Posture and Coolness

Here’s the new “off-road mobility machine” from Der Ziesel and by all rights it should be cool. It’s electric, has more than enough power and speed, comes in cool colour schemes. But why isn’t it? There’s something that’s just… je ne sais quoi… lame?

That’s what it looks like from the side, and I had an idea: the obvious comparison is a regular snowmobile, right? So here’s one I chose at random because it was first on Google Images:

It’s just better somehow. Now, we’re ignoring things like drivability, safety, cost, etc. but from two pictures alone, which would you rather have? Which would you rather be seen driving?

Which is curious, what is the difference, really? I suspect it’s posture. Top-heaviness. Fast things, cool things, are low-slung and wide. Lame things are tall and narrow. They look tipsy under fast cornering and terrain variations. The Der Ziesel has that roll cage and a seat belt. It’s tall and narrow.

So we see this everywhere: SMART Cars and Lamborghinis. Sure, you could argue status symbols, cost and performance, but what about Aston Martin’s lineup and it’s own Cygnet – same branding and luxury, an aesthetically inferior car. Now, interestingly, the Cygnet is based on the Toyota iQ, and even that’s better than the SMART because it has a wider, fatter stance. It’s less topheavy and tall. The MINI is wider and longer yet, but only slightly shorter in height and offers a more sporty posture for driving. When you get into the lower sports and race cars, you’re practically lying down in a vehicle so wide it has trouble with parking garages.

The moral of the story is if you want to make something cool, make it low.

Light Wing Trainers, the Tyvek Shoe

I should just rename this from Acrylo Blog to Tyvek Blog – Your Source for Buying Tyvek Versions of Everything.

Look, shoes!

Which, I’m sad to say, I can’t endorse. They look lovely, yes, but let’s remember what happened to the lovely, brightly coloured wallet – unwashably dirty. Tyvek is a fibrous material and inevitably, things will get trapped in it’s texture. I love the stuff, it’s a fantastic way to construct things, but that’s how dirty something got from my sheltered pockets; imagine what it’ll look like after even a day on the street.

They also make a wallet for $11:

…which, I’d probably pay the extra $9 and buy another Slimfold. The snap seems awkward and annoying for no added benefit.

They’re made by Unbelievable Testing Laboratory and you can find the main Kickstarter here. I was searching for a good pun about these kicks being started by Kickstarter, but fortunately you’re safe for now; I’ve got nothing.

Prices for the shoes start at $50 which would be reasonable… for anything that we could assume would last longer than a few months. Again, the wallet barely made it a half year – shoes are far more abused. They might survive the folding and bending and stepping tests, but that’s not introducing all of the that real life incurs. The mud and the guts and the glory.

So. I don’t mean to be down on them. On the contrary I applaud the innovation and the execution. Time will tell the rest, and I wish them luck.


Rogue Industries Maine Wallet Review

Full disclosure: Rogue Industries did send me this wallet for the purpose of reviewing it. My opinions, however, remain unbiased and the following is exactly how I’d review it in any other circumstance.

Okay, so what do we have here? It’s a front wallet with a patented curve that better fits the cut of the pocket. The advantages to carrying your wallet in the front include but are not limited to theft deterrence, spine issues and simple convenience. On those fronts, it seems like a good wallet for the job. I chose mine in charcoal black premium cow leather ($40) but there are plenty of different animals and styles to choose from, including non-animal things like ballistic nylon and stainless steel. They all appear to be the same shape so this review will be more about how that works than the actual leather itself. We can assume it’ll compare to other leather products and is a material we’re all familiar with, unlike my previous Tyvek Slimfold wallet.

Speaking of the Slimfold, this might be the only time ever that someone has gone to such a slim wallet as the Rogue Maine and called the experience “clunky” by relative standards. The photo above shows the thickness difference, and it’s not too bad but I have been spoiled by the carefree weightlessness of the paper fiber material. You’ll also notice how beat up it is – no huge surprise there. So, for normal people who want reliability for more than 6 months, something a little beefier is required. For men who have even bulkier wallets than that: seriously, get something – anything – lighter. Especially if you’re a back pocket type, your body will thank me.

It’s made by Rogue Industries, a company out of Portland, Maine, USA where the aptly-named Maine Rogue is manufactured. As a Canadian I don’t understand the OORAH Made in America patriotism thing, but I do appreciate small companies filled with passionate people and well-made things, so wherever you hail from read this page and understand that they’re cool folks who believe in their product.

