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The triumph of the ‘Norms’

Only a few short years ago we were mostly content to allow the ‘expert’ tech Journos/Pundits/Analysts to tell us all what type of Smartphone we ought to buy. Many of the leading tech pundits in those pre-iPhone days boldly claimed that a Smartphone (and the iPhone in particular) wasn’t a Smartphone if:

  • it didn’t have a ‘real’ keyboard
  • it didn’t have GPS
  • it didn’t multi-task
  • it couldn’t edit Word docs
  • it didn’t make toast! ;-) 


For back in the ‘Pre-iPhone Era’ handheld devices were absolutely the domain of the hardcore nerd - in fact you pretty much had to be a nerd to even attempt to use one of these devices, which were about as user-friendly as a rabid cornered pitbull.

These industry analysts were not just nerds, but Alpha-Nerds, and they did love their tech gadgets, especially gadgets stuffed with shiny new tech and an ever-expanding list of impressive specifications. Nothing less that the very bleeding edge tech would suffice, bizarrely not just for themselves, but for all users. But the problem with relying on an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ spec-sheet philosophy is much like having a great cake recipe, without ever having actually baked one. Sure that recipe looks great, easy enough to attempt and you have the ingredients to hand, but it’s pretty meaningless until the cake is baked and you can actually taste it.

It’s fair to say now that the spec-sheet fantasies of the tech media analysts have lost out to Apple, who have successfully fulfilled the promise of a powerful, robust and easy to use device. Millions have voted for the iPhone with their hard-earned cash, which is all the more surprising considering Apple weren’t even in the smartphone business when most of the competition were considered mature products.

I’m not bashing the nerds here (and I consider myself one) but the smug attitude of the media ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’, inferring they have the insider smarts for what the public really need, that bothers me. Neither is there anything wrong with having an elite techie club (for those who are obsessed with that kind of thing). But these experts were recommending devices to the general (most definitely non-nerd) public and expecting them to put up with hideous user experiences for the sake of ticking off boxes on a spec list.

Of course, as has often been quoted by Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’.

I expect that this type of defensive thinking, plus perhaps some ‘creative’ and ‘promotional’ activity by some vendors, would result in the sort of recommendations and analysis that we’ve come to expect from some of these tech market analysts.

Surprisingly, and even in the face of concrete evidence, this type of Apple-bashing persists today - but at least now we can see what’s happening in the real world for ourselves. Just have a look around next time you’re in town and notice how many iPhones you see people using compared to any other types of mobile. You’ll probably be surprised how popular this sophisticated device is amongst the ‘normal’ folks.

Here’s a few gems that put it all into perspective:

Trevor Gilbert’s post on Pundits and Analysts

From Daring Fireball: Tomi Ahonen on iPhone Sales

And also: Apple should just ‘pull the plug’ on the iPhone, from John C. Dvorak

A shocking article from the Forbes site(!) by contributor Louis Bedigian knocking the newly launched iPhone 4S. Good to see that many of the commenters have really taken him to task on this.

I think [this post] ( from Mike Rundle really nails it on who Apple really has in mind for the iPad (and iPhone)

An excellent summary on how device specs have become meaningless from Drew Breunig.

Production notes: This post was written entirely on my iPad (including links and researching web pages for the quotes) using the excellent Writing Kit app for iOS. The header illustration was also created on an iPad using the iDraw vector illustration app. How far we’ve come, in so short a time.

Shooting Build

Build SpeakersFor three years now Andy McMillan has been running what is widely regarded as one of the world’s best design and web industry events right here in Belfast. The conference is called Build and features five pretty intense days of educational/entertaining/social activities, culminating in a main conference day of formal presentations. Build attracts the best designers and developers in the web design industry, both for the main speakers and the attendees.

So a while ago I suggested to Andy that it would be worthwhile ‘officially’ covering Build with myself as photographer. Of course there have been some great photos taken at previous Build events (most of the creative attendees are themselves pretty handy with cameras!), but those photos are usually captured in ‘downtime’ moments by people otherwise concentrating on the actual events. In contrast my attendance at Build would be exclusively for the purpose of capturing good high-quality images from as much of the event as possible, running over the whole four days.

I knew this would be a lot of work, both in shooting the photos and in the follow-up processing, but I was happy to add my support to the impressive work that Andy and his team undertake in putting Belfast on the international design map.

Build is a really significant event and I wanted to do it justice with images that conveyed the scale, atmosphere and excitement experienced by all who attended it. If you weren’t lucky enough to get to Build this year I hope my photos give you a sense of what it was like - and whets your appetite for Build 2012.

