Numbers you push

I use the number pad on my keyboard to type numbers a lot of the time (when I’m not using the laptop, in which case I never enable it). I’ve also been on a lot of conference calls lately. I know – I’m extraordinarily lucky, but this is not intended to make you insanely jealous, so I’ll move on.

As many who have come before me have noticed, the number pad displays the numbers with zero at the bottom and 1, 2 and 3 in the next row closest to the bottom. Telephones display 1, 2 and 3 in the top row (and *, 0 and # in the bottom row). This is an annoying discrepancy when one such as I, lucky that I am, goes from typing a series of numbers into the number pad, for whatever reason, then must punch in a phone number, particularly when one such as I must read the number off the screen and is not looking at the phone. Oh! the numbers I try to dial.

So why is this? Here’s my best guess.

Calculators.

I’ll wait for you to put your socks back on (now that I’ve blown them off with this revelation). The push button telephone was developed in the early 40s and put into commercial circulation in the early 60s (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t know what the delay was for, although Wikipedia notes that the boys at AT&T conducted studies in the 50s that found that push button was faster than rotary. I don’t think we needed a study to determine that, but it was an exciting, scary time so I’m sure hard data was reassuring to everyone involved. If you look at a telephone interface (buttonface?) and contemplate dialing, it makes sense to start at the top and work your way down. We (Westerners) read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. This set-up makes sense.

So calculators. Solid-state calculators were developed in the 60s. Before that there were all kinds of calculators and adding machines that were hand operated (or even electrical). But most of them evolved into a form that looks kind of like a typewriter. I don’t know when the buttons became standardized, but you and I can easily imagine that when you’re using an adding machine – those laborious creatures – on your desk day in and day out, it makes sense to start at the bottom and work your way up to the higher numbers, because that’s where your interaction begins from – the bottom. This is easiest to imagine, I think, if you picture one of those big old adding machines that bankers (and accountants, I suppose) sometimes still have on their desks. You have the beginning of the numbers close at hand, and they recede from you. The reverse would be rather like if the keypad were the preface to Star Wars, and you have to start reading at the top (tiny) row once the entire preface is on-screen, rather than reading from the bottom up, which we do since the words scroll – unless you come in late and then you’re stuck squinting. Or, when you’re driving, and there are helpful words printed on the roadway, like “STOP AHEAD” and “TURN ONLY.” Read top-to-bottom, these read “AHEAD STOP” and “ONLY TURN” – but we read them correctly because we read the words in the order we drive over them, not from top-to-bottom. But I digress.

So back on topic, both interfaces (telephone and calculator, which is the basis of the number pad on the keyboard) make sense for the user. It’s actually quite lovely to contemplate – something made for the best use of the user, and not based on similar-looking things.

Marginalia and Ephemera

I just read a post on the I Love Typography site about shrinking margins. It made me think about marginalia and ephemera. Marginalia is the stuff that’s written in margins of text. Ephemera is basically the same, but it doesn’t have to be written into books – it can be notes on cocktail napkins or post-it notes, etc.

Even in grad school I was a reluctant book-writer-inner. I underlined enthusiastically, but I preferred to re-copy any pertinent quotes or thoughts and my own additional observations into notebooks. Naturally it makes me quite nervous to see my husband plunder my notebooks for blank pages for his own studies, but that’s another story. It’s a little bit ironic, because I do so love to find ephemera and marginalia in books, particularly the hand-written kind. A stamp isn’t as interesting to me, but little notes and especially the ever-exciting and exceedingly vague star or asterisk never fail to thrill.

I don’t know for certain where my reluctance to write in books comes from, but I can make an educated guess. I come from a very bookish house. My parents, however, view books and their provenance a little bit differently (from each other). My mother cherishes all books in all forms, and we do not write in books, nor dog ear them, nor remove pages, nor accidentally drop them in the bath. My dad values particular books – albums, photography books, coffee table books, hardcovers in general. After every business trip, however, as we’d perch around the perimeter of his suitcase breathing in that heady mix of plane diesel and cold leather waiting for our presents to emerge, we’d always see him remove the last tenth of a paperback. It was his practice to buy a book at the airport in the bookstore and read it throughout his trip. Before packing up for each leg, he’d tear out the portion he’d read and throw it away. To me, now, this is at least partially insane. But to him it was logical. He had minimal room and he’d already read it and had no plans to read it again. I often wonder still what the chamber maid(s) would have thought – if anything – to find these jettisoned book parts. Little synecdoches that have been cut adrift from their whole, lost to deciphering.

Anyway, I think I got it from my mother. And I think that the underlying forbidden aspect of writing in books is what makes it so thrilling for me to find handwritten notes in books now. If I find two of the same book in a resale shop, I’m getting the one with the handwritten dedication in the front.

When the babies were still hot off the press, so to speak, my husband became obsessed with Little Golden Books. He began comparing eBay lots of LGBs (not to be confused with LGBTs) in order to get the “best” combination of books. We ended up with something like 151 books. And while one seller removed any writing in the inside front cover, many did not. And it’s the sweetest thing ever to see the “this book belongs to” section filled in by a little one. I had book plates when I was little, and was very much all about writing my name in the front cover. I particularly like when the child didn’t appear to be old enough to write, and there’s just a scribble.

I can’t wait for my babies to want to take pencil to paper, and I can’t wait to see what they deem fitting for addition to their books.

