Tag Archives: design

out with the filler pix

For the last decade or so, slate.com has been one of my semi-regular news sources, largely because I am a fan of Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon’s excellent Supreme Court coverage. Awhile back the site went through a major redesign that aligned it with what a lot of other news-commentary sites are also doing: it shifted from being dominated by text links, blurbs, and small images to being a ‘big-blocks’ construct of interlocking large images with headlines. If you adhere to a standard modernist aesthetic—a minimal number of elements organized in rectangles along invisible gridlines—the visual aspect of the design is arguably an improvement. But from the point of view of information access and readability, it’s a step backwards. Worse, in its attempt at self-improvement it migrated towards what I consider the current scourge of the internet: the filler pic. Also known as a  ‘stock photograph’, a term I dislike because it has been so normalized that I believe we are insufficiently critical of the role such images play in news websites.

slate-4-27-14-loHere is an example of my issue with filler pix: In the screenshot at left—which is just the top half of the Slate home page for April 27, 2014— there are just six large photographic images visible. Of these, five are completely pointless in information terms, and two of them are duplicates of each other (the desert scene). Make the experiment yourself: replace any of these images with a black box, and you won’t be missing any information you didn’t already have. What Slate reader hasn’t already seen a million pictures of deserts, coffee cups, and Vladimir Putin, not to mention some version of the ubiquitous Chandos portrait that might be Shakespeare? The sole exception is the image accompanying the item on the Spider-Man movie: as a still from a movie then in the theaters, it is probably something many readers had not yet seen.

These photos, in other words, are serving mainly as designer filler. But though they don’t add anything informational to the story, they do tend to reify cultural stereotypes of various kinds, as other critics have observed, including writers at Slate itself. There are the obvious ones: ‘attractive’ women being posed in ways that are supposed to signify broadly about womanhood, or jobs, or family; or a national leader posing as authoritative and commanding. And there are the less obvious ones: the spread of highly styled food photos, for instance, which convey messages about what the food should look like that ‘we’ are supposed to be interested in. There is an overrepresentation of middle-class aspirational values: cleanliness, neatness, good design, unspoiled landscapes, tasteful art, well-furnished interiors. By the hundredth time you see a certain type of image, you stop noticing it consciously, but it continues as a kind of subliminal cultural advertising—what was long ago termed “the new heraldry“—reassuring you that nothing you think really needs to change, no matter what the text says.slate-3-4-09b

And then there are the structural problems these kinds of images create or exacerbate. For one thing, their sheer size banishes a great deal of actual information from the home screen. The comparison screenshot at right from 2009 shows the difference quite clearly. In the 2009 design, there are actually more photos (9 instead of 6, not counting the banner ad), but they are so much smaller that they take up substantially less screen real estate, leaving room for many more items: a complete top menu, two side menus, a central listing of stories, and a most-read/most-emailed section. And all of this is ‘above the fold’, meaning it is visible on a laptop screen without any scrolling. The difference in available choices is stark: 10 or so stories and a couple of links in 2014 versus 18 or so stories and a dozen general links in 2009. As someone who likes to visually skim a collection of stories before deciding what to read, the new Slate is maddeningly skimpy.

slate-hamburgerHere’s what I do when I go to the new Slate: I ignore the entire front page and immediately click on the tiny ‘hamburger’ dropdown menu at upper right, because that is now the only way in to the realm of text links that I value because they can be assessed at high speed. Yes, as far as I am concerned, the only item of importance on the entire Slate front page is an icon taking up—what?—a hundredth of the available screen real estate?

The mobile version of Slate is slightly better because it converts the tiled front page into a stacked list of stories, which is much faster and simpler to navigate. But here, too, I usually only glance at the top three stories before moving over to the hamburger menu for further navigation. slate-4-27-14eAnd the mobile version has its own problem related to filler pix: when you do click over to a story, there is usually a significant pause while the image at the head of the story loads. You can scroll down to pick up the text and start reading, but if you do, you will often get popped back to the top of the screen a time or two as the image loads and lose your place in the story as a result. Waiting for a pointless image to load is pretty much my definition of a complete waste of time.

