Hi, I’m Noah Read

I’m a designer, husband and father living and working in Western Michigan. I created Mind Vault and host a podcast called The Way Station. I use this site to post my work and write. If you want to talk feel free to contact me on Twitter or ADN. You can also find me on Dribbble.

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.

Disappearing Design Business?

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. 

The Secret Government

The Boston globe highlights a new book, National Security and Double Government, with a short interview with the author.

Though it’s a bedrock American principle that citizens can steer their own government by electing new officials, Glennon suggests that in practice, much of our government no longer works that way. In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.

It’s a fascinating, though disturbing, idea that I confess I’ve held for a while. Imagining that the massive bureaucracy necessary to run the various agencies of our government would really function at the whims and requests of temporary political winds seems more naive all the time. Interests become entrenched, budgets become permanent, and even self-styled reformers seem to be able to do little to change course. Perhaps this is why politicians appeal to divisive “wedge” issues that have little to do with actual governing? The real governing is done by technocrats, middle managers, and former industry insiders.

As pessimistic as that sounds there are solutions, but they depend on citizens paying attention to the government, not campaign slogans. My suggestion when you hear comments like “binders full of women” or “you didn’t build that” highlighted during election season is to:

  1. Ignore it
  2. Watch President Eisenhower’s farewell speech1
  3. Pay attention to the people really guiding the decisions, the agencies of Washington

If enough people do this, spur of the moment pledges from those running for office to reign in the NSA or reduce funding of one thing or another might start to carry some weight. An informed electorate is powerful. An uninformed electorate is… well, look around.


  1. In my opinion this speech should be required viewing for 20th/21st century Civics classes. A good 4th of July tradition would be a review of some of the founding documents of our country and a viewing of this speech. 

Designers Who Code

I recently spoke at a conference for the first time. I made a presentation at Midwest UX in Indianapolis encouraging designers to learn to code and become familiar with the implementation of their work. You can watch a video of the presentation here, or in the embed below.1


  1. The photo was taken by the Midwest UX team and you can find more shots from the event here

Voting

Yesterday was the first major election in my adult life where I did not vote. I could say it was because I don’t have confidence it would matter (I’m not sure it does for national offices), or because there’s nobody I’d like to vote for (probably true), or out of protest because it’s shameful that nobody running for Congress has talked seriously about curtailing state surveillance (it is shameful and they haven’t talked about it), but the truth is I didn’t vote because I got spoiled in Washington and voting in Michigan is relatively inconvenient.

In the state of Washington mail-in ballots are the norm. When you get a driver’s license you are registered to vote, then in the weeks preceding an election you receive a voter’s packet that details all the candidates and ballot measures and your ballot. You fill it out, drop it in your mailbox, postage free, and you’ve voted. It’s as easy as can be reasonably expected, at least until governments start to understand the web a little better, puts the election and its issues front of mind for citizens, and, I have to assume, increases voter turnout.

Contrast the convenience of mail-in ballots with the regular voting process. You have to register, plan a time to go to the polls (on a Tuesday! weekday voting is nuts),1 and attempt to educate yourself about the candidates and ballot measures. The difference may seem slight (and obviously this is the exact process most Americans follow every election), but coming from the world of mail-in elections it seemed laborious and was very easy to procrastinate until it was too late. In order to avoid this issue next time I will attempt to get an absentee ballot, but it could be so much simpler if more states embraced mail-in voting as the default. I’ve been to the mountain top, so to speak, and have seen a better way.


  1. When living in Peru I was surprised by their voting. Voting is mandatory and those who do not vote face fines. Voting takes place on a Sunday and many people have the work day off. One effect of this process that I noticed as an outside observer (I am no expert on Peruvian politics) is the variety of political parties and elected officials that resulted from a higher percentage voting body. Increasing voter turnout through mail-in ballots across our nation might have a similar effect. 

How I Post Snippets

I recorded a little screencast showing how my snippets feed works.

Blood & Thunder

Every year when I was a child my family would drive from Salt Lake City 10–12 hours south to Belen, New Mexico to visit my grandmother. I remember watching the landscape transform from wide mountainous valleys to stark desert. The terrain was fascinating and forbidding at the same time. We passed through the Navajo Nation reservation without any idea how they came to be there. Recently I read a wonderful book, Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, that answers this question by detailing the American conquest of the southwest and the Navajo in particular. Here are a few thoughts on the book.

The Navajo

One of the things I love about Blood and Thunder is that it treats the Navajo as a real actor in their own story, not as hapless victims of westward expansion. They were certainly on the losing end of Manifest Destiny but the author treats them with dignity, as a people with their own animosities and frustrations, as well as virtues. It’s a more complete picture than what I remember learning in school, which is not much, and seems like real life.1

Kit Carson

Blood and Thunder’s main protagonist is Kit Carson, a larger than life figure, with a storied life. It was greatly embellished in dime novels, but what he actually did was still astonishing. He:

  1. Ran west from his Missouri home
  2. Became a fur trapper who scouted for Fremont’s exploration of the Oregon trail
  3. Fought in the war with Mexico in California
  4. Acted as courier between Washington DC and western armies
  5. Fought Indians
  6. Fought for the Union in the Civil War in the war’s westernmost battles
  7. Led the final, and first successful, campaign against the Navajo
  8. Managed the first reservation where the Navajo were relocated before finally retiring and enjoying his growing family for a short time before passing away from an aortic aneurism.

As the borders of the United States were being finalized it’s pretty amazing how many important events Kit Carson personally saw.

Culture of the Southwest

One of the things that’s amazing about the southwest is its rich cultural heritage. Blood and Thunder gives some fascinating background to explain the different historical forces that combine to create this unique region of the United States.

Blood and Thunder is my kind of book, and I would recommend it to anyone intested in the tumultous history of America’s conquest and colonization of the west. It’s a great read.


  1. I had a similar reaction to The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie. This is another favorite I highly recommend.