week.

Setting Priority

The remaining four visible columns of the bottom row are organized by priority (another idea from Action Method). From week to week, I move projects and to-dos between these columns, which helps me focus on what is most important. Working on to-dos from left to right keeps me accountable to working on what matters most.

Mission Critical Tasks

I sometimes copy and paste a star character before a task that is mission-critical for the day. This helps be focus in on the one thing that I really need to get done, even if nothing else gets crossed off the list.

Backburners

Backburners are action steps that are not yet actionable (yet another idea from Action Method). I store them in hidden columns on the bottom row. (You can add as many extra columns as you need.) As I used to keep backburner items in separate text files, this greatly reduces the complexity of my system. As a bonus, it doesn’t clutter the system, as they stay out of view in the hidden columns until needed.

Projects

Within the prioritized columns of the bottom row, to-dos are organized by project. Project names are bold with to-dos for each project listed directly below the project titles.

Quick Dividers

To tame unruly to-dos, I sometimes use a divider of spaced dashes as a quick and simple way to break up long lists.

Work + Life

I used to maintain two separate TeuxDeux accounts – work and personal – stemming from a pursuit of work-life balance. This proved cumbersome and unhelpful. Both work and personal to-dos are now unified in one account, which keeps things simple and helps me see the big picture. I use a line made of equal signs in each column of the bottom row to mark the separation between work and personal projects. All personal projects go above the line, all work projects go below it.

Line of Focus

Perhaps the silliest, but nonetheless helpful, way I use TeuxDeux is with a line of up carets. I use this line at the top of the current day column to denote the one to-do I’m currently working on. Before I start working on a to-do, I drag it above the line, which helps me unitask.

Setting Rewards

Another somewhat silly tactic I’ve tried with some success is adding explicit rewards or distractions to my to-do list in italics. When I’m feeling distractible, the reward “task” gets added to the list after the work I should be doing. This silly mind trick helps motivate me to stop procrastinating and get the work done quickly in order to reach the reward.

How Do You Use TeuxDeux?

As already stated, one of the things that makes TeuxDeux great is its flexibility. The way I use it is likely very different than how you use it. Hopefully, these details of my method will help spark ideas to refine your own workflow. Do you have any TeuxDeux tips you can’t live without? I’d love to hear them.


  1. Tina Roth Eisenberg, TeuxDeux’s founder, described using it in a similar way when the original TeuxDeux app was released: “As I pretty much ‘live’ in the browser, I have it set to be my homepage, so, every time I open a browser window (which is every few minutes) I am being hit over the head with what I need to get done, which has proven to be very effective.”

Is Good User Experience a Luxury?

Consider the scenario of two tools. Each accomplishes the same task or job. The first tool, though it will complete the task, is frustrating to use and takes a longer time. The second tool, on the other hand, is easy – even fun – to use and accomplishes the task in less time. It is also more beautiful. Which tool is better designed? Which tool is used more? Which tool would you choose if given the choice?

No one would choose to use the first tool if they had the option to use the second. In the real world, however, choice is often dependent on means. Only an ascetic would choose to fly coach if there was no cost difference to fly first-class. Both seats in the airplane go to the same destination, but one is more enjoyable. Higher cost often equals a better experience (assuming that the option of air travel can be afforded in the first place).

Does it follow that good user experience is a luxury? Yes and no. The answer is partly dependent on the task or job at hand. Is that task or job a necessity or a luxury to complete? What constitutes a necessary task? In moments of true necessity – when need is present and options are scarce – user experience doesn’t matter. Anything that will meet the need will be used. As the Proverbs say: “to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” 1

But what constitutes true necessity? Food, shelter and water are certainly the most basic of human needs. Beyond survival, is all else luxury? Perhaps the answer is yes in the strictest of senses. However, there is a difference between mere human survival and human flourishing. What does it take for a human being to flourish? Is it intrinsically human to need experiences of joy and beauty?

As designers in affluent western society, where does the responsibility of our design rest? Is it to design necessities or luxuries? We certainly have designed a lot of toys, but is this wrong? I’m uncertain of the answers. However, I do have a deep conviction that designing for the joy, beauty and good experience of our fellow human beings is a worthwhile endeavor. When the goal of our efforts is to see other people flourish – even if only in some small way – it’s effort well spent. It’s an effort of love.

Quick Tip: Using Rems to Control Vertical Spacing

Vertical rhythm is an important element of typographic design on the web. Specifically, setting consistent increments of spacing between lines of text and other elements provides an underlying sense of order and structure. When designing A Simple Frame, I developed a method for setting consistent vertical spacing using rems that is easy, effective, and helps maintain consistency.

This is how it works: define the font-size of the html element as the basic unit of your vertical grid and then set all vertical spacing values (e.g. line heights, top and bottom margins/padding) in rems.1 This not only simplifies the math of your css values, but it aligns your code more clearly with the concept and structure of your vertical grid, thus helping to ensure vertical spacing consistency.

For example, the basic vertical grid unit (and, thus, the font-size value of the html element) on A Simple Frame is 9px. This number was based on the line-height of 27px used for the main body text.2 Thus, the default line-height value is 3rem (3 × 9). When adding vertical space, I simply add in increments of 3 rems. For large spaces, I can quickly add 6, 9, or 12 rems (instead of doing the pixel math) and know that the vertical grid will be maintained. Likewise, 1rem of top margin and 2 rems of bottom margin can be added to a heading (as long as the line-height of the heading is 3rem) and the overall vertical grid is preserved.

With this approach, I really like how the code values clearly reflect the grid structure. Seemingly arbitrary pixel values are replaced in favor of rem values that represent grid units. As an added bonus, the vertical spacing for the entire site can be changed proportionally by changing the font-size value of the html element. Of course, no approach is perfect, but this makes a lot of sense from my point of a view as a designer. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I am intentionally using the term “vertical grid” rather than “baseline grid,” as true baseline grids (where the baseline of each line of type aligns to the grid line) is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on the web.

  2. Practically speaking, 27px is the main vertical grid unit. However, I chose 9px as the most basic unit in order to easily and simply accommodate smaller measurements when needed. For example, instead of writing “.333333333rem” if 9px is needed (a subdivision of 27px), “1rem” is all that is required.

Getting All Your Work Done

“If you get all your work done, then you can go outside and play.” These are the words that motivated my work as a child in grade school. They challenged me to complete my work as well as I could (being a perfectionist even then) and as fast as I could. The sooner I finished the task at hand, the sooner – and longer – I could go outside and play. Rewards don’t get much better. I never procrastinated.

Fast forward to present day. I procrastinate. “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do” is procrastination’s chief maxim, and it’s true. The force of an impending deadline has the ability to focus one’s attention like nothing else. Writing papers in college the night before saved a lot of time, and invariably resulted in A’s – not too bad a result in exchange for a little stress and loss of sleep.

Why is it so hard to start working on something early, when all the proverbial time in the world is at your disposal? Perhaps it’s because there’s no “go outside and play” waiting at the end of “If you get all your work done.” Getting all your work done as an adult just means more work – not very motivating.

I’ve read about rewarding yourself for work completed, and that’s helped to a degree. However, I also realize that real motivation lies in deeper things such as autonomy, mastery and purpose. At the end of the day, I want to do good work that I can be proud of for something that matters. That’s truly motivating.

Perhaps if I was working on the ultimate project that fulfilled these deeper needs, I wouldn’t procrastinate, but I doubt it. Work is inherently good and necessary, but it will always be frustrated in this life. As such, imperfection, though certainly not the goal, must be accepted to a degree, and the limitation of time must be embraced. These concessions, though difficult and unpleasant, are necessary to thwart inaction.

All that said, sometimes I just want to go outside and play.

Responsible Use

Over the past year, I’ve had numerous people tell me that they or someone they know deleted the Facebook app from their phone. Why? Were they removing an app that they never used? No. In each case the reason was the same – “I use it too much.”

