Cars as Temporary Architecture

There’s an idea that’s been in my head for a while now for an Alternate Calgary but I haven’t written it yet – here’s the real-world spin off of it:

Cars are a space, a volume, that moves between two other spaces, say, your house and work. They’re relatively permanent in state – the seats move forward and back but the car’s architecture, so to speak, is generally unaffected – while their position is not. They are a very brief tunnel, essentially. Imagining that all the air around you was a thin pink mist that you could dig away as you moved through it, walking down the street would essentially create a vacuum behind you, right? A tunnel. Now drive through that same volume in your car and we see the same thing but slightly wider. A car is a tunnel that only exists in a certain place at a certain time. A true tunnel is a space that exists between two points all the time.

The neat thing, of course, is this is a tunnel you get to control. You can drive it anywhere you want! This is a room between a room and a nearly infinite supply of other rooms. Not instantaneously, of course, but nonetheless. So when we talk about architecture as a volume, as a space that exists separated from all the other space in the world it’s really just a bubble in our imaginary pink cloud. It’s a bubble that doesn’t move, usually. Buildings, typically, hold their bubble still and contained; trapped inside their walls and ceilings. Cars are a smaller bubble that goes between them. As such, cars are architecture.

Now – and this is where we venture into Alternate Calgary’s worlds – what would a city look like if we took that pink mist pocketed by bubbles and lifted it up, removed all the actual infrastructure? Are there patterns in the tunnels that we could map and re-network? Yes, we could. Now, let’s look at the human interactions:

Say there’s a family of four. The two parents work in different places and the two children go to school in different places. What if the house they lived in broke into chunks and were transported by some means, say, a crane, when required. Let’s say that the chunks could be transported into other areas and re appropriated into other uses. If you put enough children’s bedrooms together you could make a classroom. If you picked up dad’s room (or study or whatever) and moved it to connect with another room containing machines he could work…

You get the idea.

So the tunnels between bubbles aren’t other, smaller, mobile bubbles (cars) as much as they contain the space themselves and are reconfigured. Because that’s the goal of cars, really: to rearrange humans on the planet.

Blender Tutorial: Super Basic UI

You open Blender for the first time. You panic; there’s buttons everywhere. You close it again: “I’ll figure it out some other day.”

Today is that some other day.

Okay. First things first: Blender is of the mentality that everything should adapt to how you want it. You can edit, move and change basically everything you see to your liking. You’ll notice that mine, below, is slightly different from the factory default.

You’ll also notice that I’ve outlined some buttons in the corners of some boxes. Two things: you can have as many boxes as you’d like and each one has that button in the corner which denotes what that box does. You can click and drag the boundaries of the boxes with the line that separates them (when you hover over the line your cursor should change to the double edged arrows). You can split and join them by right clicking when you’re in that hovering arrow area and selecting the appropriate option.

If you select “join” you’ll be given an arrow pointing towards one or the other of the boxes on either side of the crease you selected (note, you can’t join one of those three right boxes into the bigger one left box, it must be a crease where there’s only two sides. For example: joining on of those three boxes vertically into another = good) and if you move your mouse into either of the boxes that’s the one that will “fill” with the other, joining into one big box.

If you want to split, it’ll allow you to place the new crease. Obviously, you can always move it after it’s placed.

That was a mouthful. Basically, if you right click a crease and want to join things, it’ll give you the option of which kind of box you want to keep. Remember those little buttons in the first photo? Let’s go there next:

Those are the kind of box it is. The large one on the left is a 3D view box, showing you the 3D view. So is the middle one in that group of three; it’s a 3D view that I keep set to my camera’s view (we’ll get there later). There’s also a timeline in the middle bottom and a node box in the middle top – two more things we’ll cover much later – and on the far right the “properties” menu, which is to say the main panel of doing things. In the factory default there’ll also be a box above this menu that is a tree of all the objects in your scene; I’ve found this mostly useless. Preferences vary, obviously, but if you’re low on screen real estate that’d be on my list of things to not need. Right click on the crease, join upwards (so the arrow is into the outliner box) and click to confirm.

Cool.

