HERE’S A WEBSITE one of my students designed when she was in Seventh Grade. (She’s 27 now.) Notice that Angelfire still sells ads on it. Wonder how well they perform.
THIS MORNING Contents Magazine launched the beginning of something both good and important: a set of guidelines that could lead to a safer world for user-created content.
Contents believes (and I agree) that products and services which make a business of our stuff—the photos, posts, and comments that we share on their platforms—need to treat our content like it matters. Not like junk that can be flushed the moment a product or service gets acquired or goes under.
On the web, popularity waxes and wanes; beloved services come and go. AOL was once mighty. MySpace was unstoppable. Nobody expected Geocities, Delicious, or Gowalla to just disappear, taking our stories, photos, and memories with them. But that’s what happens on the web. Tomorrow it could be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr. We can continue to blindly trust these companies with our family histories, and continue to mourn when they disappear, taking our data with them. Or we can demand something better.
Contents and its small team of advisors have devised three simple rules customer-content-driven services and apps should follow to respect and protect our content:
- Treat our data like it matters. Keep it secure and protect our privacy, of course—but also maintain serious backups and respect our choice to delete any information we’ve contributed.
- No upload without download. Build in export capabilities from day one.
- If you close a system, support data rescue. Provide one financial quarter’s notice between announcing the shutdown and destroying any user-contributed content, public or private, and offer data export during this period. And beyond that three months? Make user-contributed content available for media-cost purchase for one year after shutdown.
You may see this as a pipe dream. Why should a big, successful company like Facebook listen to us? But citizen movements have accomplished plenty in the past, from bringing web standards to our web browsers, to peacefully overthrowing unpopular governments.
I’m on board with the new Contents guidelines and I hope you will be, too. If enough of us raise enough of a sustained fuss over a sufficient period, things will change.
IN MY DREAM I was designing sublime new publishing and social platforms, incandescent with features no one had ever thought of, but everybody wanted.
One of my platforms generated pages that were like a strangely compelling cross between sophisticated magazine layouts and De Stijl paintings. Only, unlike De Stijl, with its kindergarten primary colors, my platform synthesized subtle color patterns that reminded you of sky and water. Anyone – a plumber, a fishmonger – could use the tool to immediately create pages that made love to your eyes. In the hands of a designer, the output was even richer. Nothing on the web had ever touched it.
Then the dream changed, and I was no longer the creator. I was a sap who’d been off sniffing my own armpits while the internet grew up without me. A woman I know was using the platform to create magazines about herself. These weren’t just web magazines, they were paper. And they weren’t just paper. In the middle of one of her magazines was a beautiful carpet sample. The platform had designed the carpet and woven it into the binding of the printed magazine. I marveled at her output and wished I had invented the platform that allowed her to do these things. Not only was I no longer the creator, I seemed to be the last sap on earth to even hear about all these dazzling new platforms.
Then I was wandering down an endless boardwalk, ocean on my right, a parade of dreary seaside apartment buildings on my left. Each building had its own fabulous content magazine. (“Here’s what’s happening at 2171 Oceanfront Walk.”) The magazines appeared on invisible kiosks which revealed themselves as you passed in front of each building. The content, created by landlords and realtors, was so indifferent as to be unreadable. But this did not matter a bit, because the pages so dazzled in their unholy beauty that you could not look away. Every fool in the world had a meaningless publication which nobody read, but which everyone oohed and ahed at as they passed. And I — I had nothing to do with any of it. I was merely a spectator, a chump on a tiresome promenade.
For Tim and Max. You are the future.
TOMORROW, WHICH IS also my birthday, I begin teaching “Selling Design” to second-year students in the MFA Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts, New York. Liz Danzico and Steve Heller created and direct the MFA program, and this is my second year teaching this class, whose curriculum I pull out of my little blue beanie.
In this class we explore collaboration and persuasion for interaction designers. Whether you work in a startup, studio, or traditional company; whether you design print, products, purely digital experiences, or any combination thereof; whether you’re the sole proprietor, part of a tightly focused team, or a link in a long chain of connected professionals, it is only by collaborating skillfully with others—and persuading them tactfully and convincingly when points of view differ and yours is right—that you can hope to create designs that make a dent in the universe.
During this spring semester, we’ll explore collaboration and persuasion from many points of view, and hear from (and interact with) many accomplished designers who will serve as special guest speakers. For our opening get-acquainted session, we’ll focus on texts that explore the some of the most basic, traditional (and rarely taught) aspects of design professionalism from the worlds of web, interaction, and print design:
by Jeff Gothelf – A List Apart
- Draw together
- Show raw work (frequently)
- Teach the discipline
- Be transparent
- Take credit for your wins
by Cassie McDaniel – A List Apart
- Critique as collaborative tool
- Presenting designs
- What is good feedback?
