So, a few people close to me have encountered my fascination with modern smartphone design. It’s a product that combines a lot of things, from industrial design to OS and interface design and back around to content and app design within an established language. And, that’s all actually very cool to examine and see how all the bits come together, and how decisions at one point are reflected throughout. And, it’s pretty easy to think that Apple with its ground-breaking and totally iconic iPhone is really the only “design” in the game, but that’s really just not true.
And so, I was glad to finally have a chance to sit down and watch this interview Engadget did with Nokia’s VP of Industrial Design, Stefan Pannenbecker, where they talk about several aspects of design within an ecosystem that extends all the way from a flagship superphone all the way down to regular old annual cellphone models, and just how much these every day objects are actively designed with goals and motifs in mind. If you haven’t stopped to think about just how much most of the items in your life have been designed, whether they seem “designer” or not, this is probably a good place to start.
And, if you’re a fan of the Lumia design aesthetic like me, you’ll probably be happy to get an actual answer about why the Lumia 900 has a flat screen instead of the elegantly curved one of the Lumia 800.
Check the video out from the external link. It’s worth it.
An oven doesn’t make a great cook. A camera doesn’t make a great photographer. You don’t need fancy gear to make beautiful images.
I know what people are trying to say with this. I do. I get it. I’m one of the first to say that our world has a sort of gear fetish, a cult of the ever-newer. I get it. But, pithy, over-simplistic sentences like this don’t help anything either. A good cook can make something good with a bad oven, sure. They can make a lot more better things faster with a good oven. And even that’s too simple. I dare you to try making a milkshake without a blender, or shred cheese without a grater. Go ahead. Try it. Not so fun, right?
There’s a reason I recently jumped systems to Nikon, and it certainly hasn’t been the thrill of writing the payment checks. And it’s because in any profession, there is a nearly symbiotic relationship between the professional and their tools. A better camera won’t make you a better photographer by itself. But if your camera is what’s holding you back, then getting a better one will. But that’s not tweetable, is it? It’s tough to look at your gear and your photos and know, really know, when faults were due to the gear, and when they were due to you. But you need to. Sometimes you need better gear. Often you don’t. There’s no simple way to tell which is which every time. It’s messier than that. But, for what it’s worth, here are things I look at and think about before I upgrade gear.
- Do I know all of the specs of my current camera. All of them. Not just sensor size and AF points. How many of those points are cross-type? At what EV do they act up? When do they fail? How does the camera handle exposure? Levels? How much headroom do files have? If I miss an exposure, how many stops can I push or pull it before the image breaks down? How does it do in strobes? In ambient light? On a tripod? What’s the x-sync? What’s the real x-sync I can cheat above the stated one? And so on.
If you don’t know your camera’s specs on that level, then how can you even begin to know when the camera is failing, and when you are? Tech review sites are a great place to get a basic idea of that intimacy, they’ll tell you the theoretical limits. But make sure you burn the frames yourself and spend that time in post and in the field learning your tool and how it behaves when you use it for your work. Unless you shoot test charts and brick walls for a living, the real measure of a camera is how it handles in your day-to-day work flow. You’ll find a lot of those “deal-breaker” idiosyncrasies and flaws never even affect you. When they do every single time, well, then maybe you’re looking at a real reason to upgrade. But be prepared to answer what it is that you’re hoping to overcome. It should be a concrete answer, not something wussy and nebulous like “well, maybe some more resolution might be nice…”
- Lenses are investments. People always tell you the glass matters more than the body. Largely, I agree. But as with everything, you need the right glass. And I don’t just mean the biggest, fanciest glass everyone’s drooling over. This is a tool, remember. Something you’re in symbiosis with. The right glass is the lens that will accomplish the goals you need it to, every time you need it to. Sometimes that’s a big pro lens, there’s no escaping that. Sometimes it’s a $400 refurbished consumer telephoto. It depends on what you shoot, and how. But the fact is, it’s only an investment if it’s something you both need, and will keep. Otherwise, it’s an expense at best, a waste on average.
Why? Because a different lens will only deliver better photos if you know what you intend to do with it, and why you need that focal range, that aperture, and that sharpness. If you can’t tell the difference in total image quality from two focal lengths on the same kit lens yet, you’re not there. Keep at it. You will be. And then it’ll be painfully obvious to you what you need from a lens. Then it’s a matter of finding the one that does that, which is way easier than guessing at lenses you might need. Cheaper, too. Even when that one lens is more expensive. And then you get to call it an investment.
