12 May 2016

Give us those nice bright colors, give us the greens of summer

By now you've had a little time to make your peace with the new Instagram icon. In the accelerated, media-savvy world of Internet 2.0 (or whatever release number we're on), there have been already been critical essays on how bad the redesign is (for an example, see this Adweek piece) and a backlash about how old farts just hate change of any sort (for an example, see the comments section of the Adweek piece). Instagram themselves shared a statement about the change, with the usual design-speak explanation that skeuomorphism is old news, that the icon is a doorway into the app and that the app GUI is tailored to the way users use the lightweight photo-manipulation / sharing system.

For me, the rationale is depressingly predictable. In the mobile scene, the clinical eye of Jonny Ive has cast its gaze over everything, and we're told that all users want is an interface that gets out of the way and disappears entirely into a mist of flat gradients and semi-transparencies. Never mind that bright colors and heavily-stroked geometric forms are as invisible as traffic signs—which are, after all, brightly-colored, heavily-stroked geometric forms—in about five years they are going to be as dated as 90s bevels and drop shadows.

But I get that Instagram wants to move on. When it first launched (only four years ago) it was known primarily for its filters, which gave a patina of vintage charm to the most ephemeral of digital productions, the smart phone photograph. Instagram was adopted by the hipsters, who delighted in making their locally-sourced artisanal breakfast sandwich look as though it had been photographed in 1973 by a Poloraid Land camera, or as though that afternoon's thrift-shop find had been kicking around since 1932, as evidenced by the sepia tone of this faux silver print. Of course, everyone hates hipsters, especially hipsters, and Instagram was snapped up by Facebook, which means it's time to move on and embrace a more generic identity.

But what's lost in the rebranding is the sense of play. Social media platforms operate on one level as convenient publishing systems for nonspecialists to share information, but on another level they are games whose rules become defined by their user base. Tumblr is technically a lightweight blog platform, but its character comes from the community drawn to it, whose users have developed a protocol for the correct way to appropriate media and repost it. Snapchat's character arises from the community's interest in intimacy and immediacy. Twitter is where everyone wants to be the most clever. For its brief life, Instagram's quirks (square photos, obvious filters) have combined with urbane hipster tastes to encourage an aesthete's view of the world: photos of alleyways, wrought-iron fences, graffiti on brick walls. No doubt Facebook wants users of all stripes to embrace the application, and your aunt and uncle may have no use for another picture of a manhole cover, but they might consider dropping $40 on a photo book of baby pics.

Still, I had a lot of fondness for the Instagram camera icon. In the iPhone's sea of flat infographics, it was the one hold-out for charm and play. It was sort of oddball, it was sort of ugly. Mostly, it was distinctive, and that loss of distinction is the saddest part. When I was a child, the Holiday Inn "Great Signs" still dotted highways in the midwest. Incongruous and garish, they spoke to the past futurism of the Atomic Age. I remember looking for them on the horizon under the stars during family road trips. They were weird, they were unique. And when at last Holiday Inn decided to replace them, they went for the most bland, most uninteresting alternative. No child would search the night sky for that sign. And no one will pause and smile before tapping the new Instagram icon.

09 March 2016

Man Magazine’s 25 Man-Tasks Every Man Must Do Before He Dies

  1. Butcher one’s own Hartebeest using only a penknife and pocket-comb
  2. Hand-roll the perfect cigar; place in a Lucite case to be smoked upon one’s deathbed
  3. Master the art of single-tear cry
  4. Master the art of removing a front-clasp bra with one's toes
  5. Learn to make the deadliest cocktail, the Dank and Steamy
  6. Serve a Dank and Steamy to Norman Mailer's ghost
  7. Defend a lady friend’s honor by employing a rear naked choke
  8. Learn the difference between a fedora and a trilby
  9. And also a homburg, why not
  10. Spend at least one year’s salary on a bottle of Scotch
  11. Put one's faithful dog of twenty-three years down, but only after staring long into its eyes and reaching an understanding
  12. Write an essay on euthanizing the dog and sell it to the Paris Review
  13. Learn how to say “humidor” in twelve languages
  14. Climb every mountain, ford every stream; but you know, in a manly way, not the way that a nun would
  15. Locate and purchase the car in which you were conceived
  16. Rebuild transmission of said car and present it to your dying father as a gift upon the anniversary of your mother’s death
  17. Sit a while in absolute silence in the passenger seat as your father runs his trembling, spotted hands over the walnut burl dashboard before switching on the radio
  18. Listen to “Reeling in the Years”
  19. Wait, that might be a little too on the nose, let’s make that “My Old School”
  20. Upon the death of your father, drink the bottle of Scotch in a single sitting and crash the car into the first tree you successfully climbed as a child
  21. Fix car and sell on EBay for a profit
  22. Learn to express one’s feelings by not saying or doing anything
  23. Also, no writing anything down, that's cheating
  24. Seriously
  25. One more? Um, read Moby-Dick?

