Sunday, July 8, 2012

iOS X?

Macs have long been the designer and art director's productivity platform of choice, but I believe that's changing.

Apple has been shoving the ever-profitable content consumption model of OS down our throats for some time now; in certain cases at the cost of the content creation platform. New editions of OS X have awkward multi-screen swipe functionality borrowed from iOS. At first novel, one quickly grows frustrated with certain windows being associated with specific screens forcing the user to jump back and forth, and there remains the failed ideal of distancing the user from the file system that grows ever painful when trying to share file paths with coworkers. To this day there's no easy way to globally minimize all windows to reveal the desktop, and don't tell me about Option-Command-M, that's just for finder windows. These are issues to me because I'm a platform agnostic designer who has used both PC and Mac intimately. And I have little hope that these issues will be recognized let alone resolved by the OS X team in light of the myopic direction they're heading in.

Now, with the new MacBooks, we find a move to a sealed hardware "device" model not unlike the iPhone and iPad. Furthermore, the 17" monitor has been done away with. This is a move towards positioning the MacBook Pro as a portable consumption platform in the footsteps of the iPhone and iPad. This would be fine if we were dealing with a $500 device that checks email and browses the web, and if creativity was limited to the sophistication of what can be achieved in a casual entertainment app like Draw Something. But we're not. We're looking at an $1800+ piece of hardware that must perform on an enterprise level for serious content creators; namely, graphic designers!

Sophisticated content creation requires scalability, and not necessarily longer battery life, the justification for the sealed hardware approach. For instance, I don't know a single advanced Photoshop user who realized they didn't have enough RAM after a software upgrade or had to upgrade their machine in light of a major project that pushed the envelope in a way that wasn't initially expected. Anyone who's sat their watching Photoshop grinding away trying to open a large file on a system with only 4 gigs of RAM understands just how the creative process can be hampered due to hardware limitations. As far as battery life: Most of us are plugged in with a dual monitor setup unless on business overseas or presenting.

One could argue that Apple is aiming for a unified hardware standard like console game systems that allows for fewer hardware unknowns and hence better optimized software. I applaud this ideal if in fact it was part of their reasoning. But I don't see this happening for a very long time. As in the past, software has pushed the boundaries of hardware, and that trend hasn't let up for a number of reasons. So for this fact alone, I see new MacBook owners being considerably bottlenecked, where the cost of more RAM is now the cost of a brand new machine, and where the max RAM (8 gigs) one can have in the current selection of MacBooks may not be enough. Heck it's frustrating as it is to only have USB ports on the left side, or to have to listen to a startup sound that's been the same since the early 90s.

Has Apple forgotten the needs of creative professionals, historically passionate champions of the Macintosh platform, in pursuit of the more profitable consumer-level demographic? I believe so. We've all seen how Jobs treated Adobe and how everybody drank the Kool-Aid; and for those of us who understand and are deeply invested in the creative space, the disparagement of the venerable Adobe brand was painful to watch, and their adaptation to the situation just as exciting. Multimedia shops like my own the world over are adapting to the the shutting out of Flash, particularly on the mobile platforms, with varying degrees of success.

And now we're faced with a new challenge.

What's most scary about Apple's wonton push for the consumption platform is that with Microsoft flailing in the wind with Windows 8, there's nobody to competently fill the empty space it will leave for serious creatives seeking a serious creative workstation with the portability of a laptop. It appears that one's best bet if things get any worse will be *GASP* Windows 7, where I can copy a path and paste it into a messenger window in two simple steps, minimize all windows to see the desktop with a single click and vice-versa, maximize two associated windows to exactly half the screen, and paste a path into a finder window without resorting to Command-Shift-G and other multi-step acrobatics. And it goes without saying that I can add more RAM to most Windows laptops any time I want.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Beyond 960

In the typical discourse of our evolving interactive design field, I hear a lot about the 960 grid. In a recent attempt to adhere to this framework with a very ambitious responsive web design project, I realized it fails to address a still very important space: the widescreen laptop and desktop, most often beyond the dimensions of 1024 pixels wide.

85 percent? That's like, the poor people, right?
I have, more often than not, seen the screen real estate beyond 960 treated as dead space with very little thought. Usually I see a solid color or a repeating background extended over it with the boundaries of the framework preventing any further utility. The site itself makes little attempt to acknowledge this space, but is it that insignificant? Should we herald the dawn of the 1024x768 tablet dimension as the end-all of our screen-width and height optimization efforts?

In fact, the case is the exact opposite. At least for now: According to W3 Schools, the most popular screen widths are beyond 960, beyond 1024, and have been increasing steadily over the years with one exception: 2011, which saw the rise of tablet computing and specifically the iPad. However, according to the statistics in the above-cited link, 85 percent of the W3S demographic remains a considerable majority when deciding what our canvas dimensions are for any given interactive design project.

Within the interactive world, responsive design has leapt to the forefront of our passion. We eagerly go to websites like and scale in our browser windows to witness with awe the magic of responsive style-sheet substitution, at least for myself and my geeky colleagues at Brown Bag. An entire slew of responsive templates have arisen in a very short amount of time, and yet very few have given any thought to the idea of optimization, utility, and aesthetics outside of the 960 grid space.

Me gusta.
There's also something else affecting the premature abandonment of the widescreen dimension: the switch to the mobile-first design methodology. Now mind you, I'm a huge fan of this school of thought, usually attributed to Luke Wroblewski. In the long forgotten past (i.e., a year ago), before mobile-first, those of us working in the responsive space would come upon uncomfortable in-between states where elements of a given design simply wouldn't cooperate. There would be too much horizontal space for two columns, but not enough for a third, and this state used to be the tablet space. Things started with a desktop design, then a complementary mobile design was added, and the nascent tablet space had to deal with that wonky two-column spread that was too far apart.

As we move towards mobile-first design methodologies, the tablet is less of the uncomfortable in-between space. The choice is instead made to alienate the more popular widescreen desktop, creating large aspect ratio "gutters" on the left and right side reminiscent of 4:3 content on a widescreen, 16:9 TV. In an aesthetic sense, this is still a far better place to be. But unlike TV, we can actually do something with this extraneous area of often 300 pixels or more on each side. We're interactive designers and the web remains our creative, exploratory space. Where the tablet was our undiscovered country, the widescreen desktop and laptop space is our forgotten land, rich with untapped utility and creative opportunities.

Facebook brings ancillary utility to the widescreen gutter.
In fact, at least Facebook is utilizing the widescreen gutter the right way. Stretched out beyond 960, we find our friends' latest activity and an extension of the chat utility. One finds that the gutter is ideal for support content; i.e., things not necessary essential to the core experience and done away with when brought to the tablet and mobile level. Facebook, to this degree, has a pseudo-responsive nature that comes from treating itself like an application more so than a website following a responsive fad. It does what works, and explores ways in which to enhance the user experience for its specific audience.
And on that note, I would like to encourage getting off the responsive bandwagon purely as a cosmetic exercise that benefits developers by not having to create multiple sites. In the end it's about the user, and smart design is concerned with the much larger picture of enhancing the user experience. Screen real estate is only one of the factors in the larger-picture approach that brings greater value to consuming content on the web. Let's not waste those precious pixels! Despite the rise of the mobile and tablet spaces, responsive design can and should exist beyond the world of 960 pixel wide screen sizes. Statistically there remains a huge audience for it.