My Creative Mornings talk

I gave a short talk last month at the Dublin chapter of Creative Mornings.

The given theme was Curiosity, so I just talked about a grab-bag of vaguely design-ey things:

  • The joys of discovering the early web as a teenager. The cyberpunk Wunderkammer that was the wild, DIY, zine-like mid-90’s internet was, to me, the greatest object of curiosity I’d ever encountered.
  • How much the internet has changed since, much of it becoming centrailsed, commodified, and a battleground for our attention. Which is exhausting. Curisoity on the internet today is liability, and can even leave you feeling distracted and overloaded.
  • Some thoughts on observing my own two children’s innate curiousity, along with my wife’s work as an early years art educator. Through them I’ve gotten get a sense of how powerful curiosity-driven learning can be.
  • How Taylorism influenced both workplaces and schools throughout the 20th century, and why the move away from that model to more self-led working and learning remains so hard, even for self-proclaimed “knowledge workers”.
  • How most design leaders (me included!) make the early mistake of thinking their job is to define some magical “design process” for their teams, even though all process is in fact doomed to failure.
  • “Design Leadership as a subversive activity”: why the real job of design leaders (and teachers for that matter) is actually to be a learner.

It’s hard to talk about curiosity and stick to just one topic!

Maybe none of that makes sense in isolation, but if it’s piqued your, y’know… then check out the video. Thanks to Aiden and the crew at CreativeMornings/DUB for having me!

— 04 Mar 2018

Design in the Age of Entanglement

This is a talk I gave in London and Amsterdam as part of the Inside Intercom World Tour in May 2016. It’s an attempt at tying together several trends that have driven the computer industry for over half a century, a prediction that they are all set to dramatically change in the next couple of years, and a look at what that change means for product designers.

Full transcript on the Intercom blog.

— 08 Jun 2016

Design is a Conversation

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Rebase conference in Dublin on 2nd October 2015. I’ve also written about some of the ideas below on the Intercom blog but the talk contains additional detail and some killer dad jokes. Thanks to Rebase for inviting me to speak.

Design is a Conversation

This is the title of my talk today: Design is a Conversation. This can mean a couple of things.

First, the obvious one: the process of doing design involves lots of talking. Talking about your ideas with your colleagues. Talking to users to see what they need.

And in some ways design is a dialog with the world: we make all this work and put it out there in the world and see how the world responds, how it reacts. That’s a conversation too, I believe.

But I’m going to focus on two other ways that I think about design being a conversation.

Continue reading...

— 30 Nov 2015

Invisible Design

I’ve got a new post up at the Intercom blog, this time about design that’s so good you can’t even see it:

These products don’t want to be noticed at all. They want to be the background noise to your daily routine, infrastructure working away below the surface just like the underground subways, sewers, and cabling of a city.

It also has David Fincher, magic tricks, and that time I was almost killed by a rhino. Check it out.

In some way a follow up to my previous post on flat visual design, the idea this time is that a minimalist/less-is-more/reductive approach to design is often incorrectly seen as an easy route. Making something invisible is really hard. That’s not to say that every product needs to be invisible either: just because your distraction-free writing app tries be all zen doesn’t mean that Call of Duty needs to adopt the same approach. But it’s worth at least considering where on the sliding scale you want your design to sit.

For example, look at the public reaction to the various different wearable thingies.

Most people seem generally cool with the idea of wrist computers like Android Wear and Apple Watch. But the very same crowd seem aghast at the notion of a slightly less discreet eyeball computer like Google Glass. Oh, you think to yourself, maybe there’s a threshold for how visible these devices might be before people start to reject them. Watch equals okay, glasses equals not okay.

But VR devices like Oculus Rift and HoloLens are about as discreet as a bucket on your head, and yet regular people seem genuinely excited to try them out. Why is it that a prism balanced on a sleek titanium frame is considered awful and a giant helmet computer is just fine?

It’s as if Glass fell into a sort of Uncanny Valley of invisibility: not unnoticeable but also not willing to fully accept it’s own prominence. VR on the other hand makes no apologies. VR embraces it’s own brash obtrusiveness. VR says screw everything, strap me onto your goddamn face and let’s go blow up some bad guys. We’ll have to wait and see how everyone really reacts to VR being a part of our lives, but my guess is that this inconsistent initial reaction has something to do with the invisibility of each device. Or rather, it’s inverse corollary: conspicuousness.

I mean, it’s fairly unlikely this fellow is secretly taking a photo of you:

— 03 Mar 2015

Peak Flat

Has Visual Design Fallen Flat?

I’ve got a new post up on the Intercom blog, asking whether the aesthetics of software has stagnated and what styles might come next:

The status quo of visual design in software is pleasantly inoffensive, but also somewhat uninspiring. It is of course natural for styles to settle into a comfortable conclusion for a time. These things come in cycles and mobile UI design is clearly providing a lot of cues here. Who knows, we may even be nearing the crest of the trend: Peak Flat, if you will.

If current styles were precipitated by the introduction of touchscreen devices, it may be the case that newer technologies will trigger a whole new wave of visual styles.

Read it here.

Seeing as the entire piece basically amounts to poking them with a big pointy stick, the feedback I’ve received from designers so far has been heartening (some interesting reactions here). Of course, posing the question of what might come next is the easy part of this conversation. But it’s an opener.

Another question. What are the great works of graphic design?

