Typography I: Heritage

I recently gave a presentation on typography internally at Mighty in the Midwest and to the public at GRDevDay. I want to share it here as well, so I am breaking the material up into sections and repurposing it here. This is the first segment.

Typography I: Heritage

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a man who disappointed his father by becoming a monk and then a priest, rather than embracing a respectable worldly profession. He lived in Saxony (modern Germany) and gradually became disillusioned with his ministry because of attitudes and practices in the Church that he saw as a fall from grace. Principle among his concerns were the sale of indulgences. So, as was the custom for scholarly disputes, he nailed his concerns in the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517.

Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Luther could not have known at that moment what he would set in motion. The movement this written rant would start spark massive upheavals across Europe. Eventually the church would reform these practices and discontinue the sale of indulgences, however they would not be able to stop continued dissatisfaction and the over-through of Catholic dominance in many nations. Within Luther’s own country a peasant revolt would flare, claiming the lives of thousands and earning his condemnation.

Luther’s frustration would have immense consequences, but he could not have been the first person at odds with the societal and religious order of Europe. Christian monasticism had existed for over a thousand years, giving many people access to written history and sacred texts. Surely Luther could not have been the first to protest. What made the difference this time?

Printing

Typography-Presentation-2015-03-21.009

Within two months the 95 Theses had spread across Europe. It was reprinted, expanded upon, and remixed everywhere to appeal to people of all classes, including the illiterate. The printing press allowed Luther’s ideas to reach beyond his town and inspire action in others. Technological progression collapsed the distance between people.

95 Theses Reprint

A reprint of the 95 Theses

Christ & the money changers vs priests gathering offerings

A political cartoon contrasting the Biblical story of Christ casting the money changers from the temple with priests collecting payment from peasants.

Previously, knowledge of history, scripture, theology, and philosophy were strictly the domain of the educated. Which meant aristocrats, monarchs, and monks. But with the printing press literacy began to spread throughout society. Suddenly, people could realize that maybe the Bible didn’t say what they had been taught it said, but religion wasn’t the only thing brought into discussion by the advent of widespread printing. The historical writings of the ancient Romans and Greeks exposed alternate forms of government and unchurched philosophy to Enlightenment thinkers. These sea-changes would eventually lead to the establishment of a democratic republic in the United States.

Typography-Presentation-2015-03-21.010
The Boston Massacre

A broadsheet describing The Boston Massacre, a key historical event leading to the American Revolution. Although the version of events described in the piece were dubious, this is how people throughout the colonies would have learned about it.

The Declaration of Independence

A printing of the Declaration of Independence. Modern Americans are more familiar with the handwritten copy, but most colonists would have seen a printing like this.

Printing has been at the center of every society shift since Martin Luther and typography is at the center of printing. The transmission of ideas projected power in ways that only armies could do before. This is the heavy heritage of typography. In this craft of printers who labored over letters in musty workshops with pulp, hot lead, ink, and heavy machinery we find the seeds of our modern world.

Typography-Presentation-2015-03-21.012

Beethoven

When I was growing up my family would take frequent, long road trips to visit my Grandmother in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My parents had a handful of staple cassettes for us to listen to: Mr Bach Comes to Call, Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, and my favorite, Beethoven Lives Upstairs. My parents did occasionally listen to music from this century, my father would get a far off look in his eyes whenever Queen would come over the radio, but our household largely was filled with classical music. The children were obligated to take piano lessons, we would often come home to find my mother listening to Beethoven’s 9th while folding laundry, and Handel’s Messiah was a constant during the Holiday season.

When I became a teenager this music fell by the wayside as my tastes followed those of most teenagers trying to be cool while not popular. Some of what I liked then has stood the test of time, but much of it has proven itself culturally and emotionally bankrupt. In recent months I have found myself returning to the classical music of my childhood when I need to think, meditate, and focus. I have been drawn back to Beethoven particularly.

Beethoven always seemed like somebody I could relate to. I grew up in a family of manic depressives. Strong swings of emotion and drama were central to my world. Consequently, the moody, belligerent, obviously afflicted with brilliance, and emotionally present Beethoven spoke to me. The man became deaf, yet, despite the frustration of his disability, composed some of the most lasting music in western civilization.