Deleting an app we “use too much” is an interesting phenomenon. It’s an acknowledgement that we think we spend too much time with our phones (or more specifically, a certain app). We want to be spending our time doing other things, but have trouble modifying our behavior. It’s a common issue, and the evidence of our collective awareness – and increasing guilt and frustration – is everywhere.

For example, in a sermon I heard recently, the pastor referred to his iPhone as “my precious.” Everyone in the congregation laughed at the joke, no doubt because intense feelings of attachment to our phones is common. A friend’s honest confession sums it up best: “I know I’m addicted to my iPhone. I know it.”

Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President of Design at Apple, describes the “unique relationship that people have with their iPhone:”

It’s probably the object you use most in your life. It’s the product that you have with you all the time.

Having our most-used object with us all the time can make it difficult to give our attention to anything, or anyone, else. In fact, in addition to deleting apps from our phones, we are designing other ways to force a separation between ourselves and our devices in order to reconnect with other people.

For example, a tablecloth has been designed with zippered, built-in phone pockets to keep our devices from interfering with conversation while dining. A beer mug has been designed that stands upright only when rested on a phone, ensuring it stays out of commission. To the same end, a restaurant now pays customers to check their phones at the door. And in a new dinner game, the first person to reach for their phone wins the prize of footing the bill.

As we invent new ways to separate ourselves from our phones, we must realize that our device attachment is more than skin deep. Philosopher James K.A. Smith points out how touch-screen devices appeal to – and even shape – our desires for control and power:

The technology affords and invites rituals of interaction. … The material rituals of simply handling and mastering an iPhone are loaded with an implicit social imaginary. To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as “available” to me and at my disposal – to constitute the world as “at-hand” for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.

Comedian Louis C.K. goes further. He observes that we constantly interact with our phones in order to mask our deep-down feelings of loneliness and emptiness:

You know, underneath everything in your life is that thing – that empty, forever empty. … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone. … and sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car and you start going “oh no, here it comes – that I am alone,” it starts to visit on you – you know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad. … That’s why we text and drive. … People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second.

In addition to our own motivations, we must also realize that our phones and apps are designed with the specific goal of eliciting our constant use. Jonathan Ive, commenting on his work as a designer, said:

I guess it’s one of the curses of what you do. You’re constantly looking at something and thinking, “Why is it like that? Why is it like that and not like this?”

When we ask these questions of our devices, the answers can be telling. For example, why are notifications always set to “on” by default? How does this default preference, designed into the system, affect my behavior?

In the case of digital products like Facebook, what are the designers trying to achieve? What are the actions they would like us (the users) to take? Why is it the way it is? Most often, the answer involves the goal of fostering as much engagement (use) as possible. Why? The more people use a digital product or service (especially those that are “free”), the more money the company makes (usually via data-driven advertising). Writing of Twitter’s upcoming ipo, The Verge’s Casey Newton writes:

Like any social network, Twitter’s top priorities include increasing its number of active users and – just as importantly – increasing the time they spend using the network.

Simply put, most digital products are designed with a bias towards eliciting as much use as possible.

This brings us full circle – to deleting Facebook in order to use it less. It begs the question of responsibility. As consumers and users, what is the measure of our responsibility to self-control and self-discipline in our use of digital devices? As digital product designers, what is the measure of our responsibility to encourage moderation (not just maximum use and profit) in the way we design our products to be used? Both are topics I wish to explore further. For now, however, I just want to raise the questions – as I’m not sure they’re even being asked.

The First Time I Saw an iMac

The first time I saw an iMac, I didn’t know what it was, but I vividly remember the moment. I was at the mall in the small Maryland town where I grew up, inside the Sears store. I’m pretty sure I was there with my mom, but I don’t remember what we were shopping for. I was about fifteen years old. I didn’t notice the iMac because I was interested in computers at the time. I noticed it because of the design – specifically, the translucent color.

Of course, the iMac I’m remembering is the iMac G3. This is the computer which Steve Jobs envisioned and Jony Ive designed when Jobs returned to Apple. He bet the company on it and won. At the time I saw this computer as a teenager, I wasn’t even aware of Apple. (We always had pcs growing up.) But I clearly remember the moment of encountering that computer. I can still picture the inside of the store. The candy-colored iMac jumped off the beige shelves filled with beige and black consumer electronics. I was intrigued.

Looking back, it’s funny to realize that it made such a lasting impression on me. I think this was because it was unlike any other computer I had seen before. I didn’t know anything about it, but I was attracted to it. It was just cool.

About four years later, I encountered the same iMac G3 at the Design Museum in London. I was there with fellow college students on an art tour of England. The featured exhibit was for the Design Museum’s first Designer of the Year Award. One of the nominated designers (and winner of the award) was Jonathan Ive. There, behind the glass exhibit walls, was the iMac G3. It sat alongside the iPod and Ive’s other iconic Apple designs up to that point. At the time, I didn’t make the connection between that moment and when I had encountered the iMac in Sears years earlier. However, seeing Ive’s work on display also left a big impression in my mind.

What is it about that iMac design that was so remarkable? What is it about the design of objects that can make such an impression? I think the answer has something to do with raw emotional appeal. Both times, I reacted to the design of the iMac more from intuition and feeling than anything else.

Today, I tend to eschew unnecessary visual styling – and even color – added to products. I prefer designs that are modern and simple – designs unswayed by fashion trends. With the release of the iPhone 5c, much was again made of Apple’s use of color in product design. Though I would probably choose white if I were to buy one, the undeniable attraction of the colors is still there for me. Perhaps it’s a reminder to not forget the most powerful element in design, however elusive and abstract it may be: emotion.

Focusing on Beauty

This week, I finished reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, the founder of Behance. In one of the last sections of the book, he talks about an experience he had at a storytelling workshop lead by master storyteller Jay O’Callahan. Each participant would tell a story, receive feedback, and then tell it again in order to improve their craft. This sounds standard enough, but there was a catch: constructive criticism was not allowed.

Instead of pointing out the weaknesses in another person’s storytelling, participants were instructed to only point out specific strengths.1 The method proved effective. After receiving positive feedback, participants would improve their storytelling in the next round. Strengths would get stronger and weaknesses naturally faded away.

O’Callahan explains the motivation behind this method:

If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose the intuition to notice the beauty.

His reasoning gives me pause for two reasons. One, it provides a deeper motivation for positive feedback. As one who defaults to criticism, my efforts at pointing out positives in a design are often shallow. I do it because I think I should. But O’Callahan is not talking about a false buoying of self-esteem. He’s concerned that we don’t lose the heart and soul of the art we create. With this motivation, positive feedback becomes genuine and enriching.

Two, O’Callahan’s method sends a gentle but somewhat startling warning. By definition, focusing on something other than beauty excludes our attention from it. If we only look at weakness, will we stop noticing beauty all together? This is the great danger. Blindness to beauty deadens our souls and, ironically, prevents us from reaching the goal of criticism – making something great. I don’t believe that critique is unnecessary, but honing an adoration of a beauty is essential, not only for great design – but for our hearts.


  1. O’Callahan calls this “Appreciations.”

The Setup: Pocket Note-taking Tools

In Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky argues that the design of tools matters. If a tool is well-designed and beautiful, you are more likely to use it. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be expensive or elitist. A good, beautiful tool can be common yet often-used and loved. Ultimately, the right tool for the job is subjective and a matter of personal choice. Even so, it can be helpful to learn about the tools others use and the qualities for which they are valued. In this spirit, here are some thoughts on some tools I’ve come to use often and love – my pocket pen and notebook.

The Need

Nothing beats pen and paper when an idea needs to be quickly jotted down or sketched. Ideas can come at anytime and capturing them in the moment is essential, lest they be forgotten. Thus, having pen and paper handy at all times is paramount. The obvious solution is to keep a small notebook and pen in one’s pocket at all times.

The Notebook

Choosing a notebook was fairly easy. It needed to be small and flexible enough to fit comfortably in my pocket. It also needed to be relatively cheap. Expensive notebooks can feel too precious to the point that they discourage use. One shouldn’t question whether or not an idea is worthy enough to take up space in a fancy notebook. It simply needs to be used.