08 March 2016

Final Spoilers, Don't You Know

Mary: Deah Mathyew, I hev so enjoyed our supernatural meetings these strange nights, but somehow I feel we must draw the curtain on these séances, as it were. It’s only that yew hev shuffled off this mortal coil some four yeahs ago, and in the meantime I went and married a motorist—I believe his name is Henry or Heathcliff or something of the sort—in any case I hev also had my dalliances with Gilly and Tony—what I’m sayin’, Mathyew, is I hev had a fair amount of tail in your absence, and perhaps the time has come for us both to move on.

Matt: Oh Mary, yew old thing, I know all about it; For hev I not watched over yew these many nights, creepin’ in through the wainscoting and such, peepin’ in as yew—

Mary: Steady on, Mathyew, can’t a widow hev a bit of privacy?

Matt: Mary, old bean, we on this side of the spiritual veil are not full of your hang-ups, man. As for me, I hev been dallyin' with your dear sister Sybbie on the reg—

Mary: Good Golly! [blushes becomingly]

Matt: —and yet there is something to what yew say, for I too feel we hev arrived at an ending, don’t yew know, and after so many Sunday evenings together we shall need to find something else to do.

Mary: I suppose I felt it when Edith [spits] announced her engagement. Suddenly it seems everyone was getting married: our cranky butler and that Scotswoman, the mousey cook and the strapping young footman [pauses to imagine Andrew in his undershirt] and even your unlovable old mater has found connubial bliss, as it were. Why I do believe our little George has proposed an engagement to Sybbie junior, and he cannot yet pronounce his R’s. It seems as though good times hev come to us all, and all is well as ends well, wot? I suppose I shall switch to watching Poldark [pauses to imagine a shirtless Aiden Turner].

Matt: Well then Mary, I must bid yew and your eyebrows adieu! Only one thing left to say, and, well, I hate to mention it—

Mary: What, my phantasmal lover?

Matt: Only now that Edith is a marchioness, she can, in fact, hev yew beheaded.

Mary: Feets don’t fail me now!

17 February 2016

DPI ain't nothing but a number

In the glamorous world of Web Design, 95% of time with clients is spent discussing the same two or three basic points about image size, so I've attempted to write up a short set of answers to which I could point them. I have tried to be brief and funny, but also useful. I've also tried to keep my tone free from the exasperation I often feel when going over these points for the third time in a day. Graphic designers out there, tell me what points I've missed and where I could be clearer. If you want to use this as a reference in your own correspondence please do.

How big should my image be?

Short answer: 1000 pixels on its longer side. PNG or possibly JPG and less than 1 MB file size. Long answer: see below.

Why is this image "too small?" It's 300 dpi!

In print, the magic standard is 300 dpi, meaning that an image has three hundred pixels per inch at the size it will be reproduced. If your image is 300 dpi but only one inch wide, and you want to fill a double-page spread with the image, it will have to be blown up to seventeen inches and all those tiny pixels will be seventeen times as large so now your image is effectively seventeen and a half dpi.

On the web, dpi is meaningless, because you might be looking at an image on your grandma's '95 Gateway or on next year's Apple Watch: you have no idea what size those pixels are. It's more important to think about how many pixels wide and high an image is so that the designer can think of the amount of space in a window it will occupy.
A nominally high-resolution image becomes low-resolution when presented at a different size

Zoom to enhance?

You can't reveal detail that isn't there. An image that is out of focus or noisy will be more out of focus or noisy when blown up. If the image has sharp lines, like the edges of letters, those will degrade. If you have an image of an old newspaper, you will need to capture all the detail you want at the photography/digitization stage. Words are a special case. People notice blurry letters much more than they notice blurry photos. So if you are digitizing anything you want your viewers to read, crank up the resolution on your scanner.

I compressed it! Aren't you proud of me?

There are lots of ways image encoding systems save disk space. Some take advantage of redundancy in the data and don't affect the way an image looks. Some take advantage of the way the human eye works and these can mess with the quality of an image. The biggest offender here is JPEG compression. This system uses a complex mix of math and psychology to trick the eye into seeing more detail than the file contains. But if you compress things too much the image will degrade, becoming jagged or spotty. This is particularly true of images with sharp lines (like text) or flat colors (like cartoons). For these images, PNG is a better format.
While JPEG compression can save disk space, its flaws are particularly evident with hard-edges and flat colors.

What about bit depth?

Bit depth is a measure of how many different hues an image can have. In theory, the more bits, the more discreet colors are available. In practice, people really can't perceive the subtleties after a while. There are those who claim there's a huge difference between 8 bits and 16 bits per channel. Those people are lying and they have too many figurines on their desks.

Is there anything else I should know?

There's a ton of other stuff to know about digital images, from alpha channels to color spaces. Do you need to know these things? Are you a graphic designer? Then the answer is no. Ultimately the most important stuff is not technical. Is it a good photo? Is it in focus? Does it have white whites and black blacks? Is it not too grainy? Is it grainy enough? Do you like it?

27 February 2015

Paranormal, Don't You Know

BOO, I say, what.

How now? Whatever is this ghestly apparition, don't yew know, at my window, all a-peekin'-in?

