Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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The Link Between Brand and Utility

I like this thought from Andrew Crow, head of design at Uber, on the difference between being scrappy and shipping scrappy:

There’s no such thing as minimal viable quality. Each product iteration must stem from a principled approach of creating great experiences regardless of scale or milestone. If it’s a mockup, the level of fidelity typically indicates the level of “doneness”. If it’s a prototype, the level of detail needs to be appropriately matched to the sophistication of the hypothesis you’re testing. If it’s an MVP, the quality put into the product must be at a level that results in the maximum learning for that stage of development. The quality of product you finally ship reflects the caliber of your company and is a measure of the respect you have for your customer.

I think of this as being thoughtful. Every interaction you design should be made with care and respect for the user’s time and attention. Details make design and there isn’t a detail too small to pay attention to.

As Andrew points out, not spending the time and attention on details at early stages can be detrimental in unexpected ways as it might provide you with bad data back on usage (ultimately design choices and brand effect experiences). I think there’s an important lesson here that most people don’t consider (and came up in the old brand vs utility debate). Ultimately things like brand, utility, and design in products are entirely too closely coupled to disconnect. In fact, utility is actually a measure of the relative satisfaction a person gets from consuming something. Since satisfaction is about how much something fulfills your expectations, the utility and brand are inextricably linked.

December 8, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

First Principles Thinking

Lately I’ve been talking a lot about Elon Musk’s idea of first principles thinking (finding the atomic unit of a challenge and building up from there) and I decided to write a bit about it over at Medium. Here’s a snippet about how it applies to working with designers:

What’s interesting, though, is I think you can apply it beyond just big problems to almost any challenge a company or product faces. I gave a talk at our recent DesignTalk event about how to work best with designers. I think encouraging designers to be first principles thinkers is key to getting the best work possible. By this I mean the best way to work with a talented designer is to define the core components of the problem and let them solve up from there. Encourage them to throw away existing solutions and instead solve the problem in a way that best suits the unique issues faced in this case. While the end solution might resemble something else that exists, by not applying analogical thinking you at least know that you’ve arrived at it because it is the best, not because it already exists.

April 27, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Redesigning

After it started raining I decided to redesign my blog. There wasn’t much reason other than looking for a fun project to work on and finding the old version increasingly tough on the eyes (plus terrible on the phone). The new version is simpler, responsive for mobile, and has bigger fonts (for whatever that’s worth).

I’d like to say this means I’m going to write more, but that doesn’t seem all that likely. I mean I’ll do my best (and have the last few days), but it’s amazing how often life gets in the way of blogging. One of the amazing things about RSS feeds and email subscriptions, though, is that it doesn’t really matter how frequently I actually update this thing because you’ll hear about it. For what it’s worth I’ve also got a Twitter feed for new posts from the blog at @NoahBrier.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is that it feels like there’s a big opportunity for blogs again. While everything has gotten shorter, it’s left a pretty wide door open for folks who want to write thoughtful stuff. I think it’s why we’ve seen thoughtful bloggers ascend quickly (someone like Horace at Asymco comes to mind). Again, not sure that means I’ll write more, but it certainly feels like a good time to be doing so.

July 14, 2013 // This post is about: , ,

The 4 Levels of Designers

I wrote a post over at 99U about the levels of designers and how I think you build a great design team. You can read the whole thing there, but here’s a snippet about states:

If level two comes naturally to most designers who have grown up in a digital world, level three most definitely does not. States are about understanding all the different possible outcomes of a given task within a product and being able to design for all of them. Things like errors are obvious, albeit often forgotten, while actions like escapes and backs are much less frequently planned for.
To draw a parallel, a great engineer thinks in states. Before they write a line of code they have come to understand all the different outcomes and use that understanding to design a fault-resistant system. One of my favorite lines from one of our engineers recently was, “when I start typing the work’s done.”

June 5, 2013 // This post is about: , , ,

Selling Argyle Uniforms

I really like situations that help describe the fact that lots of factors ultimately go into the way you feel about a brand/design/marketing. I wrote a bit about how Jony Ive feels about it last week and I thought this was another interesting example from a very different place. In the early 90s a designer named Alexander Juilian was given the opportunity to redesign the UNC Tarheels basketball uniform. He was a huge Tarheels fan and thus felt a ton of pressure to deliver something amazing. Not wanting to leave things to chance, he looped Michael Jordan into the decision (Jordan, at the time, was just starting his ascent to the greatest player in the history of the NBA but he was already UNC royalty). Ultimately Julian sent all the designs to Jordan to let him sign off on his favorite:

“And guess what? As soon as Michael [Jordan] said that [the argyle design was his favorite], then the entire team also liked the argyle best. So we made the first uniform in Michael’s size, sent it to Chicago, he worked out in it, then we sent it down to Chapel Hill. There was near frenzy, I’m told, in the locker room as to who was going to be the first Carolina player to put it on after Michael because they wanted Michael’s mojo. Hubert Davis (photo, above right) won, he was the same size and he was the model. Now he’s a great sportscaster.

