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jnd: An emergent vocabulary of form for urban screens

Over the past year, Helsinki has more or less quietly installed large, high-definition Symbicon displays on sidewalk locations around town (on a contract with the deeply regrettable Clear Channel, but that’s another story).

You know I’m at least mildly skeptical about the benefit of street-level screens, but two campaigns (“ads”? “clips”?) I’ve seen over the past few months have convinced me that there’s an emergent practice of programming artfully for them. I don’t know enough to say whether these strategies developed in response to cost or time constraints, as the result of some thoughtful, intentional process, or from something else entirely – in fact, it seems clear that the two examples I’m going to share with you spring from different sets of circumstances – but as far as I’m concerned you can go ahead and file them under “best practices.”

The first time I was impressed by content on Helsinki’s screens was advertising I noticed at the beginning of summer. As my mind’s eye remembers it, anyway, what appeared onscreen was a single image completely duplicating the content of an otherwise entirely conventional and inert poster appearing around town at the same time, with a single, subtle exception: the headline text, and only the headline text (i.e. not any of the other copy) animated in and out.

At first glance, this would seem to be a pretty wasteful use of the potential inherent in full-motion, HD video, but that’s the thing precisely: the first glance led to a second, and a third, in a way that a conventional video ad would not have. Like anything appearing in the banner-ad position atop a Web page, we already know to tune those things out. By contrast, I found the simple text transitions hugely compelling. However they arose, and whatever decisions led to that particular choice, the posters felt restrained and sophisticated, not impoverished: a proper deployment of form for an oversaturated age. I kept thinking, “Here’s that rare someone who has an inkling what to do with these monsters.”

I had the same reaction again the other day. The screens are currently running ads for the Swedish high-street retailer H&M, shot with a high-speed camera – models sloooooowly turning, as a cascade of red leaves ever-so-softly settles over them and to the ground. Just as with the movie posters, I found myself paying the H&M ads an inordinate amount of attention. Because the images’ figural elements evolve so glacially against a stable background, they’d found my cognitive sweet spot, that precise interval at the threshold of visual perception that makes you ask yourself: Wait, did that just change? What part of it? And I minded not at all. (In fact, I found it kind of calming. There’s a word you certainly don’t hear every day in the context of advertising.)

Taken together, I’m beginning to think these two experiences point at something counterintuitive: given the inherent dynamism of most streetscapes – yes, even Helsinki’s – perhaps the most effective presentation strategy for street-level urban media is an embrace of the jnd. By distinct contrast to the other hammeringly unsubtle screens I can think of (Shibuya kosaten, of course, but also that one on the 280 approaching Daly City), the primary mode of which seems to be epileptiform flicker, I’ve wound up disposed reasonably kindly to the displays around here, and thinking of them as an unproblematic addition to the visual environment. I think that’s about the best we can expect at this point.

UPDATE: I’ve uploaded some video of the H&M ads to Flickr so you can see them for yourselves and see what you think.

Reality bites

Not more than two weeks ago, Nurri’s brother Noda asked us to come up with a name and identity concept for the restaurant he and his wife were about to open in Seoul’s Shinsa neighborhood. Having done a bunch of TV cooking/lifestyle shows, he’s kind of a minor celebrity in Korea, and we were tickled by the chance to help him translate his ideas about dining into physical form and space, however late in the game our interventions struck me as being.

So out came our copy of Illustrator, out came the Pantone manual, and before you know it Nurri had three solid design directions for him to look at. The one he finally chose wasn’t actually our favorite, but that’s always the risk designers run when presenting the client with multiple alternatives. The important part is that he, his wife and their business partner were happy, and so therefore were we.

It’s what happened next that took my breath away. I’m pretty sure I’ve fully reckoned intellectually with the foreseeable implications of mass amateur fabrication, but it’s something else again to watch something ginned up on your New York laptop Monday get laser-cut into steel and mounted on a building halfway around the world by the end of the week. (Picture here.)

