Other posts related to aesthetics

 | October 22, 2010 8:54 pm

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.

 | September 1, 2010 8:52 pm

The Elements of Typographic Style, Letterform AnatomySince starting work on the Open Source Writing project, I’ve become hyper attentive to many little things that I’d previously overlooked.  For example, I’ve started to notice the typefaces in books, magazines and advertisements and think, “I wonder what that is” and even contrive thoughts on how things might have been done better.

I’ve also started to visit my local bookstore much more frequently.  I go to browse the art and design books and the magazines.  I want to see what other authors are doing (particularly those of art, design and computer books).  I enjoy looking at their layouts and comparing them to the style I’ve chose to use.  I look at the prose and illustrations and think about components that I might make use of.  While in the store, I’ve also become interested in how people interact with the books on display.

If you’ve never people-watched in a bookstore, I highly recommend it.  It’s very revealing and you’ll immediately notice several different groups.  Some of the buyers like to pull multiple titles from the shelves and then go to the coffee shop to  review them; others will wander the aisles until they find a title that catches their eye; and still others will compare similar books side by side.

It doesn’t take long to see that book-store shoppers are very different than those who use sites such as Amazon.com.  Browsing in a store is a tactile and interactive experience, and for that reason, decisions are made based on sight and touch as much as they are on feedback, reviews and more logical factors.

For this reason, I want to see which books get picked up by shoppers, and, I want to know which ones stay in hand versus those that go back to the shelf.  I’d like to understand why a patron chooses one Photoshop or Illustrator book over another and what factors go into making a purchase.  Most importantly, though, I want to know if there are a few general principles that I can use to make my own work more attractive and, as a result, more likely to get bought.  (I’ve also spoken with the book store management and they’ve been kind enough to share some of the sales statistics with me.)

It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned many lessons that I’m trying to put into practice.

There is one lesson, however, that stands above the rest.  The art, design and computer books that are successful all share one thing in common: they are visually stunning and incorporate amazing examples.  Every last one of them.

In fact, stunning visuals might just be the single deciding factor as shoppers try and determine which book will go home with them.  The content, after all is mostly the same.  They all cover the same fundamental principles and techniques, and for that reason, must differentiate themselves on appearance.

And in the very best art/computer graphics/design books (such as Thinking with Type, the  Adobe Classroom in a Book series, and anything by Edward Tufte), the illustrations aren’t just stunning, they are positively lavish.  More than that, though, they are practical, illustrative, useful, and provide enormous value to the text.  They make an impact, and for that reason, they sell books.

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 | August 3, 2010 5:50 pm

Vignelli-SubwayOver the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wandering about in a daze.  (This often happens when I’m doing too many things at once.)

I’m trying to get LyX-Outline done, finish my book, and draw up plans for  Time Drive.  I’ve also got dozens of ideas for blog posts, scientific studies, articles, software projects, and even books dancing about in my head.

(I wish I could figure a way to make some of these ideas pay for themselves, as I would like to pursue them more aggressively.  But, that is a topic for another day.)

Amidst all of the creative chaos, there is one question that I find particularly interesting.  Namely: How the form of a thing influences its function?  This question also goes by a secondary, better known moniker: “the medium is the message”.

Like other dynamics such as nature/nature,  form/function is  a constant in graphic layout, analytic design, horse training, writing, software development, scientific inquiry, marketing/advertising, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology (basically everything which interests me).  My obsession with it has already filled one book chapter and, unless I can exercise some self-restraint,  will likely consume another.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  While researching typographical examples this morning, I found a very interesting instance and thought I’d share.

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