There’s this thing that keeps coming up in conversations with designers that’s been bugging me, which is a kind of hand-wavey dismissal of good design as “skeuomorphic.”
For those of you living under an e-rock, “skeuomorphism” is design that makes digital things look like analog things (this is technically not actually what skeuomorphism means, but everyone has agreed to use it wrong and I have to pick my battles here). Skeuomorphism was famously abused in older versions of iOS (recall the green felt poker table background in Game Center, and the leather stitching in Calendar.app), and has largely been purged from the visual language of iOS 7. In the design community, skeuomorphism is like bell-bottom pants right now, and our skinny jeans is the so-called “flat” design popularized by the game Letterpress.
Now, it might seem irrational to you to have a strong, automatic, and emotional reaction to a design solution that makes a digital thing look like an analog thing, and that’s because it is. It’s usually a reaction I encounter among people who know about design but are not themselves using design to solve problems, or among young designers who haven’t done a lot of work for normal civilians.
Just like everything else in life, skeuomorphism is neither all-good or all-bad. Can it be overused or used poorly? You bet. Is it often an elegant solution to a difficult problem? That too.
Remember when the iPad was announced and everyone made fun of it? People didn’t understand what the iPad was for - Fraiser Speirs described that moment as “future shock.” But then people would open it up, and there was a little Braun calculator. A leather calendar. A Leica camera. A podcast player with fake reel-to-reel tapes in it. An a eBook reader that looked like a little bookshelf. My grandpa doesn’t know what the fuck a “game center” is. But a poker table? That he recognizes.
I’ve heard that Apple store employees periodically sweep through the store and reposition devices to be just a little bit inaccessible… slightly closing laptop lids, angling iPads beneath line-of-sight, and so on. That’s because they wanted people to put their hands on those devices and start touching them. Apple knew that within minutes of seeing all of that untrendy skeuomorphism, people would understand what the devices were capable of. It echoed Apple’s philosophy that “it’s not what a device can do, it’s what you can do with it.”
Design is interesting because it’s such a grab bag of seemingly-unrelated skills like typography, illustration, color theory, writing, layout and composition, systems thinking, coding, and more that I’m forgetting. I have a belief (maybe more of a hope) about this, which is that it’s basically impossible for any designer to master all of these skills in one lifetime, so they develop coping mechanisms to mitigate weaknesses in some or all of those areas, and that that set of coping mechanisms constitute an individual designer’s “style,” making their work special and interesting. I’ve been doing minimalist, “flat” design for years because I can’t draw for shit and I have no patience. I like the rationality and cleanliness of it, everything on the page and has a place and a reason, but more importantly, it’s a style that I can pull off. Humans vs. Zombies and Cards Against Humanity and the various political campaigns I worked on had “flat” websites years before Letterpress and iOS 7, and I spent years getting yelled at by clients because my work “didn’t look enough like a website.”
Now I’m delighted that the world has come around my way on simple, flat designs. But please, designers, listen to me when I tell you that flat design will leave us just as quickly as the green felt did, and to please just make your buttons look like fucking buttons; my grandpa will know where to click.
A couple weeks ago, I launched Podcast Thing, a new project with my friend Veronica Corzo-Duchardt.
Podcast Thing is a tool to help people find new podcasts to listen to, after we saw our friends on Twitter asking each other for podcast recommendations over and over.
As it turns out, recommending podcasts is incredibly tricky. We wanted to strike a balance between being comprehensive (linking to all kinds of weird and independent podcasts that don’t normally make these kinds of best-of lists) and curatorial (we didn’t want to give people so many recommendations that the list became useless).
We turned to sites that we admire for having solved this problem, The Setup and The Wirecutter, and stole the best parts of each. From the Wirecutter, we stole the idea of short editorial recommendations (and explanations for those recommendations) by me and Veronica. From The Setup, we stole the idea of unedited micro-interviews with a diverse group of interesting people people. We’ll periodically update the site so that recommendations reflect what interviewees are talking about and listening to.
The site is live, here are a few of my favorite interviews:
What do you think?
Around the time that I started working on Humans vs. Zombies, I made a decision to be transparent with my personal information on the internet (i.e. I post my email, Max@Temkin.com, all over the place). Ever since then, I’ve gotten a huge volume of email… at least a few hundred messages a day. People email me about all kinds of things, but mostly they ask for advice like, “how do you make a board game?” or “how to you make a good Kickstarter project?” I’ve started a few projects in response to those questions (like Tabletop Deathmatch and Kickstarter Office Hours), but there’s this one question which is much more difficult: "How do you get good at design?"