Beethoven connects me with something primal, and reminds me of my childhood. He inspires me to do better and never use a character flaw or ingrained attribute as an excuse for lack of effort. He reminds me that hardship and frustration can be transitory if I don’t let them keep me from pushing forward.

I’ve included links to some of my favorite Beethoven music below. Maybe they’ll do something for you.

Your Own Typewriter

I absolutely love Matthew Butterick’s article regarding Medium. I previously wrote about my disappointment with the growth of Medium among established writers, so you can probably guess the tone of Butterick’s piece. Most of his critiques center around what is behind one of Medium’s proudest features, typography:

… I wouldn’t say that Medium’s ho­mo­ge­neous de­sign is bad ex ante. Among web-pub­lish­ing tools, I see Medium as the equiv­a­lent of a frozen pizza: not as whole­some as a meal you could make your­self, but for those with­out the time or mo­ti­va­tion to cook, a po­ten­tially bet­ter op­tion than just eat­ing peanut but­ter straight from the jar.

Then he comes around to the base criticism that applies to all of these social networks where you give up ownership, in fact or practice, of your content for convenience.

In truth, Medium’s main prod­uct is not a pub­lish­ing plat­form, but the pro­mo­tion of a pub­lish­ing plat­form. This pro­mo­tion brings read­ers and writ­ers onto the site. This, in turn, gen­er­ates the us­age data that’s valu­able to ad­ver­tis­ers. Boiled down, Medium is sim­ply mar­ket­ing in the ser­vice of more mar­ket­ing. It is not a “place for ideas.” It is a place for ad­ver­tis­ers. It is, there­fore, ut­terly superfluous…

… Tempt­ing per­haps. But where does it lead? I fear that writ­ers who limit them­selves to pro­vid­ing “con­tent” for some­one else’s “branded plat­form” are go­ing to end up with as much lever­age as cows on a dairy farm…

I previously wrote about the importance of having your own place online. Invest in your own home, it’s easier than ever, and much more rewarding than subletting from someone else.

Medium

Manton Reece responds to Realmac’s new Typed.com and Ben Thompson’s bullish attitude about blogging services and social networks. Manton addresses the changing landscape of blogging and its platforms:

…even if those changes aren’t “a bad thing”, they can have bad consequences. Medium is a beautifully designed site and there is some great writing published there. But if it discourages people from owning their own content and writing at their own domain name, then it is a step back for the web.

I totally agree. I’m always disappointed to follow a link to an article and land on Medium. It is especially depressing when the article is written by someone with a well established blog and a history of good writing.1 Despite Manton’s suggestion that Medium can serve as a good place for cross posting, most of these articles do not exist on the author’s own site.

Because all Medium posts are based on the same small kit of parts and fit in the platform’s overall brand and aesthetic, the identity of the author is greatly diminished. The writing may actually be individualistic, but the visual voice is homogeneous. In fact, if Medium were to add the customizability necessary to overcome this issue they would become no different than their competitors, like Squarespace or Wordpress.com. Their differentiation from other blogging platforms is what makes them boring and their content unpalatable to me.

I have actually published a post on Medium and, shamefully, that post has not existed on my own site until today.2 There were very positive aspects to the service; the editor is nice, I actually had helpful input and promotion from a Medium editor, and it was easy to see the reach of the article. But those early days are gone and Medium seems like a place for people who don’t blog regularly. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but just like with Snippets, I like to own my content.

There is a place for services like Medium, but it would be depressing if it was the only place. Owning a domain name is powerful, it allows you to create an online home for yourself and make it what you want. A service can do many things, but it can’t do that.


  1. One of the benefits that Ben Thompson brings up is the individualistic nature of blogs, which Medium greatly diminishes, even for established voices. 

  2. You should read it. It’s a post I’m particularly proud of and as the Match approaches again it is timely. 

The News

I’ve made a short guide to the news media to anyone who feels their blood rising when watching, reading, or listening to the news. I am not talking about conservative news outlets or liberal news outlets, I’m talking about all news outlets.

