Tag Archives: software

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 , , , |

e-book meets artist’s book


Test booklet produced with Bookleteer software.

One of my purposes with this blog is to promote DIY-oriented websites that enable people to create and acquire art at less-than-astronomical prices and without the intimidation factor or the need for advanced skill sets. I recently learned about a nifty website that solves several of the main obstacles to creating small artist’s books. Bookleteer.com technically belongs to the larger world of print-on-demand publishing populated by the likes of SharedInk, Shutterfly, Blurb, and Lulu, but it takes a quite different tack from those sites. The general approach of POD sites is to offer book templates into which users plug their own text and JPEG images, after which they can order commercially printed, perfect-bound books on nice paper stock for a (comparatively) reasonable price.


Bookleteer booklet in process of construction.

Bookleteer also offers templates, but their goal is to make it easy for someone with just an ordinary inkjet printer and a bunch of digital images to print out and assemble a booklet at home. Essentially, they are simplifying the production of hand-made books rather than helping people gain access to commercial printing.1 Anyone who has ever tried to create a hand-made book knows that it can be surprisingly tricky to get the pages organized in the right way, especially with double-sided printing. For example, in a 4-page booklet bound with a staple down the middle, it is not immediately obvious that pages 1 and 4 would actually be on the same piece of paper. Bookleteer has come up with a way of streamlining this production process for small books. Their templates are set up to create finished books of about 4.25 x 5.5 inches, or one-quarter of a standard 8.5×11-inch piece of paper.2 Each printed sheet has 4 pages on it—half of which are upside down with respect to the other half—and the sheets are folded over to create double-sided pages in the finished book. Particularly clever is their method for assembling the finished book: instead of the traditional staples or sewing, pages are held firmly together with a self-locking variation on tabs-and-slits (as shown in the image at right).

To create a book using the Bookleteer method, you upload your images and text to their website, just as with other POD sites.3 When you are done, they create a print-ready PDF for you to download to your home computer. You then print it out and follow their very straightforward folding, cutting, and insertion instructions to create the final booklet. You can make a complete, finished, self-covered book this way—like my 8-page test booklet shown at the top of this post—or you can print only the inside of the book and add your own cover afterwards. The adventurous can print a book with some blank or half-finished pages and add hand-drawn or collaged elements to make each book unique. The maximum size of a book you can create using the Bookleteer software is 40 pages, including the covers, and you have a choice of either portrait or landscape orientation. Theoretically, you could make even bigger books using their downloaded templates once you figured out the page-order logic necessary to create your own printable PDFs, but my guess is that 40 pages is probably the practical limit for books held together by this slit-binding method.

Bookleteer is a project of a pair of designers based in the United Kingdom, Alice Angus and Giles Lane, who work under the name Proboscis. They have an interesting practice that extends well beyond book design and publishing, reaching out to socially engaged practitioners in a lot of different fields, including the sciences. But they have been working with DIY publishing and the idea of shareable media for quite a long time, expressing a commitment to “playful hybrid digital/material publications combining the tactile pleasures of tangible objects with the ease of sharing via digital media.” Indeed, once you have created a booklet on Bookleteer, you have the option of sharing it with others by way of the Bookleteer ‘library’. One of their latest projects is a publishing wing called the Periodical, in which they attempt to “re-imagine publishing as public authoring.”

I’ve been designing and producting both hand-made and commercially printed books for a couple of decades now, and I’ve never come across a simpler method for creating and sharing small books than what the Bookleteer folks have come up with. Check it out: hand-made books make excellent holiday presents.



1. Bookleteer does also offer professional printing of books created with its software, but the minimum order is 25 books.

2. Bookleteer also has templates for standard European paper sizes.

3. You can also download their templates to create your book in InDesign, after which you upload individual pages back to the Bookleteer website to produce the final printable PDF.


Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , , , , , |

what’s wrong with you?

Skype login messageA while back, after updating Skype, I discovered that I would now be greeted each time I logged in with the following extremely annoying message: “Your contacts have not been very active recently.” My initial reaction—possibly the same as yours—was: so what? It took a few seconds before I became annoyed by the fact that this piece of software thinks I need this bit of information. The implication is that the inactivity of my contacts is a problem. But what is the problem, exactly? Does Skype think I am incapable of keeping track of my Skype contacts on my own? That I am a lonely shut-in who needs a nudge to reach out to other people? That I have lame friends?

And what am I supposed to do with this information? Bug people I know to spend more time online? Spend more time online myself? Well, perhaps that is the general idea, since the second part of the message suggests updating my Skye status or connecting to Facebook. Fine, I understand that Skype wants me to spend more time using their software. But I don’t want to be prodded about it every time I log in. All they’ve done with this message is ensure that I will think dark thoughts about their software and their software engineers every time I use Skype. As aversion conditioning, an undoubted success. As social media, an epic fail.

Posted in 2013, 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 , , , , |