The minimalists amongst us will appreciate that there are no logos adorning the outside. It’s the same on both sides: clean, black leather. There’s a nice embossed text logo on the card slot area with a small tag sewn inside the cash hold but that’s it for branding. The curve is nice not only for it’s unique style but because you always know which side is the top, and instinctively know how to open it. One thing about the Slimfold was even after months of use, it was very easy to open upside down because of the featureless symmetry. It’s those sorts of affordances that make for intuitive, good design. The main reason for the curve, of course, is for the front pocket and it fits well. I’m a slim person and my hipster pants are on the tighter side so it felt a little wide for me, but I’m definitely in the minority. Given the material it will probably soften over time and become less of a rigid flat surface on your thigh (unlike the glass smartphone bulge). Other, bigger guys that tried front-pocketing it had no problem and no bulge. It does fit quite nicely in cargo shorts, I noticed. The curve allows for it to sit deeper in the pocket which feels more secure with the wider, more vertical pocket openings that things do slide out of all too easily when sitting.

There is a slightly shorter Weekender wallet that I’d be curious to try as well, since I don’t need a ton of card / cash space. If you are looking for massive card space, there are options for you too, but again, I’d try just scaling back first. The Original is slim enough to use as a back pocket wallet if you prefer (I would in dress pants) and while it is noticeable to sit on, it’s not a burden or anything. For those sizing down from a Costanza wallet, it’ll be a welcome reprieve regardless of how it’s worn.

RFID blocking is going to become an increasingly important feature of wallets, and the Maine has it built in already. Basically, smartphones with NFC (Near Field Communication) can read credit cards with tap-to-pay ability (like PayPass etc.), which means if a criminal can get their phone close enough to your cards, they can skim the information and effectively digitally steal your credit card. Obviously, this is bad. The good news is you can block these sorts of communications and prevent these sorts of thefts if you have an RFID blocking wallet. I found a simple app and with my phone did a number of very unscientific tests, but it seems to work. The naked card was easily read, both the Slimfold and my other leather wallets failed to keep my information secret and with the card tucked in the Rogue, it couldn’t get a reading. I’m no Mythbusters, but I’d call this confirmed.

The card slots are firm in the beginning as to be expected but work in over the first couple days. I haven’t felt like anything is going to fall out yet, anyway. There are three card slots on the left side and then an open pocket on either side, with the right having a clear plastic for your license which has a thumb slot for easy ID removal. I’m carrying five cards and a few bills and it all fits easily enough. The pocket behind the slots on the left is empty with that configuration, and could probably fit another two cards if you didn’t mind that they don’t have individual organization. A couple of personal business cards would be perfect here. One tiny gripe is that the middle card in the slots, for whatever reason, sits slightly too low and can get stuck hidden behind the front-most card. It might just be that the front slot has to relax a bit and expand to allow the card to sit lower, or that the middle slot needs it’s bottom sewn a little higher. Not a big deal, just a curiosity.

It might just be the bigger dimensions of Canadian bills, but I did notice the corners stick out of the curve ever so slightly which could be a little bothersome to the more OCD of us. It is a more spatially minimal wallet so the people who like to keep file cabinets worth of receipts and rolodex worth of business cards are not going to have the space for them here but again, it’s probably in your best interest to downsize anyway. Not having space is a great way to not fill up space.

Conclusion: If you’re a guy who has difficulty finding 29” waist pants, you can still enjoy the elegant, durable design and RFID blocking technology but know that it might look funny in the front pocket of your slimmer jeans. There are shorter versions available, so maybe look into those. If you’re normal sized, the Rogue is a great way to switch to front wearing and avoid theft and back pains. It’s reasonably priced, comes in a ton of materials and seems really well made. You’ll be supporting local business and cool people. Win-win.

And hey, father’s day is next weekend…

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?”

The Creative Economy

They don’t allow permalinks to comments, but allow me to quote “disqusplaya” via The Atlantic:

…who cares if you can “only” bring in a couple hundred K a year. It keeps you and your 4 friends out of a “real job”, thrills 10s of millions of customers… not a bad gig.