A lot of this, to be sure, is down to the prevailing Korean ppali-ppali (“hurry hurry”) mentality, and has little enough to do with the emergent technics of accessible fabrication: Seoul has always, in my experience, been a place where you can have objects made up quickly, from the challenge coins I remember from the Army to the RFID-enhanced keyfobs Timo Arnall had a subway merchant make him, on 24-hour turnaround, back in July 2006. And needless to say, this isn’t any algorithmically-generated, selective-laser-sintered, molecularly self-similar hunk of designy gorgeousness we’re talking about here, just a humble 3D restaurant sign.

Nevertheless, I think the more general point is sound: there will be an interval, in this lead-up to the full-fledged massification of rapid fab, during which plenty of us stand to be amazed. There may well come a day when the notion of any gap whatsoever between the imagining of a thing and its instantiation strikes all & sundry as curious, but in the meantime it’s still pretty impressive to behold.

And now, of course, I can’t wait for our next flight to Seoul, so we can actually sample chef Noda’s Korean-style-donburi goodness.

Austin powers

Oh, just one more thing: gonna be speaking at Interplay, the Society of Environmental Graphic Designers’ annual conference, in Austin in late May. You can expect that I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the transition from wayfinding to wayshowing, and what ambient, ubiquitous and pervasive ya-ya might have to do with all that.

That is all. Emplaning soon. Talk more when I’ve reached the other side of the Atlantic.

Elastic Mind: Here’s A Bunch Of Really Cool Stuff

Last week was without question the week of Design and the Elastic Mind in my personal universe. With not merely multiple friends but multiple sets of friends and co-conspirators represented in it, a constellation of related events dominated my social life every bit as much as the content of the show occupied my thoughts.

It’s that content that I want to say a few words about, now that I’ve had a few days to digest it. I will certainly need to go back and see the show at some quieter time, or times, in order to render a fairer and more lasting judgment, but I did want to get these thoughts out before that initial impression fades.

Here’s the thing: curatorially, “Design” is a mess. Overly ambitious, overreaching, it tries to shoehorn too many entirely unrelated phenomena into one proposition, while at the same time failing to draw at least some of the really interesting connections that should have been made. (This is me all over the place, so YMM certainly V, but I was particularly disappointed that the show didn’t connect the dots between Aranda/Lasch’s awesome generative-algorithm piece Rules of Six and Tomás Gabzdil Libertiny’s equally beautiful, made-entirely-by-bees Honeycomb Vase.)

Many of the more conceptual pieces – and here I’m thinking particularly of Noam Toran’s and Dunne & Raby’s – need a good deal more explication, at least if visitors outside the particular social/intellectual fold in which these artifacts were produced are not to take them at face value, which is something I overheard happening. The show’s Web site is all but useless, and the attempt at information-design graphics bizarre and ineffectual. (What was up with all those weird little illegible “scale” icons?) Honestly, I would have had much, much more respect for Paola Antonelli and MoMA had they merely called their show “Here’s A Bunch Of Really Cool Stuff,” and left it at that.

However. All that said, it’s a great show. It’s great because these are exactly the ideas and materials and practices and strategies that I’d want an authoritative institution like MoMA presenting to its audience at this point in history. It’s great because it doesn’t need to be coherent to be important. It’s great because you can never say “selective laser sintering” too many times. Never least, it’s great because of the sheer and considerable beauty of so many of the artifacts on view.

I mean, of course I’m biased, but Stamen’s Cabspotting in the new, bespoke colorway produced for the show? Stunning – but not more stunning than Joris Laarman’s Bone Chair, Rules of Six, or Brad Paley’s TextArc.

So, if you can unpack the actual projects on display from the relatively unconvincing rhetoric surrounding them – and fortunately, this is not difficult – you will have a wonderful time at “Design and the Elastic Mind.” You will definitely see minds being blown and fun being had, simultaneously, which is a neat trick for any cultural institution to pull off, and especially one so set in its tracks as MoMA. There is of course always abundant reason to be depressed about the state of the world, but in some of the specific strategies, philosophies and processes on view here there’s also just enough support for reasoned hope. Experienced in the presence of others’ (occasionally perplexed, but genuine) delight, if the prospect of that hope doesn’t get you out to MoMA to check this show out, then nothing will.