Off the top of my head, I can suggest the usual suspects: Milton Glaser’s I ♥ NY or his Dylan poster, Shepherd Fairey’s HOPE poster (sorry, yes), the Massimo Vignelli’s NY Subway signage system (and the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual), Harry Beck’s London underground map, Paul Rand’s logos, Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Zurich Town Hall posters, Penguin book covers, Saul Bass’ film titles, David Carson’s Ray Gun Magazine, Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures cover… there’s a fairly well-worn list that springs easily to mind.

Now, what are the great works of software visual design?

You might start with either Xerox Star of the original Macintosh (depending on which side of history you’re on) just for establishing the medium. The original releases of OS X and iOS certainly belongs there. I’d include Material Design, but time will tell. Joshua Davis’ Praystation, if you’re old enough. The NY Times Snow Fall article?

After that I’d have to start thinking hard. Send me your suggestions. There are probably a few fair reasons for this: we’re drawing on almost 100 years of history for graphic design, and only about 30 years for software design. The ephemerality of software design plays a part: there are not many websites frozen in time on the walls of museums, reminding us of how great they were.

Or, they haven’t been made yet.

— 21 Jan 2015

Comparing the Android Wear and Apple Watch UI Guidelines

Android Wear and Apple Watch guidelines

I wrote the Android Wear design guidelines before I left Google earlier this year, so I was curious to browse the well-written and thorough Apple Watch Human Interface Guidelines that came out last week. It’s interesting to note some language and ideas common to both.

I’m not highlighting these to make some arch point – there are many striking originalities that differentiate the design of AW and, uh, AW – but only to dig into the vocabulary and design thinking that’s already naturally emerging around these devices.

Emphases mine.

Simple interactions:

Android: Android Wear focuses on simple interactions, only requiring input by the user when absolutely necessary. Most inputs are based around touch swipes or voice, and inputs requiring fine-grained finger movements are avoided. Android Wear is gestural, simple, and fast.

Apple: Apps on Apple Watch are designed for quick, lightweight interactions that make the most of the display size and its position on the wrist. Information is accessible and dismissible quickly and easily, for both privacy and usability.


Android: Android Wear devices provide just the right information at just the right time, allowing users to be more connected to both the virtual world and the real world.

Apple: No other Apple device has ever been so connected to the wearer. It’s important to be mindful of this connection as you design apps for Apple Watch.

Brief interactions:

Android: Time a typical use of your Wear app. If using it takes more than 5 seconds, you should think about making your app more focused.

Apple: If you measure interactions with your iOS app in minutes, you can expect interactions with your Watch app to be measured in seconds.

Paged navigation structure:

Android: Cards in the stream are more than simple notifications. They can be swiped horizontally to reveal additional pages. […] Keep the number of detail cards as low as possible.

Apple: A paginated interface lets the user navigate between pages of content by swiping horizontally. […] A dot indicator at the bottom of each page shows the user’s place in the set. Keep the total number of pages as small as possible to simplify navigation.

Contextual relevance:

Android: The context stream is a vertical list of cards, each showing a useful or timely piece of information. […] This UI model ensures that users don’t have to launch many different applications to check for updates; they can simply glance at their stream for a brief update on what’s important to them.

Apple: On Apple Watch, a Glance is a quick view of a focused set of content from an app. Ideally, it is timely and contextually relevant. […] Configure the Glance based on the user’s current context. Stale or irrelevant information makes a glance less useful. Use time and location to reflect what is relevant to the user right now.

Short copy:

Android: Omit needless text. Design for glanceability and not for reading. Use words and phrases, not sentences.

Apple: Keep title strings short and focused. The space available for displaying title strings is minimal, so keep them brief and to the point.

Notify sparingly:

Android: Keep notifications to a minimum. Don’t abuse the user’s attention. Active notifications (that is, those that cause the device to vibrate) should only be used in cases that are both timely and involve a contact, for example receiving a message from a friend. Non-urgent notifications should be silently added to the Context Stream.

Apple: Be sensitive to the frequency with which you send notifications to users. Users might perceive a frequent notifications as annoying and disable notifications for your app on Apple Watch. Always make sure notifications are relevant to what the user wants.

Discreet notifications:

Android: Be discreet if necessary. Wearables are personal devices by nature, but they are not completely private. If your notification serves content that may be particularly sensitive or embarrassing (such as notifications from a dating app or a medical status report), consider not displaying all of the information in a peek card. A notification could place the sensitive information on a second page that must be swiped to, or an application could show different amounts of detail in peek and focused card positions.

Apple: A Short Look appears when a local or remote notification needs to be presented to the user. A Short Look provides a discreet, minimal amount of information—preserving a degree of privacy. If the wearer lowers his or her wrist, the Short Look disappears.

Notification actions:

Android: Actions should be limited to three for a single card row. […] Bridged notifications, such as new message notifications, are pushed to the wearable from the connected handheld using standard Android notifications.

Apple: Long look notifications can display up to four custom action buttons. Apple Watch leverages the interactive notifications registered by your iOS app to display action buttons in the Long Look interface.

Engaging animations:

Android: A confirmation animation is an opportunity to express your app’s character and insert a moment of delight for your user. Keep animations short (less than 1000ms) and simple. Animating the confirmation icon is an effective way of transitioning the user to a new state after completing an action.

Apple: Beautiful, subtle animation pervades Apple Watch and makes the experience more engaging and dynamic for the user. Appropriate animation can: Communicate status and provide feedback. Help people visualize the results of their actions.

— 30 Nov 2014

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