I keep some sticky notes handy on the inside front cover of my notebook. I always draw a line through the first page.

Paper, page count, perforations and pockets were of secondary concern. Plainness, however, was important. A notebook should be a simple frame for thoughts and ideas. It shouldn’t scream out ideas, text and logos of its own. Both the cover and the pages needed to be plain.

Moleskine packaging

The Moleskine cahier plain journal fit the bill. Relatively inexpensive, three can be purchased for less than ten dollars. The board covers and inside pages feel great. There is a pocket for loose papers in the back, and the last sixteen pages are perforated. The plain cover is interrupted only by a tastefully small, blind deboss of the Moleskine logotype on the back. As pen ink shows through the somewhat thin pages, I write on only one side of each page.

The Pen

My favorite pen is the Pilot Precise V5 RT. Though ugly, it is inexpensive and writes incredibly well. However, it is not pocket-sized. Being retractable, it can also accidentally be extended once inside a pocket and bleed ink onto your clothes. Thus, my criteria for a pocket pen was set. I wanted a pocketable, unbreakable version of the Pilot Precise V5 RT.

Fortunately, the V5 RT uses a replaceable ink cartridge. All I needed to find was a pocketable, unbreakable pen body that could be hacked to accept it. The first serious candidate was the Fisher Bullet Space Pen. Thought it has a great form factor and finish, the V5 RT’s ink cartridge simply didn’t fit.

The next candidate, however, ended up working. Thanks to the power of Google, I stumbled across a completed Kickstarter page for the Solid Titanium Pen + Stylus – a minimal, titanium pen designed to accept over 30 different ink cartridges, including the V5 RT. Though this was a standard-size pen, I quickly discovered a pocket-sized version – the XTS, which accepts cut-down V5 RT ink cartridges. 1

The XTS fit my requirements. It is a very nice pen, but not perfect. On the pro side, it is virtually unbreakable, pocketable, minimal, and accepts the V5 RT cartridge. It feels solid and well-made. On the con side, it is relatively expensive. The aluminum XTS I purchased cost $40. Secondly, it’s pieces connect (when opened or closed) by screwing them together. This is a great feature in a pocket pen, making it very unlikely for the pen to come apart in your pocket. Unfortunately, the threads stripped out on the first day I started using it. I’m happy to report that the maker’s of the pen, BIGiDESIGN, replaced it quickly at no charge, and I haven’t had a problem since. However, revisiting their site leads me to believe I wasn’t the only one to encounter this problem. As of this writing, the aluminum XTS is not being sold and the full-size version has been updated to include “newly improved, stronger threads.”

Threading on the ends of the XTS

The Cost of Choice

In Barry Schwartz’s TED talk on the paradox of choice, he says that “Some choice is better than none. But it doesn’t follow that more choice is better than some choice.” It’s incredible that I could find most everything I wanted in these tools, including a pocketable pen body made of a metal that accepted my favorite ink cartridge.

However, as Schwartz argues, having this incredible choice has a downside. Arguably, I’ve wasted too much time and brain power on finding a pen from the available choices. More significantly, the incredible number of choices leads me to believe that a tool that is a little bit more perfect is still out there, waiting to be found. Even though the tools I have are truly great, I can easily become dissatisfied with them or disappointed in the choices I’ve made when something isn’t exactly as I want it to be.

It’s a great thing to find tools that are enjoyable to use. At the end of the day, however, the most important thing is what the tools accomplish – capturing ideas and doing creative work. Though I love my current pen and notebook setup, I could get by with almost any piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Just like the best camera is the one that you have on you, the best tool is the one that gets the job done.


  1. I purchased the XTS Aluminum pen. As of this writing, the XTS Aluminum was not being sold on BIGiDESIGN’s website.

The Internet, Distraction and Sticky Notes

Revealing the hidden Rdio window, I check the name of the band that’s caught my ear. “Who are they? Where are they from?” I wonder. I recall the furniture exhibit I visited earlier in the day. “How much does that chair cost? Who makes it? How is it made?” I remember an email that I need to send, a quote to write down and a book to purchase. These thoughts run through my mind as I sit at my work desk. Seemingly benign, they have significant power to disrupt and distract my focus.

These thoughts are given their power of distraction by the multi-purpose tool sitting on my work desk: a computer. The internet is but a click away. Out of Photoshop and into Chrome, I quickly find myself deeply entrenched in a band’s Wikipedia page or a furniture manufacturer’s website. Not only has the last ten minutes been spent reading information of dubious usefulness, my concentration has been broken. I must now refocus my attention to begin anew on the task at hand, any previous momentum squandered and lost.

Today, the satisfaction of every fleeting curiosity can be reached in seconds. Thanks to our phones, we need not even be sitting in front of a computer. A question arises in conversation. No one knows the answer. A phone appears. Google is searched. The answer is found. What were we talking about again?

The price we pay for this convenience and abundance of information is subtle but real. As Herbert Simon stated, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” In conversation, our private screens often win our attention more fully than the person sitting across from us. In our minds, we are deprived of what it is to remember, ponder and wonder. At work, we are robbed of productivity and focus – which brings me back to my desk.

Satisfying the whims of trivial curiosity is now second nature. Searching instinctively comes before thinking. The implication for those who do their work on computers? Distraction is second nature. I don’t have all the answers, but I have found one simple weapon to be effective in reprogramming my response. All that is required is pen, paper and a slight diversion. Instead of typing into Google’s search box, I write interrupting thoughts on a sticky note. My mind’s impulse to act is satisfied. I’m left with a bulleted list – an inbox if you will – of disparate thoughts, unintelligible to anyone but me.

Focus is the real goal. Productivity, thoughtfulness, and creativity don’t exist without it. Having unloaded stray thoughts, my mind is cleared to focus on the task at hand, uninterrupted. Upon completing the task, taking time to revisit the list becomes a reward for work well done.

This process has one peculiar side effect. As I begin typing the contents of my list into a search box, it suddenly becomes shorter. Thoughts once so urgent to warrant interruption are viewed in a new light. Feigned importance fades to triviality, a waste of even my free time.

Quoted: Jennifer Morla on Design Matters

During recent commutes to work, I’ve been listening my way through old episodes of Design Matters with Debbie Millman (iTunes / SoundCloud) – a podcast in which Debbie Millman interviews well-known designers. This past week, I listened to the Jennifer Morla episode from 2011. Jennifer Morla – President and Creative Director of Morla Design and recipient of the 2010 AIGA Medal – is full of design wisdom accumulated through years of experience. Below are some highlights from the episode that resonated strongly with me.

By surprising first and informing after. So, how you branch beyond your constituency is, really, doing an alternate view of what design is expected within that category. —19:30

Oftentimes I say that words are as powerful as images, and images can be more powerful than words. Because I think that, especially young designers, they don’t realize how important words are, really, and how they can be the the actual structure to your piece or the concept to your piece. —20:26

I think whenever you can engage the audience in actually a physical way, you will have more meaningful relationship and communication with them. —23:19

People love to be educated. They love to know things. I mean that want of knowledge certainly happened, let’s say, within the wine industry. … It’s that sort of education that brings value to the product itself. —26:32

Art is very different than design beecause with design, there’s always two people involved. Somebody has to pose something to you and you are creating, somewhat, a response. It’s a response. I don’t even know whether it’s solving a problem. I like to say it’s more of a response to what’s being proposed. —31:06 

Tutorial: How to Create a Custom, Crisp Icon Font with IcoMoon App

By now, you’ve probably heard all about the great benefits of using icon fonts. You may have even used a service like Font Awesome or Symbolset to implement an icon font on your own site. But how do you go about creating an icon font from scratch using your own custom icons and ensure that they render crisply? This tutorial will answer just those questions – providing some fundamental background knowledge as well as the specific steps to create your own custom icon font.

