Information Design Watch

February 26, 2007, 9:35 am

Visual Identity: Identicon

By Lisa Agustin

Reading a string of comments on a blog is not the most stimulating user experience.  Moreover, if a blog post is riveting enough to start an online conversation via comments, following the exchanges between participants may require closer reading to see who said what.  Enter the Identicon.  Programmer Don Park developed the Identicon as a way of enhancing the commenter’s identity by using a privacy protecting derivative of each commenter’s IP address to build a 9-block image to identify the writer. Referred to in its debut as “IP-ID,” the Identicon is written in Java and based on the first four bytes of SHA-1 (Secure Hash Algorithm).  The Identicon’s visualization consists of a small quilt of 9 blocks that uses 3 types of patches, out of 16 available, in 9 positions. To try this yourself, visit Park’s blog and scroll down to the comment form, which will display your current Identicon. Mine at the time of this writing:

lisa identicon

How it works: the Identicon code selects 3 patches: one for center position, one for 4 sides, and one for 4 corners. There are additional details in the code for determining positioning, rotation, color, and inversion of the blocks.

For users with dynamic IP addresses, their Identicons will change over time.  However, according to Park, it doesn’t appear to change often enough to affect identification beyond a “typical comment activity cluster” (presumably a single session during which a comment might be posted). Park adds:

I originally came up with this idea to be used as an easy means of visually distinguishing multiple units of information, anything that can be reduced to bits. It’s not just IPs but also people, places, and things. IMHO, too much of the web what we read are textual or numeric information which are not easy to distinguish at a glance when they are jumbled up together.

Besides the intended purpose of identifying individual users among a sea of many (e.g., wiki authors, customer tracking in CRM tools, etc.), there may be other uses as well, such as identification of individual computers within a large network.  Plus the Identicon seems to be gaining in popularity: a PHP version is now available, as well as one that works for WordPress.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Implementation, Technology, Visual Explanation

February 20, 2007, 4:43 pm

Visual Information for Origami

By Henry Woodbury

The New Yorker has a long article on physicist and origami artist Robert J. Lang that also illuminates the dynamically changing world of origami. In short, this ancient artform has changed radically with the application of modern mathematical tools:

In 1970, no one could figure out how to make a credible-looking origami spider, but soon folders could make not just spiders but spiders of any species, with any length of leg, and cicadas with wings, and sawyer beetles with horns. For centuries, origami patterns had at most thirty steps; now they could have hundreds. And as origami became more complex it also became more practical. Scientists began applying these folding techniques to anything — medical, electrical, optical, or nanotechnical devices, and even to strands of DNA — that had a fixed size and shape but needed to be packed tightly and in an orderly way.

Garden Spider Garden Spider Crease Pattern Longhorn Longhorn Crease Pattern

Lang’s personal origami site is rich with images and ideas. For many of his constructions, Lang provides a “crease pattern,” a one-page diagram of singular complexity (see above). Lang explains:

Crease patterns have become much more popular in the last 15 years as a means of conveying origami. Part of the reason is that it’s a lot easier to draw a single crease pattern than to draw a detailed step-by step folding sequence. Part of the reason is that many origami composers (including myself) construct crease patterns as part of their design process, so the finished crease pattern comes ” for free.” And part of the reason is that with the general rise in folding ability worldwide, a reasonable number of people now have the skill to “read” a crease pattern and fold the encoded form.

Further on, Lange expands on his last point:

…a crease pattern can sometimes be more illuminating than a detailed folding sequence, conveying not just “how to fold,” but also how the figure was originally designed. And thus, it can actually give the folder insight into the thought processes of the origami composer in a way that a step-by-step folding sequence cannot.

Lang’s entire essay is enormously interesting for anyone concerned with models, diagrams, and visual explanations. Crease patterns need to show both details and large scale features of a pattern. They may be simplified for readability, or be augmented with additional lines or symbols that indicate key elements of the design. Like a musical score, they are designed for the trained eye but democratically open to anyone who wishes to learn their language.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Design, Visual Explanation

February 14, 2007, 1:36 pm

Learning Curve

By Henry Woodbury

“If it had been that straightforward I wouldn’t have called helpdesk”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pyjRj3UMRM

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Technology, Usability

February 9, 2007, 10:31 am

Strange Maps

By Lisa Agustin

Forget about Google Maps and G.P.S.  Here’s one for history and cartography buffs: Strange Maps is a blog covering fictional, hypothetical, and just plain odd maps found online. Image sources run the gamut from the U.S. Library of Congress (for Johananes Vingboons’ “Island of California” map from 1693, below) to the official site of author Stephen King. Besides being a visually-rich collection of approaches to mapmaking, each represents its creator’s view of an alternate reality, whether whimsical (a rendering of the Land of Oz), thought-provoking (the Armed Forces Journal’s re-drawing of the Middle-East), or somewhere in the middle (the world as seen from New York City’s 9th Ave). A bonus: each map comes with a detailed commentary on its background, history, and the occasional factoid for interesting reading.

