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kottke.org posts about design

The insides of everyday items, animated

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2018

On Tinker Fridays, industrial designer dina Amin takes apart an item and makes a playful stop motion animation out of its parts.

I spent 2016 taking products that people decided to throw away apart and showing people (not the ones who threw away those products, but others on Instagram) what’s inside and transformed all the pieces to lil creatures by the magical power of stop motion.

You can find more of Amin’s work on her website, YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram. (thx, samira)

The Confederacy lives on in several official US state flags

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

According to Whose Heritage?, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on public symbols of the Confederacy, progress over the past two years on removing statues, flags, and other symbols from public places has been slow.

The 2015 massacre of nine African Americans at the historic “Mother Emanuel” church in Charleston sparked a nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments, flags and other symbols from the public square, and to rename schools, parks, roads and other public works that pay homage to the Confederacy. Yet, today, the vast majority of these emblems remain in place.

In this updated edition of the 2016 report Whose Heritage?, the SPLC identifies 110 Confederate symbols that have been removed since the Charleston attack — and 1,728 that still stand.

Still very much standing, for instance, the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy in Georgia, a massive stone carving featuring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

And perhaps even worse, not represented on this map are Confederate symbols that are part of the official identities of many Southern states. Did you know Mississippi’s official state flag still contains the Confederate battle flag?

Mississippi Flag

As of the 2010 Census, ~37% of Mississippi’s population is African American and due to the relative youth of the state’s African Americans and the wealth of the state’s whites (who are able to send their kids to private school), most of the state’s public schools are majority black. That percentage would be much higher had not so many African Americans left the state during the Great Migration. The pledge to this flag, which is taught in public schools, reads “I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.” Could you imagine being the descendant of a former slave being made to pledge allegiance to a symbol used by people who fought a war to deny the personhood of your ancestors?

Mississippi’s flag contains the most familiar reference to the Confederacy, but many other state flags have Confederate references. Georgia’s flag contained the Confederate battle flag from 1956 to 2003 and the current flag is modeled after the first national flag of the Confederacy. The flags of Florida and Alabama contain St. Andrew’s Crosses, thought to be references to the stars and bars of Confederate battle flag. The Arkansas state flag contains four stars on a white background, one of which represents the Confederacy, along with a deconstructed stars and bars pattern. North Carolina’s flag is based on a design adopted shortly after the state seceded from the United States. Residents of many states can also get official state license plates with Confederate symbols on them and some state seals have Confederate references.

Lots of progress still to go on that journey towards a post-racial America I guess…

Update: A new Confederate monument was just erected last week near Mobile, Alabama. Here’s what the plaque says about the Confederacy:

The northern Union aggressively prosecuted its war to subjugate the Confederate States. Union forces continued invading and waging war in the field, on cities, and on homesteads in the Confederacy causing more American deaths in both countries than the combined totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. About two-thirds of these deaths were Union military sent to kill Confederate Americans. The Union’s army was about 3 times larger and it possessed about 20 times the industrial arms capacity of the CSA. It succeeded in militarily prevailing over the Confederate forces after four years. The last major land battle occurred in April of 1865 here and at Ft. Blakeley. The elected government of the CSA was scattered, the American States of that country occupied by northern forces, and the citizens’ rights suppressed.

In April 1865, the Union President was shot watching a comedy play in his capitol of Washington City — almost exactly four years after he sent his warships into the CSA initiating the War Between the States. The Confederacy’s President was seized and imprisoned in May 1865 after he had to flee his capitol of Richmond, Virginia, due to the approach of invading Union forces.

For many, the Civil War never quite ended.

