Data (as of today at 7:36 PM EST) pulled from Instagram’s API via Webstagram and manually categorized per my subjective assessment.
Another interesting thing: Just over half (50.01%) of Webstagram’s Popular Photos use no filter at all.
In case you wanted to know…
This is a response to chapter 2 of Fred Ritchin’s wonderful book After Photography.
One of my favorite pieces of video art is Beefsteak (Resurrection), by Daniel Spoerri and Tony Morgan, from 1968. It takes a bit of time to understand what’s happening upon first watching this 8 minute black and white film. It begins with human defecation and then moves in reverse: a person un-eats a steak bite by bite, the steak is un-cooked sizzle by sizzle, the cow is un-slaughtered, it un-eats a meal, and finally the cow itself un-defecates. At the end, you finally see the beginning.
I love this video. Among many other things: it questions our understanding of time, reveals our lack of relationship with the animals we may eat, and questions the nature of death itself. The footage was made in the 60s, and looks simple and uncontrived, yet the video creates a new version of reality and bends the rule of time and nature in the process. Spoerri and Morgan took the photographic image and strung it together within a context that created a new message and a new story.
A still from Beefsteak (Resurrection)
The problem is, this video hinges on reality. We have to believe that there is a cow, there is a cooking facility, and there is a steak and a fork, before we can grasp the meaning of those things within an altered framework of time. The good news is, at least within the world of this video, the alteration that has been made to reality is completely obvious.
The alteration itself as fundamental point of the process of alteration happens with regularity only in the art world. In most cases, we are surrounded by altered images that hide rather than announce their manipulations.
The world of advertising is an obvious example. As Ritchin says, “Each image exists to make me want to find out something that is probably useless, to purchase the product described no matter how unnecessary, or to brand it so it will seem familiar each time I see the image or name again. There is no relationship for me, the viewer, with an actuality that exists independently of the intended transaction.”
The use of the photo as pointed message, a message that gains power from its proposed relationship to reality, is certainly not new. However, the photo as transaction is an idea worth exploring in further depth. Ritchin addresses it regarding advertising imagery, but what about the more personal transactions we have with our own photos?
In sharing our digital images on social networks, we ourselves become a face-recognized, demographic-mapped, socially-situated human product to be sold to advertisers as a direct outcome of a photo transaction. In this case, the “actuality that exists independently of the intended transaction” becomes the focus of our attention, while the intended transaction remains hidden! What Ritchen missed is that Pixels and Paradox extends past the bounds of the image frame.
This is an image that I altered using Instagram. Facebook, through Instagram, knows who I tagged in this image, who liked it, who else took this image at this time, and where it was taken. Which of those facts is a more disturbing or paradoxical outcome of this photo?
Ritchin says, “The photograph, no longer automatically a recording mechanism, is not as able to “appropriate the thing photographed” as much as to simulate it. In the age of image, the relation to the world it offers may not be knowledge or power but something like conceit.”
I suggest it’s this very conceit that prevents us from seeing not just the manipulations to the digital image, but also the manipulations that digital images are causing in our lives. We want to see versions of our selves, our friends, and our world that are engaging, digestible, and as visually appealing as possible. In the process, we are creating a new world without noticing what it is.
Ritchin is not wrong in stating, “As in the sciences, the very act of observing can fundamentally change an outcome, and so can also fundamentally change us.” But what we aren’t observing can change us, too. I suspect that we’ll understand those changes in hindsight, and will only really see the beginning at the end.
The process of research is often boring and frustrating. The only part of design research I consistently like is the challenge of externalizing knowledge by synthesizing findings. Leveraging discovery demands a subtle balance between stating the obvious and languishing in obscure detail, and clarifying and humanizing complex information is what design is all about.
Sadly it’s not enough for me to say, “I did an enormous amount of reading, and here is the result of that work.” This is a Masters thesis project, so I have to be able to go into detail on what that enormous amount of reading was all about, why I did it, and what I got from it. And while book after book talks about synthesizing user research findings into actionable insights, there are none that I’ve found on synthesizing literature research findings. I think the reasons for this are fairly obvious. Thus, the biggest challenge I’ve been facing lately is finding a way to both communicate and most effectively utilize the literature-based research I’ve done.