Overview

The process for creating our custom icon font will involve two tools. First, we’ll use Adobe Illustrator to draw our custom, vector icons. Second, we’ll use the IcoMoon App (an online tool for creating icon fonts) to transform those vectors into the font files and css needed to implement our icon font on a website.

It should be noted that there are other ways to create custom icon fonts. You can manually create a font using a font editor like Glyphs combined with Font Squirrel’s Webfont Generator to create the needed web formats and code. You can use Font Custom if you prefer the command line. However, using IcoMoon App is by far the easiest, most powerful, and cheapest (it’s free!) way to create a custom icon font. This is especially true if you want your icons to render crisply – which brings us to the first step of creating our icon font.

Determine Your Crisp Size

What does it mean for an icon to be crisp? Essentially, it means that the icon renders sharply when displayed at a small size. This is determined by how the vector outline of an icon aligns to the pixel grid of the screen when it’s displayed.1 In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Keyamoon’s calendar icon looks crisp and fuzzy at different sizes

As you can see, the icon on the right appears fuzzy because its outlines don’t align to the pixel grid. The icon on the left, on the other hand, appears crisp and sharp as it aligns exactly to the grid.

Is it possible to ensure that the vector shapes of your icon font align to the pixel grid? The answer is yes, but only at one particular size and its multiples. IcoMoon terms this the “Crisp Size.” At 16px, the most common Crisp Size, the icons will appear crisply with a font size of 16px, 32px, 48px, etc.2

To determine the best Crisp Size for your icon font, consider the intended size and usage of your icons. For example, Font Awesome uses a Crisp Size of 14px so that the icons align well next to lines of 14px text (Bootstap’s default font size).

Draw Your Icons

With your Crisp Size determined, the next step is to draw your vector icons in Illustrator. As an example, I’ll use the article end mark I created for A Simple Frame, which has a Crisp Size of 16px.

First, create a new artboard with a size of 512px × 512px (IcoMoon App’s default font em size).3 Next, set the document grid to represent pixels. To do this, divide the artboard dimensions by the Crisp Size. In this case, 512 ÷ 16 = 32. Enter this number in Preferences > Guides & Grid > Grid > Gridline every.

Setting up the grid in Illustrator

Also, set the grid subdivisions to 1.4 This will result in a document perfectly gridded to your Crisp Size.

Custom end mark icon drawn in Illustrator and aligned to the grid

Draw all your icons in this manner, and export them from Illustrator as svg files. Be aware that the name of your svg files will be used as the names of your icons once imported into IcoMoon App (though they can be edited and changed once imported).

Import Icons into IcoMoon App

With svg files in hand, you’re ready to import your icons. Open IcoMoon App, click “Import Icons,” and select your svg files. Your icons will now appear under Your Custom Icons.

IcoMoon App with custom endmark and bullet icons selected

Note that you can change the preview size of your icons. Set this to the Crisp Size of your font to make sure your icons are drawn correctly and appear crisp. Also note that you can edit and delete icons using the respective tools in the menu bar. Edit can be a very helpful tool to nudge your icon a pixel or two within the square grid if a minor adjustment is needed.

Adjust Font Settings

Now it’s time to create a font from your imported icons. Using the select tool, click to select each icon you would like to include in your icon font. Next, click the Font button at the bottom of the page.

Preferences

You should now see a preview of all the icons to be included in your font. As an example, we’ll use the icon font I created for A Simple Frame, which contains only two icons – the previously mentioned end mark and a custom bullet.

IcoMoon App’s font creation screen

The first order of business is to adjust the settings for your font. Click the Preferences button to name your font and set a class prefix.

IcoMoon App’s Preferences menu

The class prefix refers to the css class names that will be generated. By default, it will use the name of your svg file (which imports into IcoMoon App as a tag) prepended with “icon-“. You can also edit the font metadata if you wish.

Font Metrics

Next, click the Font Metrics button and input your Crisp Size in the “Optimize Metrics For” field.

IcoMoon App’s Font Metrics menu

This is very important. If it is not set correctly, your icons will not appear crisp at your Crisp Size. IcoMoon App also allows you to set Font Metrics manually. Though that is beyond the scope of this tutorial, this is a very powerful feature. It allows you to tweak parameters like the relative height of the baseline, which can be helpful in ensuring your icons align to baseline of your text.

Set Unicode Values for Each Glyph

Each glyph of your icon font will now need to be assigned a Unicode value. Although it can get a bit technical, it’s important to have a basic understanding of Unicode to ensure you set up your icon font correctly.

About Unicode Values

Unicode is a map of code points that correspond to characters used in alphabets. For example, the Unicode for a lowercase “a” is “u+0061.” Every font assigns this same Unicode value for its lowercase “a” character. That way, when you press the lowercase “a” key on a keyboard (no matter what font you’re using), a lowercase “a” appears on your screen.

The Importance of Setting Correct Unicode Values

Since icon fonts consist of symbols, it’s important that these symbols aren’t assigned Unicode values reserved for letters. As Chris Coyier points out on CSS-Tricks:

the letters become “content” and a part of the semantics of the document. Or worse, read outloud by screen readers.

Essentially, you want to avoid using Unicode values for letters, because your icons are not letters, and you don’t want them to be read in your html as such. Fortunately, there are Unicode values reserved for commonly used symbols as well as custom symbols. All that’s left now is choosing the right ones.

How to Choose Correct Unicode Values

If your icon maps to a commonly-used symbol that already has a Unicode value, it’s best to map it there. IcoMoon App makes this easy to do. To see if you can find a Unicode match for your icon, click the menu arrows on your glyph and select “Symbols” from the list.

Opening the symbols menu

This opens up a grid of Unicode symbols. Find the one that matches your icon, and select it. For example, I found a match for my end mark symbol under “Geometric Shapes”.

Try to match your icons to appropriate Unicode symbols

If you can’t find a match for your icon, have no fear. There’s a block of code points in the Unicode map reserved for custom characters and symbols. It’s called the Private Use Area (pua) and ranges from U+E000 to U+F8FF. IcoMoon App also makes it easy to assign these values (which are assigned by default) by selecting “pua” from an icon’s menu. With all Unicode values assigned, you’re now ready to download your custom icon font.

Download Fonts and CSS

Click the download button to download your icon font package. Included in the downloaded files are everything you need to implement your new icon font. The Fonts folder contains all of the different font file formats required by different browsers. It also contains a .dev.svg file that can be imported back into IcoMoon App to edit your icon font at a later date.

The style.css file includes the @font-face rule that references all of the font files in the fonts folder. Additionally, it contains the css for two different methods of implementation – data attributes and class selectors. In HTML for Icon Font Usage, Chris Coyier explains in detail the implementation of the data attribute method and why he favors it over using class selectors.

Also included in the downloaded package is an index.html file that displays a preview of your font as well as a .js file for supporting IE7.

Start Using Your New Icon Font

Now that you have all your files and know what they do, all that’s left is to copy the files to your own server and start using them (just make sure to update your @font-face rule to point to the location of the fonts on your sever).

Speaking from experience, IcoMoon App makes the process of creating custom, crisp icons accessible, easy, and fast. It simplifies and automates much of the process while also providing the ability to tweak advanced settings and parameters. It’s definitely the best tool out there right now for creating custom icon fonts.


  1. This is only an issue on standard-resolution displays (72dpi). At small sizes, there simply isn’t enough resolution for the icons to render well. On high-resolution displays, like the retina display on an iPhone, it’s a nonissue. There’s so much resolution that it really doesn’t matter how the icon aligns to the grid.

  2. As font-size increases (and thus the number of pixels), it matters less and less if your font-size is a multiple of the base Crisp Size.

  3. IcoMoon App’s default em size can be changed in the Font Metrics menu. For more information about font em sizes, see Pixel Perfection on the Glyphs blog.

  4. Some icons in your icon font file may need to be optimized for a larger size than your Crisp Size. A common scenario for this is embedding a logo as a glyph in your icon font. To do this, you can adjust the number of  grid “subdivisions” in your Illustrator file to the factor of magnification you intend to use for your finished icon. So if your subdivisions are set to “2”, every grid subdivision would represent a whole pixel when the font is displayed at twice its base Crisp Size.