Simple and dynamic typographic posters by Xtian Miller

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2018

Xtian Miller

Xtian Miller

Xtian Miller

Xtian Miller

Designer Xtian Miller designs new posters “nearly every day”. You can see his prodigious output on Dribbble and Instagram. His website is worth a look as well. (via the outline)

An 11-foot long ribbon map of the Mississippi River from 1866

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2018

Ribbon Map Mississippi

The Mississippi River runs for more than 2300 miles straight through the heartland of America, more or less straight from north to south. Representing the river in any detail presented a challenge for mapmakers wishing to provide maps to those wanting to travel along the river. In 1866, Coloney & Fairchild solved the problem by producing the Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters, a 2-inch wide & 11-foot long map that spooled up into a carrying case via a hand crank. From Nenette Luarca-Shoaf’s description of the map:

Coloney and Fairchild’s patented apparatus required that the single sheet be cut into strips, attached end-to-end, mounted on linen, and then rolled inside a wooden, metal, or paper spool (fig. 4). The resulting portability of the map was crucial because, as advertisements indicated, it was intended for business travelers, steamboat navigators, and tourists.

You can explore larger images of the ribbon map at the David Rumsey Map Collection or the American Antiquarian Society.

See also the meander maps of the Mississippi River. And I would love to see a satellite photo trip down the Mississippi like Best of Luck With the Wall, Josh Begley’s video journey along the 2000 miles of the US/Mexico border. (via open culture)

Update: In the 1840s, John Banvard painted a “moving panorama” of the Mississippi that measured 1300 feet in length. (via @mattbucher)

Super freaky recently declassified NSA security posters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2018

These posters designed by the NSA emphasizing the importance of security and secrecy to their employees are amazing. Declassified in mid-April 2018, most of the posters were produced in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and look as though they were cooked up by Salvador Dali or the Dadaists. Or even Mad Magazine. I mean:

NSA Security Posters

NSA Security Posters

NSA Security Posters

NSA Security Posters

NSA Security Posters

NSA Security Posters

What fantastic design artifacts of that era. Many of them appear to be remixes/riffs of contemporary ad campaigns and messaging…you could easily imagine a security-themed distracted boyfriend or American Chopper poster hanging in today’s NSA offices.

I had a difficult time choosing just a few of these…many more are available in this PDF. (via hn)

Simple Dieter Rams prints

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2018

Rams Posters

I really like these prints for Rams, Gary Hustwit’s upcoming documentary about the legendary Dieter Rams. Each print features an object designed by Rams or his design team: the T41 radio, the ET66 calculator, the 620 chair, and the 606 shelving system.

PS. You can still buy the calculator from Braun. Ok, it’s a reissue, but that means it won’t cost you 100s of dollars on eBay.

Hundreds of amazing 1980s tech company logos

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2018

85 Tech Logos

This 1985 catalog for engineers contains hundreds and hundreds of tech logos from the 70s and 80s. They are glorious.

Marcin Wichary turned more than 1400 of these logos into a screensaver “for your random viewing pleasure”.

The ABCs in motion

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2018

For this year’s 36 Days of Type project, Ben Huynh submitted this 3D animation of the alphabet from A to Z. You can see animations of the individual letters on Huynh’s Instagram. (via colossal)

Raymond Loewy’s 1934 chart of the evolution in design

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2018

Raymond Loewy, Evolution

From legendary designer Raymond Loewy, a chart published in 1934 that shows the evolution in design of items such as cars, telephones, stemware, railcars, clocks, and women’s apparel. Loewy was known was “The Father of Streamlining” and these drawings very much reflect his design style. (via @michaelbierut)

Update: MacRae Linton chopped up Loewy’s chart into a proper timeline.

Plastic iceberg

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2018

Plastic Bag Iceberg

Speaking of great magazine covers, for their issue on plastic, National Geographic put artist Jorge Gamboa’s arresting plastic bag iceberg image on the cover. A simple yet powerful concept, perfectly executed.

Update: The iceberg plastic bag is not an original concept. Prior art includes a 2015 ad campaign for Tesco and a pair of stock images on Getty (date not listed). It’s unclear whether Gamboa created his image after seeing these images or if multiple people had this same idea. (via @krjohn01/status/997198395189223424)

Animated sketches to teach drawing

posted by Patrick Tanguay   May 02, 2018

Ralph Ammer - Negative space

I’m not specifically learning to draw right now but I do love how Ralph Ammer builds his lessons. Split into short exercises, the best parts are the animations he draws and integrates in his lessons as gifs. Much lighter and more pleasant to watch than a video, they are very short and looping so you can easily grasp what he’s explaining. Here are a few images from his most recent lesson.