When faced with a thorny problem, I try to get some distance and perspective. Some time ago, I began categorizing my readings into three broad types: prototypes (examples), frameworks (principles), and theory (approaches / pure knowledge). It occurred to me that these different types of literature might demand different types of synthesis.
I did a quick brainstorm on literature synthesis methods, and then mapped those methods onto types of literature. The resulting diagram is below. As frivolous or reductive as this might seem, it’s helped me think through how I can best communicate and present the knowledge I’ve gained through reading.
Do you know of any methods or approaches that I missed? Shoot me a message or email and let me know.
At one point, I laid the early groundwork for an exhaustive review of the competitive landscape. Despite clearly defined goals and an articulated process, it became obvious this review would take an enormous amount of time and contribute little to the project. I abandoned it completely for a more targeted approach.
No tool is universally applicable.
As a language enthusiast, I often use the dictionary recreationally. From Merriam-Webster, these two definitions are absolute gems.
If the dictionary reflects the concerns and values of the cultural mainstream, which I believe they aim to do, then: ideation is bad, and rigor is extreme.
I’ve been doing a lot of both lately.
I started with a casual ideation process based on my readings and research, simply jotting down notes and ideas as they came to me. From there I moved into a more rigorous (some might say strict or extreme) regimen of capturing my notes. Using my readings and research, I identified the key themes in the space of mobile digital photography.
I pulled the 3 biggest themes - sharing, performing self, and digital possessions - and assessed their limits.
For example: What happened if sharing became one singular, undifferentiated task, or a series of increasingly specialized ones? What happened if performing self became an extreme performance, or if we lost control of it entirely? What happened if digital possessions had the same rules as physical ones, or none of those rules at all?
Using this juxtaposition of mobile digital photography + limits, I was able to quickly identify the emerging critical design principles: challenge understandings, break expectations, induce discomfort, enforce limits.
I used these principles to guide several rounds of rapid ideation. The outcome ranged from thoughts as undeveloped as “cloud service” to more refined ideas that I captured in a few words.
My ultimate goal is to create a critical design solution, an intentional contradiction in terms. I moved my ideation into an assessment matrix, and am assessing it against the principles and goals of this project. More later.
Planning the deployment of my diary study, with lots of arrows…
We use technology to try and impart that distant warmth in our day-to-day lives. —
I read this in 2011 and I’ve been (mis)quoting it ever since.
From a wonderfully scathing hate rant on Instagram filters, the author of this line also says ”filters are a lazy visual shorthand for authenticity.”
Those were the early days of the now ubiquitous photo filter.
On the service
When I first heard about Snapchat, a photo sharing service that makes the ephemeral nature of digital objects the very foundation of its being, I was immediately on board. I knew that the early adopters were teenagers sexting each other, but I saw incredible potential.
In design language: by embracing edges or constraints, this service created new affordances for interactions with digital photos and other users.
In slung together business jargon: this was disruptive innovation in a red ocean of incremental innovation.
In human terms: this helped people share their experiences with other people in a way that felt exciting, meaningful, and new.
On the design
“People are living with this massive burden of managing a digital version of themselves,” [Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel] laments. ”It’s taken all of the fun out of communicating.” (via Forbes)
Spiegel has been working in well-researched design and HCI territory, whether he realizes it or not.
From the opening pages of sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1957 essay Alienation from Interaction: "Joint spontaneous involvement is a unio mystico, a socialized trance. We must also see that a conversation has a life of its own and makes demands on its own behalf." In other words: Communication is inherently effortful, no matter how frictionless technology makes it. It can be fun, but the demands it makes on our identities and our selves is part of the bargain.
Theoretical arguments aside, I think Spiegel’s intentions come through in the design of Snapchat. It’s easy to write odes to apps that have gorgeous, modern looks, but design is fundamentally about communication and intent, and Snapchat is largely successful at both.
On the experience
Because mobile photo sharing is the subject of my thesis project, I took notes on my first few uses of Snapchat.
As a recipient, getting a snapchat* is a bit like getting snail mail. It’s an unexpected gift that feels surprisingly personal. The way they leverage cultural signifiers is likely unconscious - a box that reveals a gift, a message that self-destructs - but highly effective. Since I knew my time with each snapchat was limited, I found myself taking a moment to pay attention and tune in before clicking each little box. Unlike a photo or news feed, I didn’t feel like I was feeding at a trough. However, it took some time for me to understand the social agreements behind snapchatting and thus feel ready to create my own.