- Learn how to edit. An “edit” is not just a change made to a photo, it’s the process of looking over a body of work and choosing what’s good, what’s trash, and what needs poked at until you know it’s good or trash. There’s a combination of things that go into this: a knowledge of subject and composition, of lighting, of in-field technique (aperture choice, ISO, shutter, handshake, etc) and post-editing technique (levels, white balance, sharpening, noise reduction). Be diligent about editing. Be honest. Be hard on your photos. If you’re shooting five hundred photos, why expect more than a dozen will be good? Why expect more than maybe one or two will be great? They won’t. I can take a hundred shots in controlled studio lighting with a model and they still won’t. Poses don’t work. Lights don’t fire. You miss your exposure. You miss your focus. You get too close to a light and stop down and you pixel level is all fuzzy from diffraction limitation. All this happens, every time. Experience minimizes it. Honest editing shows you the consequences of all of it, and makes you come to terms with them. It also teaches you the greatest secret of them all: most photos absolutely suck. Being a good photographer is knowing to only show the ones that don’t.
Spend the time to know which ones don’t. Stick with whatever gear you have until you can. Once you can figure that out, then you’ll know what else you need. It might be a new body. Or lenses. Or studio lights. Or a tripod. But whatever it is, once you know how you shoot and what part of your gear regularly fails you where, it’ll be more than immediately obvious what you need.
Then, go get it. And repeat it all.
Well, now that I’ve got the new version of my site up, I thought I’d take a moment for anyone interested to talk about the design decisions, theories, and methods that went into making this a reality. This new version is, I feel, a massive success in what it seeks to do, and it pushes my own online presence far beyond what I had been doing before. And while maybe all that just comes across to the viewer, it does so because of a lot of decisions I’ve fussed with over the past few weeks, the past few months, and some going back the past few years.
First up, the design was a pretty large undertaking. I’ve found out over the past five years that an artist portfolio is actually a very difficult thing to do right. Artists tend to be non-linear. Websites (and how we as people actually use them), are linear. This causes a lot of tension between artists and their websites, and how the conflict between non-linear thinking and linear display gets resolved varies a lot. I’ve seen quite a few approaches, a lot of solutions, and a lot of things that I didn’t like. I’ve seen artists try and reconcile the need for a creative, interactive space by using very free-form, experimental sites. As a designer, though, I’ve felt these have always failed the end user, serving only to satisfy the wants of the artist, and not the actual needs of the website or its users. Among other things, these creative sites tended to have one or many (if not all) of the following design shortcomings:
- A heavy reliance on Flash. While I was never of the hardline “Flash is the devil” camp, Flash was always an unwieldy solution. It was very, very programmatic to create. Very difficult to make flexible. It didn’t scale well or easily to various page heights, leading to fixed viewport style sites. It kept the data locked inside. It didn’t index into Google. It didn’t work on mobile. The list goes on…
- No permalinks. Usually because of Flash. When you went to a gallery, the address of the site didn’t change. You couldn’t bookmark or share individual pages, galleries, or images. For a portfolio page, this was absurd. It was counter-intuitive and harmful. Users are coming to look at art, and the site shouldn’t hinder them on sharing it once they have.
- Mystery-meat navigation. ”Creative” sites really worked on eschewing things like labels. Unfortunately, the web lives on labels, and discarding them often meant I was clicking on anonymous images or icons, hunting around trying to guess what I’d just asked to see, and how the hell I was supposed to find what I really was trying to find. Sure, it meant the artist didn’t have to ask themselves the hard questions, like how to edit and show their work in coherent bodies, so, they felt more freed. But as an end-user, it sucked. A lot.
The sites that shy away from Flash aren’t without their own faults, though. Usually, they take the idea of “simple” to a point that’s closer to “crude.” These sites, though much preferable to the Flash ones, have a few different concerns:
- The content loads a whole page for each piece, increasing load time, interrupting the flow, and slowing down the ability to scan a body of work. Plus, it just doesn’t convey the level of polish and gloss a modern web user expects, leaving things feeling chintzy.
- The home page is often just an image, lacking any information to help orient a user. Or for Google to index.
- The layout is formulaic and static, leaving the image left to look like it’s “floating” among some scattered menu links.
So, having seen a lot of what I didn’t like, I keep a shortlist of things I demand out of a “good” portfolio site, and design the way mine works around those limitations:
- No Flash. Period.
- Permalinks are a must. Users need to be able to bookmark and share individual pieces.
- The home page needs a large key photo (since I am a visual artist, not a blogger), but also search engine-friendly text content that updates regularly.
- All sections need to be clearly labeled. All collections need to have a coherent theme, motif, or topic. Users shouldn’t have to guess any more than they have to where to find what they want.
- The images need to be as large as they can be, without requiring scrolling on smaller screens to see the entire image.