AHA Mary, darling, 'tis I, your own Matthew, breechin' the space between worlds. I hev become a Heathcliff, wandrin' the moors and tappin' at panes.

Oh Mathyew, yew nevah did read much, did yew? But it's not your brains that my loins miss so. Come in and revish me, my sweet zombie cousin!

ALAS Mary deah I am unable to engage in such congress. I am only heah to do this one cameo for the Christmas special and then I must dress properly before poppin' back to the afterlife for drinks.

But Cuz, tell me—what is it like, yew know, in heaven? Dost one hev all the staff one can no longer afford here on Earth in these trying days of post-industrialization?

It's a bit of all right—evah so many people there—that footman fellah who died in the war, for one, what's his name—and oh, Sybil is there—and—take this kindly—only she's very dull—pretty to look at but—well, you may hev dodged a bullet with her dyin' and all—OH and the funniest thing, your cousin is there, the one thet died on the Titanic, only he says he suspects sabotage, somethin' about bein' cheated out of an inheritance—

Oh Mathyew, let's not talk of characters no one remembers anyway. How long hev yew left with me, my toe-headed spectre?

Not long, my pet—I may gaze on your eyebrows but a moment longer—and Mary, there is one thing—

OH tell me! Tell me anything.

Mary... Edith's quite the bitch, what?


21 July 2014

Spilt tea

I have a client who, instead of sending out an Christmas card to her friends and associates, used to send out an annual card celebrating the Boston Tea Party. It was her way to be distinctive and to avoid offending people who didn't celebrate the religious holiday. She had me design and illustrate several years' worth. Sadly, in 2009 she had to abandon the tradition, as both the name and iconography had been co-opted by the emerging right-wing political movement.

A few years ago I found a Tea Party website that was using many of my illustrations unpaid and uncredited. The unpaid part didn't bug me as much as the fact that I am about as politically far from the Tea Party as one can get. Even still, my reaction has been to shrug it off. You make things and they go out into the world and then other people do things with them. I wouldn't want it differently.

Perhaps I can afford to take this position because I have a day job and am no longer reliant upon my work-for-hire or because I will probably never produce anything popular enough that it would be to my advantage to actively enforce my Copyright. But also: My work is often derivative or transformative, and I have a great love for remix culture: mash-ups, parodies, works that are in conversation with existing works, and I don't think the fantasy of intellectual property ultimately serves artists or art very well. We hold fast to the Romantic ideal of the Artist's Vision, a vision that is profound and powerful but also in peril of being destroyed through the misuse or abuse of the artist's work. But that's only one way of viewing the creative process, and it's a way founded ultimately on ownership of ideas. An alternative is to see cultural production as an ongoing conversation or game spanning media, genres, and themes. We join in as we are able and make use of what's at hand.

01 April 2014

April is the cruelest month

My Grandfather Cox scared me. He wasn't an angry man, and he never threatened corporal punishment the way my other grandfather sometimes did. But he was a large and serious man. He was a Methodist minister and thought having a pack of cards in the house was an invitation to a life of debauchery. He spoke low, calmly, and infrequently about important things like religion and how not to waste your money on comic books. He and Grandmother Cox lived in a spare one-story house in rural Indiana with a long treeless lawn stretching to the country road. There was a drainage ditch along this road and at the end of the driveway a culvert made from four-foot aluminum pipe, ubiquitous in the Midwest.

My older brother, Rob, and I were staying with my Grandparents for a week in early spring. One morning we were sitting on the concrete front step with nothing to do—the absence of cards was only part of a more general ban on fun; the only diversions in the house being a bible trivia game and a dish of Kraft caramels. Grandfather Cox had been down by the edge of the road inspecting the ditch for some time and he abruptly strode with purpose towards the two of us. I had a sense of unease. Grandfather caught my gaze and brought his finger to his lips. Rob and I waited until he made his way to us and bent down. "Boys," he whispered, "there's a groundhog in the drainpipe. If you each go to a different end and are absolutely quiet you will see him there."

I was confused. Rob and I both loved nature and watching animals (and sometimes catching them and bringing them home in pillowcases to the alarm of our mother), but groundhogs weren't so special. In addition to being distrustful of fun, Grandfather Cox had never expressed any opinion about animals or the wonders of nature. But his eyes were twinkling and he seemed to be having a moment with us, and those were rare. So Rob and I walked very slowly to the edge of the road, covering the twenty or so yards in about two minutes.

We split to opposite sides of the gravel driveway and slid on our cutoffs down the brown dead sloping grass. I cautiously inched my head around the side of the pipe, ready at any moment for the beast to scamper out in terror, but as my angle of vision made its way down the pipe, there was nothing but dirty sediment. Finally I saw light at the other side, and Rob crouching in silhouette.

We stayed like that, staring for what felt like a very long time. Eventually, we stood up and walked back to the house, faster than before but still in silence. Grandfather was standing by the step as he had been the entire time, smiling with a look of benevolence bordering on grace.

"Grandpa," I said, "there's nothing there."

"April Fool's," he said, without any particular inflection. And then he went inside.