Cups and lids.

Coffee-Survey-Gear-Patrol-City-Bakery-768x591

First there was this beautifully photographed survey, to remind me how singular the City Bakery coffee cup is, how brilliant an artifact of caffeine consumption. These cups can be so loaded with meaning that it was important enough for Christina and me to spring for the iconic “We Are Happy To Serve You” cups for drinks served at our own wedding.

And then there is its obliging companion: the plastic gateway that tends to be the drinker’s interface with the cup. Cups are all style – branded vessels in standard sizes, differentiated by color and typography. But lids are functionally different humble masterpieces in a way that cups almost never dare to be. Lids are circular wireframes, down to microcopy (CAUTION CONTENTS HOT).

What half-awake studies of user experience design we could have, starting at $1.

Related: I really would like one of these silkscreen prints by Christoph Niemann.

kaffee_siebdruck03sm-498x498

Start with a haiku.

As I am now really teaching people how to (learn how to) design, I thought to go back to a conversation I had with Carlos last year when he shared a link to the The Manifesto Project on my Facebook timeline. What follows, I realize, has held as my own design manifesto of sorts for at least the last 18 months:

I’m finding more often that design is less a matter of visual style and more about paying attention. Most of the time, the more details that show the decision of a designer to focus the user of an object on the purpose(s) of that object, the better the object serves its user, and therefore, the better the design. Therefore, I’ve been less likely to recommend reading the writings of other designers, lest novices confuse that designer’s aesthetics with their processes.

Where I would start, with a literate audience, is poetry. Start with a haiku. This is the smallest possible object to ‘design,’ and everybody has the tools. Then ask: Why this word and not that word? Why this inflection and not that one?

Get a young designer to think this way, then have them use their phone, their car, their shoes. Successfully honing a design sensibility, in my judgment, is getting that person to look at an object and think, Why this material and not that one? Why this color and not that one? Why this position 35 cm away and not that position 40 cm away? And so on, throughout every syllable of their experience.

Covering Arcadia.

Tonight I’ve done something I haven’t done in years: worked on a design for which I was accountable to no one.

Inspired by a colleague’s homework assignment for her basic typography class at SVA, I decided to create a new cover for one of my favorite books: Arcadia.

It’s a book I first bought at a used bookstore in Philadelphia, read annually from 2006–12, and have given at least twice as a gift. Every time I’ve read or gifted this book, this is what the cover looked like.

This is what I am thinking it could look like:

arcadia-cover-matthew-marco

In my version, there are a couple of plays on the title at work. The obvious one is that the title of the play on the cover circles back on itself: the ‘A’ at the 12 o’clock position is highlighted in pure white to demarcate it as the beginning and end (the rest of the letters are set in a pale grey).

The second play is in the conceptual connection I wanted to create between the text and the cover design through the selection of typefaces: the word ‘Arcadia’ is set in two related typefaces, alternating letter-by-letter. They are:

  • Baskerville: designed in the 1700s by John Baskerville.
  • Mrs. Eaves: designed in the 1990s by Zuzana Licko, it was an homage to Baskerville and named for John Baskerville’s wife and aide.

Much like the structure of the play, alternating between 1809 and the 1990s, the title of the play on the cover imperceptibly alternates between two related typefaces from the 18th century and the 20th century. To make the distinction between these two more clear – to telegraph the obscure punchline – I set “Tom” in Baskerville and “Stoppard” in Mrs. Eaves.

The back cover extends the concept:

arcadia-back-matthew-marco

Here, text is set in Caslon, a quintessential English serif designed in the 1600s by William Caslon. Baskerville was designed with the idea of improving upon Caslon (like Sidley Park, the play’s setting, subject to a redesign in 1809).

The image that spans across the cover is an image called (fittingly) The Hermitage, painted by an unknown artist, dated 1772. It’s pretty literal, but I think the typography concept is high-brow enough to draw out some of the text’s themes to the point that the cover’s imagery can simply be a painting of an English country house.

The Faber & Faber branding is all taken from their website. I think this qualifies as fair use but am open to having my interpretation questioned.

Download the full cover as a PDF if you’re interested in seeing how it all works together. It includes the spine, where ‘Arcadia’ is set in the same alternating typefaces but in a straight line that hopefully addresses some of the obvious legibility issues.

Curious to hear some honest feedback on this: tweet at me.

Everything here is made.

He acquired “a natural understanding that everything here” — highways, bridges, Toyotas — “is made, and is the consequence of multiple decisions.”

