No design is good design

Design.I’ve been noticing an interesting trend of late with blogs I find interesting: their design is minimal to non-existent. And sites that did have elaborate designs are severely scaling them back or removing them entirely.

A few examples:

Daring Fireball
Of course. This is one of the most “designed” of the sites I’m talking about today. It actually has color. Well, if you call gray a color.
43 Folders
Merlin Mann’s site may be the inverse of my own, and not just in name. It was once loaded up with “clever” design elements suitable to its “get your (creative) work life organized” philosophy: manila folders, paper clips, etc. But in its latest incarnation it’s stripped down to a bare minimum of design. The only remnant of the old look is the red color of the title at the top of the page, and outside of images and a subtle yellow highlight hover state for links, that’s the only color on the site.
rc3.org
Rafe Colburn’s site is the very definition of minimalist design. White background, black text. But clearly a lot of thought went into the choice of font (yes, even though it’s Helvetica), relative text sizes, and the sporadic use of shades of gray for things like block quotes.
Subtraction.com
Khoi Vinh’s site is masterfully designed, even though (or perhaps specifically because) it’s black-and-white-and-Helvetica-all-over. Oh, except for the slap in the face of bright orange when you mouse over a link. Pow! Bort! Mint! Snuh! (That one’s for CheckersSpeech.)
Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report
Zeldman’s site is an explosion of designy-ness compared to the others on this list. But compared to something like Web Designer Wall it’s strikingly spartan, and deliberately retrograde. (And, in trying — unsuccessfully — to find his old post where he discussed this latest incarnation of the site, I discovered that he also covered this exact topic six months ago. Looks like I’m late to the party, as usual.)

If less is more, then none is all.

Resolved: All tech bloggers (including myself) are longwinded, narcissistic douchebags (except maybe John Gruber, depending on what he means by his latest post)

Why's it so green?There are some tech blogs I read a lot, and there are others I rarely read.

The ones I read a lot tend to have certain characteristics in common: they’re relatively simple in design; they frequently veer off-topic into tangential areas I also find interesting (meaning they’re written by real people instead of corporate tools); and they usually have few if any ads, usually served by invitation-only ad networks like The Deck. (I’d love to be invited to make ancillary income from an exclusive ad network but for now I am settling for the pittance Google throws my way.) Most importantly, they usually get right to the point.

The ones I rarely read also have certain characteristics in common, and unsurprisingly, most are diametrically opposed to the characteristics of the blogs I do read: they’re cluttered, with too many navigation tabs leading you to related sites in the “network” owned by the same faceless holding corporation; they usually stay within their narrowly-defined topical box dictated by said faceless holding corporation; they’re swimming in obnoxious Flash ads that creep across the text and force you to interact with them, if only to shoo them away. And they blather on and on, clearly paid by the word, with insipid, uninformed (despite their extensive network of industry connections and apparently large readership) opinions.

Now at this point you may be thinking my own blog more closely resembles the second group, save for the corporate overlords and industry connections (and money). And maybe you’re right. But that’s my own failing, and is probably why this blog falls into the “audience of one” category.

Anyway… by now it’s probably obvious to anyone reading this blog regularly (i.e. me) that one of my primary sources of tech news is John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. Gruber is an Apple fan, but he’s also highly insightful and more than willing to criticize Apple when he thinks they’ve screwed up (see the ongoing App Store debacle). I’m less appreciative of Gruber’s enthusiasm for the New York Yankees. But my favorite aspect of Daring Fireball is probably the “Claim Chowder” posts, where he cites foolish claims from the past — often focused on Apple’s perpetually-impending demise — that have since been proven egregiously false. There are two of what I would call “corporate bloggers” who are frequent targets of his ridicule: Rob Enderle and Michael Arrington.

Today Gruber hit the jackpot: Enderle is commenting on Arrington. Well, sort of. He’s actually commenting on the JooJoo: the poorly named phoenix rising from the ashes of Arrington’s ill-conceived and now doomed device concept, the CrunchPad.