So, when you’ve played around and set things up how you like them you can save them so that every time you open Blender (and every time you click “new”) it’ll go back to that state. Your UI will be saved with each file, so if you have an animation and a bunch of animation boxes, it’ll load exactly like that next time. If you don’t need them and have gotten rid of them, it’ll save and load exactly how you leave it. To save the UI you’ve made as that startup default, it’s in the top menu like so:

And there’s the factory default setting just below that if you screw it up and want to reset.

Protip: in the load menu, there’s a toggle on the left for “load UI” which is what it sounds like: you can choose to load the file’s UI as it was or load the file with the UI you currently have.

Typography and Music

People usually roll their eyes upon hearing that a person is into typography. They don’t call it that, of course, they call it “fonts” which doesn’t make any actual sense but is the thing they know and might have even used themselves. It’s akin to saying someone is into MP3s instead of music; fonts are a format container, a bucket for glyphs – sounds – which together make a song. A typeface then, is perhaps one such song in a suite – a family – of compositions. Similar structures or notable features, but with different uses. Maybe bold is one song in a different key or in major rather than minor, changing the mood.

And glyphs themselves are funny to think about individually, as are notes. There are many instruments that can play the same note but it would be inappropriate to use the same instrument for every kind of song, just as it would be inappropriate to use the same type treatment for every kind of word or brand. There are trends in each – an era of intense popularity – and perhaps we could call Helvetica like the Beatles: really popular for a decade or so and then drifting off into recognized but backseat brilliance as other, newer things come up. They are undeniable classics and heralds to new ages, but we can’t keep using them for everything. We still play them sometimes and are still caught up in the melody or the way the square period looks, but people would give us weird, annoyed looks if we interrupted a rave with them. It would be contextually inappropriate.

The shapes themselves are made up and meaningless but have been repeated so many times they form their own standard. Microtonal music sounds off or wrong somehow, just as a Japanese hiragana symbol might to an English writer. Our minds fall into patterns of language, be them visual or audio and we gloss over the individual parts in favor of the overarching melodies. Typographers, then, are like very obsessive luthiers, trying to make that perfect note ring on every fret and then making them all match each other and dance when strummed in chord.

There are words that look good in some font families, just as there are chords that sound good in some keys. To design type, then, is to design a scale structure to accommodate certain types of chords; words. The notes are picked and played individually but the scale is the coherent thread woven through them, where you could play any note in that scale and it would match any other.

What I’m trying to say, really, is that beauty as I see it is the organization of the arbitrary into systems where there are rules for individual interactions to create the whole.

Photos via

Slimfold Wallet Review

A few months back I excitedly ordered a Slimfold Wallet ($20) by designer Dave Zuverink who curiously (and quite awesomely) branched out from UI design to the world of physical goods. So it’s a great idea and a seemingly good execution – let’s see how it holds up in real life.

First off, it hasn’t been long enough. Wallets are one of the few things that we seem to keep forever. There are probably more fingers on one hand than the number of wallets I’ve owned in my life and my most recent, a Kenneth Cole leather trifold will probably wait patiently on a shelf just in case this new kid doesn’t stand up to time.

The product itself is very professionally presented for an Etsy buy. It’s plastic packaged and comes with brief instructions for those who have never, I guess, carried money in any form before? A touch, though, that adds credibility. It’s made of Tyvek which is a high density polyethylene fiber that they use for packaging and house wraps since it’s highly breathable but resistant to water. It’s light weight and has a sort of matte sheen with an expected fibrous texture. There’s something in us that equates lightweight with cheapness – titanium rings an example – it just feels fragile and papery. Everyone who I’ve shown this to has that same reaction of “You’re going to use this to protect money?” with the raised eyebrow subtext of “Wow. How brave.” to their credit, I thought the same thing for the first few days.

It’s a material that, if you’ve tried to open a package made from it you’ve come to know, cuts a lot easier than it rips. On that front, it seems pretty sturdy for the in and out of pocket stress it’ll experience. As long as I don’t leave it anywhere near scissors or knives it should be alright. It’s stitched with a thin thread that seems sufficient and the fold line could be described as reinforced though I doubt it’s required. While we’re focused on the fold I will say it’s not exactly a perfect angle, and not by design. Whoever folded it was a tad off, so when closed the two far edges don’t exactly line up. A minor thing found negligible in use, but tweaked my designer OCD as soon as got it. The slots for cards have held up surprisingly well – I thought for sure those would be the first to go. So far, so good. They are a little stiff in the beginning but relax with use and are perfectly fine after a week or two.

