29 July 2015

Zen and the art of negative space

literature, philosophy, design philosophy, graphic design, negative space, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
I was recently gifted one of my many must-reads-but-somehow-never have-dones: Robert Persig's seminal Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This chunk of 70s popular philosophy is such a cornerstone of modern culture I probably don't need to tell you it's good. That might be like telling you Elton John is a popular singer/songwriter or vitamin C helps prevent colds.

One particular passage in it really caught my attention, where The Narrator talks about his shared motorcycle road trip with his son Chris and their friends John and Sylvia:
"In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, 'See? ... See?' and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent."

It resonates not just because it's a nice little philosophical truism, but also because it's a nice little design truism. A perfect metaphor for the age-old designer/client stumbling block: we want less, they want more. Persig's observation reminded  me of something John Maeda wrote in his brilliantly succinct Laws of Simplicity. Law 6 / Context: nothing is something.
"If given an empty space or any extra room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, business people would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity. 
On the other hand, a designer would choose to do their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. More white space means that less information is presented. In turn, proportionately more attention shall be paid to that which is made less available. When there is less, we appreciate everything much more."

It's a perfectly rationalised 'less is more' counter to the classic design misstep of filling in all your negative space, and offers the perfect maxim every designer should keep in their back pocket; nothing is an important something.

20 March 2015

Instagram's community vs Instagram's commodity

Instagram picture of Benjamin Franklin with his arm around 'The Man'
Instagram is my favourite social network. There. I said it. After Initially giving it short shrift (from years of shooting on film I HAY-HAY-HATED retro-filters) I caved, accepted then embraced the ‘nice network’ after Twitter became Troller and Facebook became, well, Facebook. So it’s with knitted brow that Instagram are introducing a new ad model which will allow brands to post carousel-style ad stories on the timeline with links to web content browse-able within the app – much like Twitter and Facebook.

Now, I’m not a frikking idiot. I know a network can’t run 40 million posted images a day on good vibes alone (“unless you’re owned by Facebook!” someone shouts from the back of the internet) so something’s got to pay for the servers. And short of convincing a social generation raised on freemium to subscribe or make micropayments every time they post a picture of their breakfast (guilty), advertising is the obvious choice.

Since the rollout last year of promoted posts, Instagram became a bonafide brand platform and it’s since been noticeable how user engagements with brand accounts are increasingly done so in a way more akin to Twitter. For example, to celebrate Red Nose Day British Airways posted a joyous picture of their record-breaking highest gig in the sky from last year. Amongst all the fan love responses, one awkward, chilly off-topic question relating to an alleged BA association to animal welfare violations cut through the warm glow on the timeline like a hornet at a child's summer party.

At first this interaction seems a bit weird, given that the platform primarily converses with pictures. But not so weird when you look at YouTube: a platform that primarily converses with video but whose below-the-fold commentary reads like an irascible 70s teenager with Tourettes. It’s this tricky, brand-baiting, PR managed reality of paid-for which could be the turn-off for the people who helped lovingly build the network in the first place – the same cornerstone community whom Instagram is constantly celebrating.

It’ll be interesting to watch the balancing act between community and commodity as the network becomes more sophisticated but I really hope it succeeds in managing both. After all, it’s arguably the one big network left where one can converse daily and be surprised, inspired and feel genuine positivity without having to suffer misanthropic bellends as you do so.