May 22, 2013 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Unique Perception

Ran across an interesting quote (reportedly) by Jony Ive about the difference between measurable (speed, hard drive size, etc.) attributes and the non-measurable ones:

But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.

I think about this a lot. One of the things that inspired Brand Tags originally was a similar quote from my friend Martin Bihl’s 2002 AdWeek article: “The way I look at it, a brand only exists in the consumer’s mind. That other product isn’t a brand yet because consumers don’t really know about it. It’s still a product.”

May 14, 2013 // This post is about: , , ,

Context, Identity and the New UC Logo

I’m guessing you heard about this, but earlier this year the University of California introduced a new identity system. It looked something like this:

uni_of_california_monogram_detail

 

As people are wont to do, they freaked out. In fact, they freaked out enough that the University eventually decided to drop the new logo. Now, with the controversy in the rearview mirror, I’ve read/listened to a few post-mortems on how and why something like this happened and I felt like chiming in. My credentials, like most commenters, are pretty thin, but I think they give me an interesting perspective. Beyond spending a sort of ridiculous amount of time thinking about brands, overseeing a product team including three designers and previously working in advertising overseeing creative teams for some time, I also built Brand Tags, the largest free database of perceptions about brands. I am, however, not a designer.

That last bit, especially, shapes my perception on conversations about design.

Okay, with disclosures behind us, a bit more background: When this new logo was introduced to the public (though apparently it had been on a roadshow for some time before it showed up on the web), it was misinterpreted as a replacement for the official seal of the University of California system. That seal looks like this:

uc_seal

This, apparently, was inaccurate. The new logo would not be replacing the seal, but rather helping to unify the various logos that had popped up across the different UC schools (the script Cal and UCLA logos are two examples). As occasionally happens the digerati spread an idea that wasn’t true. I know this isn’t shocking, but to be fair to all the bloggers on this one, the University hardly helped its case when it produced this video as a companion piece to explain the new identity:

I know this all seems like a slightly exhaustive bit of background, especially if you’ve been following this story, but I think it’s all important. In a long piece on RockPaperInk which spurred this piece, Christopher Simmons, a designer and former AIGA president, writes:

“Designers too often judge logos separate from their system…without understanding that one can’t function without the other,” criticized Paula Scher when I asked her views on the controversy, “It’s the kit of parts that creates a contemporary visual language and makes an identity recognizable, not just the logo. But often the debate centers on whether or not someone likes the form of the logo, or whether the kerning is right.” While acknowledging that all details are important, Scher also calls these quibbles “silly.” “No designer on the outside of the organization at hand is really qualified to render an informed opinion about a massive identity system until it’s been around and in practice for about a year,” she explains, “One has to observe it functioning in every form of media to determine the entire effect. This [was] especially true in the UC case.”

Which I mostly agree with. Logos don’t exist outside the system (for the most part) and, even more importantly, they don’t exist outside the collective consciousness they grow up in. This is something I got in quite a few arguments about while I was running Brand Tags. I would get an email from a company no one had ever heard of asking for me to post their logo, to which I invariably responded “no”. My reasoning, as I explained at the time, was that the point of the site was to measure brand perception and for people to have a perception, you need a brand, which you don’t have if no one knows who you are. Brands, as I’ve expressed in the past, live in people’s heads. They are the sum total of perceptions about them.

This is part of what makes it so tough to judge any sort of logo: Lack of context. Even if you see the way the system works, you don’t have the rest of the context that would come with experiencing it in the wild. If you’re a high school senior and the new UC logo is on a sweatshirt worn by the girl you had a crush on that’s home for her freshman Christmas break it’s going to have a very different meaning than if you’re first encounter is in the US News & World Reports list of top US universities. Context shapes experience and we can’t forget that.

Which makes something Simmons writes later so confusing for me:

Design as a discipline is challenged by this notion of democracy, particularly in a viral age. We have become a culture mistrustful of expertise—in particular creative expertise. I share [UC Creative Director] Correa’s fear that this cultural position stifles design as designers increasingly lose ownership of the discourse. “If deep knowledge in these fields is weighed against the “likes” and “tastes” of the populace at large,” she warns, “We will create a climate that does not encourage visual or aesthetic exploration, play or inventiveness, since the new is often soundly refused.”