Sketchbook Notes, Volume 1

Over the past three years, sketchbooks have become an integral part of not only my creative process but my life. Their pages contain a record of the thoughts floating around my brain at different points and times. In particular, they highlight things I’ve read or heard that I found meaningful and worth the time to record. In this post – and any that may come in the future – I will share some of my notes and sketches, along with source links and minimal commentary, in the hopes you find them to be meaningful and worth your time as well.

Below are highlights from the notebook I carried in my pocket from January to May of this year.

Don’t Settle

I came across this quote by Steve Jobs in an ad in Offscreen Magazine. It really resonated with me. Work is such a large part of our lives; shouldn’t we strive to make it great?

The Advantage of Knowing How to Hack

This quote came from Paul Graham’s How to Get Startup Ideas. Having the skills to hack together a prototype is a real advantage in making your ideas happen.

What Business is All About

When I hear Jason Fried speak about how to do business, I often find myself nodding in agreement with his ideas and philosophy. I heard this summary of what business should be about on the The New Disruptors (31:30).

The 1st Precepts for the Artist

In Typography: Basic Principles, John Lewis cites this quote from John Ruskin’s work The Seven Lamps of Architecture. It touches something profound about what it means to be human and to create.

At The End of The Day, We’re Just Making a Bunch of Toys

Phil Coffman asked this question on The Gently Mad (50:30). He gives voice to my own frustrations and desire to seek out meaningful work.

Three Rules for Making a Company Great

Confession: I didn’t actually read the Harvard Business Review article that posited these rules. I thought the rules themselves were both self-explanatory and profound.

The 1-3-5 Rule

I encountered this piece of productivity advice on 99u. I’ve tried it out to varying degrees with my own to-do lists.

7 Productivity Tools & Tips to Increase Focus

Distraction and interruption are two of the biggest enemies of productive, deep work. Working at a computer all day, I fight them constantly. I need not provide a litany of example distractions. You know them well if you work on a computer. Here are the most helpful things I’ve adopted into my own workflow to be more focused and productive at work.

1. Turn Off Notifications

There are a surprising number of notifications set to “on” by default. Realize this, and intentionally decide which are important enough to warrant the interruption of your work. For me, this is Calendar and Messages. Calendar notifications remind me when I need to be somewhere. Messages is necessary for work communication, though I will turn it off if I really need to focus. What’s the moral of the story? Don’t let your computer’s default settings decide when you should be interrupted. You decide.

2. Email: Check at Set Times, Batch Process to Inbox Zero

Don’t constantly check email. Don’t even think of leaving it open all day. Once you’ve turned off all email notifications and badges, be disciplined enough to only check it at set times during the day. For me, this means twice a day – once in the morning and once after lunch. Define what times are right for you.1

When you do check your email, batch process it down to inbox zero. Essentially, this means following these three rules:

  • If an email can be dealt with in less than 2 minutes, deal with it.
  • If an email will take longer than 2 minutes, write down a to-do and move it to an “Actionable” folder for later reference.
  • Once dealt with, move email to an archive folder. (Don’t waste time sorting into folders. Use search instead.)

3. Use Isolator App

Isolator is a simple Mac app that hides everything on your screen except the app you’re working in (and the menu bar). It’s amazing how much this tool helps me focus on the task at hand. For more, read Unitasking by Trent Walton.

4. Set Second Monitor Wallpaper to Black

If you have a second monitor and use it part of the time, set its wallpaper to black. That way, when it’s not in use, it’s invisible. It won’t visually compete with the work on your primary monitor.

5. Add Empty New Tab Page Plugin to Chrome

By default, a new tab in Chrome displays a grid of your most frequently visited sites. For me, this screen serves as a menu of distraction rather than a helpful shortcut. Chrome was telling me where to go when I should have been in charge. There’s no preference to turn it off, so download the Empty New Tab Page plugin to restore focus to your browsing.

6. Use Pocket to Save Interesting Links for Later

Don’t go down the rabbit hole offered by the interesting but irrelevant links that inevitably pop up during the day. Don’t even keep them stored in open tabs in your browser. Get them out of sight and out of mind. Use Pocket or a similar tool to save them for later.

7. Work at Your Workstation, Get Distracted in Your Distraction Chair

Set up habit fields. Reserve your workstation for work. Designate a different space for casually browsing the Internet or checking out all the interesting links you saved in #6. What’s the advantage? Over time, you will condition your own behavior. By doing only work in your workspace, you’ll be less prone to distraction while working. This takes discipline to implement, but the advantages are worth it.


  1. See the bullet points under “Strategy 1” in this article for some helpful tips in defining your own times to process email.

The Making of A Simple Frame, Part 3

This is the third and final article in the series The Making of a Simple Frame (see Part 1 and Part 2) in which I explore the creative process of designing this site. In this article, I will share the thinking behind some of the decisions that inform the site’s visual design and layout.

Designed to Be Memorable

Paramount in building any brand is choosing a name upon which to build it. I decided early on not to use my own name. Previously, I had been using markdschafer.com (as markschafer.com was already taken), but it was clunky, unmemorable, and hard to spell. Thus, after jotting down idea after idea, I arrived at the name A Simple Frame.1 Once the name was settled, I began exploring how to represent it visually.

Brand = Type + Color

The fundamental elements of brands (especially online) are typography and color. Designers from Edenspiekermann pinpoint the importance of typography online in a video produced by Typecast:

Typography is really, really important because oftentimes it’s the only way to really convey the brand in the interface.

In the same way, color can also be used to convey a brand in an interface. Additionally, in a world of responsive design and ever-changing screen sizes, typography is the primary way to speak with a unique voice:

Type adds character to a message. It’s a very good means to express something that goes like [sic] between the lines and it shows so much about personality – about where you’re coming from when you say something.

Type is a way to communicate under the surface. Even if you are unaware of its presence, type subtly adds character to a text. In a similar fashion, color can induce mood and add personality. As I explored the branding A Simple Frame, I thought primarily in terms of type and color.

A Typographic Journey

The typeface I chose to bring personality and character to the brand of A Simple Frame is Alright Sans from Okay Type. The path to finding it, however, was a bit roundabout. To make a long story short, I became infatuated with Okay Type’s Harriet during my early design explorations. After realizing Harriet, though gorgeous, was not the right voice for A Simple Frame, I discovered Alright Sans while researching other fonts created by Jackson Cavanaugh, Harriet’s designer.

Upon finding Alright Sans, I knew I had found my voice. Alright Sans is an elegant sans-serif that isn’t too stiff or uptight. It has a large x-height which lends itself to on-screen display. As the officially description notes, “it has just the right amount of warmth to convey a serious-yet-friendly tone.” It also includes a very complete character set and wide range of weights. This gave me confidence that it would be able to grow with the brand and handle more complex type needs in the future.

At the end of the day, I chose Alright Sans because its character and personality just felt right to me. It has the right combination of elegance and warmth. It’s modern without being too cold. It’s simple in all the right ways without being too bland. It typifies my design taste, making it the perfect voice for a A Simple Frame.

Color Me Hot Pink

The other main component of brand and interface online is color. This decision was much easier and more straightforward than the type, as I already had a color in use from my previous site that I wanted to carry forward.

The color is hot pink, and the explanation is quite simple. I like it, and it’s memorable. In fact, it was my favorite color as a kid. Not only do I have a history with hot pink, I especially love it today for its memorable and fun qualities. Paired with more understated typographic design, it adds just the right amount of personality and unexpected excitement.

Designed to Get Out of the Way

As Dieter Rams famously stated in his “ten commandments” of good design: “Good design is as little design as possible.” There is so much visual clutter in today’s world, simple and unobtrusive design stands out. In designing this site, I strove to add only what was necessary and remove all else.