Dynamic drawing:
Ralph Ammer - Dynamic drawing

Rotating cube and vanishing points:
Ralph Ammer - Rotating cube

Perspective:
Ralph Ammer - Perspective

Fan of the opera

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2018

Christoph Niemann Opera

Your periodic reminder that Christoph Niemann is an unimaginably imaginative visual storyteller. This image is one of a series for the Deutsche Oper Berlin opera company; check out more of his work on Instagram.

The Design of Childhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

C&C Brooklyn Bridge

Design? Parenting? Playgrounds? iPads? Architecture? Toys? Probably Lego? Alexandra Lange’s upcoming book about “how children’s playthings and physical surroundings affect their development”, The Design of Childhood, is firmly in my wheelhouse.

Parents obsess over their children’s playdates, kindergarten curriculum, and every bump and bruise, but the toys, classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods little ones engage with are just as important. These objects and spaces encode decades, even centuries of changing ideas about what makes for good child-rearing — and what does not. Do you choose wooden toys, or plastic, or, increasingly, digital? What do youngsters lose when seesaws are deemed too dangerous and slides are designed primarily for safety? How can the built environment help children cultivate self-reliance? In these debates, parents, educators, and kids themselves are often caught in the middle.

It’s out in early June, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

P.S. That photo is a model of the Brooklyn Bridge built by 7-year-olds at City & Country School in NYC made almost entirely out of unit blocks.

In the 7s, children engage in a formal study of the infrastructure and geography of New York City. Through extended block work, they explore the relationships among city systems of government, transportation, communications, commerce, and utilities. New issues continually arise: Who makes the laws, and how are they carried out? How does traffic flow? Where does water come from? The city study culminates with the building of a permanent city, complete with running water and electricity, and an historical study of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The blocks all have official names (like pillar, double unit, cylinder, etc.) but the kids have their own names for them based on the shapes: squarie, roundie, brickie, buttery (because it’s shaped like a stick of butter), half buttery, archie, rampie, cubie, longie, middlie, and so on. So for example, if you’re constructing a model of the Empire State Building, that might call for several longies, a few middlies & squaries as you get closer to the top, a buttery + half buttery for the spire, and then several strategically placed colorful cubies for the nighttime lights.

Saltine crackers arranged artfully is extremely my jam

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

Kristen Meyer

This arrangement of saltine crackers by artist and prop stylist Kristen Meyer is giving me all sorts of feelings. Meyer has done many other similar arrangements (see her site and Instagram) but the geometric chaos of this one is *kisses fingers*

See also gradient food photography, Always. Be. Knolling., common objects painstakingly organized into patterns, and Things Organized Neatly. (via colossal)

The NBA Court Database

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

NBA Courts

NBA Courts

NBA Courts

NBA Courts

Flickr user kodrinsky has compiled a massive collection of more than 1100 illustrations of NBA courts dating back to the 50s, an online museum of basketball hardwood. The collection contains floors for every NBA team with additions documenting even small changes in arena names, team logos, free-throw lane layouts, paint schemes, sponsors, and even wood patterns.

Above are the courts for the Boston Celtics (1964-1966), the Golden State Warriors (1975-1979), the Philadelphia 76ers (1978-1979), and the Milwaukee Bucks (1977-1979).

The New Yorker’s musical magazine cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

New Yorker Audio Cover

The New Yorker has a fun cover this week from cartoonist Tom Gauld. The New York street scene shows bits of music being played and listened to by people and birds and if you click through to the interactive version, you can listen to what each snippet of musical notation sounds like.

In his early sketches, Gauld had only vague notions of the music he’d like to include, and “placeholder nonsense” in the speech bubbles. “If, like me, you’re musically illiterate, then the notes give a suggestion of what’s going on sonically,” he said. “But I also wanted the scores to make sense to those who can read music.”

To achieve that goal, he enlisted the help of fact checker Fergus McIntosh, a veteran chorister. Together, the duo struck upon a repertoire that includes Vivaldi’s “Spring”; Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”; Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata”; the folk song “One Morning in Spring”; and birdsong from the American robin, which tends to appear in springtime after local migration.