The scale doesn’t really matter – it doesn’t have to be 10s of millions of people. I’m thrilled just to write to you readers, my mere 10s of thousands. It’s a non-money payment: delight. I get paid in the cool comments I get to read of yours and the conversations we have.

I’ve had the thought myself: why not start companies with the express goal of simply breaking even and just doing it because your idea is awesome or because you want to make cool stuff for others? Of course, there’s time and effort involved but if you truly love your product you’d probably already be working on it anyway and entirely willing and happy to share it. I would, anyway. I do, in a sense. It’s a bizarre thing I never would have guessed or planned to happen, but somehow there are people directly and indirectly giving me money for things I made one evening just for fun. You could look at it as loss if you assign a numeric value for my time spent as dollars per hour but if I did it for myself anyway, it’s sort of literally free money.

So we stand way back and think larger: what’s the point of existence? How do we live? Is this whole bitter 9-5 job economy actually the only way?

And we see people who argue for the collection of things. Massive tangible riches via long hours and hard work. That’s “success” – the American Dream.

Maybe I’m just more of the altruist artist than I’d like to admit, but I look at that and wonder why? As long as I have enough to live, why wouldn’t I start collecting in the currency of delight?

But it works in both directions (and this is more of a change in me personally) – paying for delight. I’m famously frugal because I measure things in purely time terms. $50 concert? That’s way too much. I could see a $14 movie for those same two hours. Or, I could get a $5 game and play it for 50 hours. I’ve written about this before. Something that needs to be learned is that $50 for a 30 second bungee jump can be worth it based on the experience itself, not the time taken to experience it. The delight currency, coming full circle.

Let’s face it, hard work =/= money. If that were true there’s a lot of single mothers working two jobs who want their cheques, please. But even without money we can make their lives better. It’s not about the rich or poor, though, if I started a t-shirt line I don’t really care who buys or wears them; I just want to know that whoever does enjoys what I’ve created. It’s a selfish act with a selfless result, I suppose, but I’m still not sure how I feel about Ayn Rand.

My DIY Desk

The desk I’ve been promising to post since mid summer when I built it.

Basically two 10″ deep by 4′ wide by 2″ thick cedar slabs make up the surface, stained dark brown and glazed with epoxy resin in such a way that it follows the wood’s natural texture, creating a reflection surface like that of a deck outside in the rain. Since it’s not a writing desk (really, it just holds two monitors, a Wacom pen and the occasional glass of cider) it didn’t have to be very deep nor smooth and since everything I found on the market was quite massive, I opted for the DIY method.

Shown above are the flanges and the 1″ galvanized steel piping I used. Of course this is overkill hardware but the store I was at didn’t have the grey iron I originally wanted, so I paid slightly more and simply sprayed it all matte black with my ever present rattle can (I spray almost everything I can matte black).

It’s a cantilever design so the left side is completely open and free for my legs when getting up (my chair is on carpet and while it rotates, it doesn’t move) and the right side is where my computer sits (acting as armrest and mousepad) and where the wall is (the desk itself situated in the middle of the room front-back and against the wall on my right). So it’s a nice solution, just sort of floating there to stand screens upon since I don’t need much else.

Seems stable enough, even with the cantilever design. The two supports from the back forward actually go past the half way point, so the moment arm isn’t as bad as you might think from looking at it. Of course, the steel itself is fairly weighty on that side and I have no problems placing things on the floating edge. My heavy monitor sits pretty much directly over the middle leg sweeping back, so the forces are reasonably dealt with there.

The full parts list, if you want to make your own (although honestly one could definitely design it better): 2x 2′ threaded 1″ pipe (assume all pipe is this from now on), 3x 1′ pipe, 1x 4′ pipe, 2x T connectors, 3x 45 angle connectors, 3x flanges (and maybe an extra brace for the cantilevered side for extra support. Ideally, bowtie dovetail the wood together – I just used a fourth flange empty) and 3x threaded connector pieces to go between the 45 and flanges. Screws to fit (4x per flange, maybe 2 more for that brace).

Since there is the sharp edge of threaded steel pipe as legs you might want to look at those sticky foam feet for use on hardwood or whatever. I’m on carpet so it’s not too big a deal.


Two thoughts flash before my mind. The first: a childish sense of wonderment and the grandiose delusion of “someday, that’ll be my garage”. The second: a colder, almost bitterness towards whoever owns them and keeps them behind velvet rope.

