I have a crush —always had it— for the pixel. This minute source of light. This small, uncompromising, irreverent, opinionated fountain of color. It can’t be reduced any further. It can’t be simplified, summarized or clean up. It is the strongest conceptual icon of this digital day and age. It is the quintessential minimalism made intangible. And it is iconic as an icon can be.
However the reign of the pixel is fading out. The pixel is dying a slow but needed death.
It is the retina displays, yes, but also the various screen sizes and non-standard pixel densities. From tvs to e-ink devices, from cellphones to large screen displays. We can’t keep depending on the pixel. The pixel has been —up until now— the brick for building sites, the common language of developers and designers, the de-facto unit of measure. And that’s, precisely, where the problem lies. We can’t keep measuring websites in pixel units. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.
I remember when I started building sites for a living. If we could convince a client to go with a design above 800×600 we considered it a victory. Back then Verdana was a common typeface to use, and 8px its hot size. Seriously. It it was clean, had personality, it spoke of neo-digitalism without being alienating, it was a system font(!) and at 8px it was readable and sexy. This is back when you could see the individual pixels in the screen at an arm’s length. With the current size of our monitors today that typeface is too small to read.
So that’s been outdated for a while. And now that 8-bit is a vintage art, all the rest of the pixel design is fading away.
What’s for us to figure out is the next unit of measure. And it’s looking like it will be a relativistic unit, not an absolute one. Which means trouble because we are not used to this. We won’t have such an accessible object to gather around an agree upon like the pixel is (was).
Creative professionals will need to adapt. And this task is not only on creatives’ hands but also in software manufactures who need to provide the appropriate tools for the job. If software such as Photoshop doesn’t upgrade to include a new relativistic unit of measure and instead sticks to points and pixels, it’ll hold back our creative force. Most likely companies such as Adobe won’t make this change happen. The increasing need for such tools will open the doors for a new company, a new kid in the block, to solve a problem that few can pinpoint now.
So what’s the problem, again?
The pixel is dead, so is absolute design, and those who don’t adapt will go the way of Verdana 8px.
The music, film, publishing, financial, retail industries have all been affected by the changes that digital brings. Some are slowly but successfully updating their business models to the new times others are fighting agains it. It’s an —ironically— old story by now. And now the same is happening in Advertising. In the words of a strategist who left my agency for greener pastures: “change is inevitable, growth is optional”.
So, what happened?
Way back at the beginning we never really knew what the heck we were doing. That is the honest truth.
We had just no idea what we were doing when we were building mini-sites, micro-sites, online campaigns and all that mumbo-jumbo. In our defense, our hearts were on the right place and all things considered we did pretty good. We successfully helped many of our clients have a presence online that reflected their values and met their expectations (whichever those were). Unfortunately we never, really, knew what signs to look for. We really never knew what metrics of success should be used. Page views that’s as far as we ever got in the old days, or more recently number of fans. That’s if your client was lucky, if not, awards were all you had to measure success with.
But then people got savvy, and somebody pointed to the emperor’s new clothes and put it in his ear that, honestly, for that price tag he should be asking for much more in return. Analytics and data experts appeared and even whole departments were created out of these new insights. That new information paired with the glorification of the newly born breed of customers named “users” and all related “user centric design” have thrown new light into our small inbreed universe of Advertising.
So now we know better. And what is it that we know? That all we knew up until this point was wrong and that we had to start from scratch. Oops.
But we feel pretty good about this revelation, because we can always look next door to traditional advertising houses and think “at least I’m not as clueless as that guy”. Still, it’s a pretty small consolation.
Some industries are really suffering and will continue to suffer. The ’too big to fail’ is not a sustainable model specially when digital —driven massively by new generations— is involved. Kodak, Blockbuster, etc have fallen. No major advertising industry in the list. Are we safe? Far from that. We’re just late to the party, that’s all. The writing is in the wall. There are better models.
David Carr called it “the doomsday tic tac”. And the sound is getting pretty loud.
Why too good of a UX can kill your creativity.
Lately I’ve been posting images from a new project that I’ve started a while back: a custom drawing app. It’s been now several months in the making and –even though it’s still incomplete– I am getting to a point where it’s feature-complete enough for me to use for creating art.
Why a new tool?
Short answer: Because I need freedom.
Long answer: Because, without realizing it, I was being limited by the many options of other tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. Any tool out there, as great as it might be, has been designed to accommodated the vast majority of demands by the vast majority of creatives. This design choice leaves out the minorities with marginal needs, the edge cases, the exceptions. A graphic editing tool that excludes the rarities, the unconventional, the different? Sounds to me like we are making things quite difficult for creating unbounded art.
