UpStart 2011

During this years General Election in Ireland, a group by the name of UpStart ran a fascinating campaign of public art exhibition. Gathering submissions from the public in the form of text, photography, art and design, they published and placed a series of election-style posters throughout Dublin City.

In their own words:

UpStart is a non-profit arts collective which aims to put creativity at the centre of public consciousness during the Irish General Election Campaign in 2011. We plan to do this by reinterpreting the spaces commonly used for displaying election campaign posters in Dublin City.

The result was a wonderful celebration of art in public, and one that went some way to counter the deluge of inane political statements that screamed at us from the top of lamp-posts. It was great to see so many works of art dotted throughout the City, sitting side-by-side with the usual electioneering. It was even better to see so many people standing in the street, staring up at them, heads tilted to the side contemplating their meaning.

As well as being a huge fan of the project, I was also lucky enough to have a piece selected. Thanks to UpStart brightening up our streets and thanks for allowing me my own little piece of a lamp-post.

Is your computer a thing of beauty or a disposable tool?

This week Google unveiled in more detail its new ChromeOS operating system, specifically showing off some of the machines that will run it. As an OS which is essentially little more than a browser, it very much revolves around storing information in the cloud.

To demonstrate this they released a promo video in which a user’s information is repeatedly saved from destruction by virue of the fact that it resides ‘in the cloud’. What is not saved, however, is a plethora of laptops that are destroyed in increasingly violent and extreme methods.

When Gina Trapani linked to this video recently she made the comparison between Google’s vision of disposable computers, and Apples slavish devotion to making beautiful machines. Although Google, in fairness, were trying to make an entertaining point about cloud computing, rather than a philosophical statement about the disposable nature of computers, it still seems to revel in this idea of the machines themselves being secondary. Trapani’s comparison with Apple is very much true.

One thing Apple-bashers often shout about is how Apple computers are some kind of ‘style-over-substance’ devices. That they are just ‘pretty’ boxes, but nothing more. Well, you know what? Aesthetics are important.

Humanity is drawn to create and be surrounded by beautiful objects. It may be an evolutionary trait. Simply utilitarian design is not enough; look at the blight on the landscape left behind by the brutally utilitarian buildings of the 60s and 70s. It amazes me when I go into PC World and look at the Windows laptops on sale. Many of them are ugly, plastic, cheap looking things, with a horrible build and tactile feel. This is beyond meer visual aesthetics; if you are to use a machine well, it should feel good to the touch. Many of these machines look and feel terrible.

This also goes beyond aesthetic sensitivities. Evidence has shown that aesthetically pleasing interfaces are more usable. Indeed, more obviously, using a cheap, plasticy keyboard can be frustrating and limiting.

This is to say nothing of Macs OS X operating system, which is where these debates usually rest. If, for whatever reason, I was to find myself wanting to use another OS, I would have to look far and wide to find a machine that physically matches the Apple Mac, certainly in the laptop department.

Google seem to want a world where the physical machine is secondary. I think this is a mistake. The things we use matter.

P.S. Engadget say these ChromeOS machines have no USB support. Isn’t that the thing that makes the iPad so horrible and unusable? 😉

On the iPad, magazines and digital archiving.

So the iPad with all its hullaballoo and hype and backlash, and the backlash to the backlash has finally arrived in a blaze of publicity. People love it! People hate it! People think “looks pretty damn nice, but i’m not so sure I need to buy it”. Apple fanboys are heralding it as the Second Coming, Apple-bashers are lining up to see who can make the most sarcastic remark about its lack of USB-ports or something.

The reviews seem to be mainly positive, and the overwhelming opinion is that its really hard to judge it until you’ve used it. Its that different.

For me the most interesting thing about it, or the thing that would tempt me most to buy one, is the possibilities for reading, particularly magazine reading, that it throws up. Much has been made of its role as a potential savior for the print-industry, and some heavy weights are lining up to support it.

And we are not talking about just throwing up some PDFs. Some people, such as Popular Mechanics, are using this as an opportunity to reinvent the magazine. The results appear to be some mind-blowing publications, with untold possibilities. Brad Colbow has done a great little video exploring some of the first magazines to embrace the iPad.

iPad Magazine Art Direction from Brad Colbow on Vimeo.

The other aspect to these new-fangled magazines that interests me,however, is the idea of digital archiving. A few years ago I supervised a college project which was a prototype for a digital magazine. One of the chief inspirations for the project for the students was the idea of creating digital artifacts that would be kind of frozen-in-time. One of the guys involved particularly lamented the loss of the feeling you get in our web-era of flicking through old magazines and in addition to the content you can discover a treasure trove of design styles, photography and advertising. My Dad has been doing extensive research over the past decade into the history of Dundalk Football Club and in doing so constantly comes across the most amazing bits of design and advertising from by-gone eras, these are the delightful bonuses that you get when you go on a treasure hunt through old publications.

These days with dynamic website creation webpages are not static creatures; they morph and evolve and update on the hour every hour. I was reminded of all this this morning when I stumbled apron a 1958 Time Magazine profile of Alan Watts, maintained on Time’s website. Of course, its amazing that we have this ability, this open resource of history at our finger tips. But there was also something missing. As I read it, what I really wanted was to read it in context. I wanted to see how it sat in that particular issue, were there photos? how was it typeset? what other content featured in that issue? Sadly, none of that is reproduced. What we get is the content from that article neatly set inside the current Time website. Again, I’m not complaining about this, its kind of cool you can read a 1958 article about Alan Watts and get the ability to retweet it, or Share it on Facebook or Digg it. But at the same time, I really wish I could read it in its original format (or as close to its original format as you can get on a monitor…) I know some newspapers are doing archiving projects where you can bring up PDF or images of the original paper itself, and its this kind of thing I’d like to see more of.

This is somewhere where I think the iPad will be able to shine. Colbows video shows just how Time Magazine is going to do this. In landscape mode you get the original article, with its original typography, and layout. The people who are saying the iPad is just a glorified web-browser or that its missing X, Y and Z are missing the point I think. I don’t know of anything else out there right now with this kind of capability for reading and design. Of course, Apple won’t be the only people to make tablets, but I really think the tablet form factor itself will work because of these kind of publications.

Interesting times.

Update:John Gruber and Khoi Vinh weigh in on the Popular Science app. Vinh’s insights in particular are very interesting.

More on distraction-free tools

In reaction to my post on distraction-free text editors, a friend pointed me towards Readability, a service I’ve been using for a while now. In a nutshell, Readability is a tool that lets you isolate the actual content of a webpage and present it in a more accessible and easy to read manner (without all the clutter that you have to contend with on most sites). Here’s the official video explaining how it works:

Readability – Installation Video for Firefox, Safari & Chrome from Arc90 on Vimeo.

I first discovered Readability when I was looking for a simple way to change the line-height of text on webpages, to make it a bit more readable. For a medium that is still predominately text-based there is a whole load of bad typography online. Readability, in addition to helping you tune out the noise surrounding the feature content, goes someway to helping you with these problems. However, as Catbird points out , it is a bit nuts that we even need applications like this.

Speaking of which, it also occurred to me today just how bad Wikipedia is. For a hugely popular site, which is all about text, it’s presentation leaves a bit to be desired. It’s main problem is that it uses a 100% wide fluid page-layout, thus making lines of text really long, something which is one of the leading causes for poor legibility/readability.