  1. The news media is not interested in portraying groups representatively. They are only interested in outliers, exceptions, dissidents, and authority figures.
  2. The news media create quotes for you and then seek your approval, hopefully. It makes their stories flow better, but should be taken with a grain of salt.
  3. The news media, like all of us, is inherently biased. Just as historians cannot help but telegraph their view of the world in the facts they choose to present, journalists color their facts through editing, selection, and tone. The idea of an impartial media is a relatively recent invention. Newspapers were born out of partisanship, as party organs, and attempts to make them more objective have had a mixed record. Bias isn’t inherently bad, as long as it is understood by the audience. The way a story is portrayed says as much about the teller as it does about the story itself.
  4. The news media loves emotionally charged subjects. They make you watch, read, or listen longer, which means they can sell more ads. Your news about GM’s auto recalls are probably brought to you by GM’s advertising department.
  5. The news media love to talk about themselves. Expect stories about persecuted journalists to take precedence over any similar story involving anyone else. Many of us love what we do and many of us think it’s important to society, but few of us have a microphone.

There you have it, Noah’s guide to the news media.

Settings by Location

Dan Moren wrote a great post at Six Colors detailing a great idea for location-based security on Macs and iOS devices.

Location services have been a major function of iOS since its earliest days, and they’ve increasingly played a part in OS X in recent years as well. At the same time, given that we have devices that always seem to know where we are, why can’t we use that a little bit more to our advantage?

It is of a piece with an idea I’ve had for a while to have location-based settings of all kinds. For example, I love the fact that, as of Yosemite, I can make and answer phone calls on my iPhone through my Mac. Every chance I’ve had to use it has been great, and I find it very convenient. However, I work in an open office and do not like to answer phone calls sitting at my desk. I would love the ability to set this feature to inactive whenever I’m in my office, but active at home. Some more possibilities for location-based settings include:

All these possibilities, and more, could be opened to us if settings, in general, could be geofenced. It certainly fits with the Apple’s ideas of Continuity and would be very helpful to a wide variety of users.

Robert Fabricant wrote an interesting piece for Wired on shifts in the design business. Large consultancies are being acquired by corporations. Many companies had paid lip service to design in the past, but design led companies, like Apple, have proved that design pays in cash, as well as aesthetics. Many of these consultancies and individuals were seen as stars in the industry, leading to concern that many independent studios will face the choice between dwindling profits or seeking new ownership. Any industry can be disrupted and transformed as the world changes, but I, for one, am not as concerned for the place of the independent design agency.

Despite the large acquisitions there are many smaller design shops that serve clients with neither the capital, or desire, to acquire or build their own teams. If anything, the example of larger companies embracing design will likely lead to increased design budgets for smaller firms that will be paid to consultants and design studios, a good thing for the industry as a whole. Building and maintaining quality internal design teams is not cheap, and even if IBM can hire hundreds at a time, many substantial companies will not be able to justify the expense.

This article doesn’t address why many larger companies use external agencies, despite the fact that they have capable internal teams. It is often politically easier to take risks using contractors, from whom you can severe ties, if the results are not what you wanted. Internal design teams may actually increase risk aversion in many larger organizations.

Additionally, there are plenty of interesting opportunities for a design firm to position itself as an independent entity in a world of acquisitions. Some creative agencies have experimented with treating their work as an investment in return for equity in the companies for whom they work. If more companies begin insourcing design the value of an independent voice will likely increase. The question then becomes how are you positioned to use that voice?

I believe large scale acquisitions of design talent is a good thing for the industry overall. It demonstrates a commitment and investment in the profession that could very well increase the demand for design in general. There’s no need to panic. Besides… I hear IBM is hiring.

iPhone 6

In early December I upgraded from an iPhone 5 to iPhone 6. It has a new form factor, with a larger screen, Touch ID, and an improved camera. I have used iPhones since the original model was released in 2007, but this is the probably my most notable transition when switching to a new phone. The new screen size, power button placement, and Touch ID all break years of muscle memory. Despite this retraining, I really enjoy the iPhone 6. Here’s why.

