FEATURED STORY

Talking to big machines

What “design beyond the screen” means for the industrial Internet.

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GE’s 3.2-103 wind turbine analyzes tens of thousands of data points every second and communicates seamlessly with neighboring turbines, service technicians, and operators.

One of the core ideas we set out to explore at Solid is “design beyond the screen” — the idea that, as software moves into physical devices, our modes of interaction with it will change. It’s an easy concept to understand in terms of consumer electronics: the Misfit Shine activity tracker has a processor and memory just like a computer (along with sensors and LEDs), but you don’t control it with a keyboard and monitor; you interact with it by attaching it to your clothing and letting it gather data about your movement. At its most elegant, design beyond the screen minimizes interaction and frees humans to spend their mental energy on things that humans are good at, like creative thinking and interacting with each other.

Design beyond the screen is a much broader and more transformative concept than just that, though: it encompasses changes in the relationships between humans and machines and between machines and other machines. Good design beyond the screen makes interaction more fluid and elevates both people and machines to do their best work. The impact of good design beyond the screen could be huge, and could extend well beyond consumer electronics into heavy industry and infrastructure. Read more…

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Applying design values to programming

Can we create more vibrant intersections?

Design by connection by Dave Gray, on FlickrFor the past two decades, the web has been a vibrant intersection of design and programming, a place where practices from art and engineering both apply. Though I’ve spent my career on the programming side – you don’t really want to see the things I design – I’ve loved the time I’ve spent working with designers.

Much of that time was frustrating, because I was frequently stuck telling designers that no, 1990s HTML couldn’t produce page layouts like QuarkXPress. The medium was different, with its own complications. However, as designers became familiar with the web, and found new ways to apply it, the conversations became richer and richer. Front-end web development became an amazing place where designers and technicians could work (and sometimes curse) together. Read more…

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The automation of design

Physical and biological design are about to get much more digital, says Autodesk’s CTO.

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A titanium chair designed through iterative generation and optimization by Autodesk software. Photo courtesy of Autodesk and The Living.

One of the core ideas behind our Solid Conference is that software can replace physical complexity, and that it’s getting easier for it to do so because the relationship between the physical and virtual worlds is becoming more fluid. Input tools like 3D scanners and computer vision software, and output tools like CNC machines and 3D printers are essentially translators between digital and physical. They make it possible to extract information from physical objects, compute on it, transform it, combine it with other data, and then “rematerialize” it.

I recently spoke with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski about this convergence between physical and digital, and its impact on design. In his view, computers are about to go from mere drafting tables to full partners in the design process. They’ll automate the tedious cycle of trial and error, and leave designers to guide aesthetics and experience. “Decades ago, someone came up with the term ‘computer-aided design,’ but what we’ve had up to now is really computer-aided documentation,” he says. “Design has been accomplished solely in the head of the designer, and then the computer is used to document the outcome.” Read more…

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Biomimicry in the real world

There's good reason to believe nature has clues about how to do a good job — can it also help with web designs?

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Festo’s Robotic Bird. Photo by Mike Loukides.

A couple of years ago, I visited the World Science Festival in New York and saw Festo’s robotic bird. It was amazing. I’ve seen things that looked more or less like a bird, and that flew, but clearly weren’t flying like a bird. An airplane has a body, has wings, and flies, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a bird. This was different: it looked like a giant seagull, with head and tail movements that were clearly modelled on a living bird’s.

Since then, Festo has built a robotic kangaroo; based on work they started in 2010, they have a robotic elephant’s trunk that learns, a robotic jellyfish, and no doubt many other animals that I haven’t yet seen.

Read more…

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The evolving purpose of design

Design is about communication and respect as much as function.

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Massoud Hassani’s wind-powered land minesweeper, the Mine Kafon. Photo by Rene van der Hulst, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

For more than a century, design has been determined by its applications to the physical world. As architect Louis Sullivan expressed in an 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered“:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

But Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thinks that’s a law best consigned to the dustbin of history; she gets exasperated when design is presented as the subservient handmaiden of utility.

“There shouldn’t be any differentiation between form and function,” she maintained in a recent interview. “The idea that form must follow function, that’s out the window; it’s a tired cliché. A good object, a well-designed object, is encompassing. It is unified, the material embodiment of a strong idea.” Read more…

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HTML and CSS performance

Efficient, reusable markup reduces development work while boosting page load time

[Ed note: This is the third in a series of posts on web design and performance. You can see the first two posts here and here.]

Optimizing your markup can have a substantial impact on your site’s page load time. Bloated HTML leads to bloated CSS, and vice-versa. For example, during a semantics and reusability template cleanup, I was able to significantly reduce the file size of site-wide HTML, CSS, and stylesheet images.

site-cleanup

I achieved this by simply renaming existing elements to have more semantic meaning and then removed unnecessary elements in the HTML (also known as divitis) to focus on reusability. Later in the same cleanup effort, I was able to cut CSS by 39% by removing unused selectors, combining and condensing styles, and normalizing the colors used across the site.

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