Working the same side of the street

If you’re interesting in catching a strong flavor of The City Is Here For You To Use – and I understand from the feedback I’ve received after last Friday’s New Museum talk that there are a lot of you of whom this could fairly be said – you couldn’t do much better than to check out Dan Hill’s megapost “The Street As Platform.”

It’s an almost uncanny prefiguration of the book’s themes, from new forms of interdictory space, to the importance of read/write APIs in public objects, to the pivotal (and not always salutary) role of the Californian ideology in shaping informatics-mediated experiences. You’ll also find, in addition, considerations of one or two things that I won’t be dealing with – Dan’s much stronger on transmedia and new media-consumption patterns than I am, and I don’t share his interest in issues of sustainability (long story), so he’s really to go-to guy on these issues as they play out in the urban-informatic context.

If you’ve been reading Speedbird for awhile, of course, none of this is likely to come as a 2×4 to the head, but if you’re newly considering this domain, Dan’s piece is an excellent place to start.

Renzo, Renzo, Renzo…

I’m just back from a visit with Michael Young’s superbright R&D team over at the New York Times, and it was a total treat.

Michael and Nick Bilton demo’d Shifd for me, the application which took top honors at the London Hack Day that Mr. Coates organized (/”organised”). Shifd is one of those ideas so transcendently clever you immediately see how it would fit into your life: it basically allows you to transfer content from your desktop machine to your mobile device and back again, delivering it via the most appropriate channel. It’s actually easier to use than it is to explain, and I have to tell you, I could have used it today. Among all the other cool things they’re working on, this is one project I definitely hope they get the budget to scale up properly.

It was a thoroughgoing pleasure meeting Michael and Nick and their teammates Alexis Lloyd and Amy Hyde, but you just know I was geeking out about the building, too – about its birch-tree-and-moss atrium, about the hushed and almost reverential four-storey newsroom, about its much-hyped adaptive environmental-management systems, and especially about Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s brilliant installation Moveable Type.

Hansen and Rubin’s piece is really quite, quite good. It uses a loop of cleverly-posed algorithms to pull snippets of content from the enormous Times database, then displays them one-by-one on a corridor of old-fashioned monitor screens. Sometimes the rule specifies content including numbers, so you get a wash of factoids and statistics, most of them vaguely but perhaps unsurprisingly bleak; at others, the piece will cull its texts from sentences starting with “I” or “You,” or even letters to the editor.

Now, there are a lot of pieces like this one, generically. You’ll find something along similar lines just about anywhere a news, search or intelligence organization has a high-profile, public-facing lobby. But Moveable Type succeeds where every installation of its ilk I’ve encountered fails: it got me thinking about just what “news” is, about what kinds of symbols we use to quantify, represent and understand the world we’re immersed in, about how truly rare is the “difference that makes a difference.” Your first reaction to Moveable Type is glee, but it gets pretty heady if you pause to think about it for even a moment or two – and it’s worth pointing out that a lot of this power seems to derive from note-perfect interaction design, especially in the registers of sound design and typography.

Y’all New Yorkers and sundry visitors should go see it now, though, because something tells me that the whole area may be cordoned off before too long: Renzo Piano’s vaunted building, it turns out, sheds ice like a five-star mofo. We sat in the comfortable cafeteria, watching chunks of ice half the size of plateglass windows sail down to their shardy doom on the street below, and all that kept running through my head was the single word liability.

Apparently, the entire block surrounding had to be shut this morning. You just can’t do that in that part of town whenever it snows – for chrissakes, that’s Port Authority! I predict lawsuits, recriminations, heartbreaking spin-off effects (like real-estate developers and their pet architects retreating still further into conservatism), but most of all, stopgap buffer zones being thrown up around the shaft anytime the temperature drops below 35.

At any rate: thanks to Michael for the invitation, double thanks to Younghee for the introduction, congratulations to the Shifd team on your Hack Day victory and to Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen on your lovely intervention…and Renzo, give me a call if you need a good lawyer.