See references:

http://ilovetypography.com/2012/04/28/make-the-margins-bigger/#more-12543

http://operatorsmanual.tumblr.com/

An absence of criticism

I’m currently reading Mike Monteiro’s book, Design is a Job. He writes, “A designer requires honest feedback and real criticism, and that’s not going to happen in a realm where colleagues or clients are worried about crushing the spirit of a magical being. The sparkly fog of affirmation gets in the way.”* It may be helpful to note that he has previously introduced the myth of the “creative type” who lives outside the rules and is temperamental.

Every time I’ve ever presented something and received no criticism back, my first feeling is abject suspicion. Buried deep in this loathsome, fetid brew is the strong notion that the viewer just did not understand. Not that the thing examined is so amazing that they simply can’t, but that they are not even capable of comprehending something pedestrian. It’s an ugly place to dwell.

*http://www.abookapart.com/products/design-is-a-job

The New Wizard of Oz

I started reading The Wizard of Oz to the babies last night. The original one. Here’s the Wikipedia page on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wonderful_Wizard_of_Oz.

The book we have is one of a series, all of which my mom has. They’re all hard cover; all illustrated. All lovely. The inside page says copyright 1899, copyright 1900, copyright 1903. It also says “The New Wizard of Oz” – so I am going to guess it’s a second (third, fourth) run of the original.

When I was little, I read a lot of books with illustration plates – that is, the back of the illustrated page wasn’t printed on. The illustrations in the book are tremendous – they are clearly engravings, some are in color, most are not. Several are in two color.

The start of each chapter features a quarter page graphic and an initial word (I don’t know how else to phrase that). The pages are very thick, like construction paper. It’s the type of paper that if you pressed with your thumbnail, you’d poke a little crescent moon through the paper (sad confession: I did this to many of my books when I was little).

Here’s a shot of a spread, complete with the terrific Claremont Books bookmark I found tucked into the pages.

spread of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz
A chapter page for the Wizard of Oz, and the bookmark I found in the pages.

Some differences I’ve noticed from the later movie: There are four witches, the wickeds are East/West, the goods are North/South. The good witch of the North is very old (whereas, Glinda is portrayed as young and pretty). The ruby slippers (at least at this early stage) are silver. Dorothy is about 6. We just met the Scarecrow, so we have quite a way to go, yet.

Edited: More photos.

cover image
The cover of the book
Title page image
The title page - "The New Wizard of Oz"
dedication page image
This book is dedicated / to my good friend and comrade / my wife
engraving image
"I'm am the Witch of the North"

Under-delivering

I had a boss once tell me, “Never over-deliver. Why give something more than you agreed to?” I think this advice is good if your primary concern is quantity and not quality (meaning, those extra touches that make your user smile, not general quality). If, however, you want to take the time to create something that is more than just functional, I think you need to disregard that.

Functionality comes first. The thing has to do exactly what it’s supposed to do. Everything after that is what makes the thing yours, primarily, above something someone else crafted. It is the unique identifier – your own signature. In the corporate world – as in Family Feud – creativity is not often rewarded. That is unfortunate. This boss of mine was very deft in the corporate world (and a really good boss), so in context, it’s just pragmatic advice.

But it feels awfully soul-crushing.

I’m not sure I like the sound of the phrase “over-deliver” – it sounds onerous to the end-user. But I like the idea of delighting the user in some way, even if only subtly. Examples abound in the tech world. Apple specializes in this. Of course, we gladly pay for what we get from Apply, so in their case it’s only an over-delivery in that we never know what to expect and often don’t anticipate quite everything.

Recently, I got a postcard from Anthropologie. They send these things out every once in a while; not very often. And understandably so; they’re special because they’re unexpected. I have two in mind, in particular. One was basically an embroidered cardboard rectangle. There wasn’t much embroidery, but it made the piece special. I have it saved somewhere. The other was the most recent one. It features a small clock face token on a string that wraps around the card with a cigar wrapper over that. The theme is “it’s that time again.” If you run a Google search for “Anthropologie birthday postcard,” you’ll see plenty examples of people being delighted by these cards – and therefore taking a snapshot to upload. Same story for their gift cards – they come in interesting packages.

An Anthropologie birthday card
The clock token is a fun surprise. I feel silly for saying "fun surprise" but it's out there now.

I can’t believe I’m using this example, but I recall hearing on the DVD commentary for Family Guy that the script called for “a fight scene” between three characters. That was the extent of the direction. What came back from the director and animators was a lengthy and detailed fight scene that incorporated references to movies and the show itself. That’s over-delivering in a good way.

I was skimming an article on Fast Company earlier today about how UI can make or break an app. Specifically, how adhering too closely to a design metaphor (skeumorphism, in this case) makes the app cumbersome. That’s over-delivering in a bad way.

I can’t believe that anyone LIKES to under-deliver, if it means they’re delivering the shaky, skin-of-their-teeth minimum and means they must fly off to the next project. It sounds exhausting. Unless, I suppose the illegitmi have already carborundum, in which case, I imagine they wouldn’t much care. I do recognize that under-delivering and delivering to specification are not synonymous.  But it sure feels that way sometimes, when you have already conceived of what could be.

Meeting expectations should be the first level you attempt to attain in your work. Then once you have the basic necessities nailed down, then you can strive to include the things you know will make this thing better, whether it’s raisins in cinnamon buns or a really great interface or whatever. Once this is the expectation, you are free. It is understood that what you deliver will be unique to you; it will be special. You have freedom to be creative.

Try to make them smile.

Smiles
She's pleased by the bouncer

Co.Design site

I don’t know about you, but I’m really digging the new Co.Design site. Find it here: fastcodesign.com. I call it “new” but I think it’s been active for awhile now.

screenshot of fastco.design page
A screenshot of the new design

I like the typography; I like the images; I like the big main masthead (you’ll have to go to the site to see that). Check it out.