Found this via Austin Kleon, who remarks that Charles Schulz was similarly faithful in using accurate musical notation in Peanuts cartoons.

Peanuts Music

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters’ state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

Schulz used music so extensively in some of his strips that they didn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know how to read music:

Peanuts Music

When Beethoven gave the Hammerklavier to the publisher, he bragged, “Now you will have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played 50 years hence.” In this Sunday strip, Schulz most fully develops the idea of the preparations required to storm “Mount Everest.” Before marching to the piano with determination, Schroeder prepares himself for this mighty undertaking with seven different kinds of exercise and a “carb-loading” bowl of cereal, almost as if he were preparing to climb a mountain!

Rams, a documentary about legendary designer Dieter Rams

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2018

Dieter Rams is one of the world’s most influential designers. Rams acolyte and Apple design chief Jony Ive has said of him:

Dieter Rams’ ability to bring form to a product so that it clearly, concisely and immediately communicates its meaning is remarkable… He remains utterly alone in producing a body of work so consistently beautiful, so right, and so accessible.

Gary Hustwit, director of Helvetica and Objectified, is making a documentary about Rams called Rams. Here are three short clips from the film:

Rams will include in-depth conversations with Dieter, and dive deep into his philosophy, his process, and his inspirations. But one of the most interesting parts of Dieter’s story is that he now looks back on his career with some regret. “If I had to do it over again, I would not want to be a designer,” he’s said. “There are too many unnecessary products in this world.” Dieter has long been an advocate for the ideas of environmental consciousness and long-lasting products. He’s dismayed by today’s unsustainable world of over-consumption, where “design” has been reduced to a meaningless marketing buzzword.

The movie will have original music by Brian Eno and will be released sometime later this year.

Fooling online users with dark patterns

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2018

From Evan Puschak, a quick video on dark patterns, UI design that tricks users into doing things they might not want to do. For instance, as he shows in the video, the hoops you need to jump through to delete your Amazon account are astounding; it’s buried levels deep in a place no one would ever think to look. This dark pattern is called a roach motel — users check in but they don’t check out. I wonder how much this single pattern has added to Jeff Bezos’ personal net worth?

Whatever You Do, Don’t.

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2018

Scarfolk

Scarfolk is a dystopian satire site about an English town that’s stuck in a 1970s time loop.

Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. “Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.” For more information please reread.

Scarfolk

Scarfolk

Scarfolk

The slogans and advertisements the site produces are fantastic. It’s Nice That has a good overview of the some of the best pieces.

The making of seven iconic movie posters

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2018

Do The Right Thing Poster

As an art director in the 80s and 90s, Tom Martin created some of that era’s most memorable movie posters. In this post, Tony Pierce writes about the creation of seven of Martin’s most iconic posters, including those for Jurassic Park, Do The Right Thing, Twins, and Schindler’s List.

On a very different Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, some of the submissions that weren’t chosen as the final poster are as interesting as the one that was due to the fame of their designers.

Tony Seiniger, Anthony Goldschmidt, and Bill Gold were among the designers who took a crack at the poster. And then there was legendary designer Saul Bass.

“It was one of the high points of my career,” Martin says. “I was in a meeting at a sound studio and it was Saul Bass, Steven Spielberg, and myself, in a room, looking at Saul’s poster.”

Even though Bass was well established at that point in his career he still fought for his ideas and pitched his posters to Spielberg with as much conviction as anyone.

“There was still that competitive drive,” Martin remembers. “Saul was still competitive. He still wanted to be chosen, still… wanted that approval.”

Unfortunately for Bass, his work ultimately lost out to independent art director Georgia Young who designed the final poster.

See also this massive online collection of movie posters and this other massive online collection of movie posters.