Here’s a suggestion for all these over-image-laden sites (I’m looking at you, too, Atlantic and New Yorker): banish your stock photos. You could replace them with simple color rectangles. Heck, if you want to get fancy, make yourself a bunch of faux Albers squares. Free mockup at right. You’re welcome.

Or better yet take a long, hard look at longform.org.

Posted in 2014, latest | Also tagged , , , |

reverting to old theme

I’ve had to revert this site to an older version of the WPFolio theme I’m using because the newer version has some squirrely coding in it somewhere that is preventing me from adding a search box to the site. I use search boxes on every site I go to, including my own, so I just don’t feel the site can live without it. For this, I will give up the nicer type design and much larger images until (big if!) I can get this sorted out. So far, I haven’t had the time to hunt this problem down and slay it.

Posted in 2014, latest | Also tagged |

wallpapers then and now

study, Inn at Government House

a study, Inn at Government House

I recently came across a stash of photos I took awhile back when I was in Baltimore working on a new performance piece at the Baltimore Theatre Project. Through the BTP, we were able to stay at the Inn at Government House, a restored 19th century mansion that bills itself as the “Official Guesthouse of the City of Baltimore.” (It’s also open to the public; the guestrooms are actually in an annex and a good deal less posh than the main house, though also decorated with an assortment of period bric-a-brac.)

paneling and wallpaper details

paneling and wallpaper details

As a working artist sweating out long hours on a complex project with a crazy small budget, it was distinctly odd to have the run of a mansion in my free time. But it was also a lot of fun, like hanging out in a museum after hours.

Art Nouveau peacock border

peacock border

Finished in 1889, the Inn is an archive of the high design of its period, especially in the woodworking and wallpaper departments. The wallpaper runs to the most elaborate Art Nouveau styles, a thorough-going testimonial to horror vacui. But this same feature also made it unusually comprehensive of symbolic motifs: in just the few images shown here, there are forms that resemble pomegranates, poppies, acanthus leaves, peaches, lilies, ferns, roses, lotuses, gentians, and seed heads. I was especially taken by a border of peacocks, with its elaborate golden ferns and blue lilies. What is it about peacocks that made them one of the key symbolic motifs of the late 19th century—think of Whistler’s Peackock Room for the Leyland house, for instance (now in the Freer Gallery in Washington).  Some gut-grabbing compound of the vanity of life, beauty of nature, orientalism, and decayed Christianity?

green windows

green windows diptych

In one of the sitting rooms, I came across a set of mullioned windows through which the light came green and gold, filtered by the trees outside—you can see them in the top photo on this page. I was struck by the way the old, wavy-textured glass abstracted the trees so that the effect was no longer one of looking through a window at nature but something much closer to stained glass. The light and color seemed to be in and of the glass itself. So when I got back home, I cropped and composited a couple of my photos of these windows to create the diptych shown here. It’s proportioned to serve as that most contemporary form of wallpaper, the desktop picture or screenpaper. Feel free to grab a screen cap, or download a 1024 x 768 version here (234 kb).


Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |


Scamwatch, 2011

Scamwatch, 2011

Chain Email Exhibition Invitations

06-09-2011. The IC3 continues to receive reports of emails being sent out with the intent of selecting artists for an exhibition from a chain email ‘tree’ organized by the artists themselves. These schemes use legitimate-sounding gallery names to lure artists into participating in mass exhibitions. The initial round of emails (usually a dozen or so) tell their recipients that they are invited to participate in an exhibition under the following typical “protocols”:

  • They must forward the invitation to another dozen or so artists “whom they admire”.
  • They are responsible for all the work of transportation, installation, and deinstallation of their work, and they must cover any related costs (insurance, shipping, etc.)

In return, artists are offered the prospect of exhibiting in a curated show in a named gallery, with the always desirable potential of selling their work. For some artists, there is also the reputational benefit of having their name linked with better-known artists who may be drawn into the show through the pyramid effect of the chain email tree.

