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Convenient Lessons from An Inconvenient Truth Ornament Aug 2nd, 2006

If you have not yet seen An Inconvenient Truth, then I highly recommend that you do. It’s a compelling film and one that deserves to be taken seriously, regardless of what your opinion of anyone with a (D) in front of their name might be. However, I’m not going to get into the science or politics of the movie, which I admit I found quite convincing. I want to examine a few issues more closely tied to my profession.

As a designer, I found the presentation of the information in the movie thoroughly engaging. The slides that Mr. Gore used — designed by Duarte Design — were clean, clear and communicated complex sets of data in an accessible fashion. There was excellent use of movement to reveal the underlying story the data was telling us. There were moments of humor used to break up the relentless abuse the facts can have on one’s psyche. And there was near perfect use of contrast and scale to communicate the significance of the situation.

What could have been just yet another crappy cognitive style of PowerPoint cum Keynote presentation was instead an exemplary case study on how to do presentations right. It’s a useful lesson on exactly how good design requires a singular focus on what needs to be communicated in order to be effective.

Good design is not oversimplified

One of the more memorable images in the presentation was this:

Keeling Curve

It’s a slice from an infamous graph called The Keeling Curve, a chart that shows the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and how it has increased since 1958. It shows clearly that carbon dioxide levels are increasing year over year. It also serves as a warning that we are living with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Keeling Chart

(Note: This rendering of the Keeling Curve is not the same one used from the movie.)

When I hear people in the technology design field discuss “simplicity,” I’m always struck by how too many tend to misuse the term. In contrast, the presentation of the Keeling Curve in the movie is a clear example of what simplicity is, and how it should be applied in practice.

Gore first presents the chart as only a thick, jagged red line cutting across the wall sized black screen behind him on stage, which is dramatic in its own right. Then he frames it in it’s proper context combined with a simple animation that ties the spikes in the chart to the earth’s similar carbon dioxide breathing patterns. He lets the jagged line grow over time, rising as he talks about it’s importance. It’s the perfect example of how simple, uncomplicated visuals when coupled with a professional speaker can be used to communicate a powerful message.

The message as communicated doesn’t come from some attempt to simplify the chart’s data set or through some truncated method of describing what the line means via a bulleted list. The message comes from being communicated in its natural state as a jagged line that rises over time, with little added to garble the signal.

To translate this into every day work of interface designers, one should not pretend to make complex sets of data or involved interactions simple through means other than what they are. If something is complex by nature, the best way you can hope to make it simple is by not adding anything extraneous to it.

The way to make something simple is to let it be as complex as it is.

That means you should avoid using made up marketingspeak within instructional text, refuse to add visually complex icons if textual descriptions on buttons suffice, resist the urge to decorate when it only serves to add more flavor but doesn’t change the core communciation, and not attempt to second guess what a user might want to do on rare occasions at a specific step in a process.

Gore made no attempt to avoid using a chart based on carbon dioxide readings collected over fifty years. He describes why the jagged line is jagged by nature, only using a simple animation of the Earth “breathing” that reinforces the key concept of why the line is jagged. He states simply that levels above 300 parts per million are dangerous to our environment. Finally, he displays the chart with its dramatic jagged red line overlaid on simple axes of time and measurement.

The message is communicated loud and clear.

Good design is not about obviousness

Another design lesson to be garnered from the movie is that it’s acceptable — and often preferred — to take the appropriate amount of time to build a story.

Building a narrative in a movie is similar to building expectations in the design of technology products. Both are fulfilled only when the follow through satisfies the time invested by either the audience or the user. In the case of Gore’s presentation, he does an excellent job of using the information he discusses just minutes prior in order to make clear the next set of data points. He doesn’t attempt to say everything at once, but lets himself build upon each data point he communicates through the progression of his talk. In short, he fulfills on the promise of providing us with more knowledge for the time we spend sitting in the movie theater after paying our price of admission.

A clear example of this in practical design terms can be found in the iPod. Just step back to the moment in time to when the iPod first came out. If you recall, many people who had never encountered a digital music device weren’t sure what to make of it. If you handed the iPod to someone who had never seen it, they were often dumbfounded.

In fact, how to use the ever present and important scroll wheel clearly wasn’t obvious. More often than not, you had to explain to an iPod neophyte exactly how to use it.

The designers got the iPod right in terms making the device feel comfortable in one’s hand and keeping it’s industrial design sleek and sexy through minimalist use of form and color. Where they ultimately succeeded though was in the follow through on the use of the scroll wheel. Once a user took the time to understand what the iPod did or had the scroll wheel’s interaction explained to them, the investment on their part opened up access to thousands of songs, which is the core expectation of using the iPod in the first place. That fulfilled expectation for their investment is what makes the design work, even though on the surface it’s not entirely obvious. Once the user has experienced the scroll wheel’s interaction, they can never look at an iPod again and not know how to use it. At that point, it becomes forever obvious.

The way to make something obvious is to follow through on expectations built up from the time invested on the product.

The best approach one can take as a designer is to always ask what kind of investment you are requesting of your customers, because all products require some time investment. Then, be brutally honest with yourself that you are holding up your end of the bargain with them. If you are going to ask someone to spend any amount of time attempting to learn or otherwise grok a product as expressed though its design, you have to hold up your end of the deal by providing them something that is both useful and satisfying.

Gore spent a reasonable amount of time building his case in the movie. His narrative works because by the end of it, even if one may not agree with the underlying intentions of Gore himself or have issues with the man for some partisan reason, Gore fulfilled the promise of telling the common person the story that many scientists have been trying to over the past few decades.

Good design is not about style

My favorite aspect of the movie’s presentation is the timelessness of its visuals. Gore’s slides use nothing but core graphic design fundamentals to do the job and become an important lesson on how the design aesthetic works.

There is a distinct lack of gradients, shading, fanciful fonts, cool transitions or any other spoils of modern presentation software. The motion graphics when used were judicious and focused. There was no specific template from one slide to the next. Thankfully, there was also a complete lack of bulleted lists.

The general design aesthetic clearly focused on the fundamentals.

One way to make anything you design easier to use is to first make sure it adheres to the fundamentals of color, type and composition. Given that the principles and rules around the basics of graphic design are well known at this stage of the game, there is simply no excuse to ignore them or claim ignorance of them. From there, you can then focus on other core aspects of a product’s interface, like keeping labels direct, avoiding unnecessary modal interactions or providing clear feedback to a user’s interaction.

As any professional jazz musician will tell you, in order to break the rules you must first gain mastery of them. You can’t play great jazz if you don’t understand the basics of scales or key concepts in music theory, nor if you lack mastery of the physical instrument itself. This is as true in the design of technology products as it is in music.

The way to make something stylish is to lay the proper groundwork using design fundamentals first, then judiciously apply one’s own touch as required.

The reason why the visuals work in An Inconvenient Truth is because they focus squarely on the fundamentals in order to communicate first, with small touches sprinkled throughout to enhance the aesthetic. That focus in design combined with its professional execution creates its style. In the end, that style plays a key role in the emotional impact of the presentation and the movie.

Good design always comes from good designers

The last thing to notice about the movie is quite simple. Al Gore does a great job of being an engaging speaker. The movie works simply because Al Gore is the passionate environmentalist in it, not the wooden presidential candidate that many of us were exposed to during the 2000 election cycle.

One of the reasons Edward Tufte has been so successful is not because his books are beautiful creations, which they are, or that they neccessarily inform core design principles on their own, which they do. In fact, much of what Edward Tufte writes is a bit arcane and overly academic for most people. What makes Tufte successful is that he knows how to give a dynamic, engaging presentation that supports his book, often deepening the lessons that can be learned from them.

Similarly, the way to achieve good design for your product is to simply be a good designer.

That might sound simplistic on its surface, but when one is presented with good design, like that on display in An Inconvenient Truth, it’s always a useful to remember that part of being a good designer is to constantly seek out the lessons one can learn when presented with good design.

And to remember that part of the craft never ends.

 

Bullet

Standards rant

Repeat after me Separator Standards do not block, impede or otherwise hinder innovation. Businessmen, engineers or product managers who only care about how they want to implement technology or only care about their own bottom line are the ones doing the real damage in the larger economic picture.

Design by Fire strives to be as standards compliant as humanly possible in spite of the fact that those in charge of developing the technology, the browsers and the operating systems can't seem to to code to the W3C specification with 100% compliance.

However, even though I'm a firm believer in standards, I'm beyond sick and tired of trying to figure out what works and what does not work according to the W3C specification. So while I make every attempt to do the right thing, occasionally I'll just do what I have to get the thing working. In other words, if you run any Design by Fire URI through a code validator and find invalid markup or css, please don't bother sending me an email.

With that little rant out of the way, here are some good articles about the benefits of web standards.

And of course, there's Zeldman's Designing with Web Standards, which is easily one of the best reads from both a practical and technical point of view on the subject.

All of these sources discuss simplification of code, rapid development, smaller file sizes, faster download times, better accessibility for a larger set of users, easier code maintenance and platform scalability - all benefits of standards at a technological level. There's also some ROI discussion on using standards.

Really Simple Syndication is still a pain in the ass

Here's the RSS feed.

RSS Feed
Design by Fire RSS Feed

You should know the drill by now.

Andrei Michael Herasimchuk
Designer

Updated 2010 Separator The quick and dirty summary is that I am largely considered one of the first official interface designers hired by Adobe Systems. That is, the first one hired to do nothing but interface design across the professional product line. I worked personally on the interfaces for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign.

Andrei

One of these days, I'll convince Adobe's legal eagles to let me write a book about all that I have been through while working on those products. I just doubt they'll agree to it in my lifetime. Until, then you'll have to be satisfied with the History of Photoshop, an article written by a long-time friend of mine, Jeff Schewe.

Work

Director, Design Team bullet Twitter
March 2011 - Present

Sr. Director of Product Design
Applications bullet Yahoo!
September 2009 - March 2011

Chief Design Officer, Co-Founder bullet Involution Studios
July 2004 - September 2009

Project Lead, Adobe Lightroom bullet Adobe Systems
December 2002 - June 2004

Director, User Interface bullet ePeople
April 2001 - December 2002

Director, User Interface bullet Impresse
January 2000 - April 2001

Director, User Interface bullet Mambo.com
August 1999 - January 2000

Senior User Interface Designer bullet Adobe Systems
August 1995 - July 1999

Co-Founding Member, Director bullet Specular Int'l
June 1990 - August 1995

Play

Having the opportunity to work on Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom has given me a chance to explore photography in way I would not have had access to otherwise. You can find samples of all my personal work on this web site, and unless otherwise noted, everything here is photographed by me.

For a short period of time, I was exploring a screenwriting career. I had a script optioned by Hyde Park Entertainment (a division of MGM), a studio that has since gone under. I even had an agent in Beverly Hills for a short period of time.

I enjoy playing poker on the side and find the game infinitely fascinating. I have made the final table in a few bigger tournaments. One at The Hall of Fame Poker Classic and the other at the Bay 101 Open, but no World Series of Poker bracelet for me yet. I have had the opportunity to play against some world-class poker professionals and have gotten crushed by them.

In my off time I play bass guitar and far too many video games.

Publications and Awards

Industry Awards bullet 1995-2000
Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign have won far too many awards than is possible to list here.

The History of Photoshop bullet February 2000
An article written by Jeff Schewe for Photo Electronic Imaging Magazine. This covers the history and development of Photoshop. A copy of this article can be found here in PDF format. You can also find another copy on Jeff's web site, Schewe Photography.

Design Graphics, Cover Story bullet June 1999, Issue 46
This article covered the work I did on the redesign of the professional product line while at Adobe.