It looks good, I think, though I’ve heard the opposite from friends. In a sudden flash of uncharacteristic boldness I clicked ‘buy’ on the orange one. Since my wardrobe is almost exclusively greyscale it’s a pretty nice pop of colour. For people who actually wear coloured clothes, the charcoal options would be quite handsome too, and will cover the tragic dirtiness factor I’ll get into later. There’s a small printed logo and recycle sign on the front and inside corners respectively which appeals to my minimalism. It’d be cool, I think, to have a Spinnaker style design-your-own graphic option. Customize them a bit with pre-existing graphics or submit your own monotone vectors for print.

There is a qualm that I have here: it’s a different shape than I’d like. Or! Perhaps more accurately: than I’m used to. With a trifold you align the cards vertically and the whole wallet is vertical in your pocket creating a taller profile at the expense of being thicker in depth. This being a simple fold means the vertical cards end up being horizontal in the pocket which was, at first, an awkward extra width. Honestly, I’m not sure I like that. If they made a trifold out of this same material I’d probably spring for that. Of course, this main idea is to take down that depth which brings me to my next point:

It’s frightening to carry around. I say this with an all due tongue-in-cheek nod to it’s brilliance. I don’t notice it. It bends and flexes enough to stay stealthy in my back pocket and being virtually weightless means there’s no reassuring tug when walking. It’s a nervous thing, though, because now I’m paranoid and constantly checking. Will I get used to this? Probably. I’ve already gotten better over the past weeks. I can be sitting directly on it and have that quick pang of “oh no! where’s my wallet?!” worry. Part of me calls that an annoyance or a problem, but that’s sort of why people would buy the product in the first place, isn’t it?

There is an actual problem with the fibrous texture: it gets dirty. Really dirty. I work in a clean office, I drive a fairly clean car. My jean pockets aren’t lined with ink rollers. How does it get this grimy?

Which becomes my only real suggestion: maybe get the charcoal or black version. The orange, for obvious reasons, isn’t really great at hiding that dirt patina.

TL;DR The build has held up remarkably well after the brief months and I don’t see it going downhill anytime soon. I wish it would stay clean, is all. For $20, I say try it. Why not?

Smiles Per Hour

This idea has been developing in the back of my mind for a few months now and I’ve briefly alluded to it before. Nonetheless, it seems to warrant further exploration.

What if we measured design’s goodness in smiles brought to users – a concept I called “delight” in previous columns – instead of, say, profit or ownership. Ultimately, this is one side to the overarching question of “What should we design?” and it’s basis “What deserves to be in existence?”

Throughout school and my early career I was a very utilitarian designer, very minimal and very essential. There wasn’t much room for whimsy or self-possession in the design, it should be quiet and unobtrusive. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be anything but we would be able to complete any task we wanted. Since this was impossible, it was design’s job to get as close as possible. It was a Rams world moreso than an Eames one, and I say this in the philosophical sense more than the aesthetic one. The Eames couple made toys and had colourful windmills and fun, whereas Dieter was German and stark. It was a Japanese zen approach: the space should not be filled with things but people, and those people will mold the neutral space to their own preference. I still believe these things and will continue to fill my own world with these things, but my argument here is on behalf of the rest of the world.

Unlike physical sales where something is either sold or isn’t we have to extend the metaphor for smiles as a currency. We can think of debt as the opposite of money but anti-smiles are a more complex absence. There are three states: delight, neutral and frustration. The best designed things we marvel at, we delight in, the rest either elicits no response or actively gets in our way. Ideally, of course, we should be designing for the first, but a large majority of objects are the second: they exist and they serve – often well – our needs but we probably don’t really notice them in the positive sense either.

The reason I love this abstraction is it’s broad moral questions that relate humans to design. Questions that bring up, for only one example, things like guns. Not inherently bad and in fact smile granting when used in a range but when used against other people definitely rack up the anti-smile cost pretty quickly. Should they, then, exist as objects? There’d have to be a net balance of smiles gained v. smiles destroyed in every object that either justifies or damns it’s being. Granted, for most things it’d be obviously skewed: the existence of ice cream cones is something that – I’m assuming, at least – would be far closer to the delight end of the spectrum. A water bottle might not be an actively exciting thing, but nor are they actively destroying delight either. So then, there must be other, external factors to finally decide.

