Where are you, Digital Le Corbusier?

Hello there. According to the numbers, you are probably new to the Don’t Think About the Future fold. You are part of a recent swell of interest that will probably fizzle out just in time for my thirty-fifth birthday, which is next week. Here’s how this works: I send you a letter every week, usually on Friday, usually earlier than this one. Sometimes it’s a well-reasoned rant about design and technology and our white-knuckled grip against the armrests of the airplane of our humanity, burning fuel in its rebellion against nature, barely keeping aloft in the atmosphere, which would like nothing more than to swat it back to earth and absorb its last gasp of toxic smoke as it rises from the smoldering ashes, and sometimes, well, it’s something a bit less grandiose. And most times I barely stick the landing. Either way, I welcome your replies. Last week I got more than ever before. That was neat. Let’s connect. We are the passengers and the Earth is our spaceship.

Picture me working from home, music playing, Tumblr TV open in another tab, and something like ten different TextEdit windows scattered about the rest of the screen. The chaos of it all. Probably has something to do with the short attention span of this week’s miscletter, which makes two in a row. I promise I’ll be back to long-form next week. Like I said, it will be my birthday and I’ll have a lot to fuss about.

CB, June 26, 2015

Part (1) Making and Breaking the Grid

Have you read this book? It was written by Timothy Samara in 2002, which makes it an interesting design time capsule of sorts. It’s content is 75% print design and 25% “digital,” which basically meant webpages and CD-ROMs back then. And boy are those digitals rough. If you have the book, check out page 96 and you’ll see what I mean. In 2002, we were still in the webpages-are-made-of-tables-therefore-they-must-look-like-text-bento-boxes mentality, which, honestly, wouldn’t have been terrible if we’d had more than like five fonts to work with. So, anyway, progress. But here’s the funny thing: every example of beautiful print design in the book looks like something you’d see on your computer screen today. The last decade of digital design has been largely about reducing entropy and eliminating barriers so that our good, old-fashioned, formal properties of design will no longer die a terrible death at the hands of keyboards, mice, and markup. So now what? What will be the new modernism? Not like the new aesthetic, which simply doubles-down on the artifacts of digital limitations — sexy, sexy pixelation and such — but something truly new. Something that can only exist now that screen resolution and bandwidth hardly stand in our way like they used to? Where is the internet’s Le Corbusier? If you’re out there, call me.

Part (2) Speaking of Design…

I’m just about done gathering speakers for this year’s HOW Interactive conference in Chicago in October. This is the fifth year I’ve been involved in the planning of this conference, and the second time I’ve been the Program Director. Taking on that role has given me the opportunity to take some risks and try to push this thing forward a bit more aggressively. Last year, we had a really strong roster of speakers, each of whom covered a topic in what was ultimately a pedagogically ordered program — you know, here are all the things you probably need to know about this field right now, ordered in such a way as to build upon one another, from the simple, foundational concepts to the eventually more complex. But this year, I wanted to try something completely different.

See, last year, I was sitting among the audience of another conference, listening to a brilliant designer describe three different projects he’d worked on over the course of his career. With each one, he exposed a lot: How he found himself working on the project, what his goals were, what he knew how to do and what was a complete moon-shot, what worked and what didn’t, and how he got from there to the next one. He showed images and video of work that influenced his projects, lots of footage behind-the-scenes as he worked, and, of course, he showed the final product. It was the ultimate special-features package. He didn’t waste any time with why-you-should headlines, bullet point directives, or the slick, quick theory I’ve grown so accustomed to at design conferences. Instead, he put me right where I wanted to be: in the studio with him, making things, learning, discovering. I hadn’t been so inspired in a very long time. I thought to myself, what if an entire conference could be like this?

I held on to that thought for the rest of the year. I wasn’t sure why, but there was something about that idea — a conference entirely of show-and-tell — that I just couldn’t let go.

A few months later, I and the rest of the HOW team were working through ideas for this year’s HOW Interactive Conference in Chicago and it hit me. This was our opportunity to make that show-and-tell event I’d dreamed of a reality. And we have.

This October, HOW Interactive in Chicago is entirely made up of expert, accomplished designers presenting case studies of their work. That’s it. Pure show-and-tell. Why? Because we need to hear how things actually are, not how they should be. We need the real — as messy as it may be — not the theoretical. That isn’t to say that they’re necessarily opposed to one another. It’s just that we’ve made stories from the field the priority this time, knowing that the theory that undergirds any successful work will be imparted by way of hearing how it was done.

I can’t name-drop just yet — not all the speaker agreements are signed; not all the checks are cut — but I can tell you that we have designers coming from some amazing places to share their work. They’ll be coming from Google, NPR, LinkedIn, Code for America, GDS UK, Buzzfeed, and some truly talented agencies here and abroad. The site should be updated in the next week or so to reflect the final program. Keep it in mind. If you decide to go, let me know so we can hang.