Although some of these chain email shows are well-intentioned, many are poorly thought out and/or raise expectations they cannot satisfy. Artists are often not aware until too late that the total number of artists who can be “accepted” into a single show through this kind of chain email tree can easily reach the thousands in a short time. This logarithmic escalation effect is similar to that seen in other pyramidal set-ups, such as Ponzi schemes.

What this means is that even artists who manage to claim space for their own work during the installation window are likely to find themselves in an extremely crowded, “salon-style” show with little prospect that their work will stand out from the crowd of other objects. Artworks that are fragile, small, require sound isolation, or have other special requirements will especially suffer. Furthermore, since art critics tend to look askance on mass exhibitions, the desired reputational benefit will probably not materialize.

In addition to the protocols mentioned above, here are some further red flags that may help you avoid these kinds of shows:

  • If the curators tell you not to contact them with questions before the show opens, or if they are simply unresponsive to queries despite having given out contact information.
  • If installation for the show is organized on a “first come, first serve” basis.
  • If it is stated that work not picked up during the deinstallation window will be destroyed, traded, recycled, or sold by the gallery.
  • If you do not recognize the name of the person inviting you to join such a show.
  • If there is a fee for entry (usually payable after the artist accepts the invitation).

If you have been a victim of any kind of cyber crime, you can report it to the IC3 at www.IC3.gov. The IC3 complaint database links complaints for potential referral to law enforcement for case consideration. Complaint information is also used to identify emerging trends and patterns to alert the public to new criminal schemes.

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |

The Photographer’s Handbook 1

"The Photographer's Handbook 1"I’ve recently been rephotographing some of my older work, especially pieces that were made abroad or during times of transition when I didn’t have time (or couldn’t be bothered) to do proper documentation. This book was among the first to get reshot, partly because it remains among my favorite projects from the 1990s. I started it in 1993, while I was living in Germany and finished it in New York a couple of years later. I made it as I was experimenting with early desktop publishing software and a black-and-white laser printer, but its creation also involved a good many of the hand construction techniques typical of a traditional artist’s book. It is, as the historians say, ‘of its time’.

The Photographer’s Handbook 1 consists of alternating pages of tipped-in images on heavy paper stock and vellum pages with text printed in a handwriting font. The book is designed such that when a vellum page is open to the right, it displays the caption for the image on the left, and when it is turned to the left, it displays the caption for the image on the right. (Whichever caption is inactive is still visible on the other side of the translucent vellum page but turned backwards and positioned on top of its corresponding image to make it even less noticeable.)"The Photographer's Handbook 1"

The book has 8 pages of images and 5 pages of captions, and it was bound for me in black cloth with silver detailing by the wonderful bookbinder and Rumi translator Zahra Partovi. Its construction happened in a slightly back-to-front manner. I first printed all the vellum text pages and then cut them to the size of the final untrimmed book, along with the blank pages of heavy stock. Zahre bound all the pages and trimmed them to make the semi-finished book, after which I glued in the images individually.

The Photographer's Handbook 1The image plates in The Photographer’s Handbook 1 began life as photographs in old German lifestyle magazines (ca. 1960) that I picked up in a flea market. In each image, I isolated one or more details that were otherwise buried—an informal approach to the punctum, perhaps—and overprinted the rest of the image with one of the default ‘fill’ patterns found in early DTP programs. Lattices, bricks, moirés, and the like, these patterns are all but unusable for most purposes—like faux wood-grain paneling or polka-dotted textiles, they overwhelm everything around them. I was attracted to them for that very reason, and also because they provided a quality of semi-transparency that was otherwise difficult to achieve at that point because of technological issues (principally banding and smearing of ink). I ran a lot of different paper stocks through my laser printer in that period, and the thin, coated magazine stock of these images took laser ink better than most.

The text is a series of aphorisms modeled on the quasi-mathematical advice that fills photographers’ handbooks and which I have never found all that useful—it always turns out that there is some kind of unbridgeable gap between what the manuals say and what conditions in the fields actually are. So I decided to offer an entirely different approach to photographic instruction, with such mantras as:

The importance of any object enlarges in proportion to the remoteness of the eye.

The distance from any plane to any point not on the plane is equal to the distance between your thumb and forefinger.

Parallel lines disparage each other.