Content is King (Really)

This is a phrase heard often in the web design world, and it is quite true. A person will endure a poorly-designed website if it contains the content they are seeking. The inverse is not true. A person will not use a site, no matter how well-designed it may be, if it does not contain the content they are after.2 In practice, unfortunately the content of a site is too often treated as an afterthought – both in its creation and presentation. For A Simple Frame, I spent significant amounts of time writing things like the about page. I also focused my visual design efforts on making each page a pleasure to read.

Focus on the Reading Experience

In his Web Design Manifesto 2012, Jeffery Zeldman keyed in on one of the big problems in web design – how the design of many websites obscures the content by offering terrible reading experiences:

… how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content.

I couldn’t agree more. A primary goal for this site was to create a layout conducive to reading. I carefully considered all the small typographic choices like font size, line length, and line spacing that contribute to a pleasing reading experience.3 Ideally, this site facilitates reading in such a way that the layout recedes into the background and becomes invisible as you engage with the content.

Minimizing Clutter

One additional aspect of optimizing the reading experience was to reduce any extraneous clutter. This meant no sidebar, no social sharing buttons, etc. It also meant considering how to deal with the necessary clutter, if you will, of the site’s navigation interface. My first explorations set the navigation at the top in close proximity to the site’s name, as is standard practice. However, I liked the page better when it wasn’t there. It felt like too much clutter before getting to the content of the page itself.

My final solution was to move the navigation menu to the bottom of the page in a persistent bar. It is not as intuitive as having navigation at the top, but I was willing to make this trade off in favor of less clutter on the page. The site title, which links to the home page, remains as the only persistent element at the top.

Designed to Change

There’s nothing like living with a design for a while and using it in the real world to understand the implications of decisions made during the design process. As I now use the site and update its content, I’m continuing to evaluate and evolve it.

Experimentation as a Goal

This site is a great place to try new things. I’m not beholden to a client or any outside stakeholders – allowing me to experiment quickly and freely. For example, I’m continuing to evaluate the navigation at the bottom of the page. How could it change to be even less intrusive but more useful and intuitive? Design decisions are always calculated tradeoffs. By using the design in the real world, I am able to test my decisions, experiment, and grow to be a better designer.

Granting Permission to Iterate and Evolve

In order to try new things, one has to have the ability to fail, learn from the experience, and create a new solution based on lessons learned. I believe the best design process involves iteration and evolution. The iPhone’s hardware, for example, has continually been refined and improved with each new release, but remains true to its original form. I will evolve this site over time, as I continue to experiment, learn, and refine.

The Advantage of Being Small

The idea of overnight success can be enticing, but it often brings more harm than good. As Jason Fried notes in Don’t Exaggerate Your Size, being small is a good thing:

Being small is nothing to be insecure or ashamed about. Small is great. Small is independence. Small is opportunity. Celebrate it.

Operating on a small scale, as this site is now, is very freeing. I can make changes and mistakes without the pressure of a large number of people watching. I can write without the pressure of a large readership, as I develop my style and improve my skills. Our culture says bigger is always better. Quite simply, it’s not.

Conclusion

This post brings an end to The Making of A Simple Frame series. It has provided a good opportunity for me to reflect on my own process and share some of the lessons I’ve learned. At the very least, it should provide an interesting reference point to revisit in the future as the site grows and evolves over the coming months. Stay tuned.


  1. See “The Name” in Part 1 for the quote that inspired the name.

  2. I would actually argue that in order for a site to be “well-designed,” it must contain quality content. The design of a website hinges around its content.

  3. Of these, font size is by far the trickiest to get right on the web. For good reads on the subject, see Oliver Reichenstein’s The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard and Nick Sherman’s Responsive Typography is a Physical Discipline, But Your Computer Doesn’t Know It (Yet).

The Making of A Simple Frame, Part 2

This article is the second in a series on The Making of A Simple Frame in which I offer a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of this website. In the first article, I discussed three big ideas that shaped the creation of A Simple Frame. In this article, I will explore the design process and some of the specific tools used to create the site.

Design Process (No Photoshop)

This is the first website I’ve designed without using Photoshop or Illustrator to make a mockup first. The design process started with rough ideas recorded in my sketchbook. I wrote notes and drew sketches as I thought of them over a period of months prior to starting work on the site. When the time came to sit down and begin the actual work, I had a nice collection of ideas to reference as a starting point.

My early notes and sketches all centered around making as simple a site as possible. Typography was also paramount in my mind. I knew I wanted the design to be almost solely composed of type. Type would provide the foundation and the main structure. As such, I began exploring typography right away.

In-browser Typography

To explore the typography of the site, I opted to work in the browser instead of Photoshop. There were several reasons for this. For one, Photoshop is a poor environment to set type. It’s just not suited to the task at hand. It’s time-consuming, difficult to edit styles, and offers less control than a program like InDesign that is built for setting type.

Additionally, I chose not to work in Photoshop because it is an abstraction. What you see in a Photoshop comp does not accurately reflect the final product – what you see in a browser. The letterforms don’t even look the same as they do in a browser.1 At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good your type looks in Photoshop. No one sees it. What matters is what people actually see is the browser – the live, coded typography.

Tools for Setting Type in the Browser

I explored typography within the browser in two different ways. The first way was using Typecast. Typecast is an online tool that lets you set type using an InDesign-like interface within a browser window. You can also edit the code directly if you wish. The typesetting tools are easy-to-use and extremely well executed, but what really makes the service special is its library of web fonts. Typecast partners with major webfont providers like Typekit and Fonts.com so that you can experiment with literally thousands of webfonts, all within the browser. It allows you to truly try out a webfont before purchasing a license. I experimented with a number of different fonts using Typecast as a first step in my design process.

The second way I explored typography within the browser was writing html and css in conjunction with webfont trials from Webtype. Webtype is a webfont provider from Font Bureau that provides high-quality webfonts. What’s great is that they offer 30-day trials of any fonts in their library. This allowed me to do more in-depth experiments on my own server writing simple html and css pages. Instead of creating multiple Photoshop comps, I created multiple live webpages as my design explorations. This was a great way to work, as it ensured that what I was building and seeing was going to be the actual, final product.

Arriving at the Final Design

Although I never created a mockup in Photoshop, I did reference a print document that I had typeset for a previous project as inspiration. After completing some initial freeform explorations, I typeset a sample article page and worked through multiple iterations until I had a solid base from which to build out the rest of the design. From there, I added other page elements and templates, switching back and forth between paper sketches and in-browser page designs.

In the end, eschewing Photoshop in favor of the browser proved to be a good experiment for my design process. There are two key takeaways I hope to implement more in the future. One, starting with typography is essential. After all, type is the main element of most webpages. Two, working in the browser as early and often as possible is very advantageous. Whether it be with a tool like Typecast or simply coding rough pages, working in the browser allows you to remove abstraction and work with the true medium of the web during the design process.

Choosing a CMS: How I Fell in Love with Kirby

When I first began thinking about designing a new site, I started keeping my eyes out for possible cms options. My first thought was to use WordPress and start with a very minimal theme like Starkers as a base. I wanted to start with as little as possible and build it up to only what I needed. WordPress is powerful and flexible, but it’s definitely not minimal. The more I thought about it, WordPress began to seem like overkill. Ideally, I wanted a platform that was minimal, speedy, friendly (to a non-developer type), and enjoyable to use. The question was whether or not such a platform existed.

Next, I ran across static site generator Jekyll. Here’s the official description:

Jekyll is a simple, blog-aware, static site generator. It takes a template directory containing raw text files in various formats, runs it through Markdown (or Textile) and Liquid converters, and spits out a complete, ready-to-publish static website suitable for serving with your favorite web server.

In other words, Jekyll can transform a folder on your computer that is specially formatted into all the files needed to serve a static website. Whereas WordPress and other dynamic sites process everything on the server using a database and php, Jekyll processing everything on your computer beforehand and requires no database. The result is a static site that is efficient and speedy.