Metro UI and Gallery Aesthetics
From Microsoft's "Codename Metro" Documentation
With those goals in mind, I turned to the design mantras most concisely laid out by a rather unlikely source: Microsoft. In the original concept docs for their Metro UI used on Windows Phones, they talked about a new, modern approach to UI design that takes its cues from older, more tried design movements like Constructivism, Brutalism, and other such theories. Of particular resonance from the whitepaper on the aesthetic was the following line:
We think content should be elevated, and everything else should be minimized.
This is really the core of their philosophy, which has been fleshed out with statements like “LET’S BE HONEST. IT IS WHAT IT IS,” “TYPOGRAPHY IS BEAUTIFUL. PERIOD,” and “WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, CONSUMERS WANT CONTENT.” But it keeps coming back to the simple idea of reducing and fiercely eliminating all unnecessary UI, and reducing the visual architecture (or “chrome”) that computers and the modern web have often used to deliver that content.
As a design philosophy, it’s one I’ve been working towards for a long time, and the external inspiration of the whole system has helped me define and refine that sentiment. And, it also reminds me of something else I’ve always loved: the gallery aesthetic.
Galleries tend to have a uniform look: empty walls, sparsely hung art, lots of white, very little clutter. They emphasize something that’s very important–white space. They let the art be the focus, and stay out of the way as much as they can. They strive to reduce visual distraction and cross-chatter. And they’re elegant as hell for it.
ZmZ V5 Uses Only 12 Graphics and Icons Total
With those ideas and aesthetics in mind, I set about to looking at the last version of my site. I had to decide which elements were going to stay, and which weren’t. Then I removed everything unnecessary. The implied-page drop shadows are gone, releasing the content into more white space. Horizontal rules went too, and instead I just use comfortable, generous margins on content to provide necessary visual breaks. At the suggestion of my girlfriend, I also used an increasingly-popular web design idea known as “responsive” or “fluid” adaptive design, that lets the site fill the entire browser window. The design ration stays the same, and the experience is enarly identical for desktop resolutions from 500 to 2560 pixels wide. I moved the menu below the header images and galleries, letting the visual be the dominant cue. When text is used, it has wide margins, and large type. Only the things needed are shown at any time. The menu is sticky and joins and exits the flow as it needs to. Return to top buttons are hidden on short pages and quietly enter the picture on longer posts and pages as you scroll.
Images are given priority, and are allowed to be as large as they can be. Text takes the next visual priority, and as much as possible is done with type alone. Icons and graphics are kept to a bare minimum, with only 12 icons and graphics used across the site, and only an additional couple chrome elements (such as the shadow behind the menu and over the header) to help establish a clear visual hierarchy. All said, only 22 image files are used to make the entire site. Everything else is pure content.
The result, I feel, is gorgeous. Images are huge, and take up most of the prime visual space. The text is relevant and dynamic. Controls are pared down to just what you need, and they’re right where you expect them to be as soon as you want them. It fills the browser. It changes size as you resize your window in all browsers that properly support it.
But, it took a bit of work to make all that happen. So, for the designers among you, press on and we’ll look at some of the technical difficulties that had to be overcome and the compromises made in part 2.
I was reading over a list from UK tech site Electricpig of their favorite 100 Windows Phone apps (now that there’s a market big enough to have favorites), and lo and behold, I see a familiar icon floating around in the list. Congratulations to FourSpotProject for this, and stay tuned for what I’m hearing will be a nice update to the app soon.
Ah. Another day, another of my photos in local rag The Eastside Voice (as well as a very favorable write-up of my friends at ETC‘s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Link below, though, the modern world hasn’t called and told the Voice that interactive flash newspapers are no longer cool, so, grab a desktop and not a smartphone for this one.
Not a whole lot to say here that can’t be experienced better by just browsing around, but after a few bug patches today, I can proudly say that my fifth revision of zedmartinez.com is now live and rockin’. So, hop on over. Experience the 17 large, crisp header images for the homepage. Check out the new and larger galleries. And so on. And so forth.
I’ll follow up next week with some posts about the buttloads of design research and theory and technobabble that went into making this sucker, but for now, whew, I’m taking a break, and it can speak for its own darn self.
I’ve already shot all the photo work for it, and now it’s my turn to go and see my friends at EclecticPond Theatre Company put on their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 8pm tonight. If you’re near Indy, stop by and catch it with me. Tickets only $12.
More about the show here: http://eclecticpond.org/Eclectic_Pond_Theatre_Company/ETC_-_Midsummer.html
Best Valentine’s Day gift ever? Classic Lion-o and Mumm-ra. Go ahead. Try and tell me otherwise.