This last one arose from the difficulty of getting lines to be truly parallel in the final photograph without hours of measuring and adjusting."The Photographer's Handbook 1"

The font used in the book is named Forger and it’s one I designed using my own handwriting as the starting point. Typefaces in general retain a lot of vestigial traits that arose with the technologies of handwriting and inscription (e.g. serifs), and I wanted to elaborate on this skeuomorphic tradition by rendering my analog handwriting into the mathematical vectors of a digital font. It was also a way of critiquing the artificial division between the hand-made and the computer-made. Creating the Type 1 PostScript font of Forger took several hundred hours of intensive drawing and tweaking, many times what it would have taken to write out the words on the pages ‘by hand’. I produced Forger using the program Fontographer, which I still think is one of the best-designed programs I’ve ever used. (By ‘best designed’ I mean mainly that it had all essential functions, no bloat, and an easy-to-use interface.)

The Photographer’s Handbook 1 has a twin, The Photographer’s Handbook 2, with the same form and text but a different set of images on the tipped-in plates. I don’t want to part with either one, but I did want to share at least one of them here.





Posted in 2011, books | Also tagged , , , , |

Evidence of Evidence

"Evidence of Evidence" announcementThere has been radio silence on this blog of late because I’ve been immersed in preparing a small exhibition at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. Evidence of Evidence opened Sunday March 20 and runs ran until March 30th. It’s the second in a series of 10 speed-curated shows that the ICI is putting on in which curators are given a very short time—10 days, start to finish—to assemble something from the archives. Knowing what a challenge this would be, I chose to work with a partner, the writer Ruth Coppens.

"Box Furniture" cover

cover of Brigham's book "Box Furniture"

We took on the project because both of us are fascinated with archives, those idiosyncratic collections assembled in honor of memory that so often seem to transmute over time into semi-organized taxonomies of oblivion. Although we started the project with a blank slate, we had a joint belief in the certainty of finding something that would interest both of us. Something that might not seem to be much of anything at first glance, but would reveal itself as evidence for a larger project. We were looking, in effect, for evidence of evidence—the title we ultimately gave the show.

Most of our early finds turned out to be dead ends or, at best, ‘possibles’. Eventually, serendipitously, we stumbled on a  hundred-year-old copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal in which was an article entitled “How I Furnished My Entire Flat from Boxes” by one Louise Brigham. This proved to be our Ariadne’s thread.

Louise Brigham, design for a quadruple desk made out of packing crates

Brigham was writing about a system she worked out for building entire suites of furniture out of recycled materials—specifically, packing crates. I was intrigued by what seemed an early appearance of an ethos of sustainability in design and wondered why I hadn’t heard of Brigham before, or of Box Furniture, the book she wrote about her system. Or perhaps I had come across her and just forgotten? But when I went to google her, I discovered that very little has been written about her since her heyday, apart from a small handful of recent articles that also claim her as a pioneer of sustainable design (see here and here). She did not even have a Wikipedia page.

So Ruth and I decided to build our exhibition around Louise Brigham: who she was, where she came from, how she fits into early modern design, what happened to her. We dug out the contemporary newspaper articles, we got a copy of her book (it’s also available as a PDF download from several websites, including Google Scholar), and we reconstructed as much of her life as we were able to in a little over a week. Louise Brigham, Wikipedia entry

Enormous gaps remain, and Ruth and I are now working on an article that we hope will add something to the picture. Meanwhile, we have written a Wikipedia page for Brigham, and we invite anyone in the Los Angeles area to visit our exhibition at the ICI while it’s up. The exhibition includes “The Digger,”  a short text that Ruth wrote, inspired by Brigham’s work with abject materials that were at high risk, by their flimsy nature, of being erased from history.

There is also a forthcoming limited-edition ‘catalog’ for the exhibition. For this series of ICI exhibitions, the catalog is an existing book given a new dustcover and a set of photographic inserts. Under the dustcover is a book that has been important to both Ruth and myself, one that bears an affinity for the subject of our exhibition: Lewis Hyde’s wonderful Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. We chose it because in thinking about Louise Brigham’s work with discarded materials, and her own near-erasure from the historical record, we found ourselves discussing what Hyde calls cultural dirt work, those means by which “order deals with its own exclusions.” The photographs inserted into the book are drawn from work in the show, and themselves comprise a miniature, original artist’s portfolio. I’ll post an update when these catalogs become available—as of this writing, they are still in production.