I have posted a small gallery of images in a new Photography section here on my blog. The main body of images from Build can be seen on my Flickr and accounts.

Swimming against the tide?

I’ve been a long time fan of Adobe’s Creative Suite, from way back when they started binding together their various apps to slay the mighty Quark Xpress.

I’m a CS5 user myself and, despite the frequent criticisms of growing bloatware, the CS Suite is an awesome and comprehensive set of tools, in fact it covers pretty much everything a graphic designer needs. But the accelerating development path (and more particularly the expense involved) of the recent CS Suite upgrades has raised a few heckles in the Creative Industries. It’s understandable that a company of Adobe’s scale needs a certain degree of profit to sustain their considerable momentum and also that they clearly wish to be seen as catering for the ‘Pro’ market, but the entire concept of software ‘Apps’ is currently undergoing serious re-evaluation as the platforms, marketing practices and the Apps themselves continue to evolve.

There’s an increasing number of alternatives cropping up to seriously challenge Adobe’s products and, while Adobe always had competition, the nature of their competitors has changed significantly. As the Mac OS has gained in popularity (including an overlap with the booming iOS world) developer resources have grown to reflect this. The big guns of the software market have always had competition from talented independent developers, but now those independents have access to a very mature programming ecosystem - and online marketplaces on a scale that they could never have dreamed of just a few years ago.

Granted these competitors are usually stand-alone applications and no-one is producing the convenient all-in-one toolbox that Adobe offers. However, a set of well designed single-focus applications, operating to industry standard file types, can achieve similar results and often with only a little more inconvenience. But by far the most compelling reason to try any of these competing apps is that they’re only a fraction of the cost of the Adobe products, so even if you have to buy three or four apps it’s still a huge saving over the cost of the complete Adobe Suite.

In the Creative Industries, as with many others, the trend driven by ever-improving digital toolsets has been towards a low (and decreasing) cost of entry for new talent. This has helped reveal some amazing new talent in Music, Design, Video and the Arts in general. But Adobe’s pricing policies for their Creative Suite appears to go against this low-cost trend, most noticeably with the new services and extensions to their existing CS Suite, intended to encourage content development for iPad/tablet publishing.

Currently the potential of the iPad as a publishing platform is generating a lot of excitement, with some very interesting start-ups making their intentions known. For example, this post (from the Adorama blog) on the impressive work from Pushpoppress, initially for Al Gore’s ‘Our Choice’ iPad book:

A team of ex-Apple engineers have created a specialized book publishing service for iPad. Originally created for a one-off multimedia version of Al Gore’s environmental opus, Our Choice, Push Pop Press has emerged into a full-fledged development platform, which promises to bring drag-and-drop simplicity to the process of creating multimedia books. It’s an obvious competitor to Adobe’s suite of digital publishing tools for iOS, which have a prohibitive price barrier and learning curve, suited more for developers than artists and writers. Now you don’t need an engineering degree to design an attractive user experience.

Of course it has yet to be seen if they will eventually sell this software to the public - and if it really will be as easy as it appears to produce such specialised content. But, like a few others, they see the opportunity for a lightweight dedeicated authoring App and I believe their approach to this is definitely on the right track.

And this from Wired Magazine:

The 800-pound gorilla in this digital space is Adobe, whose tools are used to create some tablet periodicals (including the iPad version of WIRED magazine). But the complexity — and expense — of Adobe’s Creative Suite is an opportunity for new entrants in the self-publishing game.

Sadly I think it is very unlikely that Adobe will attempt to make their pricing more competitive, as they still appear focussed more on the established (and presumably better monied) Pro market rather than those struggling to become the next generation of that market.

So what do you think?

Are you an established Pro who can easily afford the latest and greatest from Adobe and could care less about their costs?

Or are you a design graduate trying to balance your need for quality software tools with your bank account?

Scared Sitless

Are you sitting comfortably?

...then I'll begin, but you may not like it much.

I expect many readers of this blog already know they spend way more time than is healthy sitting working at a computer. For those who are solo freelancers, like myself, there is even less reason, or even opportunity, to move from our workstations as frequently as those of us working in communal shared office spaces. The swift evolution of my computer's capabilities has been matched by it's increasing influence in my physical world. My computer is now loaded with all sorts of software and can already do pretty much everything I need to produce a huge range of work. With most of my work also delivered digitally I don’t even have to go visit any supply companies, as I used to do with print projects. Of course the more efficient my computer becomes at doing almost everything the less reasons I have for moving away from it. I'm realising the old cliché 'chained to my desk' is taking on a whole new, and very unpleasant, meaning.