The cool futuristic typeface from the Black Panther ending credits

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2018

If you’ve seen Black Panther, you likely noticed the distinctive typeface used for the location labels and, more prominently, in the ending credits:

Black Panther Font

The typeface is called BEYNO and was designed by Swiss designer and illustrator Fabian Korn. It looks like some of the letters were slightly modified for the movie (the “E” and “Y” for example). You can buy the original font from Korn for $5 on Creative Market so you can make your own captions from the movie:

Black Panther Font

Rihanna with a Pearl Earring

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2018

Shusaku Akaoka

Shusaku Akaoka

Shusaku Akaoka

Japanese graphic designer Shusaku Takaoka takes famous artworks and cleverly incorporates them into movies scenes or celebrity photos. If you scroll back through his earlier photos,1 you can see him experimenting with various techniques before hitting his stride around September of last year.

  1. One of my favorite things to do is scroll back through Instagram accounts like this to see the evolution not only of the work but of their self-presentation. You can often see the moment where they go, “oh shit, I’ve got lots of followers now, I’d better think more about what I post here”. See also the unbearable lightness of being yourself on social media.

All the typefaces used on the iconic Huy Fong sriracha label

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2018

Fonts in Use took a crack at identifying the crazy quilt of typefaces used on the label of Huy Fong sriracha.

Sriracha Fonts

The most prominent Latin text elements are rendered in a variety of informal script typefaces released by American Type Founders in the 20th century, namely Balloon and its shaded counterpart, Balloon Drop Shadow, as well as Brody. Smaller text on the back of the bottle is set in Impress and Tekton.

And they threw Arial in there for good measure. Oof. Don’t miss the first comment about the label’s Chinese fonts; “In the West, PMingLiu has become a prominent component of what some might call the “Asian diaspora aesthetics”. In East Asia, it is seen as the signature for those typographically unenlightened.”

P.S. No one knows who drew the label’s iconic rooster. And remember when people were stockpiling Huy Fong sriracha due to shortages? Simpler times.

Update: After I wondered on Twitter what the Huy Fong sriracha label would look like if the great Modernist designer Massimo Vignelli designed it, the folks at Major Interactive came up with this:

Sriracha Helvetica

*slow clap*

Real Life Charts, graphs and charts made from found objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2018

Michelle Rial

Michelle Rial

Michelle Rial

Designer Michelle Rial makes these clever and charming charts and posts them to her Instagram account. Some of the charts are hand-drawn but my favorite ones are made using real world objects, like the ones above. Reminds me of XKCD, Christoph Niemann, and Mari Andrew. Rial has posters, mugs, tote bags, and other items featuring her charts for sale on Society6.

Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Coffee Lids

Coffee Lids

You’d think it’d be simple enough: make a disposable lid for a takeout coffee cup. You should be able to drink the coffee without removing the lid and the lid should stay on if the cup tips over (most of the time). But this simple design challenge has been solved in many different ways, as evidenced in Louise Harpman’s and Scott Specht’s forthcoming book, Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture.

The book is a partial catalogue of the authors’ extensive collection of coffee lids. Photos of the lids are organized into groups based on what you do with the lid to get at that sweet sweet beverage: peel, pinch, pucker, or puncture. They explained the four types of lid in an article for Cabinet magazine in 2005.

Certain lids, such as the Solo Traveler (1986) designed by Jack Clements, require the drinker only to place his or her mouth over the protruded polystyrene proboscis. The pucker-type lid requires its user to drink through the lid, not from the cup, as is the case in the peel-type lids. The Solo Traveler is the lid that Phil Patton championed in his 1996 article in I.D. magazine and also the lid that art and design curator Paola Antonelli selected for inclusion in last year’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Humble Masterpieces.” This type of lid offers a certain degree of “mouth comfort” and also has added “loft” space within the structure of the lid to accommodate beverages with frothy tops.

What a phrase: “protruded polystyrene proboscis”. Harpman also gives a short tour of the collection in this video:

The invention of the bendy straw

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

In September of 1937, Joseph Friedman was awarded a U.S. Patent for a “drinking tube” with a flexible neck, aka the bendy straw.

Bendy Straw Patent

My invention provides a flexible portion in the straw positioned near one end so that a bend may be made at a point above the rim or lip of the container and the upper, or mouthpiece end of the straw may then be angularly directed to enter the mouth readily without the customer assuming an awkward position.

