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.
I’ve been in grad school for less than two months, and I’ve learned that there are two types of learning. There’s the kind that augments an existing framework in your brain, building out on scaffolding your previous experiences created, and then there’s the weirder kind - the kind that builds a new little nest inside your head, and thus gives home to a whole collection of thoughts that previously wouldn’t have stayed with you, thoughts that make you see and think completely differently.
Here are some other things I’ve learned-
1. In any sort of group activity, whoever shows up with the first and best graphics WINS. They control the conversation and the direction of what happens next.
2. If you’ve presented something and no one has any feedback, one or more of the following things have happened (whether or not you want to admit it):
a. what you’ve made is just appallingly bad
b. you’ve entirely missed the point of the project
c. your narrative failed, so no one was listening
3. I always thought “visual thinker” was a myth, and I was wrong. Visual thinkers think non-visual thinkers are a myth, and they are also wrong.
4. Espresso is a truly superior method of caffeine consumption.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that this is where I belong. (queue The Kinks)
Body Language (Sunday), 2011
Sometime in the last 5-7 years, I became really obsessed with hiding myself.
It started with a legitimate concern about online privacy. In my blogging heyday I had a handful of real-life stalkers who turned out to be sane and non-violent, but it was easy to see the danger in what I was doing; I started to be more careful about what I put online. Later, when I found that my former business partners were asking their employees to report on my activities, I became even more concerned about what I put forth into the world. It seemed like everyone’s motives were suspect, and the only way to stay safe was to hide.
Sadly, as a woman raised in a traditional middle eastern home, this type of self-censorship came a little too easily to me, and I stopped allowing myself to even think openly lest the world somehow know. Slowly, over time, my well-intentioned care morphed into paranoia and today, I find myself under a self-imposed shroud of figurative (and sometimes literal) shadows.
This is not where I want to be. I know objectively that reticent caution has a place… as a counterpoint to openness. It’s not terribly healthy to have one without the other.
In the last few weeks I’ve been preparing to return back to my alma mater for graduate school, and in the last few months I’ve been ridding myself of all my clothing except the sensible things I bought for myself 7 years ago (before I fell down the rabbit hole of fashion). Both the trappings and location of my life are reverting to a prior state.
To reference the Deweyian concept of experience: I started somewhere, and now I’m returning to that same place wholly changed. Thinking of the last 7 years of my life as just an engrossing esthetic experience - an experience that added to my life but is now ending - feels really freeing.
I could finish this train of thought with some cliche about stepping out of the shadows or casting off the shroud of history, maybe even something about a white rabbit, but let’s leave the cloying kickers for another time. Nothing here needs to be tied up with a neat little bow - it’s a work in progress.
Finally catching up on my reading, and the best thing I’ve read so far is this: Molly Fischer, On Ladyblogs.
I rarely read so-called ladyblogs. I think the Hairpin, to take the same specific example used by Ms. Fischer, is largely condescending, repulsively phony, and offensively self-congratulatory. I don’t read non-ladyblogs often either. I think blogging has devolved into a giant lazy finger pointing at itself, a point that (in the second best thing I’ve read recently) Blake Andrews illustrates beautifully in his photography-specific piece The Finger.
Somehow, as women, we’re allowed to complain about the rest of the blogging world but about not “our” blogging world. We violate the terms of sisterhood if we don’t put hugs and kisses into everything we do, and if we disagree with what’s said or done, we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut lest we hurt someone’s feelings. Everything is personal, even when it clearly isn’t, like your reader’s feelings on those cute new shoes you wear once to take a picture of.
I’ve dealt with this playground mentality by divorcing myself from that world entirely, which I admit is avoidant and unproductive. Thus, I can only applaud Molly Fischer for having the courage to say what needs to be said, even in the face of truly ridiculous personal attacks that revolve around “boys” and “slumber parties”.
As she puts it, "[my ideal website] would be one where good faith could be assumed without gussying everything up in the trappings of intimacy, swaddling tricky subjects in chattiness. These are gestures that seem strange and infantilizing to me, because instant friendship regardless of individuality is the kind of assumption that parents make about children (“They have a daughter your age, you’ll have fun!”) and bosses about subordinates and majorities about minorities, but not one equals in power typically make about one another."
Ladies, we’re allowed to disagree, and we’re allowed to argue about what we really believe. We’re allowed to really believe things, and we’re allowed to have strong opinions that we stand by. Men have done it for centuries, so let’s stop pretending like we don’t want that same freedom.
P.S. I also think the forced faux-intimacy of the ladyblog world creates unrealistic expectations in female friendships, but that’s a topic for another time.
They love this on facebook, I thought might as well post it here too. Just an excerpt from my life… Amidst all the pretty terrible things I’ve been dealing with, there have been moments of fun.
Lightning Rod, 2012
You know all those alarmist articles about data mining and our status as a collection of likes and dislikes ready to be massaged into a mindless advertising-driven monetary stream? The internet knows you better than you know yourself.
Here is a semi-random selection of 3+ years of my Twitter “favorites” clearly revealing that I think being a human being on the internet is fraught with problems and that personal branding is a joke at best. Of course this happened without me ever realizing, myself, that I felt this way. And yes, I favorited one of my own tweets.
Some Asshole, @MoorishDignity
Shit just got fake.
Michael Ian Black, @michaelianblack
Maybe I should stop being surprised when I have a good time hanging out with people.
todd levin, @toddlevin
Twitter cuts through all the b.s. that would otherwise distract us from behaving like needy, easily wounded babies.
Alain de Botton, @alaindebotton
Half the fear of failure is of the judgement of false friends we feel compelled to impress but don’t even like.
Kevin Fanning, @kfan
due to overexposure to the internet I can no longer tell where my sincerity ends and my personal brand begins
"He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away." -Raymond Hull
Bob Powers, @bobpowers1
If any corporations tracking my purchases are reading this, where did it all go wrong for me? Was it the Papasan Chair?
S S, @luckmachine
Went to the store to try to buy my life some meaning.
Amy Stein, @Amy_Stein
We’ve become fixated on the process of distribution instead of the process of personal growth as artists
Andy Borowitz, @BorowitzReport
1963: Ask not what your country can do for you 2011: Please follow me and I will follow you back k thanks #USA
Women Of History, @WomenOfHistory
Fame means millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are. -Erica Jong
Neal Brennan, @nealbrennan
2001: “He’s a good dude.” 2012: “He’s really on-message about the kindness of his brand.”