Most of the article, actually, is blaming the public (and designers specifically) for the way they misinterpreted and criticized the logo. That truth, however, is at least in part due to the context they experienced the logo in. It’s near impossible, for instance, to not walk away from that introductory video believing that the logo is replacing the seal and that was produced by the University itself. Design, I’d posit, is about far more than the logo or even the system, it’s the story that exists around the brand as a whole and the designer is, at least in part, responsible for how that story is told. I agree with part of what’s written above: Design is a tough discipline because everyone has an opinion. But that’s not really new and it’s been lamented to death. People know what fonts are and many have heard of kerning or played with Photoshop. This is just the reality we live in. We can choose to ignore that reality and think we can put things out in the world without hearing from many people who are “unqualified” to have opinions or we can acknowledge that and try to spend as much time thinking about the context people are first experiencing new identities as we spend on the identities themselves. It’s not a simple solution, but it’s a whole lot more sustainable.

Finally, we need to recognize that with this new world we all live in, where everyone has an opinion about everything (let’s not pretend that design is the only victim to this reality), that its going to be harder than ever to stand behind convictions. On the one hand this can mean “a climate that does not encourage visual or aesthetic exploration, play or inventiveness,” as the UC Creative Director says, or it can mean that we need to do more to educate everyone involved in the decision-making process of what’s to come. We need to help them understand the design process, the effect of context and the potential for backlash (with our plan on how to deal with it).

Or we can do boring stuff.

Though I didn’t quote it anywhere here, a lot of my thinking in this piece was shaped by the very even coverage on this issue from 99% Invisible, which I would highly recommend listening to.

January 6, 2013 // This post is about: , , , ,

Genericide

Slate has a relatively interesting article about a trademark dispute over the Emeco Navy Chair, but what I liked more is the word “genericide”:

Let’s turn to the dispute itself. First, Emeco’s claim to a trademark on the term “Navy chair” is weak. Why? Because over the years that has become a generic label for this type of all-metal, 1940s-style chair, rather than a name that immediately conjures up a Pennsylvania company named Emeco. And in American law, if a product’s name becomes generic—such as aspirin, linoleum, thermos, or zipper—it can no longer be trademarked. Lawyers call this “genericide,” and the fear of becoming generic is one reason Kleenex is always reminding you that they sell “Kleenex-brand tissues.” The makers of Kleenex are trying to save their brand from genericide by reminding you that Kleenex is a particular brand of tissues, not a generic name for tissues.

November 26, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Desire Path Highlighting

I’ve written about desire paths a bunch of times in the past. They’re those extra trodden lines between two points that, despite not being paved, are clearly the most used way to get from point a to point b. Anyway, looks like Huffington Post has taken the idea of desire paths and built a little site around it. The gist is that they record every time someone highlights a passage on the site and then when something breaks a threshold it makes it to HuffPost Highlights. The actual results on the page are a bit of a mixed bag, as quotes out of context can be a bit odd, but generally it’s a really neat idea and experiment (it’s on the labs section of the site). Poynter has a nice explanation.

September 2, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

What can designers bring to organizations?

I love this answer from Poke founder Nik Roope on what designers can bring to organizations:

Businesses are built on concepts. Ideas structured to extract or create value in some way. These ideas, famously penned on napkins (although more likely Evernote theses days) are by their nature abstract and intellectual. “Design” takes a central role in the step from the intellectual to the manifest and when the process is working this isn’t a verbatim translation, it’s an active process that structures, orders, tunes the components into a compelling working system. Broad-minded designers with solid structural sensibilities are thus critical for success.

[via @domgoodrum]

March 19, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Designing a Global Map

This whole Core77 article about the design of Google Maps is pretty excellent. It’s a great breakdown of the insane challenges of building a map of the world. Beyond everything else, though, I found this especially shocking: “In recent months we have introduced a few more regional changes to our color palette adding 3D building shadows to indicate local time-of-day.” 3D building shadows … Who knew? (I can’t seem to track it down myself, but it’s in the screenshots on the article.)