4.7 inches

The larger screen is harder to use than previous iPhones, but the increased amount of visible content completely makes up for it. I notice that I have to shift my hand around constantly to reach different parts of the screen and do what I want to do.1 However, the fact that I don’t care says a lot about how useful the larger screen is. I finally understand what Android users have been saying for years. Increased information density is worth a little more cumbersome handling.2

iPhone 6: Information Density

The larger screen means more stuff to read, watch, or interact with at any given time. Instapaper is shown.

When I go back to my iPhone 5 (now my dedicated iOS beta device) it feels so nice in my hand, but more toy-like in actual use because so much less is displayed. The larger screen is a big win for me, however, I did not choose the 6 Plus. I tried to like it everywhere I could get my hands on one. It’s just too big. There’s no way to use it comfortably one handed and since I don’t need a phone to do double duty as a self-defense weapon I went with the 6.

iPhone 6: Comparison to iPhone 5

iPhone 5 next to iPhone 6.

Edges

Visually, I prefer the striking look of the iPhone 4/5 form factors to the iPhone 6. Something about the edges and refined details really make them stand out to me. The iPhone 6 hearkens back to the original iPhone’s design and just doesn’t look as sharp to me. However, once I got it in my hand my quibbles seemed unimportant. It’s so much nicer to hold. Using gestures to swipe from the edges of the screen feels great. The rounded edges seem necessary in these larger phones since sharp corners could prove more painful to handle over time if the user’s hand is already stretching more than before. So, in my view, the iPhone 6 doesn’t have the same visual appeal as its predecessors, but this backwards step serves to fill a more important functional need.3

iPhone 6: Round Edges

Look at those round edges. It feels very nice to hold.

Camera

I don’t have much to say about the camera. I like that its images are sharper and better exposed in more situations than previous iPhones. All the cool features are software features. Burst mode is great with kids, the videos are well exposed and sharp, and slow-motion video is fun. It’s a good all around camera. That said, my 4 year old GF1 takes better stills in the same situations as my iPhone (or any phone) almost every time. The iPhone may beat dedicated cameras by always being with you and its software features may present a lost opportunity for Canon, Sony, Nikon, etc. However, when I know I want good photos I’ll still be reaching for a real camera.

Touch ID

Touch ID was first released with the iPhone 5s, so I hadn’t had the chance to use it until this month with the 6. In short, I love it. I’m sure it has been handy from the beginning for getting past the lock screen and making iTunes purchases, but with the release of iOS 8 it has come into its own. I use it with a variety of apps and 1Password’s extension is hugely helpful in day to day use. I haven’t had a chance to use it with Apple Pay yet, but am looking forward to it.

iPhone 6: Touch ID Demonstration

As of iOS 8 developers can now integrate Touch ID into their apps. You can see it in use here with my favorite app, Day One

Conclusion

iPhone 6: Lock Screen with Overcast playing

The iPhone 6 lock screen, Overcast is shown.

The iPhone 6 is my favorite iPhone so far, and by a long shot. I feel like my upgrade was more significant this year than it has been before. It’s a well-considered piece of intelligent industrial design that has improved how I use mobile devices and what I get out of the experience.


  1. I know about Reachability. I don’t really use it. I don’t have any problem with it and think it’s a fairly benign compromise to improve usability, but I just never think to do it.

  2. Apps that are not yet updated for the larger screen sizes do stand out, in a bad way. If I had switched to the iPhone 6 back when it launched I definitely would have made more of an effort to update Mind Vault for the new screen sizes before November.

