The Uses of Metaphor

I was so pleased to be invited by RGD Ontario to speak at their annual Design Thinkers conference, held in Toronto from 2-3 November 2011. They encouraged me to tackle any subject I wanted to, and, though I considered many options, I was most excited to to continue investigating the use of metaphors in design, particularly in the design of interfaces, which was a topic I had started thinking about in earnest earlier in the spring. That investigation was prompted by reasons I discuss in the talk, but there is some shared territory between this talk and my essay “I am a handle" for the Bulletins of the Serving Library. That essay came first and is the more literary effort; this talk both refines and adds to the essay’s thinking, but it’s a bit more nuts-and-bolts.

One thing I was happy to see was how many other speakers at Design Thinkers — including Craig Mod, Christian Schwartz, Jessica Hische, Robert Wong, and even the great George Lois — reflected on this topic, directly or indirectly, through their own talks.

As I was preparing the talk the world also said farewell to the incredible Steve Jobs, and I think much of what I’ve described here represents a study of some of the lessons I have learned from his astounding work and legacy. It’s also interesting to note how quickly things change. In 2011 the debate around skeuomorphism and realism in user interface design was raging; posting this now, the debate has moved to the subject of flatness. The final part of the talk, which is not included in this video, was to touch on this “life cycle of metaphors,” which I argue become more common as they become more networked. Verbally, this cooptation of the original metaphor results in new buzzwords. Visually, the same operation results in new styles. For Apple, removing the buttons people were used to using on their cell phones meant rendering new buttons that were “so good you could lick them” — a surrogate that was good enough to click. As people have become more comfortable with the flat surface of the phone, however, buttons need no longer signal that same candy-curved surface in order to afford clicking. As Jobs himself noted to the New York Times when the original iPhone was released, not only had he removed buttons, he had overhauled the very operation of clicking-to-act with the principle of direct manipulation. “In [old] systems,” he noted “users select an object, like a photo, and then separately select an action, or ‘verb,’ to do something to it.” However: “There are no ‘verbs’ in the iPhone interface.”

My thanks again for RGD Ontario for the opportunity, inspiring occasion, and good company.

The Uses of Metaphor on Vimeo.

Rethinking defaults

I’ve got a review of the new edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color in the most recent issue of Eye, but there’s also an interesting piece about the future of typography online that collects thoughts from Chester Jenkins, Jonathan Hoefler, and Stephen Coles that’s a good overview for those new to the subject. Titled “The End of Default,” this bit from Simon Esterson and Jay Prynne’s introduction caught my attention:

Clients such as corporations and publishers who were accustomed to branding every visible square inch with their custom fonts had to accept the default nature of the Web, and many designers have long resigned themselves to living through the typographic equivalent of the dark ages, relieved partially by the advent of Cascading style sheets (CSS) which allow much greater control over the styling elements of a website, including the size, weight and style of the (still limited range of) fonts.

For a significant minority of designers, the limited type palette became a signifier of authenticity, a cool hair shirt they could wear with pride. The “default look” of non-Flash websites has spilled into books, magazines and music design as a conscious style choice rather than necessity.

Back in 2003, I wrote a piece about defaults for Emigre that tried to present them as the thorny, complex topic that they still continue to be. Defaults still serve to self-reflexively critique their own making (as diagnosed above), but they also extend Modernist concepts into the present and update them. I wonder if they will continue to be a productive area of critical inquiry. Historically, they were an intriguing response to the ’90s debates about the possibility of designer-authors. Where once the question was, “How do designers assert themselves as authors?”, defaults countered, “What if you take designers out of the system altogether?”

While the Eye quote above has a slightly skeptical bent about this work, I see it today with more positive eyes. Rereading “Default Systems in Graphic Design” now, I feel increasingly distant from my point-of-view then. That tends to happen with certain kinds of critique; they become dated faster than the work they describe. My goal these days is to write things that, whenever possible, are slower, richer, and hopefully more enduring.

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Revisiting ESPRIT

Kelly at Nothing is New recently posted some of Lady Greyler’s scans of ESPRIT’s 1984–86 Catalog.

As a kid, I used to wander these stores with absolute delight. ESPRIT was perhaps one of the earliest brands I could pick out of a lineup. It still looks energetic and fresh today — the sassy, flirty sister of Memphis, decked out in its patterns, colors, and offbeat esprit.

@ MoMA

MoMA acquires the @ symbol. NYT:

No one knows for sure when it first appeared. One suggestion is that it dates to the sixth or seventh century when it was adopted as an abbreviation of “ad,” the Latin word for “at” or “toward.” (The scribes of the day are said to have saved time by merging two letters and curling the stroke of the “d” around the “a.”) Another theory is that it was introduced in 16th-century Venice as shorthand for the “amphora,” a measuring device used by local tradesmen.

Whatever its origins, the @ appeared on the keyboard of the first typewriter, the American Underwood, in 1885 and was used, mostly in accounting documents, as shorthand for “at the rate of.” It remained an obscure keyboard character until 1971 when an American programmer, Raymond Tomlinson, added it to the address of the first e-mail message to be sent from one computer to another.

It was acquired formless—purely as a concept—and from the public domain:

[…] “MoMA’s collection has always been in touch with its time,” Ms. Antonelli said, “and design these days is often an act with aesthetic and ethical consequences, not necessarily a physical object.”

That’s why MoMA decided against adding a specific version of the @ to the collection in favor of using it in different typographic styles and sizes. Ms. Antonelli likens it to the museum’s acquisition of “The Kiss,” a performance art piece by Tino Sehgal, in which a couple embrace for several hours. Just like the @, each performance can take a different form with new protagonists — though there is a difference. MoMA reportedly paid $70,000 for “The Kiss,” while the @ is joining the collection free.


"We no longer have any desire for design that is driven by need." Daniël van der Velden’s intriguing article for Metropolis M, titled “Research & Destroy.”



To my growing set of gridded notebooks I will now add Astrid Stavro’s Grid It! notepad family (via Apartment Therapy).



The extraordinary posters of the National Theater in Britain are now for sale online.


An ever-growing and wonderful archive of artist and designer interviews at the Walker Channel.


Commerce Bank was robbed 14 times by July 2003, but the neighboring Amalgamated Bank had not had a single hold up for more than a decade. Why? Design.


When it opened at the Walker Art Center in 1989, "Graphic Design in America" was one of the first serious surveys of its kind. It’s tempting to say it was ahead of its time, but I think it was probably more like a little bit late. The relationship of design to art has always been a difficult one, and displaying design in a contemporary art museum didn’t simplify things much. Here’s what NYT thought back then, which makes for interesting reading now (via Unbeige).