For both of us, delving into Brigham’s life turned into a close-up look at the messy role that evidence—and its absence—plays in the formation of those cultural myths we like to call history.

Note: I’ve written another brief item on Louise Brigham over at Difference Engines, a techno-feminist blog I contribute to.


Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |

obscure technologies

Hupfeld automated violin

Hupfeld automated violin (ca. 1908-1930)

One of the things I most enjoy about reading memoirs and contemporary accounts of times long past is the way they tend to throw up nuggets of the unknown—details of daily life that somehow escaped being included in the standard view of an era, or that have otherwise eluded me. As someone interested in the passage of technologies from new to old to obscure, I tend especially to notice details relating to techne.

Recently, I’ve been reading O America: When You and I Were Young, a memoir by Italian (and quasi American) journalist Luigi Barzini about his youth in 1920s New York. Two passages in particular jumped out at me. In one, as he was talking about the experience of going to the movies, he had this to say about the music that accompanied the then-silent films:

“The picture was drowned in deafening music, produced by an amazing automatic machine, which looked like a tall glass showcase, lit from inside. It was filled with many upright violins from which fast bows traveling in a circle drew a stream of melodies, surely an American invention.” (p. 64)

I had heard of player pianos but never of a player violin, yet it turns out they were produced by several firms in the late 19th and early 20th century. According to the Grassi Museum für Musikinstrumente in Leipzig:

“Between 1884 and 1930, Leipzig produced 28 patents and 38 registered patterns for mechanically operated string instruments. However, few of these ideas were realized. The Pentaphon bowed zither (POLYPHON) was popular for some time, but the automated violins by DIENST and POPPER hardly sold. One exception was the Violina made by HUPFELD; genuine violins with revolving horsehair bows (circular bows) were a highlight in the production of automated instruments and hence remained in demand until about 1930.”

Barzini’s assumption that the automated violin he saw was “an American invention” may thus be wrong—from his description it could well have been the Hupfeld ‘Violina’ pictured above. His pronouncement of a sure origin in America could have been prompted by his evident fascination with American inventiveness and his tendency to view it as supreme above that of all other lands.

The other remark that stopped me was a single sentence towards the end of a paragraph comparing American domestic interiors—”expensive, shining, efficient, and belonging to the future”—with those of his native  Italy:

“The electric light vanished inside the walls (in Italy at that time elegant braids, covered in silk in the color of the wallpaper, ran openly, gracefully suspended like festoons from little porcelain cups).” (p. 25)

interior of a loft

interior of a loft with exposed ductwork

The silk coverings for unsightly wires, the “festoons,” the careful matching to wallpaper: all of this speaks—as Barzini no doubt intended it to—of a quintessentially Victorian mindset extending into the 1920s. And yet—since the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and continuing through loft culture to today’s green-everything movement, the idea of exposed technology has once again taken hold. We are festooning our wires and even our plumbing across our floors and walls and ceilings. We are perhaps not matching it to the latex paints that have long since displaced wallpaper, but we are certainly color-coordinating it. Slick, modernist-elegant plastic skins or wide metal conduits have replaced those silken casings. But there is clearly a sense in which the style Barzinin deplored as anachronistic in the 1920s has come around again in a modified form to the forefront of technology.

I wonder about the “little porcelain cups,” though. Did they serve both as insulating points where the wires emerged from the mains and as anchor points? But what then was the purpose of the cup shape? I confess I am stuck with a peculiar mental image of electricity pouring delicately, fluidly out of the silk-clad wires into these temporary holding cups before being sucked invisibly into the next set of tiny pipes.

Note: The Barzini quotes here are from the 1966 Harper & Row edition of O America. The 1985 Penguin edition is more available.


Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , |

what is a theme anyway?