Cars, by design and intention are made to move people around. Some cars are designed and lovingly made to move a single person around really fast and with remarkable grace – these latter are like majestic cheetahs or sharks. And, like cheetahs and sharks, tend to pace aimlessly when encaged. It’s sad to see them behind bars, trapped so we can parade by and admire them for mere and petty external appearances. It’s almost Damien Hirst of them. The point of a cheetah to run and a shark to swim; the point of a car is to drive.

Should we preserve legacy? Yes. But we have models and photos for that. If the vehicle functions, it should live out it’s days doing what it loves to do. Otherwise the design was for naught. Otherwise the people who hand riveted hundreds if not thousands of pops across the hand bent bodywork were in vain. These works of math and engineering and passion and vision and love. Trapped.

J+- Calculator

I often wonder / complain about why they don’t just design cheap things better. It’s really not that different from a manufacturing standpoint. I mean, the obvious answer is cost for designers and most manufacturers simply don’t care. Cheap stuff is cheap. Still, given the choice between this and the others on the shelf it was an easy choice – and for $4.49, I really couldn’t go wrong.

It’s just lovely. It’s made of the same cheap stamped plastic as every other calculator, but it doesn’t feel quite as cheap. The sheen is nice. It’s light and creaks slightly when twisted, as to be expected. Buttons are buttons and work well, the LCD screen is actually more dot-matrix than the traditional fair, which… doesn’t really effect much of anything. I don’t have any particular point to make except that it’s less than five dollars and I’m proud to keep it on my desk next to $1000+ milled aluminum computing hardware. It’s an accomplishment.

The only thing I would notice is that the viewing angle is pretty dismal. It’s not an issue for me since I keep it fairly close to me on my desk (so I look down on it more perpendicular), but I can see how the sharper angled screen found on other models would be an advantage for the long-reachers out there. That’s doing pretty good for such a cheap item.

Bought from Superstore, and while the J+- logo didn’t show up anything terribly useful on the internet, I suspect it’s some offshoot of the President’s Choice / No Name Brand since it was surrounded by the iconic yellow on other desk items. They’re doing really well for themselves – they also sell lovely black pencils in cardboard tubes and I really ought to buy some just to share the brilliant packaging.

Chris Franklin on Gamification

I’m a big fan of Errant Signal because it’s such a transcendent platform – game reviews are there, yes, but even those are so much more than about just the game itself. Then, there are works like the above, which tackle the bigger topics without the immediate proxy that the specific game would provide.

It’s a cool topic, gamification, and one that I always meant to write about myself. Honestly, though, I’m not sure I have any further commentary to provide – he nails it dead on. I could put the industrial design spin on it and talk about the psychology of using a physical product instead of a virtual one, but when it boils down the metaphors stand: using something for the sake of itself is different than using it for some arbitrary reward. I might add, actually, that the physical product market does add another logically pointless reward: this concept of coolness.

While you could argue for and against the coolness of using Foursquare, the virtual gamification doesn’t immediately care about what others think. You’re getting rewarded for the things you do. Sometimes it’s a public thing – you want others to see your achievements or point score or whatever, but it’s not nearly as open as, say, driving a nice car or wearing that expensive watch. The reward mechanism for physical product usage is available much more directly to strangers on the street. As such, choices are made to maximize that, often in spite of more practical and reasonable concerns. This would be a prime example for using a system (or product) more for the reward than for the inherent joy of the product itself. This would the real-life equivalent of grinding for GP.

Coolness – if I may go off now on a complete tangent – is a bizarre thing. It’s only acceptable if it’s seemingly effortless. People who try too hard to be cool are even less cool than where they started because true coolness would be apathetic to being cool. The truly cool people are those who just are, while the people who want to be seen as cool cannot be. It’s actually one of the few status related actions in humanity that I really appreciate. It’s hilarious and ironic and much like golf rewards those who are able to relax and let it be. If you try too hard to be good at golf you will tend to do miserably. Then there’s the downward spiral: if you slice a ball terribly the mulligan has to be better, so you try harder, and it gets worse. Repeat. The more you fail trying to be cool the more you want to be cool and the harder you try, the more you’ll fail.

In summation, golf and coolness are Chinese finger traps, and both Chris Hecker and Chris Franklin are awesome.

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