No Ken Do (Musketeer Barbie Saves the Prince)

I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.

This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.

In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)

In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.

I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.

This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.

You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.

Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?

Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.

For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?

The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.

All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.

But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.

Love, Devotion, Surrender

5:00 AM at San Francisco Airport, Gate 41. A young mother, whose orange capped son sleeps profoundly across her lap, is not faring well with her mobile phone call. Her voice cuts like a razor through the somnolent silence. Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, she cries. I don’t speak Spanish so it is the only word of her conversation I understand. The rest of the half-asleep passengers pretend not to listen.

Her nails are elaborately pretty. There is a catch in her voice. The phone call ends and she hums to her child. She is so young.

Tested

WE ARE at a test prep program in Flatiron, where Ava is grudgingly taking an entrance exam. Lance, the program director, is good. He guarantees he can get Ava into a good middle school if she works. She is very resistant but between us we are making some progress.

The place is about as fun-oriented as it could be. Lance is a game designer and animator. He is honest and doesn’t talk down to kids.

But Ava is angry. She does not want to be here. Like many artistic people, she hates doing anything that doesn’t interest her. Also she sees the prep school as evidence that her mom and I think she is “retarded” and needs special help. (Ava’s dyslexia and ADHD make school a painful challenge and constantly undermine her confidence and self esteem.)

I’ve explained that plenty of kids get tutored because of NYC’s tough middle school competitiveness. And her mom and I want her to have the same advantage other kids competing for middle school space will have.

So far she isn’t buying it.

She had a tough week while I was away on business. Followed by a euphoric Halloween night with her best friend. And now, this.

Doing the right thing for a kid can be tough. Especially when her anxiety interprets new challenges as painful proof that she is unloved. If she could only see herself through my eyes.

Ava is answering multiple choice math questions but I am the one being tested.

Dead Pixel Society

Editing icons 1990s style in ResEdit

FANS OF ICON ART and The Big Web Show, listen up. Tomorrow’s Big Web Show guest is Justin Dauer (AKA @pseudoroom) of The Dead Pixel Society. Justin was a web icon artist in the mid-1990s, back when I also dabbled in the art. Indeed, it was talented folks like Justin and my friends at The Iconfactory who made me realize that specializing in icons was probably not going to be a thing for me, as they were so much better at it.

Ah, for the days when a pixel was a pixel!

To celebrate those times and that body of work, Justin has gathered together some of the best of those 1990s icon artists at The Dead Pixel Society. Its mission: to “honor the humble pixel with desktop icon creations we would’ve designed the past 18 years, via 1996 ResEdit-esque constraints.” The site, although it has not yet officially launched, is now available in preview.

I loved those days of the early web, when progressive enhancement meant making sure it worked in 16 colors as well as 216. So I’m quite excited about my upcoming conversation with Justin. You can listen in to the live taping tomorrow, Thursday October 2nd, from 10:00AM–11:100AM EDT on 5by5.tv. The final, edited show will be posted a few hours later at 5by5.tv/bigwebshow; you can also subscribe via iTunes and/or RSS. Here’s looking at you, pixel!

On Design Conferences

A GOOD CONFERENCE is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative.

To me, the ideal conference offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days. The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published.

Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available.

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the sequence in which they are heard should have an inevitability to it, like the song sequence on your favorite albums. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.

A trained ape can invite the same speakers who speak everywhere else. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas.

To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it. It takes sensitivity and experience to choose just the right speakers, on just the right topics, and to arrange their presentations across time for maximum educational and strategic benefit.

If I do say so myself, cough cough.


With thanks to my friend Louis Rosenfeld, who has asked a number of conference founders to share their thoughts on the subject. Watch this space for links to a polished conglomeration of all they had to say, coming soon.

Thanks also to Jim Heid, who ran Web Design World back in them days. And to Eric, Marci, Toby, and Stephen, eternally.

Netdiver returns

Image from Netdiver Magazine

PIONEERING design ‘zine Netdiver is back, baby!

Founded by my friend and colleague Carole Guevin in 1998, Netdiver was one of the first web ‘zines to seriously explore and promote design and design culture on the web. In its pages, you would discover pretty much everything exciting that was happening in web and digital design, photography, industrial design, and digital filmmaking.

Sites as fine (and as different) as Swissmiss and The Great Discontent can trace more than a strand of their DNA back to Netdiver and its creator.

Like many of the great zines and blogs from the first and second waves of indy web publishing, Netdiver has been quiet over the past few years. It’s a thrill to see it come roaring back to life. Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe a long overdue re-flowering of blogs and independent websites is imminent. A boy can dream.

A List Apart № 393: Inventing & Documenting Design Patterns

A LIST APART Issue №  393

A LIST APART Issue № 393 is about documenting design patterns with a style guide and creating new ones with the z-axis.

Creating Style Guides

by SUSAN ROBERTSON

A style guide, also referred to as a pattern library, is a living document that details the front-end code for all the elements and modules of a website or application. It also documents the site’s visual language, from header styles to color palettes. In short, a proper style guide is a one-stop guide that the entire team can reference when considering site changes and iterations. Susan Robertson shows us how to build and maintain a style guide that helps everyone from product owners and producers to designers and developers keep an ever-changing site on brand and on target.

The Z-Axis: Designing for the Future

by WREN LANIER

For years we’ve seen the web as a two-dimensional space filled with pages that sit side by side on a flat, infinite plane. But as the devices we design for take on an increasingly diverse array of shapes and sizes, we must embrace new ways of designing up and down. Designing on the z-axis means incorporating three-dimensional physics into our interface designs. Wren Lanier explains how, by using the z-axis to place interface elements above or below one another, we can create better design systems that are more flexible and intuitive to use—and create new patterns that point the way to future interactions.


Illustration by Kevin Cornell