It has taken me a long time to realize that, unbeknown to me, I was being limited by my many options. We make assumptions when creating that are neither good nor bad. We play with constraints even when we are not aware of it. Photoshop can be very limiting for the exact same reasons it is great: Great UX. Too many decisions have been made for us even before we start working with these tools.
Many things can be put into question: the canvas, the toolbar, the color palette are just some examples. Cartesian coordinate system? Undo/Redo capabilities? Each new option redirects your focus and affects the end result.
I’m not a pro with Photoshop and not every designer out there is a programmer, so this might be a route for few. We should focus on creating new tools if the tools we already have can’t do everything we ask of them. The biggest roadblock is, actually, realizing that we are limited. Like Plato’s prisoners, we don’t know what we are missing until we see it.
Eyjafjallajökull, the icelandic volcano that has put Europe upside down, has also shaken the almost unshakeable rules of the business game. Deprived of air commuting, due to airspace closure over most of Europe, many professionals† have turned to the internet to remedy their fate, and it turns out that they are enduring the challenge quite successfully. What we are witnessing is the beginning of business air travel getting downsized and the rise of alternative online channels for business.
Money is thicker than lava
We keep hearing reports that the ash cloud will clear “in the next 24 to 48 hours”, but what few want to accept is that Good-Old-Earth is spitting
fire ash all over our continent. Trying to control or predict this kind of violent behaviors is a fallacy. Inevitably with this and future uncontrollable natural outbursts humans will have to get busy in order to keep our infrastructures in place.
Even if Eyjafjallajökull closes tomorrow and goes to sleep for another hundred years, there is a larger than a volcano reason to believe that this telecommuting evolution will happen: we are a capitalist society and telecommuting is immensely cheaper.
All we need is better UX
There are numerous practical reasons to prefer traveling to telecommuting, but none of those reasons are inherent of the medium.‡ They are, rather, a consequence of the current limitations of human-machine interfaces. Cumbersome workflows, non standardized tools and platforms, video and audio quality restricted by bandwidth limitations, and in general many physical limitations of distant interactions across groups and locations.
So, in order to overcome these barriers, it’s not so hard to see how better design and better technology will facilitate the tools that will enable conferences across oceans just as transparently as some of us make VoIP calls instead of calls over line lines. As computing power and broadband increases workstations will specialize on telecommuting, teleconferencing and collaboration.
Money will go from roads and planes to fiber optics and wireless routers; travelers and bag-packers will reclaim traveling; we’ll see fewer and fewer suits and ties on planes and the business class will be rebranded as prosumer, premium or simply first class. And, in the process, we will be happier with better work-life balance and more free time to enjoy living outdoors in close contact with those we care about. That’s, of course, until the next volcano.
† One of those professionals would be the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who is reportedly running the government via his iPad.
‡ Almost none, a handshake is still a handshake.
We depend greatly on voice but as new technologies arrive we are discovering new efficient channels for transmitting the same data. I dream of a day when I won’t be interrupted by voice. Unless I’ve tacitly agreed to have a conversation I do not welcome the demands that voice imposes.
Why voice is overrated
- Voice is intrusive. While we communicate with phones, webcams, and so on, we are also interfering with those present around us (who most likely do not appreciate this intrusion of space.)
- Voice is demanding, it requires both participants to be present at the time the communication takes place (for best results.)
- Voice is public and unsafe. It is basically screaming your secrets all around you. Think buses, parks, offices, bus shelters, waiting rooms, ticket lines… all of them places where spying can be easily done. Banks, service providers, etc, constantly ask for sensitive information to identify users on the phone. Credit Card numbers, Social Security numbers, even if it is as simple as name and address, it is still data that you wouldn’t volunteer to strangers.
Obsolescence or Death
Many are speculating about the “death of the written form” and meanwhile voice is also becoming obsolete; it is both slow to produce and to listen to. Other mediums such as text or image (static and moving) are more quick and efficient. When measuring information density voice is at the bottom of the scale with the smallest amounts of data transmitted per time unit.
Fortunately for many of us, more and more communication channels are making voice a secondary option. Ironically, Google Voice (the giant’s attempt at becoming a wireless provider) is actually reducing our dependency on voice with alternatives such as voice messages sent as text via sms or email.
Obviously this is not the death of voice (yet) but a shift on its use from highly functional towards more entertaining: social connections, education and entertainment among other might always depend on verbal communications. We want closeness and ease of communication but we don’t want to be forced to human interactions beyond our control.