I still do not “get” tablet PCs. I especially don’t get the JooJoo: as large as a regular laptop, and priced as high as an entry-level model, but with no keyboard, and a handful of other frustrating limitations for the form factor. What it really comes down to for me is that it’s as big as a laptop, but it can’t do everything a laptop can do. And it’s not cheap enough for price to make a significant difference. What niche is this thing supposed to fill?

I’ll be honest — when I first heard rumors that Apple was going to make a phone, I thought it was a terrible idea. I managed to avoid my own case of claim chowder by not really mentioning the iPhone announcement on this blog when it hit, but suffice to say as much as I thought an Apple phone was never going to happen — even right up to the beginning of the keynote where it was announced — by the end of the demo, I was convinced that the iPhone was the best invention ever. Like the iPod, it filled a niche. Before the iPod, MP3 players… well… they sucked. And before the iPhone, cell phones, even “smart” ones, pretty much sucked too. The iPhone worked because it brought together all of the best qualities of a number of disparate devices that had never previously existed in the same unit, along with a few brilliant new ideas of its own (all while getting rid of most of the “suck”), wrapped up in the first such device designed with the level of polish and perfection to satisfy Steve Jobs.

Ultimately though it was all about the niche. The devices we could carry in our pockets before the iPhone simply couldn’t do the kinds of things we now take for granted, thanks to the iPhone. I just don’t see a laptop-sized device, with a subset of the features of a laptop and a low-end laptop price tag, filling any kind of a niche. The thing needs to be able to do things current, comparably sized and priced devices can’t. And this doesn’t.

The question of whether Apple can produce something that does is another matter. At the risk of cooking up a steaming pot of claim chowder, and with my early disdain for the Apple phone rumors still in mind, I have to say I just don’t see something like this coming out of Apple, despite the incessant rumors of parts orders from Chinese manufacturers.

All the rumors say Apple’s tablet will be based on the iPhone OS, which seems more likely to me than a Mac OS tablet. But there’s too much about the iPhone “ecosystem” that just wouldn’t seem to translate to a larger tablet device, most obvious being the fixed display resolution. No way is Apple going to produce a device with a 10-inch screen and 480×320 resolution (even the original 1984 Macs had 512×384 displays), but by that same token, I don’t see the iPhone OS interface suddenly supporting multiple resolutions when there are over 100,000 apps all built around this one fixed resolution. Though I haven’t worked with iPhone development, I’m willing to bet that enough iPhone app interfaces use bitmapped images (not scalable vector graphics) that they’d appear completely broken at any other resolution — and even if they are vector-based, they’d scale up in a way that would look ridiculous. And this is just the most obvious reason to me that an iPhone OS-based tablet seems far-fetched.

But all of that doesn’t even get to my point. My point is bloggers like Arrington and Enderle, who make their livings spouting nonsense speculation far worse than what I’ve undertaken in the past two paragraphs, and other bloggers like Gruber who make a (more modest) living partially by calling them out on their bullshit. Which brings me back to Gruber’s latest post. I’m not even sure what to make of it:

Further proof that Enderle’s idiot shtick is an act.

I know Gruber has been speculating lately that Enderle is deliberately writing crap (for whatever nefarious purpose one would have to do such a thing, much like how Gretchen Carlson dumbs down her commentary on Fox News, as revealed by Jon Stewart last night), and that’s entirely possible. But I honestly don’t know what Gruber really means by this comment, in regards to Enderle’s specific post on the folly of the JooJoo (which seems right on) and his thoughts on what it might mean for a future Apple tablet. Personally I think this kind of does spell trouble for an Apple tablet, but only because I think the tablet is kind of a stupid idea anyway.

Time will prove all of us right or wrong. If nothing else, Enderle and Arrington (and Carlson) give us an interesting spectacle to watch… just like a train wreck.