Part (3) All the brand names I can see while typing without turning my head or moving my eyes

  • Apple (Mac Mini, display, keyboard) can’t see logo on any of these three items; can see it on task bar at upper left of the screen. If I count what’s on the screen, the list includes:
    • Twitter
    • A List Apart
    • Google
    • Ebay
    • Tinyletter/MailChimp
    • Act-On
  • Logitech (mouse)
  • Seagate (two external hard drives)
  • Ikea (porcelain coffee cup) can’t see logo
  • Fitbit - can’t see logo
  • Rockport (copy of Making and Breaking the Grid)
  • Motorola/Google (Nexus 6 phone)
  • Booq (work bag sitting by my desk) can’t see logo
  • Sonos (pair of Play 1s)

Paul Ford did this on his blog in 2003. Interesting to see the brands of then vs. now.


Part (4) My next book will be called, Weird Things That Happen to You When You’ve Written a Book That No One Cares About

…because one thing that happens to you when you’ve written a book that no one cares about is that you’ll receive a cryptic voicemail that you can barely understand except for the phone number, which you’ll write down on a post-it note and then call five minutes before the end of your day. This decision will prove to have been a mistake, psychologically. The phone will ring twice, and then an older woman’s voice will say,

“Hello, Somethingunintelligible Community College.”

Then you’ll say, “Hi, my name is Chris Butler. I received a voicemail today from someone calling from your number?”

“Hold on please,” she’ll reply. And then you’ll hear a click. You’ll think for a second that maybe she’s hung up on you, but…

“Hello, Somethingunintelligible Community College.”

This will be a different but similar-sounding lady.

So you’ll repeat, “Hi, my name is Chris Butler. I received a voicemail today from someone calling from your number?”

And new lady will say, “Oh yes. Well. We’ve adopted your book as a text for one of our inter uh interact uh I’ve design courses and we’re trying to get an instructor copy. But we can’t seem to get in touch with the publisher.”

“Oh. Well, have you tried just ordering it directly from the publisher’s site or from Amazon?” you’ll ask. Then you’ll pull up your publisher’s online store and find your book there. And seeing that it is going for a very low price, you’ll say, “And you can get it right now for the very low price — its lowest price ever, actually — ten bucks!”

And she will not laugh at this. Even though you said it in your funny infomercial voice.

“Oh, no,” she’ll say. “When we adopt a book for our courses, we usually let the publisher know and they send us an instructor copy directly.”

Then you’ll see where this is going and it will make you feel sad. But you don’t show sad to strangers, so, “Ohhhh,” you’ll say. “You mean you’re looking for a free copy.”

And saying that will make her uncomfortable.

I’M SAYING we USUALLY get an instructor copy and we’ve been TRYING and TRYING to get through to the PUBLISHER but NO ONE will call us back and this has been VERY frustrating here.”

At this point, you’ll feel frustrated yourself, as the author of this book the woman feels entitled to receiving free of charge, and you’ll want to remind her that you just wrote the thing, you don’t sell it, though it would be nice to know that people are actually buying it rather than getting it for free, but she’ll interrupt this line of thought and say…

“Couldn’t you help us get in touch with the publisher? We’ve NEVER had such a PROBLEM getting a book before. Don’t you have a name or a phone number or ANYTHING?”

And now you’ll want to say that surely the value of all this time spent trying to track down a free copy of your book must exceed the ten-dollar price tag and that just clicking “buy” on Amazon right now would solve the whole darn thing and you and she could go back to doing whatever it is that you’d rather be doing, but you won’t say this because you’ll be in a sort of shock, really, that there’s interest in your book but not in paying for it and that the person interested in your book knows that you wrote it — that she’s talking to the author right now, phone to phone, in real time — but still treats you with the sort of contempt reserved for a customer service person standing in the way of this lady getting what she so obviously deserves.

So you’ll give this lady the name and phone number of your editor, and you’ll feel like you’re naming names to McCarthy, and she’ll say,

“Well I truly hope this is the last person I have to call about this. I’m sorry it had to come all the way to you.”

And you’ll say, “So am I.”

On Screen: Coda is a gorgeous nine-minute animated short about a lost soul running from Death. “I just need more time,” he pleads. “So be it,” answers Death. And then they disappear into the night. In completely unrelated screen-based entertainment, you can play Simcity Classic and Oregon Trail in your browser, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Recent Tabs: This is perhaps the most honest and horrific account of cancer I’ve ever read, but it’s also the most beautiful account of sacrifice and friendship, too. “One latter-day Medici posted a review of my book on Amazon complaining that even 99 cents was too expensive for what was just a ‘blog post.’ I’ve often wondered if he was writing that comment in a Starbucks, sipping a $6 cup of coffee that took two minutes to prepare.” That quote from Peter Wayner, in The Atlantic, on Amazon’s new pay-per-page-read model. Publishing at the extremes: 140 characters or 3,000 words. The in-between is ignored. We need a Cold War-level of investment in research into new technologies to mitigate the coming effects of global warming. Throw away your bacteria-ridden sponge and 3D print this anti-microbial scrubber. Crusher-palm. 2015 Design of the Year award winner is an incredible, science-fictional project of mimicking human organs with tiny chips that carry living human cells. Bodega fights mocks gentrification. Raspberry Pi-powered chicken coop door. The the Distributed-Centered Subject. Amazing kinetic hair dryer installations. This summer, when you watch Ethan Hunt cling to the side of an airplane as it takes off, just remember WHO DID IT FIRST.

Written by Christopher Butler on June 26, 2015,   In Essays

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