Reading, writing, texts, literacy, cities

As a way of kicking off our discussion at the Architectural League tomorrow Friday evening, each of the speakers has been asked to contribute a brief “provocation,” “understood to be an opinion rooted in evidence, and not simply a statement of fact.” The panel is just a little over 48 hours away now, but I’m still not entirely sure what sort of provocation I might usefully offer. Here’s what I’m thinking so far:

In their highly recommended Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, the artist/technologists Casey Reas and Ben Fry quote legendary developer Alan Kay‘s definition of full literacy: “The ability to ‘read’ a medium means you can access materials and tools created by others. The ability to ‘write’ in a medium means you can generate materials and tools for others. You must have both to be literate.”

We understand Kay to be speaking about something other than storage media; in context, his clear implication is that one can only be a fully-empowered citizen of a digital age if one understands just how the tools which shape our environments and experiences were made. Kay’s central metaphor for agency here is the dual act of inscription and decipherment, and as it happens, this is one we embrace and extend in the “read/write urbanism” we discuss in our pamphlet on Urban Computing and its Discontents.

This emphasis on literacy has evidently been seductive for students of urbanity. Kevin Lynch, of course, speaks of a city’s “legibility,” and, in a different mode, we’ve been accustomed to “reading” cities as “texts” at least since Barthes‘ work of the late 1950s. Nor has this trope been left behind with the other intellectual impedimenta of late twentieth century thought: Bill Mitchell’s recent collection on digital-urbanist themes is called Placing Words.

I myself am an almost shockingly linear, textual, literal person in the way I think, occasionally ploddingly so. So from where I stand, this is an appealing, accessible, perhaps an obvious way to speak about engaging and understanding complexity. But trouble arises when we begin to use this framework to talk about robust urban computing: the systems that structure and determine outcomes in this context – distributed armatures of minuscule embedded sensors, processors, and actuators – cannot be “read” in any ordinary sense. Individually, they’re the proverbial “black boxes,” and what’s worse, they achieve their effects by being connected in nonlinear, emergent process loops. The result can be something more closely akin to “spooky action at a distance” than to any process scaled to bodily space, time and expectation.

Therefore. My “opinion rooted in evidence” is that, ironically, the “read/write city” we say we want to help into being is at real danger of absconding from everyday comprehensibility. That as a result, we need to do some serious thinking as to what measures we might take to ensure its legibility to all those who will be living in and using it. That legibility does not happen by itself, least of all when most of the decisions that matter – that signify – have already been made, by parties unknown and at levels inaccessible. That the single most important role we can play now, as designers of urban-informatic structures, is to underwrite, support and extend the legibility of the things we make.

That’s pretty good, actually. See you Friday night.

The weekend’s Spoonbill and Sugartown haul, or: Late gift suggestions galore

Oh my, yes:

Transit Maps of the World. Hours upon hours of diversion for the map or transit geek in your life. Depicts in great, gleeful detail the historical development of maps for e.g. the Berlin, New York, Seoul, Tokyo and Barcelona transit networks. Most system logos; a somewhat less comprehensive, but still generous, selection of station and rolling stock photography. All properly set in glorious Akzidenz Grotesk. This book is made of win. As a gift, highly likely to flatten its recipients with delight. My advice would be to hand it over and stand back.

Information Design Source Book. This Japanese overview takes a generously broad view of how “information design” ought to be constituted, which may strike some Western readers as curious; the spread of projects under consideration reaches well into what we might think of as branding, interface or experience design. The projects illustrated range from Kenya Hara‘s innovative signage program for Umeda Hospital and realities:united’s BIX media skin for Kunsthaus Graz to Hannes Wettstein‘s vTec Alpha watch for Ventura.

If the book has a weakness, it’s that its synoptic descriptions lack anything resembling a critical element, and all too often read like straight press-release copy. (For example, assertions that such-and-such an intervention “improves” user experience or “adapts to change” or “encourages exploration” go completely unchallenged.) Nevertheless, what a treat.