This quote from the massive New Yorker profile of Jony Ive and the Apple design team confirms something I already knew about him because it’s something I’ve come to recognize in every designer I admire: acting upon the knowledge that everything touched by people is designed. I’d like to think game recognize game, as it were.

I’ve long held that this mindset is a prerequisite for being a professional designer. After reading this profile, I’m thinking about it as perhaps the primary criterion through which I filter designers.

Were I to interview a junior designer for a job, I’d ask them to talk about how they chose colors, typefaces, and materials.

If I were going to interview a senior designer, I’d ask them to talk about how the colors, typefaces, and materials they chose affected the usability and functionality of the product.

If I were going to interview a design leader, I’d ask them to talk about every decision they’ve made today and their consequences.

Also: my favorite quote about Ive from this profile is from Laurene Powell Jobs: “Really, if you ever need buttons for things designed, for doors or lights, you should just stay in touch with him.”

Through materials to find those for which we have the closest affinity.

Michael Bierut’s remembrance for Massimo Vignelli begins:

I learned how to design at design school. But I learned how to be a designer from Massimo Vignelli.

How to be a designer: what a massive assignation.

As Vignelli tributes (and links to his New York City subway map) clustered in my inbox this week, I’ve thought a lot about how I learned how to be a designer. I sometimes think I know how to be a designer because, like Bierut, I developed a taste for raw meat.

And as I reflect, I’m pretty sure I arrived at my present professional modus operandi through a non-repeatable formula of haphazardly undertaken coursework, a scarce bit of mentorship, and quite a lot of luck in choosing the things I’ve done repeatedly. Among the activities I’d consider directly responsible for my success, I’d include coding, Photoshop, and a lot of time articulating my (often un)solicited opinions about design and typography. Indirectly, I’m pretty sure my hobbies of cooking, looking at urban spaces, and finding dress shirts that fit led me to some of the same conclusions as Bierut about taste and the recognition of my own blind spots.

However much I consciously did not count Vignelli as a design influence (or a personal mentor), I have to acknowledge his stature in the field and credit him for forcing me as a young designer to respond and re-respond to his six-typeface standard. While I still disagree with such an arbitrary limit, my response has evolved over the last 10 years: whereas I was once appalled by its restrictiveness, I am now more appreciative of what it represents as a manifestation of a set of principles.

My hobbies are not unique among professionals in my field. I’d like to think they’ve helped me thrive in my field because of my approach to them, one informed by the six-typeface standard: I’ve learned to prioritize competence over novelty.

Vignelli's six typefaces.

As for Vignelli’s principles: I’d recommend The Vignelli Canon to young designers, outsiders, and humans at-large. It’s written and designed with lots of heart (it’s also a quick read, available as a free PDF).

Its conclusion is also a fitting piece of text to quote this week. Printed on the last page of the book and set in Century Expanded, it feels like a poem:

Throughout our creative lives we have sifted
through everything to select what we thought best.
We sifted through materials to find those for which
we have the closest affinity. We sifted through
colors, textures, typefaces, images, and gradually
we built a vocabulary of materials and experiences
that enable us to express our solutions to given
problems – our interpretations of reality.
It is imperative to develop your own vocabulary of
your own language – a language that attempts to
be as objective as possible, knowing very well that
even objectivity is subjective.
I love systems and despise happenstance.
I love ambiguity because, for me, ambiguity means
plurality of meanings. I love contradiction
because it keeps things moving, preventing them
from assuming a frozen meaning, or becoming a
monument to immobility.
As much as I love things in flux, I love them
within a frame of reference – a consistent
reassurance that at least and at last I am the one
responsible for every detail.

And that is why I love Design.

To let our city die by degrees.

After visiting the Rizzoli Bookstore on its last day of operation to end a week where I’ve read Dustin Curtis on Facebook’s design and Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem, I’m seeing a thread through these three stories about how people in a laissez-faire market make decisions that prioritize profit over aestheics and thinking about what that means in the context of an urban or technological ecosystem.

Though it is the retail presence of an Italian art book publisher, Rizzoli in Midtown arguably qualifies as a neighborhood gem (I suppose its closest analog would be Taschen’s Beverly Hills outpost), but it is a representative of a business that is dying in New York – bookstores – in favor of something that I perceive to be a blight – weak-modernist condominium towers for the ultra-rich.