Derek Thompson describes the moment of inspiration and subsequent experimentation that led to the bendy straw’s invention:

Half a century after Marvin Chester Stone found grass in his julep, Joseph B. Friedman was sitting at his brother’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop, in the 1930s, watching his little daughter Judith fuss over a milkshake. She was drinking out of a paper straw, so we can be assured that the milkshake did not taste like grass. But since Stone’s paper straw was designed to be straight, little Judith was struggling to drink it up.

Friedman had an idea. As the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center explains, he brought a straw to his home, where he liked to tinker with inventions like “lighted pencils” and other newfangled writing equipment. The straw would be a simple tinker. A screw and some string would do.

Friedman inserted a screw into the straw toward the top (see image). Then he wrapped dental floss around the paper, tracing grooves made by the inserted screw. Finally, he removed the screw, leaving a accordion-like ridge in the middle of the once-straight straw. Voila! he had created a straw that could bend around its grooves to reach a child’s face over the edge of a glass.

Both straws and corrugated tubing had long existed, but no one thought to put them together until Friedman’s malt shop eureka.

Massive vintage movie poster collection is being digitized and made available online

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2018

Movies Posters Ransom

Movies Posters Ransom

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin is currently digitizing and putting online their collection of more than 10,000 movie posters.

The collection encompasses upwards of 10,000 posters and spans decades: from when the film industry was just beginning to compete with vaudeville acts in the 1920s to the rise of the modern megaplex and drive-in theaters in the 1970s. The sizes range from that of a small window card to that of a billboard.

You can browse the collection here. They’ve scanned over 4000 of the posters already and there are currently 500 posters available online, but more of them “will incrementally be made accessible online”.

See also a short film about a one-of-a-kind collection of letterpress plates for printing film advertisements and an amazing online collection of 40,000 vintage film posters. (via @john_overholt)

Brexit Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

After British MP Andrea Leadsom called for the Royal Mail to issue a postage stamp commemorating Brexit, some people who are not entirely in favor of leaving the EU have posted their best efforts at a stamp design on Twitter under the #brexitstamps hashtag. A few of my favorites:

Brexit Stamps

Brexit Stamps

Brexit Stamps

Bad design in action: the false Hawaiian ballistic missile alert

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

Note: The image at the top of this post does not show the actual interface. See the update below.

The Honolulu Civil Beat has tweeted a screenshot of the interface that was used to send an real alert for a nonexistent incoming ballistic missile on Saturday morning.

Fake Hawaii Missile Alert

Instead of selecting “DRILL - PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY” from what looks more like a list of headlines on The Drudge Report than a warnings & alerts menu, the operator chose “PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY” and sent out a real alert.

The design for this is obviously terrible. As others have noted, there are better interfaces for confirming much more trivial actions on our phones. In Mailchimp, the service that powers the Noticing newsletter, you are asked to manually type in the word “DELETE” as a confirmation for deleting a template (an action a tiny bit less consequential than sending out a ballistic missile launch alert):

Mailchimp Delete

But the response to the false alarm has been worse. The employee who triggered the erroneous alert has been “reassigned” and, as the news cycle continues to wind itself up, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were soon fired. And the fix for this, again per the Honolulu Civil Beat, is the addition of the “BMD False Alarm” link at the top of the menu, presumably so that if a real alert is sent out again in the future, it can be followed by a message saying, “actually, that was a drill”.

Hopefully this, uh, “redesign” is temporary and a full overhaul is in the works. That menu is a really dangerous bit of interface design and adding an “oopsie, we didn’t mean it” button doesn’t help. The employee made a mistake but it’s not his fault and he shouldn’t be fired for it. The interface is the problem and whoever caused that to happen — the designer, the software vendor, the heads of the agency, the lawmakers who haven’t made sufficient funds available for a proper design process to occur — should face the consequences. More importantly, the necessary changes should be made to fix the problem in a way that’s holistic, resilient, long-lasting, and helps operators make good decisions rather than encouraging mistakes.

Update: John Allspaw, who worked at both Etsy and Flickr at a time when they thought deeply about design and engineering process, says that a wider view is needed to truly understand what happened and fix it.

Focusing solely and narrowly on the “bad UI’ design in the Hawaii alert accident would be like focusing solely and narrowly on the F-15 misidentification in @scottsnook’s causal map in “Friendly Fire”.