I really liked the idea of Jekyll, especially its simplicity and efficiency. However, it looked to be geared more toward developers than designers. Jekyll-Bootstrap describes why someone might like to use it:

… if you like to keep things simple and you prefer the command-line over an admin panel UI then give Jekyll a try.

I like keeping things simple, but I definitely don’t prefer using the command-line. The more I dug into Jekyll, the more hesitant I became about trying it. Even so, I was still thinking I would use Jekyll – that is, until I met Kirby.

Get Kirby

What is Kirby? The official tagline sums it up best:

Kirby is a file-based cms: Easy to setup, easy to use, flexible as hell.

Essentially, Kirby works by taking files on your server set up in a specific way, and processes them using php to build your site, without the need for a database. I think of it as a happy middle ground between WordPress and Jekyll.

What does it mean to be “file-based”? Practically speaking, this means that each page is represented by a folder, and each folder contains all the content for the page. For example, an article page folder on this site contains a text file with the article title, text and metadata as well as any images included in the article.

As the tagline states, one of Kirby’s virtues is its flexibility. It’s very easy to set up different page templates that make use of custom fields. Custom fields for different types of text-based content are created simply by defining them in a page text file by writing the name of a field followed by a colon. Fields are separated by lines of four dashes. You can then use the Kirby api to easily include the data from these fields in your templates. It’s a powerful and flexible system. Most importantly, however, it’s very intuitive and easy to use.

Here are several more things I like about Kirby:

  • You can write your content using Markdown.
  • It is free to try.
  • It costs only $39 for a single site license.
  • It’s developed by a single, design-minded developer – Bastian Allgeier. This makes the product very focused and elegant.
  • The documentation is good, and it’s simple enough to wrap your mind around pretty quickly.

I’ve become a big fan of Kirby after using it for this site. I could write much more about it, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. For now, do yourself a favor and check it out if you haven’t already.

Software

During the creation of A Simple Frame, I tried out a number of different apps to work with before arriving at my current lineup. The three main types of tools I use are a code editor, an ftp client, and a text editor.

Code Editor

As I began doing my in-browser design explorations, I tried out several code editors. The first was Sublime Text. It’s a powerful editor and seems to be the tool of choice for most serious coders today. It has a lot of features and is very customizable. The features I found to be most helpful were its code completion and multiple selection features. Its the fastest and most intuitive tool I’ve used for the work of writing html, css and php.

That said, I decided it wasn’t the best tool for me. For the kind of editing I was doing, I was only scratching the surface of Sublime Text’s full feature set. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it proved to be more complex of an editor than I need. The price point also reflects this, being priced at $70. Finally, though it is very customizable, customization was necessary to make it look the best. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to spend my time tweaking, theming and customizing a tool I wasn’t going to use everyday. In the future, I will most likely revisit Sublime Text, especially if I find myself doing more coding.

The second editors I tried was Coda 2. The concept of Coda is to consolidate the coding process into one window. Instead of having a bunch of different windows and applications to do different tasks, Coda handles everything. It’s an ftp client, editor and reference library all in one. Like Sublime Text, Coda is rich with features – a lot of which I wasn’t going to use. Also, the file-based nature of Kirby made it more intuitive in my mind to use different applications to do different tasks. In other words, Coda’s all-in-one philosophy didn’t fit the workflow I had in my mind for Kirby. I love the design and attention to detail in Coda. In the end however, I also decided it wasn’t the right tool for me.

Perhaps surprisingly, my current code editor of choice is the unassuming Textastic, a “simple and fast text editor for the Mac.” I discovered it after downloading Textastic for iPhone so I could make edits to the site on the go. Its best feature is its simplicity. Unlike the other editors I just described, it lacks advanced features. It has syntax highlighting and code completion but not much else. Because of this, the UI and options menu are reduced down to only what is necessary. I find this minimal approach enjoyable and refreshing. It’s a tool that does what I need it to do quickly, nothing more, and gets out of the way so I can focus on my work.

My only complaints with Textastic are that the code completion is not as slick as Sublime Text and several keyboard shortcuts standard in other editors are either missing or different. If I was writing code every day, I don’t think this would be my editor of choice. For occasional editing, however, it can’t be beat for its speed, simplicity, and value (it costs $6). For my current needs, it’s my go-to editor.

FTP

As Kirby is a file-based cms, I wanted to find an ftp application that would fit in naturally with a file-based workflow. I first tried out Transmit, after discovering the Transmit Disk feature, which allows you to mount ftp directories as remote disks directly in Finder. In trying this feature, however, I found it to be a bit sluggish. Like the first code editors I tried, Transmit also packs a lot of features that I wouldn’t be using.

I really liked the idea of Transmit Disk, however, and began looking to see if other ftp clients offered a similar feature. This brought to mind Interarchy, an ftp application I had acquired in a previously-purchased software bundle and forgotten about. After finding my license code, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. The interface is very simple, and closely resembles a Finder window – perfect for the file-based Kirby workflow. Additionally, it has a Net Disks feature which allows you to mount ftp directories as remote disks directly in Finder in a similar way to Transmit.

As I just mentioned, Interarchy’s standard interface mimics that of Finder, making it ideal for editing file-based content. Even more than Net Disks, I found myself using the main interface. What makes it work especially well is the ability to tweak the settings so that double-clicking on a file will open it in an application of your choice according to file type, just like Finder. Interarchy acts as my “Finder” window and from it, I double-click files to open in their respective editing applications. This perfectly suited the I way I wanted to work with Kirby, making it my ftp client of choice.

Text Editor

If there’s a theme to my choices of software, it’s that I tend to value simplicity and a lack of unnecessary features. These qualities allow you to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted by the tool you’re using to accomplish the task. Also, these qualities promote positive feelings and enjoyment of use, as they are not cluttered by unnecessary interface elements. Perhaps the embodiment of these values is my text editor of choice. I’ve been a fan of it since it first launched, and I knew before I started it would be my main tool for writing. It’s called iA Writer.

The concept behind iA Writer is to take away all the features that you don’t need and leave only the essentials. In this case, the essential features are the ones the help you do one thing well and with more enjoyment: write. This means there are no controls to adjust the font or insert an image. All you can do is write, and it’s one of the most elegant and ejoyable applications I’ve ever used. It’s also a great fit with Kirby, as it utilizes Markdown for formatting. If you want to use a tool that encourages you to write, I couldn’t imagine a better one.

Wrap-Up

The creative process we follow and tools we use directly affect the shape and outcome of our work. It takes time and exploration, but finding the right ones can be richly rewarding – providing enjoyment while helping us create better work. I hope these thoughts aid in your own search for processes and tools to improve your work. If you have any favorites to share, please send them to me via Twitter.

In the next article in this series, I’ll write in depth about the visual design of A Simple Frame.


  1. Letterforms don’t look the same in Photoshop as they do in a browser because each uses a different anti-aliasing rendering engine for the type. This is the same reason type looks different between different operating systems and browsers. On a Mac, letterforms will look heavier in the browser than they do in Photoshop. It should be noted that the newest version of Photoshop includes a “system anti-aliasing” option that will more closely match how type appears in a browser.

The Making of A Simple Frame, Part 1

Any given design is the result of many small decisions that have been made by its creator(s). Not only is it interesting, but it is often illuminating to be given insight into the thought process behind those decisions – to see behind the scenes of the creative process. In this series of articles (of which this is the first), I will share a sampling of the ideas, tools, and processes I sought to explore while creating this website. To start, here are three big ideas that shaped A Simple Frame.

A Place to Write

I recently read The Great Discontent interview with Cameron Moll in which he gave some advice about writing that really stuck in my head. Specifically, this quote inspired me to create a site where I could write about design:

… find something you’re passionate about and write about that passion. There’s no better way to articulate what’s in your head than to get it on paper. … Think about any form of creativity—if you can write well about it, it changes the way that you see the world and amazing things can happen.

The thing I’m passionate about is design. I often find that I have more thoughts about design in my head than I am able to articulate conversationally to the people around me. This site is an intentional effort to create a place to publish my thoughts about design and get them out of my head. It provides the framework and the accountability to write regularly. My hope is that by writing, I will be able to learn more about design while synthesizing my point of view.

