Note: The regular programming of this website has been interrupted due to a need to finish the Open Source Writing book. Progress is steady, and if everything goes well, I should be done with the first week in November. While that doesn’t mean the book will be finished, it is still a major milestone.
I think that the world wide web has fried my brain.
There used to be a time in my life when I had self-restraint, discipline, and patience. Once upon a time, I could even subdue my desires for self-gratification and entertainment in the name of a larger goal. Not any more.
Now, if I come across something that is cool, interesting, or provocative, I’ve got this unfettered desire to share it. And then, I need to see how people respond. If the “something” is indescribably awesome, I also have an inordinately hard time getting back to “real work” until I’ve done something about it. This is one of the reasons why Twitter is such a damnable distraction. It provides me with a string of interesting things to check out. All. Day. Long.
So, yesterday, I spent the vast majority of the day distracted and sidetracked. (Though it had nothing to do with Twitter.) And it was all because of an email that came to the Scribus mailing list.
Not that the email was awesome on its own, or even all that interesting. But it touched on a trail of thought that I’ve been following for a while now. A trail related to the way that style is beginning to impact matters of substance, particularly in relationship Open Source movement.
To show you just how serious I am about this topic, I’ve got a whole series of yet-to-be published posts (the next entries in this series, actually) which argue that the next major challenge for Open Source has very little to do with code or technology.
My premise is this: the beardies of the 70s and 80s, like Richard Stallman, did a marvelous job of delivering open technical freedom to the masses. They had a demon (the tyranny of closed tools and the fear that proprietary companies would control the computer), and they largely slew the beast. Now, because of their efforts, It is possible to work for your entire life and never render a penny to Microsoft, IBM, or Apple.
But the solving of one problem has revealed others, and I’m not sure that the community is transitioning to deal with them. It doesn’t look like we’re having much success in delivery the fruits of that work to a larger audience, or in expanding the circle of ideas in the “Grand Old Tent.”
These aren’t challenges of technical knowledge, but rather of “experience” and “style.” For that reason, the future Open Source developer will also need to be a proficient designer. Writing beautiful code is no longer enough to ensure that a piece of tech get adopted, it also has to offer a beautiful experience.
But I’ll get to all of that in time (when the book is done). Here’s what got me all revved up yesterday. The KDE e.V. (the group that governs and coordinates the KDE community) publishes a quarterly newsletter. It has reports of going-ons in the community and generally keeps people informed. (This was all news to me, since I thought all of that stuff just got posted to news.kde.org.)
And KDE e.V. is revamping the appearance of their newsletter. I don’t have any details about where they are intending to go with it, or what audience they are trying to target. (I’m not even sure that they know, since my inquiries on the subject have been met with silence.) But a quick look at the current template shows that they need to do something. (You can download a PDF here.)
Now let me be explicit, there is nothing necessarily wrong here. The text is a legible and the content readable. The layout moves you between pages.
But there is also little that is right.
A good layout draws your eyes to the things that matter. It provides contextual clues about what comes next and highlights the most important content. It draws you deeper into the text.
Unfortunately, this layout doesn’t do that.
- For starters, it causes you to focus on the wrong things. When you look at the page, what is one of the first things that you notice? If you’re like me, it’s probably the footer in general and the legal notice in specific. If I didn’t know better, I would assume that knowing “KDE is a registered trademark of KDE e.V. in the United States and other countries” is the most important thing I could glean from this publication. After all, it is typeset in bold font, underneath a prominent horizontal rule on every single page.
- A second flaw is that the publication provides no way of navigating the content. There isn’t a table of contents, thus, you have to flip through every page if you want to know what the report contains.
- Finally, the use of a medium weight sans-serif type for the body copy makes the layout feel dense. The type doesn’t catch and lead your eye, the way that a good font can. Instead, it makes the text appear heavy, and for that reason, harder to read.
If I had to summarize the problems with the layout in one thought, it would be this: Good content, wrong emphasis.
Which, ironically, is a pretty good description of the state of the Linux desktop. There is some wonderfully brilliant stuff available, but the mainstream public doesn’t really know it because of the way that open source is developed and promoted. In some cases, the attention to detail needed for a beautiful experience hasn’t been paid, or the various sharp edges haven’t been blasted off.
Good stuff, but wrong emphasis.
Now, I’ve got all kinds of ideas about how the situation can be improved (some related to the tech itself and its development, and some addressing how to how it is promoted and marketed), but I won’t get into those here. Suffice it to say that my ideas have little to do with reinvention, and a whole lot to do with tweaking the emphasis. After all, the good stuff is already there. You just have to let people know.
So, as an experiment, I went and changed a few details of the layout above. Here’s the result. (You can download a PDF here.)
While I won’t say the revised version is a paradigm of brilliant design (because it’s not, I’m not even sure that it qualifies as “good” design), I do think that it’s cleaner. The good stuff is still there, it’s just more obvious. There are aids to help you get around, the footer is no longer the center of attention, and I’ve tried to use elements which help to guide the eye into the text.
Not any one change was hard. I just needed to know what bits I wanted to emphasize. Which, I suppose is also at the heart of bringing open source to a larger audience. But then, vision is everything and why the “big-picture” guys tend to be very well paid.