When I was setting up my first WordPress site—an abortive precursor to this one—I probably spent at least 25 hours searching for and testing a suitable theme. I looked at hundreds of themes and road-tested several dozen. Yes, this is just as mind-numbing as it sounds. It was a hard slog because I fall into an awkward category of advanced users: I know far too much about design to put up with a badly designed theme. I know HTML/XML and CSS so I expect to be able to edit the stylesheets to refine any theme that is almost right. But I don’t know PHP and I’m not willing to learn it well enough to make wholesale revisions in the base code. (If I did, I’d probably just write my own theme from scratch.)

cover of Dada no. 3

Dada no. 3: design or theme?

The more I looked around, the more I was struck by WordPress’s choice of the word ‘theme’ for what most people would call simply a design (or a layout, or a template); or even what in other geek circles is known as a ‘skin’. I suspect the choice is meant to imply that the theme does more than simply implement a design—that it carries some embedded subject matter as well. Some of that free-floating stuff slanged these days as “content”? If so, this suggests a remarkably naive view of design as a neutral process. That is, in the bad old days there was (neutral) design and now we’re blessed with the new improved design+content=theme. Or to put it another way: in what possible way can any design be construed as free of implicit or explicit subject matter?

A slight detour: In my searches, I was appalled by the discrepancy between the sheer number of themes available and the very poor quality of most themes as designs. Of the several hundred themes I looked at closely, no more than a couple dozen turned out to be even worth testing. Many broke fundamental rules of good user-centered design: for instance, a surprising number waste half the vertical space in a standard browser display with the static logo/banner area. Many broke if you bumped up the type size—a must for those of us with poor eyesight or large monitors or both. Most of those that place the static-page menu horizontally along the top of the window make it impossible to set up space-saving submenus. This means that any site which expects to have a large number of static pages will see its menu bar overflow awkwardly into a second line. Most themes had exceptionally poor information hierarchies, reflecting equally poor understanding of the basic principles of typesetting, and many were extremely cluttered in appearance. I could go on, but you get the point.

demo of blog.txt theme

demo screen shot of the blog.txt theme

The question of what a theme is and does arose again when I came to choose the theme for that test site. In the end I settled on blog.txt, one of several quite functional WordPress designs by Scott Wallick, who describes himself as an editor who is also a web designer and photographer. I originally chose a different Wallick design, Barthelme, which he calls “a minimalist theme where white space and margins show culture and aestheticism.” This curious statement reflects, I think, the common misunderstanding of design that is reflected in the notion of the theme. Here, the design features of “white space and [open?] margins” are severed from their original function, which is to make reading easier by creating points of focus within areas of rest. Instead, they are given a different and altogether fuzzier function: to “show culture and aestheticism.” I take this to be a shorthand way of saying: “everyone understands that High Modernist design principles are now universally accepted in the realms of High Culture—e.g. glossy magazines, coffee-table books, museums, packaging of expensive consumer goods—and therefore to adopt them is to assimilate oneself to High Culture, which is a good thing.” The function of the design is thus understood as primarily sociocultural rather than ergonomic. Good design, however, remains aware of both aspects; while great design challenges conventional understanding of at least one of the two.

the geek-speak tag cloud on the WPFolio website

Which brings us back to all those bad WordPress themes: they become comprehensible only if you understand that they are not intended to take on any of the fundamental problems that designers are interested in solving—issues of legibility, information organization, and so on. (On the contrary, there seems to be a presumption that these problems are either already solved, or not very important.) Instead, they are intended to address sociocultural issues such as: To what subculture does the user want to signal allegiance? How does this theme make the user feel more important, or sexier, or hipper? In this sense they may be adequate to their audience’s wishes, if seriously limited in those other respects.

Fast forward to today: I want to praise the theme for this site, WPfolio. It was developed at Eyebeam in New York specifically for artists’ portfolios and the result is by far the most elegant and usable WordPress theme I’ve ever seen. Especially well thought out is the control it gives users over building menus and solving the menu/submenu problem. The theme is designed so that an artist can organize the site according to whatever taxonomy makes most sense to her, whether that is medium or theme or year or something else entirely. Kudos to the Eyebeam OpenLab team that developed this beauty.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , |