If you follow me on Twitter, you might’ve noticed that I’ve been kinda grumpy about a number of the design articles that have been going around in the past few months. It made me wonder what exactly I’m hoping to get out of my design reading. I realized in the shower today that I’m mostly looking at design writing across three spectra: consistency, fidelity, and determinacy.
The first is fairly straightforward: consistency of thought. Does a consistent thesis or set of theses emerge? This seems basic, but it’s amazing how often design writing fails this test. Very often, design writing will contradict itself just a few sentences later. I think some designers think of themselves more as artists than inventors, and shy away from any notions that box design in. (Related: I think this has led to a bloating of what comprises the domain of design. Not everything is a design problem. If it were, then design would cease to be a useful term.)
The second is the fidelity of the idea. Maxims like “good design is unobtrusive” might be true in nearly all cases, but a statement so broad is bound to have exceptions. A counter-example here is a stop sign, where obtrusion is the whole point. A higher fidelity restatement of the maxim could include a principle defining such exceptions. I’m not suggesting that’s what Rams should have said — it wouldn’t be nearly as catchy. And that’s the important thing: there is no intrinsic quality associated with an idea’s level of fidelity. It’d just be a substantially different maxim if it were phrased like, “Good design is unobtrusive, every single time, seriously every time, SERIOUSLY NO EXCEPTIONS.”
Finally, the determinacy of the idea. Is the idea useful? Does it convert to practice and how well? “Good design is unobtrusive” is true in, say, 99% of all cases. But how about “Good design is as little design as possible”? I’d say this is true much less often. Consider software meant for working professionals, where edge cases can really matter. That said, an idea that bears fruit 70% of the time can still be useful.
Generally, you can increase the determinacy of an idea by increasing the fidelity — but that’s not always true. You can think of fidelity and determinacy as dampeners: they won’t make an idea better, but they determine how and when the idea can be deployed in practice.
I didn’t write this to call anyone out. Rather, I wanted to sort out what I look for so that I may be sharper with my own writing.
Yesterday’s post originally had a bunch of silly trivia about NASA and SETI mixed in. It was a mess, and the post is much better without it. But, I love SETI, so I thought I’d share some of that random junk:
Do you know about the Arecibo message? It’s a radio signal that was sent out to space, on the off chance that extraterrestrials were/are listening. Encoded are key math and science figures, to demonstrate our intelligence. It also contains the above map of our solar system, minus the coloring (that was added by me). As a pixel art nerd, this is both more primitive and more powerful than any other pixel drawing I can think of.
It’s not a modern idea: Carl Friedrich Gauss wanted to plant trees in a pattern that illustrated the Pythagorean theorem, in case anyone checked us out from above. Joseph Johann Littrow wanted to dig canals in geometric patterns, fill them with kerosene, and set it on fire.
Anyway, the guy that created the Arecibo message, Frank Drake, is also the mind behind the Drake equation, which attempts to estimate the number of detectable ET civilizations. It’s kinda bogus, but kinda not. It does raise an earnest question: if the odds of alien intelligence are so high, why haven’t they done what we’ve done: shoot sweet pixel art out into space for detection by other life?
There are a lot of theories, but one that science fiction loves is the zoo hypothesis: that ET life are simply watching and waiting. Two of my favorite pieces of science fiction, 2001 and Star Trek, both share this as their central premise. In 2001, the triggering event of ET intervention is man’s arrival to the moon. In Star Trek, the Vulcan race came to Earth only after we discovered the technology for interstellar travel. The Federation itself continued this nonintervention policy.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Carl Sagan had his hand in much of the above, and his depiction of all this, Contact, is one of my favorite movies, even though it really is super bad in most ways.
Bonus: The New York Times, in 1835, called reports of bat-men living on the moon “probable and possible.”
In February I moved back to Mountain View, where I grew up. You probably recognize that name because Google has its headquarters here. This wasn’t the case when I was a kid, so I still think of it as a NASA town.
It’s fun growing up in a NASA town. Every 8-year-old in America wants to be an astronaut, of course, but how many tour their neighborhood wind tunnels, or get their freeze-dried ice cream directly from the source? I never went to Space Camp (far too expensive), but I had the opportunity to be jealous of those in my class that did.
There’s an incredible hangar visible from anywhere in the north half of the city: Hangar One. Every year we’d go there to climb inside the cockpits of planes, and watch the Blue Angels pull tricks. It’s, apparently, one of the largest freestanding structures in the world.
The air shows stopped in the ’90s, and now the building is being stripped to its frame. For some understandable reason, you know, like asbestos.
I now live on the same block as my childhood apartment building. My elementary school is right around the corner. They’ve built walls around the school, to convert it to a private day care for Google employees. It still has one of the best views of Hangar One, though.
It has a Death Star II quality: this massive metal structure, permanently looming in the distance, half in pieces. Except, Hangar One is under deconstruction. Larry Page and Sergey Brin have offered to pay to install new paneling, in exchange for the ability to store their private jets there.
Californian idealism and Leland Stanford get a lot of the credit for Silicon Valley’s rise, but it’s more accurately traced back to the military. Most seem to prefer the version of the story where our weird little industry is thanks to some brave frontier academia. But, having grown up here — between the industrial parks of NASA, the Naval Air Force, Lockheed Martin — I’d say the grosser, meaner history is worth remembering. Plus, NASA is still pretty cool, I think.