Usefulness has always been weighted heavily for me, as mentioned above, I’m an inherently practical person and an inherently practical designer. Water bottles, we can easily agree, are useful. The reductio ad absurdum being holding water in your cupped hands until you need a drink. This would be annoying at best and tragically difficult in reality. Driving and typing become impossible, as would basically everything else we do throughout the day. How many smiles do water bottles destroy? We could point to the life cycle analysis – the energy used to make them, the shipping costs, the stores that sell them, the re-usability, the recycling efficiency / landfill cost and so forth, but in the end we need a metric that correlates those things with humans’ actual lives and their delight level.

Now, this is all good in hypothetical thought. It’s good for imaginative philosophy in both design and humanist circles but in practice becomes impossibly complex to work out. Who’s to say there aren’t families living in landfills who’d delight in finding a good thrown out water bottle? What about the people in the town next to the landfill who anti-delight in seeing it grow closer to their house? Where do those things stack up and cancel out?

But maybe, just maybe, it’s another thing to think about when designing something. Not just cost analysis or profit margins, marketability or sustainability, something so simple as “Will this thing make more smiles than it breaks?”

Manual Labour

The year is 1937, a utilitarian loft with creaky floorboards houses rows upon rows of desks upon which rest an inbox an outbox and a typewriter rest. The large windows allow light to stream in, visible in the ambient dust. The clack of hundreds of mechanical keys reverberate the room’s hard surfaces. Women make social security cards by the thousand, manually adding the numbers and information.

It’s hard to argue that we should go back to this as a way of life.

It’s now 2012 and I sit in a comfortable pub with a handful of designer and engineer friends eating greasy chicken and drinking varying shades of amber. We lament the loss of simple mechanical knowledge in people; “Really, people don’t know how to change their own oil? Woah.” but I see both sides of the argument. Why should the common person understand the internal combustion engine? It’s practical, sure, for self diagnosis of developing noises or vibrations and usually more cost effective to fix things yourself but there’s little necessity to these reasons. You can, as many do, live your entire life comfortably without such knowledge.

There’s a good pile of essential design philosophy literature that insists that the world is collapsing because we’re moving into an information age, an age that doesn’t value physical trades like motorcycle repair. That we’re collectively dumber because our German-made cars have plastic covers over the engines with very little insight as to the magic underneath. Shop Class as Soulcraft author Matthew Crawford describes this as a “hood under the hood” with only a few caps for filling fluids, should the consumer be daring enough to even fill those themselves. This is a valid point, and one that we agree on – it makes sense to learn to do minor things yourself for the independence, know-how and often for the simple cost savings of not paying labour. But I disagree on the lamenting of society. Rather, I focus my lament direction slightly elsewhere:

These are books that suggest that a lack of knowledge is a problem, and that people who lack knowledge are dumb and shameful blights on good society. I’m hardly arguing in favor of ignorance, but I want to shift the blame to the cause, not the effect: a lack of curiosity. We in the pub are, as a former mechanical design class, a collection of intensely curious people. People who yearn to know what this bit of metal does or how it works. We’re the people who grew up on How it Works books and videos and absorb it with sponge-like minds because curiosity drives us. Do I know how everything in the world works? Hardly. Are they – the people who know such things – to lament and shame me for not knowing? In their eyes, yes. But I’d argue that my eagerness to learn it is the defining factor.

So instead of writing books about how society is going down the drain because the average person can’t change their own oil we should be writing books about how awesome learning how to do these things can be. About how to be driven and led by natural curiosity for the betterment of oneself. It’s not about the information age, the jobs that get cut will get cut because there simply isn’t a reason to keep menial tasks around explicitly to fill chairs with people; we’ve got grander things to do! It’s not about mechanical programs being cut from schools or a lack of teachers to teach them – try learning to code in high school; same problem – it’s about having nearly infinite access to such topics and having students who realize they can simply learn whatever they’re truly driven towards.

TL;DR A person’s knowledge doesn’t define them as much as their willingness to learn does.

Title photo via.


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