Facebook’s new News Feed design is certainly something that can’t count me as an admirer. Between the current view and the screenshot Curtis used to illustrate his essay, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. In the same thread of people exercising their will and aesthetics, I found myself seeing the play between Curtis’ essay and Julie Zhou’s “user-focused” response analogous to Jon Wiley’s exegesis on the Google redesign of 2011 and Doug Bowman’s 2009 farewell to the same company.

And Wild Ones is a fantastic read: Mooallem (so far) hasn’t presented a particular opinion as far as which kind of conservation strategy is best (or even declared explicitly that conservation of endangered species is right), but he has – with a gracious wit – provided a platform for arguments about conservation and human intervention in ecosystems that I find somewhat salient as I’m thinking about how Facebook and Google design websites and how real estate developers like Vornado and LeFrak choose to exercise their will in urban environments.

Is it right that Rizzoli in midtown is closing – not because it’s an insolvent business but because Vornado and LeFrak wish to destroy the older (and, to my eyes, lovelier) edifice and replace it with crash pads for ultra-rich jetsetters? I personally find glass towers in the ilk of One57 gauche, and while I’m not its target audience by any stretch, I am a stakeholder in its success or failure insofar as I am a resident of the same ecosystem.

A theme that runs through Wild Ones is that conservation of one species is never really just about that species but the balance between where it lives, what it eats and what eats it and how people just get mixed up in all of that. In much the same way, my feelings about Rizzoli aren’t really about the bookstore or even about bookstores in general. They’re about the aesthetics of economic predators and shifting baselines for future generations, who I fear we will raise in a cornice-free future without bookstores and the people who care about them.

And that’s a future that will come into being because I believe that when a person prioritizes profit over aesthetics, they subtly shift the baseline of aesthetics for future generations. What degree of visual noise do we accept now in the things we use everyday, whether they’re websites or city streets? How about the generations that follow? Will our grandchildren aspire to design arched-tile ceilings like Guastavino or endow everyday brick with ornaments of brass and terra cotta like Sullivan if they never knew that these places, these features, these possibilities existed?

(Above: one of my favorite short films/presentations on the subject, Lost Buildings – this time in Chicago, with Ira Glass narrating and Chris Ware illustrating.)

I don’t want to know the answers to those questions, nor do I actually want to define the specific boundaries of my aesthetic pluralism or articulate my thoughts on revenue-driven real estate development and A/B-tested software design. But I do want to expand a bit on what Rizzoli’s closure in Midtown actually means to me.

Rizzoli is not a living organism or an altruistic organization, and it’s not even closing up for good (a cashier told me they’re considering reopening near the Flatiron later this year). But it exists in the urban ecosystem of Midtown, and that ecosystem is one that feels more and more hostile to species of people who value literature and art and being in buildings with nice Beaux-Arts architectural features (in short, people like me). It’s one less neighborhood where these species can thrive, in a city that has been getting more obviously inhospitable toward that industry – and by extension, that kind of person – in the past few years.

And just as disappearing plant species and food resources and the introduction of highways and airports can be cataclysmic events for animals in the wild, I believe that prioritizing one land use over another (ahem, parking) can be detrimental to the overall value of an urban setting. For instance, while I’m not a hardcore library user or bookstore patron, I value those people as my colleagues and weak ties. And seeing Rizzoli close – and more pointedly, for the reason it closed – means that the pain of losing that species is not just edging closer into being but that it’s being willfully accelerated for selfish reasons.

Obviously, software, architecture, real estate, booksellers, and animals are very different beasts. But the ways people treat them and interpret their own relationship to them have a clear parallel to me. They are all such pervasive aspects of a person’s experience of life that when one aspect of it is altered, it arguably alters the whole experience.

And I’d advise: if you can help it, don’t prey on what you can’t resurrect. There are greater consequences to this than you’ve anticipated.

The Chesapeake at sunrise.

The Chesapeake at sunrise, from Northeast Regional 180.

This seems at once the wrong time and the best time in my life to start reading The Architecture of Happiness (or any other de Botton for that matter). Its central concern with the effects of architecture on emotional well-being is one I align with completely, and with my usual sentimental nature, it should surprise none of my friends that I feel a sense of loss and even a twinge of regret as the contents of my apartment are boxed and neatly stacked in the corners, awaiting limbo in a New York warehouse.

And as my Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings have been spent on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional (reminiscent of my 2005 eastern seaboard sandwich odyssey – does anyone else remember those days?), it seems the wrong time and the best time to watch a movie like Up in the Air, with its fetishization of packing a carry-on suitcase but equivocating vindication of its protagonist’s nomadic (and unbound) lifestyle. I admire the former as I’ve optimized my own laundry routine to the point that the largest items in my backpack (my only bag on this New York-bound train) are my computer and my water bottle.