I don’t have an easy answer to that question. Design is this complicated set of skills ranging typography to like hardcore psychology, and plus I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing; I’ve never taken a design class in my life.
I think people usually expect me to say that they should learn special software or buy expensive fonts or something (in fact, people often phrase this question as, “how do you get good at Photoshop?” which I would compare to asking how mastering Microsoft Word can make you a great writer) but the real answer is so much more complex.
This is all by way of bringing up the thing I want to tell you about, which is this short book about design called Cadence & Slang. See, when people send me the design question, my answer has become just a link to this book.
From the author:
Cadence & Slang is a very small book about interaction design. It contains a set of evergreen principles that pertain to any kind of work in technology, from websites to iOS apps to native software. There are many great texts about user experience, but people have repeatedly returned to this one for its clarity and its succinct statement of purpose.
This is a bit of a soft sell - for me, Cadence & Slang is the textbook on design and design principles; more than anything else, this book taught me best practices for design, but also how to think about design and solve problems.
It’s full of technical information like what kinds of buttons to use in what situations, but it’s also a beautiful little meditation on empathy and language and the nature of information. It’s the answer that I wish I could give people when they ask me what design is about.
Cadence & Slang has been out of print for years, and the book’s author Nick Disabato has posted a Kickstarter campaign to print an updated second edition. The physical book is $50 (worth every penny, it is a beautiful design object that will last a lifetime) and trust me when I tell you that when these things are gone they will be gone; I’ve been begging Nick for a copy for years and I still don’t have one.
There’s only a short window to get this book and I couldn’t recommend it more strongly. Once you read it I think you’ll start doing what I do and sending it to everyone who asks how you became a competent designer.
Hey friends, I’m making a version of my favorite game, Werewolf. You can back it on Kickstarter for $10 or download the whole game for free.
Check it out at Maxistentialism.com/werewolf.
Minecraft Marathon Website
The 2013 Minecraft Marathon is about to kick off with a new website I designed using Minecraft.
I worked with marathon organizer Marc Watson to figure out what the most essential parts of the design were. We both agreed that most gaming marathon sites had terrible user interfaces, and I was convinced that I could improve the fundraising numbers with a better design.
Around the time that Marc approached me to work on the site, I saw some photos of the Galeria Adriana Varejão in Brazil (see above), and came up with the idea of the most important element on the page, the livestream video, rising out of the landscape as a kind of architectural element.
I started playing around with designs that looked kind of Minecraft-y, and then eventually decided to try and create the site itself using Minecraft. Here’s how we pulled it off:
- I started with wireframes - I knew that the Twitch.tv livestream was 640px by 360px, which is a 16x9 ratio. That gave me a starting point - the “screen” in our Minecraft world would be 16 blocks wide by 9 blocks tall. More importantly, it also served as a kind of Rosetta Stone that would let me convert blocks to pixels and build an easy 960px grid in Minecraft - one block is 40 pixels.
- Drew Rios helped me build the landscape in Minecraft and clear away the “cliff” that the site content sits on. At one point Drew got the bright idea to hasten our clearing efforts with a controlled burn of the surrounding trees, and nearly started a fire that burned down our entire website.
- Once we had the Minecraft world all set up, We used Eric Haines’ Mineways to export it to a .obj, which we were able to import to Cinema4D. We set up a lighting studio, added the little pig, and textured everything. Then after a quick thirty minute render, I had an image I could bring into Photoshop.
The rest of the site is pretty straightforward - it’s built with Wordpress and has a couple of hideous plugins running the donations and live chat. The whole thing is hosted by MCProhosting. The marathon will kick off in just a few hours - here’s hoping it stays up!
New business cards, what do you think?
I redesigned my Tumblr. What do you think?
The Rachel’s Wave, 2011 by Matthew Cusick. Inlaid maps and acrylic on panel.
Untitled Wave (Black & Blue), 2008 by Matthew Cusick. Maps, engravings and ink on panel.
“Honestly, I don’t really think I was cognizant of this before but now after thinking over it for a while, a lot of Hundreds is based off my first year in design school. I used so much red/black/white in that first year because I was much more concerned with form and layout than messing with color. I didn’t know enough yet to venture out into color.”
I made this video yesterday for a redesign of NASA.gov. I think it came out okay.
I made this video yesterday for a redesign of NASA.gov. I think it came out pretty good.
Hey Tumblr friends, I made a bunch of custom temporary tattoos for my Philosophy Posters project (modeled above by my friend Aurora).
I think they’re really cool I’d love to send them to you. Put your address in this Google form and I’ll mail some to you!