Collage with Photoshop bullet 1994
This book features 14 digital artists using Photoshop and Specular Collage. I'm only mentioned in the prologue, but the book was created to promote Collage and what digital artists were doing with it at the time. I'm still fairly proud about the book and the work produced inside of it.

Education

Amherst College bullet 1989 to 1990
Left Amherst College to start Specular Int'l

The Hill School bullet 1984 to 1988
College preperatory school.

Contact

andrei@designbyfire.com bullet To avoid getting tagged by my spam filter, be sure to create a meaningful subject line.

Colophon and other details

Design by Fire v4.0 Separator A quick overview of the design and implementation of DxF for those who care about such details.

Browser Support

If you are viewing Design by Fire in either Firefox or Safari, congratulations! You are experiencing Design by Fire in the manner it was intended. If you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 or less, you have my sympathies as you are getting a version slightly less dynamic. The reason for that is due to Microsoft's lack of support for the CSS property "position: fixed;" plus a few other things.

Get Firefox

Bottom line, Internet Explorer promises to fix these things in version 7, so in the meantime you can either download the beta for IE7 or switch to Firefox.

Typography

If you have purchased the Adobe Creative Suite, you should have Helvetica Neue installed in your font library. If so, then you are reading Design by Fire as it was intended to be read. For everyone else, you are either seeing Lucida Grande or Arial.

Fonts

Clearly, Helvetica Neue is far superior.

As for the logotype of Design by Fire, it's set using the classic Bodoni typeface, complete with ligature for that extra flourish.

Content Management System

This version of Design by Fire is managed using WordPress. So long MovableType.

Copyright Information

Design by Fire is ©copyright by Andrei Michael Herasimchuk. All rights reserved.

You may not use any material, articles, logos, essays, technical illustrations, photos or any content from this site without expressed written permission.

Design articles

This page intentionally left blank Bullet Oct 31st, 2008

Keeping up with the Joneses Bullet Aug 16th, 2007

Introducing Spivot Bullet Mar 5th, 2007

The unfortunate death of Helvetica Bullet Oct 23rd, 2006

An Open letter to John Warnock Bullet Aug 28th, 2006

Convenient Lessons from An Inconvenient Truth Bullet Aug 2nd, 2006

The kids aren’t alright Bullet Jul 17th, 2006

The Culture of Fugly Bullet Jun 25th, 2006

Please make me think! Are high-tech usability priorities backwards? Bullet Oct 10th, 2004

Rebranding the World Wide Web Consortium Bullet Sep 30th, 2004

You say toe – may – toe, I say [expletive] that Bullet Aug 17th, 2004

Gurus v. Bloggers, Round 2 Bullet Jun 20th, 2004

Design Eye for the Usability Guy Bullet May 18th, 2004

Et tu, Brute? Bullet May 6th, 2004

I would RTFM if there was an FM to FR Bullet Apr 30th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part III Bullet Apr 27th, 2004

Gurus v. Bloggers, Round 1 Bullet Apr 9th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part II Bullet Mar 31st, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part I Bullet Mar 29th, 2004

Redesigning Google’s search results page Bullet Jan 25th, 2004

Lifestyle articles

Welcome to the new school, same as the old school. Bullet Jun 19th, 2006

Bubble Boy at the Bay 101 Shooting Star Bullet Mar 1st, 2004

Beginner’s Tips for Poker Bullet Jan 31st, 2004

Crucial mistakes against Scotty Nguyen Bullet Dec 10th, 2003

Photography articles

Santorini in black and white Bullet Jun 17th, 2004

Santorini in red Bullet Jun 9th, 2004

Santorini in blue Bullet Jun 8th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part III Bullet Apr 27th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part II Bullet Mar 31st, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part I Bullet Mar 29th, 2004

Party like it’s 1999 Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

An Oakland Rave Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

Random favorites from the shoebox Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

Portraits of Donna and Alexa Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

Politics archive

How terrorism works Bullet Sep 10th, 2004