February 27, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Software and Millennial Entitlement

One of the things I’ve been saying lately about what we’re doing at Percolate is that from a design perspective our competition isn’t other enterprise software tools, it’s Twitter, Tumblr, and the like. Because so many community managers (the most common user from the brand side) are heavy users of social media personally, they have come to expect consumer interfaces across all their tools. Or, as Sarah Lacy put it, “millennial entitlement”:

Millenials are coming into the workforce and the generation has an amazing capacity to demand the world revolve around their desires, whether that’s reasonable or not. Millenials will just start demanding better software from the companies they work for, and if they don’t get it, they’ll start installing their own skunkworks implementations.

Sure, I guess I feel entitled to well-designed software even in a business environment …

February 12, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Nice Map

Just in case you thought things couldn’t get any nerdier, here’s a good piece from Slate on what it takes to make a great map:

According to independent cartographers I spoke with, the big mapmaking corporations of the world employ type-positioning software, placing their map labels (names of cities, rivers, etc.) according to an algorithm. For example, preferred placement for city labels is generally to the upper right of the dot that indicates location. But if this spot is already occupied—by the label for a river, say, or by a state boundary line—the city label might be shifted over a few millimeters. Sometimes a town might get deleted entirely in favor of a highway shield or a time zone marker. The result is a rough draft of label placement, still in need of human refinement. Post-computer editing decisions are frequently outsourced—sometimes to India, where teams of cheap workers will hunt for obvious errors and messy label overlaps. The overall goal is often a quick and dirty turnaround, with cost and speed trumping excellence and elegance.

Who knew?

January 2, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Teaching Interface

I always thought the most compelling part of driving a Prius was the little screen that showed you when you were using gas versus electric. Sounds like Chevy has taken that idea a step further with their Volt interface:

Its designed to give you real-time feedback on your driving style. When the car is happy i.e. being driven efficiently, the ball is green and in the center of the gauge. Stomp on the accelerator, and it rises to the top, changing color to yellow. Brake too hard so youre bypassing the kinetic energy recovery and it dives to the bottom, again changing color to yellow. The more time you spend in yellow, the fewer miles youll go before you have to start burning hydrocarbons.

For all the stupid talk about gamification, this seems like the real thing: A feedback loop that naturally helps you get better at something.

November 28, 2011 // This post is about: , , , ,

Strategy over Product

The gist of the argument here is that asking your users to do a bunch of organizing is a bad idea (see: Twitter Lists and Google+). I completely agree when it comes to G+ and completely disagree when it comes to Twitter Lists. Let’s start with the latter: For most people lists have no use. But that’s okay, Twitter doesn’t ask you to make them and doesn’t seem to be bothered if you never even know what a list is (which I assume is the camp most users are in). For a very small group of power users, lists are incredibly important (I’m not one) and in return Twitter gets enough data to organize millions of users into useful categories. Power users products have value to those users (and in this case the company). On the G+ side, building an entire product around making users work to put people into lists seems silly (and I agree is shit work). I still contend that G+ is a perfect strategy and a terrible product. Everyone has said at some point that social networks should behave more like their “real-world” equivalents, allowing you to sort and filter friends. But then you quickly realize that people do all that sorting without thinking and if they had to spend a bunch of time thinking about it they probably just wouldn’t bother. It’s a perfectly logical thesis except that it ignores the real way humans behave. Then again, maybe I don’t know anything … They seem to have a lot of users.

November 3, 2011 // This post is about: , , ,

On Lytro’s Design

Interesting article from Fast Company about how lens and internals of the new Lytro camera required them to rethink camera design completely, going for a long tube instead of the rectangular shape that has defined camera design for the last forty years. Reminds me of a quote from Luigi Colani who designed the Canon T90 (which went on to define camera design) on a new project of his: “I am working with the German Zeiss company on the camera of tomorrow. It will only be a lens with a grip on it—that’s all. Not a stupid box like we have today.”

November 2, 2011 // This post is about: , ,

Designers versus Users

I’ve never seen anyone make this point about the relationship between the screen size of designers and that of users, but it’s a good one: “The weird thing is this: On the one hand, web designers seem to work on increasingly large monitors; on the other, the displays used by readers tend to shrink as more people browse the web on notebooks, tablets or smartphones.”

October 31, 2011 // This post is about: ,

Conductive Gloves

Muji gloves with a conductive finger for touchscreen technology. Who’s in charge around here again? We now need to buy new clothing with additional pockets for devices, holes for headphones and materials to allow for interaction. We design tools and then the tools design us. As an aside, I was doing some research recently and in the ten years between 2006 and 2016 the smartphone market is estimated to shift from being 7 percent touchscreen to 97 percent touchscreen respectively. Not sure if that’s impressive or just a sad statement about the industry’s inability to think beyond what’s happening right now.

October 31, 2011 // This post is about: , , ,