Island of California

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

February 8, 2007, 11:28 am

CSS Sandbox

By Henry Woodbury

Smashing Magazine has a list of 53 CSS Techniques You Couldn’t Live Without.

Despite some dead links and the parody-inviting title, it’s a good resource. Most of the designers to whom the article links offer well-designed code; many provide thoughtful explanations of why you would even bother with it.

One example is the list of tricks to generate rounded corners with CSS. I’ve run across some of these in the past and been unimpressed. A CSS technique that requires javascript or a dagwood sandwich of nested tags makes me suspicious. Yet if you continue on to Greg Johnson’s Spiffy Corners site, you find a reasonably efficient sandwich with thoughtful reference to alternate approaches:

There are solutions for rounded corners using pure CSS. There are solutions that create anti-aliased corners. There are solutions that don’t require JavaScript. But to my knowledge, there has yet to be a pure CSS solution for rounded corners that does not require images or JavaScript.

Herein lies the value of the list. Most of Smashing‘s life-saving techniques are good only for spot use, but spending a little time with the code and commentary can give a web designer a lot of insight into how different CSS attributes interact.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Implementation, Web Interface Design

February 7, 2007, 2:28 pm

Web 2.0 at the World Economic Forum

By Lisa Agustin

WEF panelIs Web 2.0 just another tech buzzword or Something Bigger? “The Impact of Web 2.0 and Emerging Social Network Models,” a session at this year’s World Economic Forum, was the latest venue for the ongoing debate. The panel consisted of major players (Microsoft and Nike), those on the cusp of the revolution (YouTube and Flickr), and even a government representative (Commissioner of the Information Society and Media, European Commission, Brussels) who shared insights for what’s next online. Panelists agreed that the next phase of the Web is one that leverages the power of community, even if it’s too early to tell what the business implications of this empowerment may be. Overall, the session didn’t reveal earth-shattering predictions so much as discuss changes that are already underway:

  • Content delivery modes will continue to converge;
  • Delivery of content and advertising will be more closely linked to create a customized, personalized experience;
  • An interactive, participatory user experience will replace the traditional one-way message or broadcast model;
  • Social networks will continue to exert their influence in determining relevant and must-see content;
  • The collective intelligence (“the wisdom of crowds”) will help companies identify new opportunities for products and experiences.

Interestingly, talk of ad revenue and business models led to a brief discussion on what Web 2.0 may mean for useful user metrics in the future. “Page views are dead,” stated Flickr founder Caterina Fake. “On a social networking site, connections, the amount of messages, and time spent on a site is what’s important. But the [overall] measure of usefulness is still to be developed.” Whatever Web 2.0 finally turns out to be, Nike CEO Mark Parker urged that companies and other organizations will be at risk if they don’t “embrace this empowerment and understand what it means.”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events

February 2, 2007, 4:37 pm

New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards

By Henry Woodbury

The 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual makes for a compelling set of photographs:

New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual (1970) New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual (1970)

The iconic strength of Massimo Vignelli’s signage comes readily through in black and white, but I would think almost anyone who has travelled by New York City subway will think of these numbers and letters in color:

New York City Subway Signage

Long ago I jotted down a quote by art collector John C. Waddell from a design article in the New York Times Magazine:

When I think of the East Side, it’s green; when I think of Lincoln Center, it’s red. Massimo and Lella Vignelli did that to my head.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Color, Design, Information Design, Typography

February 1, 2007, 10:16 am

Your. User. Is. Not. You.

By Henry Woodbury

That advice from computer science instructor David Platt could be carved in stone. It pretty much applies to everyone that makes anything for other people, but Platt has a particular target in mind. Programmers, he asserts, don’t think like users:

People who write software programs value control. The user, on the other hand, just wants something that’s easy to operate.To illustrate his point, he notes that computer programmers tend to prefer manual transmissions. But not even 15 percent of the cars sold in the United States last year had that feature.

Business executives don’t think like users either. Frankly, users don’t think like users. Here’s David Thomas, executive director of the Software & Information Industry Association’s software division:

You don’t want your customers to design your product. They’re really bad at it.

What you want to do is ask people what they want, then compare it to what they actually do.

Platt’s Suckbusters web site is here. A typically entertaining lede:

The common technique of confirmation, popping a dialog box into the user’s face and asking, “Are you really Really REALLY sure you want to do that?” is evil. It’s unfriendly, it’s distracting, and it’s completely ineffective. Have you ever, even once, said, “Whoa! I didn’t want to do that. Thanks,” and clicked No? Have you seen anyone do that? Have you even heard of anyone doing it? I haven’t. It shouldn’t exist. Anywhere. Ever.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Business, Technology, Usability