  3. Speaking about edges, what’s the deal with the protruding camera lens? I’m not saying Apple should make an inferior camera to make it sit flush with the phone’s body, but I’d happily trade a couple millimeters in phone thinness for a device that lays flat.

iPhone 6
iPhone 6: Supine Profile
iPhone 6: Close-up
iPhone 6: Rear Close-up

There’s the infamous protruding camera lens.

iPhone 6: Rear

Here you can see the plastic “antenna” lines.

iPhone 6: In-hand
iPhone 6: Bottom

Electric Cars

I’m going to follow long blogger tradition and write a little something about a topic where I am far from an expert, in this case I’ll write about cars. I currently drive a 2007 Subaru Outback and my wife drives a leased 2013 Subaru Impreza. Looking a few years down the line it seems clear that we will need to upgrade at least one of them so I’m looking at the landscape and seeing what looks interesting.

To me, the most exciting things in the automotive world are electric cars. Despite some faltering early entrants, most manufacturers recently began investing in renewable energy and have begun offering something to the market. Tesla, Elon Musk’s auto startup, makes regular headlines with expanding features for its Model S customers, announcements for its two announced future cars, and its regulatory battles. There’s a lot to admire in Tesla. They have formed a vertically integrated company in a well entrenched industry and have seemed to enjoy success. They are easy to cheer for as they fight against ridiculous laws in many states in order to sell directly to consumers1. Their ambition is obvious in their plans to build a network of superchargers throughout the nation. Their commitment to treating their customers right is also laudable. You may have noticed something missing in my praise though, the cars themselves. To be frank, they are not that exciting to me for two overriding reasons, cost and design.

Cost

It’s hard for me to get excited about something so far outside my price range, and even if that was not the case I’m not sure I would ever feel comfortable spending that much on a car. I think this is problematic in the long term for Tesla. To truly have a disrupting influence in an industry a new entrant should come from the bottom, not the top. American car companies were thrown on their ear by the Japanese, not because Honda/Toyota did more or were more luxurious, but because they were much cheaper and did just enough for most people’s needs. This high price tag also leaves Tesla vulnerable to more entrenched players, which I will get to below. Should Tesla prove a market exists it is much easier for an established company to throw resources at that market and deeply undercut Tesla’s offerings. I think we can see this starting to happen already. Were Tesla approaching the market from the low end the advantage of big firms would be diminished.

Design

The fact that I don’t like Tesla’s car design is part personal taste and part disappointment. I feel like they look slightly inflated and bulbous, like a rich man’s late 90s era Ford Taurus. I don’t understand the fear of edges that existed in that era and Tesla seems like a throwback to me. That’s very subjective, but there are aspects of the design that seem like a wasted opportunity. The ways cars look today have a great deal to do with how they work. The shape of a car is built around its engine, power train, transmission, etc. An electric car has many fewer constraints and thus does not need to look like a traditional car. Perhaps hoping to ease people into the idea of electric cars, Tesla has decided that their cars will look like all their gas guzzling friends. This is skeuomorphism. Something I’m not a fan of in software or cars. The bold statement that Tesla makes seems muted by its play-it-safe design.

Competition

Although it seems to garner the most headlines Tesla is not the only entrant in the electric car market. For me, the two most interesting alternatives to Tesla are the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3.

Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf is a much more affordable electric car, starting around $30K. Both Tesla and Nissan prominently feature the post tax incentive price, low 20Ks in Nissan’s case and low 60Ks in Tesla’s. The savings may be real, but seem like double talk from the car makers. Tax incentives for more environmentally conscious cars seem like they’ll be here for a while, but once the market grows large enough the government may think twice about leaving that much money on the table.2 The Leaf’s range is about half of a Tesla’s, but still plenty for daily driving. In fact, until a nationwide infrastructure for rapid charging is in place the difference between 100 and 200 miles in driving range doesn’t make much difference to me. 100 miles per day is plenty for my average commute (and probably most people’s) and a road trip will require a gas vehicle anyway.

I don’t love the Leaf’s look, but am very intrigued by its positioning as an affordable electric vehicle. To make any meaningful impact in the types of cars average people drive the costs have to be low. In fact, I think we will start to see mass adoption of electric vehicles when they cost even less. I hope that the Leaf does well, people seem to like it, and all the major manufacturers make an electric model in the same price range (or cheaper).