The legendary Kurt Vonnegut made a great observation on our increasing reliance on the computer to 'save' us from unnecessary 'work'. When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope...

Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

And 'So it goes'

So there you are happily sitting at your desk all day, content in the knowledge that you're Getting Things Done, but, as Admiral Ackbar knows all too well: "It's a Trap!"

The Daily Mirra

It made sense to me that if so much sitting is inevitable then I'd best get a really, really good chair, and one of my first blog posts years ago was about finding the best chair to work from. Knowing I was likely to be spending an insane amount of time in my work chair I bought one of the best I could find: a Herman Millar 'Mirra' chair. It was expensive, but it was money well spent as I soon gained almost complete relief from some truly horrible back pains I suffered when using a basic cheap chair at my desk. But even the best chair in the world is still a chair and growing medical evidence reveals that sitting down, even for modest periods of time, can cause swift and significant deterioration to our health. This is not just another trendy health topic, since for a while now I've felt a gradual, but noticeable, increase in minor aches and pains due to my own sedentary habits. Of course age will play a part in this too, I'm fifty-one, but on rare days when I'm away from my desk I'm a much more mobile, ache-free and happy fifty-one. Comfortable though my chair is then, I need to ensure that I'm sitting in it as little as possible.

The inevitable Info-Graphic

Thanks to recently discovering Dan Benjamin's excellent 5 by 5 podcasts I’ve now read Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution. This book compounded a lot of nagging thoughts I'd been having recently that could be generally classified under the ‘Getting your Shit together’ category. Robb's book covers a lot of health issues in tremendous detail; diet, exercise, sleep, etc., all important components of our overall good health, but his information on the effects of sedentary behaviour was particularly well presented - and truly frightening!

And then I found this:

Sitting is Killing You
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

(Thanks for those nightmares Twitter!)

If you take a look at this graphic you'll see the health risks resulting from 6.5 hours of sitting per day - but I can easily clock up 12 hours on a typical day, how about you? I knew I had to start reversing my descent into a slothful 'Millar-Chair' potato and the obvious first step for me is to...

Stand and Deliver!

For a start I'm making some changes at my desk which will oblige me to perform more physical activity, starting with creating a standing workspace. Although my main type of work is in visual design and the creation of images (normally requiring me to be seated with careful control of my mouse or Wacom pen) I can still work on the more 'admin' and project management type of tasks while standing and using a laptop (or iPad). There is a substantial amount of admin work like this in my day so I ought to be on my feet quite a bit.

A standing workspace is a relatively easy change to effect, but it should make an immediate noticeable difference to the detrimental effects of the endurance sitting sessions. This means finding a high-level working surface for the laptop, ironically for me this turns out to be a big drawing board on a floor stand - exactly what I used to work at before the Mac irrevocably changed the design world. As an added bonus I will once again have a proper angled drawing board for sketch work and rough concepts, I haven't enjoyed one of these in a long time, having made do with spare desk space around my keyboard for basic notepad sketching. I'll not be standing all the time I'm working though, but will certainly aim to stand more than sit during the working day.

I've seen that there is a trend (particularly in the USA) for using a Treadmill while working at a laptop, but I'm not quite ready for that yet, I think actively walking and trying to concentrate on a screen would not be very efficient, for me anyway. I've seen what appears to be the ideal solution: the Geek Desk a smart move by a company who have picked up on this trend and are producing motorised variable height desks. It's a great idea, you can either sit or stand at the same desk with all your tech in it's usual place, with the desk itself changing from sitting to standing height in minutes. Geek desks are expensive but I'd say a worthwhile investment, for now though I'll see how I get on with my desk/drawing board arrangement.

I've been following some interesting discussions on Conor O'Neill's blog too as he works on creating a standing workspace.

Onwards and Appwards

As the meme says: 'There's an App for that' and I've found a few that can help break the bad habits of the endurance sitting sessions. One of my favourites is 'Time Out', a timing application that dims your Mac screen at (your choice of) pre-selected intervals. To get the best from Time Out though you really have to respect the breaks that you programme into it - if you keep hitting the snooze button and ignoring those breaks (not that I'd do that!) you're wasting your time. This app is Mac only, although I believe there is a similar app for Windows.

The Pomodoro Technique: This is a useful for helping you 'Work the Dash', meaning you work diligently for a specified time, then enjoy a short break. The combination of hard work (in short bursts) followed by the guaranteed reward of a break (in which you are recommended to do something enjoyable) is a great motivator. For the purposes of this post though the real benefit here is in the breaks rather than the 'dashes'. There are Mac Desktop and iOS versions of this app.