*I am using lower case to refer to the object and activity, rather than the service itself.
As a sender, Snapchat’s interface has a stripped down simplicity that makes the barrier to entry feel low. You click the camera icon, the big round button, and then pick recipients: easy!
But what about writing text on my photo? drawing lines or arrows? shooting video? These are things I had seen others doing, so I knew they existed, but I didn’t see them available. By clicking aimlessly at everything on the screen, I was able to discover 2 out of 3 of these other features, and texted a friend in frustration to ask about the 3rd.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or intrigued. There’s a fine line between alienation and discovery, and I could see Snapchat’s user experience falling into either camp.
As anyone I am “friends” with can confirm, I engage in online sharing infrequently. There’s a certain thoughtless and normative abandon I see in the photo / comment / news feed model that doesn’t resonate with me. A large portion of my motivation for this thesis project is the gut feeling that there must be a better way. After using Snapchat over a number of months, my interest in the service remains largely conceptual. This is better than the feed, but the implementation feels unfinished. I’m reserving judgment until I see the outcomes of their future monetization and design efforts.
Some more early brainstorming. The notes here had a “divide and conquer” intent. The space of digital photography is enormous, and mobile photography isn’t that much smaller.
Categories and assessment metrics were intended to guide a competitive assessment, and the high-level life cycle diagram served as a quick reality check to insure I didn’t miss anything obvious.
Some early brainstorming work, defining social innovation and goals.
This is a response to the introductory chapter of the book How to See, by George Nelson.
"Literacy is the bedrock on which all modern societies rest." -George Nelson
When we encounter a story about illiteracy, it’s often tragic. It’s the story of an adult who can’t find work, fears going to new places, and can’t read a letter from their friend. It’s the story of a child who drops out of school and enters a life of crime, because they can no longer cover up their inability to read. Illiteracy is heartbreaking, and, though we may not encounter it often or directly, it’s a problem that we are deeply aware of. Visual literacy is another matter entirely. While I’m not saying that visual literacy has the same urgent importance as reading literacy, I am positing that maybe… just maybe… it does.
Visual literacy is the ability to both see and understand what you see.
In his excellent book Art as Experience, John Dewey tells us that experiencing a piece of art lives within the perception of the viewer. The viewer brings with them every experience they’ve ever had, and they take their new experience in through a lens informed by their past. George Nelson says a similar thing about more general visual experience: “We all tend to see in terms of what we know, or believe.”
Visual literacy is an outcome of that knowing and believing. But it doesn’t just happen. You can put a child in front of the alphabet but without critical thought, guidance, and experimentation, that alphabet will never turn into communication. The child has to know and believe that letters, strung together just so, create a culturally universal language.
Several years ago, I worked as a buyer for a fashion retailer. A large part of my job was going to trade shows: enormous events where hundreds of vendors would bring together thousands upon thousands of garments for buyers like myself to see.
Magic is an enormous, twice-yearly fashion tradeshow. This is a photo of one room among many. (source: http://www.xpertexpo.com/tag/magic-marketplace-trade-show/)
This was a special kind of seeing. Each item was different in form, structure, function, color, style, social capital, brand status… each and every item held a different meaning through its design, and it was my job to see that meaning and select those items that would be meaningful for the audience of my company. Friends often envied my job, exclaiming things like, “you get to shop for a living!” Statements like this underestimated and undervalued the importance of the visual literacy I had developed. Learning to see so much in every garment was a hard-earned skill, and an understanding that changed my relationship with what I saw.
We do this often, as a culture. We think that seeing is seeing, and any old understanding will do.
Understanding comes from seeing, and it shouldn’t be a specialized skill. George Nelson says, as part of a discussion on education’s focus on other kinds of literacy, “Technology needs people who can read and write, add and subtract.” This brings us back to the urgent importance of visual literacy. Today, when so much of our technology is both visual and largely intangible, knowing how to “read” the manmade, visual environment of our devices and technology should be a universal skill. Just like the democratization of reading and writing that followed the advent of the printing press, the ability to see needs a galvanizing force.
This is a zoomed-in still from the concept video for Art Tap, a project I worked on in Spring 2013. Art Tap allowed people to engage with art museums… through their mobile phones. By engaging with a familiar visual, they could learn more about new visual languages.