Update: In the time it took me to write this post, Gruber amended his original post with the following, which provides some much-needed (though perhaps not enough) clarification:

I mean, come on, no one really believes that the JooJoo is going to affect Apple even one iota, right?

This can be taken in one of two ways. It all depends on whether or not you think Apple is actually working on a tablet.

Arial vs. Helvetica: a cheat sheet

Stoking the flames of the ongoing (mixed-metaphor) battle between Arial and Helvetica comes this cheat sheet courtesy of the ragbag. (Found via swissmiss via… wait for it… Daring Fireball, surprise!)

This guide hits all of the key differences I go by (the capital R and G; the lowercase a), and a few I hadn’t previously noticed.

Arial vs. Helvetica

The best part of the whole thing, though, is something I discovered in a comment on the swissmiss post: Helvetica, the Shirt. Sweet. Every one of these is bound to piss someone off, albeit for a different reason: the one actually in Helvetica will enrage those who hate Helvetica on principle (it’s overused, it’s not really neutral, it is really neutral, etc. etc.), while the one in Arial will piss off the Helvetica lovers (including myself), if they bother to look closely enough to see the differences.

The one in Cooper Black… well, I don’t know; for me that font will always be associated with Garfield in the early ’80s. I actually like Cooper Black in a cheesy, retro sort of way. But I think the point is probably that Helvetica is so neutral, or at least aspires to be, whereas Cooper Black is the epitome of a font with a personality of its own. (Well, OK, that title probably really belongs to Rosewood, but Cooper is at least a somewhat versatile.)

And then, of course, there’s the one in Comic Sans, which we will never speak of again.

I have a “Hunch” that I’m an Apple fanboy

Daring Fireball tipped me off to an interesting new site, Hunch.

Hunch is a site to help you make decisions. Naturally the first question I tried out with it was one of Gruber’s suggestions: Should I buy an Apple iPhone or a Palm Pre?

It became pretty clear to me as I answered the dispassionate, objective questions, what the answer was going to be. And I was right:

Hunch thinks I'd prefer a Pre.

However, the reality is that I own an iPhone, and have scarcely even considered looking at a Pre, even for the sake of simple curiosity. So while the questions Hunch asked seemed dispassionate and objective, and let’s for the moment assume that they are, the experience leads me to a few questions of my own:

  1. Who wrote the questions? And how did they verify the accuracy of their answers?
  2. What criteria led them to choose the questions they did? Were there any other suitable questions that were omitted? Do the questions asked reasonably cover the scope of factors that may go into the decision?
  3. How are the questions weighted? Assuming they are not weighted at all, should they be? And should the weight of the questions be left to the user, rather than the author?

These are just a few of the many questions not answered by the Hunch experience.

I’m not at all suggesting that the site is a bad idea, or that it’s necessarily poorly implemented. This is just some food for thought on the merits of taking someone else’s advice when making a personal decision. It also reminds us to be wary of fully placing our trust in the All-Powerful Oz Internet. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

David Sedaris on the election

I’m posting hand-me-down blog content here. As is often the case, I have just become aware of something I feel is blog-worthy by reading it on Daring Fireball, simultaneously affirming its blog-worthiness and obviating the need for me to blog about it myself. But I know a few among my meager audience probably do not read Daring Fireball regularly, so I’m helping to spread the word nonetheless.

It is frustrating that often I learn about articles from the “current” issue of the New Yorker from Daring Fireball (or, in the case of the infamous Obama cover, from… everyone) on Monday or Tuesday, when (and it frustrates me to no end) I won’t actually receive my copy in the mail until Friday or Saturday. I’m not sure what crime I’ve committed against Condé Nast besides living in an insufficiently sophisticated region of the country, but they punish me weekly by delaying the arrival of the magazine until after the rest of the world has already moved on.

Anyway… this week’s “Shouts and Murmurs” column is by one of my favorite writers, David Sedaris, and he dishes up a great metaphor for the current election. I’ll rip my block quote directly from Gruber:

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

Indeed. You can read the full article here.