There is also this useful site (now in my browser bookmarks bar) detailing a few easy exercises for the desk-bound. Bonus points if you do these exercises during the breaks prompted by Time Out ;-)

Hopefully by now you are suitably shaken and stirred to take steps (literally) to get out of your chair for more regular breaks. These simple preventative measures you can take while at your desk are important in breaking unhealthy habits, but a significant part of the overall solution to the sedentary trap is a good exercise routine. Such an exercise routine is beyond the scope of this post, but I highly recommend you look into it, soon - and preferably while standing at your computer!

Not a Book

Whatever we're reading on the iPad, iPhone/Kindle/Pretender to the Throne etc., it's not a book.
I feel we need a new name for this type of media, after all we've already created a variety of names for other categories of printed matter to distinguish them from books, e.g., A Newspaper, A Magazine, A leaflet,
or A brochure.

So, apart from cultural inertia, why do we still cling to the (increasingly inaccurate) name of ‘Book’ for long-form text content we read on an iPad, or similar device?

As always: Change is the constant.

Related: Terrific article on the future of the book by @craigmod

A new icon for iThoughts

Ithoughtsicon 114Much as I love using my iPad it’s only as good as the apps that run on it and ‘good’ for official ‘business’ apps is especially important as these are not for casual entertainment. Efficiency and fit-for-purpose are the main reasons for buying business apps in the first place.

A while ago I was looking for a good mindmapping app for my iPad and, while waiting for the ‘official’ Buzan app, I discovered iThoughts HD. The Youtube demos were very impressive and it was further encouraging to read some very positive testimonials to iThoughts from a lot of folks whose opinion I respect, including one of my heroes, Steve Krug.

IThoughts HD makes great use of the iOS touchscreen, offering an intuitive and fluid experience that makes it easy to focus on the work of actually building the mindmap, rather than the tools being used to build it. I’m convinced the touch interface actually makes for much more efficient mindmapping experience than a desktop UI, there is something unique in driving data around the screen directly just using your fingers. I find this with many of the more ‘mature’ iOS touch apps, where the developers have taken full advantage of what iOS is capable of. Some tasks seem to be a natural fit for a touch-driven interface, if the apps themselves are designed well.

Most good developers will put their best into programming and coding their app, which is the right thing to do after all, but some surprisingly neglect the presentation of their app (and it's usefulness) to potential customers. Unfortunately neglecting the presentation of an app could significantly hobble the sales potential of the finished offering.

The iTunes App Store is an eye-candy battleground, with the bar already set high for quality of presentation. When faced with a row of competing and similarly featured apps a potential customer will be easily swayed by a more polished, professional and 'expected' icon for an app, rather than a weak ‘DIY’ attempt from someone who is obviously not a designer.

I have actually bought some great functioning apps that display poor branding and icons, but only after fairly exhaustive research in gaining enough trust to overcome the mis-matched branding. Unfortunately most potential customers won’t undertake that amount of work before deciding on buying an app.

So I contacted Craig Scott, the developer of iThoughts, and suggested that improvements could be made to the core icon for his app and the presentation of it via website, iTunes Store, etc. Craig was under no illusions about the quality of the existing icons for iThoughts HD and readily understood the need for improvement. Although I’m familiar with mindmapping apps I asked Craig to brief me on how he wanted iThoughts HD presented and, taking this into consideration, I proceeded to develop some concepts for a new icon style for iThoughts HD.


Ithoughts icons sketches


From the initial pencil concepts Craig chose one to take to a more polished visual treatment, he had a clear idea of the elements we should use in the icon as he primarily wanted to convey the purpose of the iThoughts HD app itself. So I worked on the concept of branched nodes, a fairly direct visualising of what a mindmap typically looks like. I particularly wanted to keep the elements strong and simple, for swift recognition and clarity at the smallest image sizes, such as document attachment icons. We both agreed on a strong contrasting colour scheme, saturated blues and a bright orange, for contrast on the finished icon. The icon works best when it is quickly identifiable, to help sales in the iTunes Store and for actual use on the iOS device itself.

Ithoughts oldnew icon

I’m pleased to have heard positive feedback from Craig that the new-look icon was well received by his customers and it’s also good to see that the presentation of the iThoughts app now more closely matches the experience of using Craig’s excellent software.


Ithought masthead banner


Craig was lucky too when iThoughts was chosen to appear as a featured app on the iTunes Store. I created a few banners for this and enjoyed seeing iThoughts displayed prominently on the storefront, for a short while.

If you’re familiar with mindmapping, and are an iOS user check out the iThoughts apps, for iPhone and iPad.