- Negotiate criticism
- The designer as collaborator
by Aarron Walter – A List Apart
- Personality is the platform for emotion
- A history of personality in design
- Creating a design persona for your website [or other project]
- Tapbots: Robot love
- Caronmade: octopi, unicorns, and mustachios
- Housing Works: a name with a face
- The power of personality
by Andy Rutledge
You should read this entire brief book, but for now, sample these bits:
by Sam Harrison – HOW Magazine
Dyson is used as an example of a product that currently dominates the market, even though nobody initially believed in the inventor’s idea. Lessons:
- Tell a personal story
- Create emotional experiences for decision makers
- See what’s behind rejections
by Arfa Mirza, Smashing Magazine
- Understand the nature of your client
- Have a rationale for every part of your design
- Show the best design options only
- Defend your design, but don’t become defensive
- Solicit good feedback and benefit from it
by Jacob Cass – Just Creative
Narrative of standing up to new-client pressure to do something against the designer’s self-interest, or which devalues design. Story told here is about money but it could be about any designer/client conflict in which the designer needs to gently educate the client. (Some designer/client conflicts require the client to educate the designer, but that’s another matter.)
by Jacob Cass – Just Creative
Basic article outlines ten background materials any designer (not just logo designers) should prepare to encourage confidence on the client’s part:
- Positive testimonials
- A thorough design process
- Awards won/published work
- A strong portfolio
- Design affiliations
- Great customer service
- Business Professionalism
- Appropriate questions
JANE IS A FAMOUS British comic begun during WWII to improve troop morale. The title character is a plucky English lady who always seems to lose her clothes at inopportune moments. This strange predeliction was enough to keep the fighting men happy and helped inspire them defeat the Gerries back in those horrible yet strangely innocent days. With constant changes of illustration style, the comic persisted into the 1960s. Of course the pill and the sexual revolution made the strange little cartoon irrelevant, and that was the end of Jane.
(I learned about Jane from the Penguin Book of Comics, which I was lucky enough to discover as a boy.)
ON SUNDAY, while leading a discussion on the future of web design and publishing, I noticed a slightly confused look appearing on some faces in the audience. The discussion had been billed as “Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel,” and I thought perhaps there was a disconnect for some in the audience between “design” and such topics as where content comes from and who pays for it.
So I asked, “Who here is in publishing?”
A few hands were gently raised.
Uh-huh. “And how many of you work on the web?”
Every right hand in the room shot up.
“You are all in publishing,” I explained.
Now, I like a good rounded corner talk as much as the next designer. I’ve given my share of them. Also of line height and measure, color and contrast, how to design things that don’t work in old versions of Internet Explorer, and so on. In the practice of web and interaction design, there will always be a place for craft discussions—for craft is execution, and ideas without execution are songs without music, meaningless.
But right now (and always) there is a need for design to also be about the big strategic issues. And right now, as much as design is wrestling with open vs. proprietary formats and the old challenges of new devices, design is also very much in the service of applications and publishing. Who gets content, who pays for it, how it is distributed (and how evenly), the balance between broadcast and conversation, editor and user—these are the issues of this moment, and it is designers even more than editors who will answer these riddles.
Future generations of digital product people would benefit from this approach to digital archiving; to understand the decisions we made, the tradeoffs we had to live with, and the context in which we operated. It’s why reading Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine is still useful to us today, while spending time with the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 (if you could even get your hands on one) isn’t. In 20 years, even if you could get a page of the Huffington Post to render faithfully, it wouldn’t do much for you. But if you had archival footage of the HuffPo user experience, combined with insight into the decision making process of the design team, combined with background information on the economics of content and online advertising in 2011, along with an understanding of how Twitter and Facebook worked — that would be much more useful, and would give you a richer understanding of both the product and its context.
I WANT TO export my zeldman.com feed to my Tumblr blog and point to a Readability view of each resulting Tumblr post using a shortened link created with Happy Cog’s URL shortener in my Twitter feed, which is automatically imported into my Facebook news stream. Then I want to import my Facebook news stream back into zeldman.com and see if the universe explodes.
OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.
Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.
My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.
But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:
Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.
Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.
Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.
FLIPBOARD, AS YOU DOUBTLESS know, is a social media magazine for iPad. Part RSS reader, part iPad publication uniquely curated by each reader, the app brings serendipity, discovery, and typographic excellence to the experience of keeping up with one’s friends on Twitter, Facebook, and so on. This morning (last night in Japan), a new, improved version of Flipboard was launched, offering designers like us even more visual pleasure and rewarding the hours we put into our content’s semantic underpinnings.
Designer Craig Mod, in a letter, told me his “goal was to try and produce one of the best RSS experiences out there.” It’s accomplished via features like those listed below and more, as seen in these screenshots Craig sent me from his pre-launch tests:
- auto-small caps
- portrait and landscape optimized typography
- full bleed images
- flowing of text based on image size and location in the document
- auto-generation of [figure] and [figcaption] objects based on alt
text on images
Adds Craig, “What’s great is that the more semantic and clean your feed, the better it will look in the app.”
Download Flipboard or update your copy in the iTunes Store and see.
paidContent UK’s NLA Ruling Summary: How PRs Break Copyright Law Online offers the highlights of a 148-paragraph ruling by the British High Court “that PRs who subscribe to paid news monitors are breaking UK law by effectively copying a substantial part of online news articles.”
The product in question is Meltwater News, an online global media monitoring service that allows subscribers to track “keywords, phrases, and topics in over 130,000 sources from over 190 countries and 100 languages, monitored consistently throughout the day.”
The judge argues that in reprinting publications’ headlines or summaries of longer than 256 characters, the service is “stealing” the publishers’ content, even though Meltwater quite naturally provides links so users who are interested in a given piece of content can click through to the original. Since these summaries and headlines are cached on my computer, as an end-user I am complicit in the theft of content I didn’t pay for, says the judge.
If this ruling sticks, and if it ripples out, it will cripple or kill existing and emerging services that help people find content.
Flickr members upload more than 3,000 images every minute. Here is the five billionth.