Signage Design Manual: The motherlode. The Big Book. One single doorstoppin’, all-poppin’ resource for a very wide range of challenges in signage and wayfinding; I’d imagine you could hand this volume, without comment, to just about any bright, motivated entry-level designer, and get acceptable results after a few weeks. It’s that comprehensive. Example: for a book of this type, the Manual is surprisingly au courant regarding the unique challenges of information design for (personal- to building-scale) ubiquitous systems – though here, again, is that odd definitional creep. (Is a mobile touch interface really “signage” in any conventional sense?)

My favorite passage is the series of gridded elevations on pages 378-385 establishing appropriate heights for different types of emplacements, from freeway directional markings to airport gate identification to in-lobby branding, but you’ll doubtless have your own.

Any of these books would make a formidable present for the demanding design-, architectural- or urbanist-minded person on your list. Or, hell, yourself. Why not? I’m sure you’ve earned it. : . )

Enough to get me drummed out of the Kool Kids’ circle

Uh…the new NYC Taxi branding? It’s growing on me.

I mean, it’s still wretched. Nothing can make that not so; there’s just something inexpressibly amateurish about the alignment of Smart Design’s otherwise-inoffensive “(T)axi” with the most regrettable Wolff Olins “NYC” slug. Even after Ground Zero, you have a hard time believing that New Yorkers could let themselves be swindled so baldly.

However.

In use, on the street, in life there happens to be something about the logo’s manifest clumsiness that’s beginning to feel endearing to me, and it’s making it hard for me not to like it. (After a while…I wanted to.) Now that’s something I just didn’t see coming – and if ever, certainly not so quickly.

Ahhh, Swissformation

Frequent travelers will no doubt be familiar with the generic batch of inflight infographics passengers have been offered for the last eight or ten years now. You encounter the same deck on just about every airline, and by now you know their rhythm pretty well: the blue-green map with its three crude levels of zoom, alternating with the two or three factoid panels of airspeed, outside temperature, time at destination and so forth.

I had just been musing on my last trip that this particular cascade has probably started to look a bit dowdy, if not outright retro, to a generation accustomed to Google Maps and in-car GPS, when Swiss pulled a change-up on me this time around. Their new mapping presentation is much closer to the current state of the art, if not even just a touch ahead of the game, and it’s noticeably more engaging as a result.

I know, I know: it’s probably only “more engaging” if you’re the kind of mapgeek for whom this kind of thing is digital catnip. But dig: a smooth zoom from 1:5000 out to global, satellite imagery at the larger scales, finely-grained terrain modelling, flightpath indicator (for completed and projected vectors), pseudo-3D with nice shadowing, current location denoted by simulation-accurate model of the actual aircraft type, and background stars plotted by what I have every reason to believe are accurate ephemerides. The only thing that surprised me was that they hadn’t chosen to skin the aircraft icon with the appropriate livery – that seems like a gimme to me, given the availability of the resource files. This all cycled with another seeming gimme I’d only seen on ANA before, and that a good five years ago: the pilot’s-view camera.

Taken together, it was almost mesmerizing. Even though I think and write about this stuff all the time, there’s still something uncanny about the representations that emerge from the nexus of precise global positioning, highly granular terrain models and smooth realtime CGI. It definitely enhanced the cabin experience, which was otherwise sadly undermined by one of the most poorly designed business-class seats I’ve ever experienced. (Anyone over about five-eight is going to find themselves uncomfortably blockaded at full extension, and you can’t decouple back tilt from footrest elevation. It’s actually more comfortable to sit fairly close to upright.)

Oh, and a bizarre addition, too, there among the major maritime features and hazards to navigation plotted: the location and date of famous shipwrecks. All the greatest hits, really: Whydah, 1717. Titanic, 1912. Andrea Doria, 1956. Thresher, 1963. I can’t imagine why someone thought this was necessarily an appropriate note to strike in a presentation of inflight data, but perversely enough, I’m glad they did: it adds a certain sense of historical grounding to what might otherwise slip all too easily into the infinite now of slickly visualized data. Top marks all ’round.

Now do something about those seats.