Here’s the map he’s referring to, along with a link to a discussion of the F-15 incident described by Snook in the context of causal landscapes.

Causal Landscape

To compound this challenge, people want definitive 1-2 word answers, as if life was a series of mechanical operations and it was possible to affix blame and diagnose faults. If a copying machine jams, there is usually a mechanical reason — a sheet of paper may have gotten stuck in the assembly and once it is removed, the problem is solved. Mechanical problems like this are determinate; there is a cause and it can be identified. Yet most of our problems are not mechanical. They are not determinate. There is not a single cause. There are multiple, intersecting causes and we may never uncover some of the most important causes. We live in a multi-cause, indeterminate world and our attempts to understand why events occurred will usually be frustrating. We cannot expect specific single-cause 1-2 word answers.

It’s easy to say that the menu is wrong and it should be redesigned. But how did that menu come to be? What’s the context? What does the casual landscape look like here? Back to Allspaw (emphasis mine):

How are operators of the alert system involved in the design of their tools? How have those tools changed over time, across staff changes and feedback rounds? How do ‘near-misses’ happen with this system? How many operators are familiar with these tools and how many are new?

What does this system look like (not just UI) contrasted with other states with similar systems? How have accidental false-alarms been caught before? What data is collected about the type of work (difficulty, frequency, procedure-updating, etc.) including upward mgmt?

In other words: we focus on the UI because unhelpful UI is endemic to software, and easily identified and cartoonishly convicted. But there’s always much more to the narrative of an accident.

As it says on the front page of the site for Allspaw’s new consulting firm (which works with groups facing problems just like the Hawaii alert snafu): “Incidents are encoded messages your system is sending you about how it really works.” I hope that message is being received by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in the right way.

Update: Honolulu Civil Beat is now reporting that the image above is not what the actual interface looks like.

However, state officials now say that image was merely an example that showed more options than the employee had on the actual screen.

“We asked (Hawaii Emergency Management Agency) for a screenshot and that’s what they gave us,” Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong told Civil Beat on Tuesday. “At no time did anybody tell me it wasn’t a screenshot.”

HEMA won’t share what the interface actually looks like because of security concerns (which is understandable) but they did provide a new image that “better represents what an employee would have seen on Saturday”:

Fake Hawaii Missile Alert New

While this doesn’t look so much like a homepage from 1995, I would argue that fundamentally, the design (how it works, not how it looks) is unchanged. There are fewer options but the problematic similarity between options hiding vastly difference consequences remains. (via @andrewlong166)

Update: According to a federal investigation, the employee who sent out the alarm misheard a message played during a drill and thought it was the real thing. They have been fired.

This report, made public on Tuesday, said that the employee “has been a source of concern” to other staffers “for over 10 years.” The employee, who has been fired, has confused real world events and drills “on at least two separate occasions,” according to the report.

In addition to this person being fired last week, the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency resigned Tuesday morning.

Regardless of the “cause”, the process for distinguishing between drills and real-world situations still seems problematic. And that UI is still bad.

Ten new principles for good design

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

In the 1970s, legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams formulated his now-famous ten principles for good design.

5. Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Suzanne LaBarre of Co.Design has come up with an update of Rams’ list for 2018: 10 New Principles Of Good Design.

Good design is slow. For the past 20 years, tech has embraced a “move fast and break things” mantra. That was fine when software had a relatively small impact on the world. But today, it shapes nearly every aspect of our lives, from what we read to whom we date to how we spend money-and it’s largely optimized to benefit corporations, not users. The stakes have changed, the methods haven’t.

Good design is good writing. In his “2017 Design in Tech Report,” author John Maeda anointed writing as design’s newest unicorn skill. It’s easy to see why. With the rise of chatbots and conversational UI, writing is often the primary interface through which users interact with a product or service. (Siri’s dad jokes had to be written by someone.) But even designers who don’t work on interface copy should be able to articulate themselves clearly. The better their writing, the better their chances of selling an idea.

See also the tongue-in-cheek list of design principles updated for the tech industry, e.g. “Good design is pleasing your shareholders”.