The latter, however, is getting a little long in the tooth (to say nothing of my Amex statement). While I have aspired in the past to a kind of rootlessness – maybe even that kind of mileage-accruing white-collar rootlessness – I am now reaping my lack of commitment to it. It’s not simply that I’m burdened with stuff, but I feel like I got the wrong stuff. Gym shoes should fold and flatten, portable hard drives should be bus-powered, soap carriers should aerate and collapse, fabrics should resist odors, towels should dry as quickly as they absorb – I didn’t pay attention to these details before. These things were in my life to furnish an apartment, not facilitate a multi-city existence where I’ll never be sure what odors await me at the next room I’ll lay my head.

(My pillow-top queen mattress, on the other hand – I don’t regret that purchase at all.)

The balance, it seems, is in the argument for “less, but better” stuff (there’s this salient point too) – and better in the sense that it speaks to the life you want. That said, I still need to reconcile my ambitions to the rucksack and library (and my Kindle, though I love it, is not the solution).

This week: after a few weeks in uncertain guest rooms, I booked a hotel in Park Slope for a couple nights and ordered a quick-dry towel. I also got a parking permit for the moving truck yesterday – they’ll be emptying my apartment Sunday morning.

Apropos nothing, anybody out there need size 31 pants? A TV cabinet? Twenty back issues of Communication Arts?

And perhaps out of a lack of contentment with my current existential/architectural crisis, perhaps I’ll read another de Botton book next.

Wash and fold.

Four weeks in, and I’ve figured out a useful trick to packing light for weekdays in New York: a wash-and-fold near the office where I can drop off my laundry before the weekend and pick it up at the start of the week.

It really isn’t so much a trick as an extravagance, but with any new milieu are born new justifications for life’s luxuries. Things that seemed frivolities in a previous routine become imminently desirable: wash-and-fold laundry service, a same-day train ticket, passport wallet, a 4G iPad, a pair of black pebbled leather shoes with storm-welted Dainite soles.

They may be tricks, or maybe just material possessions that address severed connections in my personal infrastructure. The pre-sleep path between water pitcher and toothbrush I knew as a linoleum-parquet-tile-rug textural odyssey in a dozen unlit steps shifts every week. Every morning shower in a shared bathroom is bracketed with moments of being on – and there’re more than those two moments if I forget my shampoo in my toiletry bag or my towel on the back of the door.

Maybe this should’ve occurred to me sooner, but I’d never realized (or admitted?) that these paths and even the smell of my own towel as I dried off my face were ballasts of a kind. Still, I don’t suppose that justifies the sheer quantity of dress shirts I own.

While this lifestyle of packing light and keeping no fixed address requires an unusually heavy amount of thinking, the price of having lots of stuff is becoming apparent. Christina spent the weekend clearing bookshelves; I spent an hour today in conversation with a pair of moving companies to discern the price of leveraging their infrastructure for my northward leap. In sum, I’ll likely spend more than a month’s rent (not just my share but the entire check) to store the contents of my E Street apartment and have them unloaded them at a time and location to-be-determined.

But that’s the price I’ll pay at the end of the month. In the meantime, it’s a $10 wash-and-fold bill that allows me to lighten my everyday carry to a duffel and a backpack, three days at a time in New York. This week, as last week, I’ll be sleeping in a guestroom on Grand and Lafayette in Clinton Hill; next week, I’ll be in Park Slope.

I’ve grappled with the definition of ‘home’ for most of my life. For now, I’m content to call it the place where I know exactly what my towel smells like and where it’ll be hanging.

Portable cathedrals.

Perhaps the only mobile phone review I’d consider essential reading includes “Roland Barthes” among its tags and this choice paragraph:

Each mobile phone handset is not a mere product, perhaps like the other products that have traditionally adorned the pages of this magazine—as a chair is, or a lighting fixture is. Instead, each handset is a play in a wider global contest, a node in logistics networks of immense scale and complexity, a platform for an ecosystem of applications, an exemplar of the internet of things, a window onto the daily interactions of billions of users, of their ever-changing personalities and cultures, a product that consumers traditionally consider the most important in their possession, after the keys to their home.
“Portable Cathedrals” by Dan Hill for Domus

So much of it is quotable that it’s difficult to tease out one singular paragraph around which to blog. Its focus on the nature of mobile-phone-ness is unabating. Hill also admirably keeps the phones aesthetic and technical qualities within scope while forgoing descriptions of the device as technoassemblage (the prevailing editorial voice of Cnet, Gizmodo, Engadget, and even The Verge).