The Name

Names are very hard. Previously, I used the url markdschafer.com for my personal site. Admittedly, I didn’t do too much with it, but I wanted a better domain name to work with if I was going to invest more time in it. I wanted something that was easier to spell and more memorable. After jotting down different ideas over a period of time, I read an article that served as the inspiration for the new name.

The article is entitled Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List and was written in 2003 by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. It’s an excellent article about saying no to things in order to focus on what’s important and make great work. Here’s the quote that grabbed my attention:

Looking back, I now see Rochelle Myers as one of the few people I’ve known to lead a great life, while doing truly great work. This stemmed largely from her remarkable simplicity. A simple home. A simple schedule. A simple frame for her work.

This gets to the heart of where I want to go as a designer. I want to create great work, and the path to get there is through focus and simplicity. This site is a simple frame for my thoughts and my work.

Limitations

To continue on the meaning of the name, a frame is also an image of limitations and boundaries. As stated under Principles on the About page, I believe that limitations breed creativity. Having limits to work within often pushes you to creative solutions you would not reach without constraints.

With this in mind, I’ve set out to create self-imposed constraints for this site. For example, I’ve set up the constraint that I will publish new articles four times a month – on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th. This constraint forces me to write with more regularity than I would otherwise. It also forces me to be somewhat intentional about the articles I post. Since I’m only posting four times a month, the form of articles will naturally be longer and more thoughtful.

The idea of a frame also brings to mind the French parenting concept of the cadre which Pamela Druckerman describes in her Wall Street Journal article entitled Why French Parents Are Superior:

… the French ideal of the cadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain things—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce these. But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with quite a lot of freedom and autonomy.

As human beings and especially as children, we need limits to work within if we are to thrive. Without the frame, we are lost. Within its bounds, we are set free to explore, experiment and discover new things. This site is the frame. Within it, I hope to explore my own creativity, experiment with new ideas, and discover design in a new way.

In my next article in this series, I’ll write more about the specific tools and processes used in the creation of A Simple Frame.

Doing Everything is Not an Option

I can’t do everything. It’s an obvious statement, but one that can be hard to admit is true. It’s true on a small scale. As in, I’m not going to get everything done on my to-do list today. It’s also true on the large scale. I won’t have time to accomplish all the things I desire in my lifetime. Peter Bregman sums this up nicely in a Harvard Business Review blog post:

The idea that we can get it all done is the biggest myth in time management. … Face it: You’re a limited resource.

The most difficult aspect of facing this fact is letting go of the things that will inevitably go undone. It’s lamentable that the time we have is short. But, there is a silver lining. In Bregman’s words:

Once we admit that we aren’t going to get it all done, we’re in a much better position to make explicit choices about what we are going to do. Instead of letting things haphazardly fall through the cracks, we can intentionally push the unimportant things aside and focus our energy on the things that matter most.

In other words, when we stop trying to figure out how it will all get done, we are free to focus our energies on what things are most important to accomplish.

Prioritizing Leads to Focus, Focus Leads to Excellence

Before we can set our focus, we must determine what things are most important. On the small scale, evaluating importance is relatively easy. We often prioritize our to-do lists based on our schedule for the day and upcoming deadlines. However, it can be harder to evaluate importance over longer periods of time. This is especially true in thinking about the big things of life. How do you determine the most important tasks of your lifetime?

I’ve thought a lot about this question, specifically in terms of vocation. What is the most important work I can spend my life doing? This is a much more difficult question to answer1, especially if you have multiple interests and skills. Since time is a limited resource, the development of some interests and skills must suffer in order to go deeper with others. How do you choose which to pursue as a career or even as a speciality within your field? Saying yes to one thing means saying no to many others.

Seth Godin reiterates this point in his small book The Dip:

You really can’t try to do everything, especially if you intend to be the best in the world.

Here, Godin adds an important dimension to the discussion – the idea of excellence. It’s possible to do many things if you don’t care about doing them well. He argues, however, that things are worth doing well. In fact, he argues that you should be the “Best in the World” at what you do. He continues:

Best as in: best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know. And in the world as in: their world, the world they have access to. … Best is subjective. I (the consumer) get to decide, not you. World is selfish. It’s my definition not yours.

In other words, “Best in the World” can have many different meanings. It’s ultimately up to someone else to determine if you are the best in the world to do a particular type of work at a particular time in a particular context. Find your niche, and be better than anyone else.

I love Godin’s focus on excellence. He doesn’t want people to fill the world with mediocrity. He wants you to do something great, and the rest of his book outlines strategies for knowing when to quit something and when to stick it out so you can achieve success.

Godin’s advice serves as a good starting point to evaluating the big-picture question of what work is most important in your lifetime. However, focusing solely on what you can do better than someone else presents problems.2

The Problems with Focusing on Other People

What if you can be better than anyone else at something, but it harms other people? Also, if you’re solely motivated by being better than others, your success will always be dependent upon the actions of other people. This can lead to crushing disappointment and jealousy when you encounter others who are better than you. And if you are the best, it can lead to pride and arrogance. As C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, pride at its root is competitive:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.

Competition alone is a poor metric for choosing the work of your life. Additionally, focusing so much on how you compare to others may hinder you from charting your own course if you are too fixated on simply outdoing what someone else is already doing.

A Shift in Perspective

Perhaps a better question than “What can you do better than anyone else?” is “What can you be the most competent at?” In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller quotes William Diehl who wrote:

Competency is a basic value. It is not a means to some other end, such as wealth or position, although such results may occur.

If competency has intrinsic value, it follows that we should be focused primarily on being as competent as possible in our work. This helps in prioritizing what to focus on in our life’s work. Instead of asking “What can I do better than anyone else”, the question becomes “What work do I have the potential to do with the most competence.” Shifting the perspective away from competition helps us avoid some of the aforementioned pitfalls.

However, it is still possible to be very competent at something that harms other people. Both Diehl and Keller address this problem from a Christian perspective. They view competent work as a way to love God and other people.3 Viewing competence in this way excludes harming other people in pursuit of excellence. In fact, it does the opposite. Keller expounds:

The application of this dictum—that competent work is a form of love—are many. Those who grasp this understanding of work will still desire to succeed but will not be nearly as driven to overwork or made as despondent by poor results. If it is true, then if you have to choose between work that benefits more people and work that pays you more, you should seriously consider the job that pays less and helps more—particularly if you can be great at it.

This advice has been very helpful to me in narrowing down my list of interests and skills in order to determine the work that is most important for me to focus on during my lifetime. Given my skills and context, what work can I be most competent at while helping the most people? How would you answer this question?


  1. Granted, it’s a luxury to be able to ask the question. Most people across cultures and time have not had the ability to choose their work.

  2. This isn’t intended as a knock against Godin or his book. The main purpose of The Dip is not to help you pick out a vocational field. Rather, it’s main purpose is to teach you how to quit the right things at the right times so that you can focus and become excellent at what you do.

  3. Jesus taught that God’s greatest instructions to mankind are to love God and love your neighbor. See Matthew 22:34-40.

The First Blank Page

I once read about a person who drew a line through the first page of every new sketchbook. Why? Remove the intimidation of the first blank page staring back at you. It somehow makes it easier to move on and begin filling the remaining pages. Removed are the worries of making that first page perfect – thinking of something worthy with which to fill it. If the first page contains a scribble, there’s room for nothing but improvement on the remaining pages.

I’ve adopted this practice in my own sketchbooks, and it’s been helpful to me. The first page of my sketchbooks look something like this:

scribble

I always draw a line through the first page of my sketchbooks.

With a line drawn through the first page, my sketchbooks feel less precious. As a result, I use them more. I’m less concerned with perfection and more concerned with just getting ideas down onto paper.

This, the first article of A Simple Frame, is the scribble that fills the first blank page. It’s intentionally short and simple. It’s not perfect, but it’s done. It can only get better from here.