BMW i3

The BMW i3 is the electric vehicle I am most exited about. Although not as affordable as the Nissan Leaf it still costs $20K less than the Tesla’s Model S,3 Low $40K to start, and probably $30K after tax incentives. The i3’s range is about the same as the Leaf, but they have taken the cake for forward looking design. This car looks like the future.4 It was obvious that the designers realized that this car could look different than cars with engines and exhaust pipes and emphasized it. The benefits are not just aesthetic. For example, despite its small footprint, there is room to make the seating comfortable for driver and passengers. When I see the i3’s design I get excited, not only for the car itself, but for the possibilities that are now open to different manufacturers that embrace EVs. The future certainly looks cool.

Conclusion

My window shopping will not lead to an actual purchase within the next couple years, but the small variety of entrants in the market make me hopeful. I worry for Tesla’s future if they stay in their current price range, despite the great things they do as a company. But if the Leaf and i3 find success, I’m confident the rest of the big players will jump in. I can imagine an all wheel drive electric Subaru, electric mini-vans, electric Honda Civics, or maybe a new entrant that we haven’t anticipated. The future looks bright.


  1. Dealer networks have lobbied for laws in many states forbidding car makers from selling directly to consumers. This protectionist status quo makes little sense in today’s world (I’m not sure it ever made sense). Just imagine if Apple was barred from setting up its own retail stores, thus forcing you to purchase from middle men. In fact this is why they created retail stores in the first place. Historically they had been ill featured by self interested retail middle men and wanted a chance to show what made their products special in an environment they controlled. Tesla wants the same thing for its retail operations. 

  2. There’s an interesting discussion related to this in the latest Asymcar, episode 20. They discuss the fact that certain perks of being a current EV driver will dissipate with time, as more and more electric vehicles hit the road. Tax perks, prime parking spots, and recharging stations will be part of a much different arithmetic for the auto ecosystem when a significant portion of vehicles are electric. 

  3. This should be a wake up call to Tesla to get a more affordable car on the market. When BMW’s alternative to your luxury car is 2/3s the price you have a problem. I may be missing Tesla’s marketing of the Model S as a super car vs. the i3 as a commuter car, but the future will not be made by super cars. It will be made by cars that people actually drive. I may not be representative of the market but I’m certainly more representative than your average Tesla buyer. 

  4. This is obviously subjective. The 2 tone coloring may not be to everybody’s taste, it’s certainly not to my wife’s. 

Justifying the Means

On the November 21 episode of Exponent Ben Thompson and James Allworth discussed the recent bad press that Uber has been getting. Ben makes an excellent point. When Uber flaunted laws1 to establish their business in resistant geographies the tech world cheered. However, now that their “flexible” ethics lead them to take actions that the tech community disagrees with everyone is up in arms. Uber’s initial disregard for the law was lauded because they were seen as Robin Hood figures, upending the current system for the benefit of the consumer. It seemed clear that the ends justified the means. Now it is apparent that their initial legal flaunting was indicative of an underlying moral failing within the company’s leadership.2

The question of whether the ends justify the means is apparent in many current events. Does the flagrant abuse of the Constitution by this nation’s security state justify Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information?3 Does the desirable and necessary end of more humane treatment of immigrants justify Obama’s contemplated executive actions, which effectively ignore current law? Does the understandable anger in Ferguson justify looting and vandalism? These are the questions we constantly deal with in civil society. Working within an established system of laws is so much less convenient than blowing it all up and starting from scratch, but the costs can be large and are almost always unknown.4


  1. Protectionist, stupid, and arbitrary laws that serve entrenched taxi companies. 

  2. Ben Thompson’s question of what moral framework we are even appealing to when criticizing Uber’s actions was probably the most interesting part of the podcast, and most damning of modern society as a whole. 

  3. In my opinion, yes, the leak was certainly justified. That said, I am not sure what legal repercussions should or should not exist for somebody in Edward Snowden’s position. 

  4. The cost I am most concerned about is the potential for tyranny in societies where we appoint leaders (of any party or political persuasion) to plow through checks and balances because the right way of doing things is slow. See this post for more of my thoughts about efficiency and government. 

Older Posts