I, for one, am taking notes.

(via Small Surfaces)

Every letter counts.

The spellcheck on my BlackBerry recognizes none of these words.
2011 June 2, 8:46 pm

As my live-tweeting of last week’s National Spelling Bee finals attests, my misspellings outnumbered my correct guesses by a factor of five, which led me to the realization that I am not a good speller. I am merely adept at avoiding typos.

I don’t doubt now that my childhood prowess as a speller contributed to my present investment in design, typography in particular. Christina observed that modern spelling prowess is a byproduct of a sophisticated pattern-recognition regime: the definition, language of origin, and part of speech hint at each word’s constituent roots, prefixes, suffixes, and conjugations. More precisely, having believed from a young age that every letter counts gave me a strong foundation for a career in careful consideration of the glyphs themselves (and spaces between them).

Among the 13 words I spelled correctly were six of the nine food words: cioppino, andouille, profiterole, teppanyaki, ingberlach, and orgeat. My proficiency here, I realized, is due less to patterns I recognize than actual omnivorousness: I have encountered five of these six spelled out on menus, on my grocery receipts, on plates placed before me, and in dishes I’ve served others. Cioppino, like Italian sinigang. Andouille sausage with brunch at the L.A. farmer’s market. Profiteroles, like deep-fried sugar-powdered zeppelins. Teppanyaki, when I first tried kobe beef. Orgeat, an almond flavoring, was one my coworkers at Third Street Coffee didn’t know how to pronounce, one that no one ever ordered, but it was there whenever I emptied, cleaned, and refilled the syrup cabinet. It was happenstance – not methodical curiosity – that helped me spell 13 of the most befuddling English words that challenged spellers that night.

Which leads me back to the (foregone?) conclusion that the greatest preparation for something like the National Spelling Bee, a design career, and lots of other challenges and ambitions is a kind of applied omnivorousness: the ability to synthesize all the info-plankton we’re sucking through the baleen of our formal educations, Google Reader, and just living in the world into exacting compositions of ambergris, one letter at a time.

My personal challenge has not been finding plankton; it’s been strengthening my baleen filter. Preparing for spelling bees by organizing chunks of letters into languages of origin and parts of speech, to be summoned at a moment’s notice, is good exercise.

Next is getting over my fear of the bell.

Related: NPR’s preview of the 2011 Associated Press food guidelines (via Christina).

Not much else.

…certain brands, and bands, can so glammer the market that a mere 10 percent share is nothing short of ubiquitous. Apple is that good, Radiohead is, and not much else.
The Apple Of Rock

While I don’t buy the build-up completely, the payoff is astute. While there may be “not much else,” surely there is something seemingly ubiquitous, operating beyond its milieu, at a grander level of aesthetic criticism.

There is, right?

Traces of interfaces.

It’s hard to appreciate the variety of UIs though, since turning the screen off removes virtually all evidence of them. To spotlight these differences, I looked at the only fragments that remain from using an app: fingerprints.
Remnants of a Disappearing UI via things magazine

I often play Boggle on my iPod touch during my commute and end the day with a four-by-four grid of smudges clustered around the home button.

By their covers.

First class each semester I hand the students a questionnaire. One of the questions asks the students to draw, from memory, the cover of their favorite book of all time. I superimpose the drawings over a photo of a blank book, then show them to the students the following class.
Spine Out, “Favorite Book Sketches”

Related: The Times on books as decorations and the dying art of judging commuters by their reading preferences.

And then we could fuck it up a little.

The Tiger Mother roaring perilously close to meme-dom has finally encroached on Design Observer. The payoff is a bit of remembered wisdom dispensed by Tibor Kalman to Michael Bierut on the rules:

Tibor listened patiently to my ideas — there were lots of them — and then paused for a long time. “Well, yes, you could do some stuff like that,” he responded carefullly. “Or, we could do something like this. You could work out a good clear grid. We could edit all the images really carefully. Then you could do a really nice clean layout, perfect pace, perfect sequence. You know,” he added with a smile, “sort of like a Vignelli book. And then we could fuck it up a little.”
via Design Observer

This is a good read, especially for designers who fall into the trap of casting creativity and technical purity at opposite ends of a spectrum.