I wonder sometimes if the Internet has been that force, and we just haven’t noticed yet. The Internet hasn’t made us more aware of the experience and meaning of a piece of art, but it has given us a new language of visual communication. The visual language of the internet is fast, fleeting, and constantly changing. There are a lot of cats. The grammar is sloppy and egalitarian. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and casual hate speech runs rampant. Yet the frequency with which we are able to share images, and the reach we are able to have with every instance of sharing, is unparalleled in our history. Perhaps we have developed visual literacy, but it’s a literacy that rests on a foundation of social norms, interactions, and experiences that have yet to fully develop into a language.
In the meantime, I will continue to cherish the visual literacy I have developed in art and fashion. Like George Nelson, I will hold out hope that the rich, slow, and consistent languages I speak will continue to remain relevant in an age that may primarily value the opposite.
I don’t quite know why, but I love this. From Manfredo Massironi’s The Psychology of Graphic Images.
Braddock, PA. May 2013.
My first year of grad school finally over, I celebrated with two of my classmates by going on a brief photo tour. I really, really missed photography.
For what may or may not be my five year anniversary of DJing at Remedy, a flyer that may or may not be funny to anyone else.
Second semester is just around the corner, so a quick update on what I’ve been up to. Given that I’m incapable of being happy unless I’m busy, I decided to use my month-long break between semesters to better myself, or whatever. Goals: get better at drawing, read some design classics, and make my portfolio.
I knocked out my portfolio first, it’s at shrzd.com if you’re curious about my work. Then I went to the library. Guys, I love the library. I spent an hour caressing various books, deciding what I was going to devote my limited time to. Below is a list of what I read, along with my brief thoughts on each book.
Drawing for Graphic Design, by Timothy Samara. As an actual drawing course, this book is way too involved. Even I balked at the amount of drive it would take to complete the recommended exercises. As a book on drawing, I vastly preferred the simple and to-the-point book You Can Draw (below). However, Samara is an excellent teacher and the entire first half of the book was foundational and theoretical teaching. His approach to basic design principles was lucid, articulate, and really pleasurable to read. I’m going to be reading two more of his books.
You Can Draw by Bruce Robertson. A really short, really old book that does everything I needed it to do. Robertson takes you through a primer/refresher course on proper tools and technique, then provides a series of exercises and frameworks that can be tailored to your specific skill level. This book could not have been better. When I was in high school I used to be able to say, with some level of awkward adolescent confidence, “yeah, I can draw.” I feel like I can say that again today.
A Designer’s Art, by Paul Rand. This was a fast read. I was already familiar with much of Mr. Rand’s work, but the clarity with which he laid out design process and design thinking was lovely. What he said here, so long ago, is what the rest of the world is finally starting to see value in. My favorite part was a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Work Song, a sentiment that no one could possibly express better: “I’ll work as I’ll think as I am.”
The New Typography, by Jan Tschichold. I got this just a few days ago, so I’ve only started it. It is… interesting. Tschichold’s passionate belief in the collective and his dogmatic and aggressive stance on their beliefs really highlights how young he was when he wrote it. My copy of the book has a thoughtful introduction which outlines how his beliefs changed as he aged, and also shows the revisions he would have liked to make to later editions. Overall, I’m finding this worthwhile mainly in my exploration of subcultures, collectives, and shared experiences (the topic of my eventual thesis).
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte. I didn’t think I was going to like this book, and I was extremely wrong. Tufte has a no-nonsense approach to visual communication that really resonates with me. Also, he reduces complex principles (e.g. truthfulness, efficiency of data-ink) to ratios, which is supposed to be serious, but which I find mostly entertaining. I used to think I was a bad designer because my graphics never looked flashy and complicated, but now I realize that I think like Tufte: a graphic should communicate without obfuscating.
Finally, Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers. I’m a long-time fan of Albers’ art work, and I love color, so I freaked out, as they say, when I realized this book existed. I’m working through the exercises with the suggested Color-Aid cards, and I feel like nothing has ever been more fun. If you care about color, I can’t recommend this book enough.
I did a bunch of other things over the break: had four house guests over two weeks, traveled to two other states, did lead paint abatement on our basement, and bought some pens. I’ll probably talk more about the pens in a future post.
Guys, a good pen can change your life.