Reading Notes, September 2015


Video: The Sound Design Behind Interstellar

As far as what I hope the audience thinks of the sound, I would hope that they think the sound was all shot on the days they shot the movie and that it’s all there. — Richard King, Supervising Sound Editor & Sound Designer Interstellar

I found it interesting how the ultimate goal of the sound team was to have the audience not even notice their work. After all the extremes they went to — the airplane graveyard, the ice shoes, the sand blaster — they wanted their work to go unnoticed by the audience and instead have them simply assume it was all a product of the original film shoot.

I find such an interesting parallel to this in visual design: good, simple design is the obvious choice. So obvious, in fact, that people don’t even notice it. They just naturally assume “how could it be any other way?”

Reminds me of this quote, from the book The Inmates are Running the Asylum (which, if you haven’t read it, is great):

If, as a designer, you do something really, fundamentally, blockbuster correct, everybody looks at it and says, “Of course! What other way would there be?” This is true even if the client has been staring, empty-handed and idea0-free, at the problem for months or even years without a clue about solving it. It’s also true even if our solution generates millions of dollars for the company. most really breakthrough conceptual advances are opaque in foresight and transparent in hindsight. It is incredibly hard to see breakthroughs in design. you can be trained and prepared, spend hours studying the problem, and still not see the answer. Then someone else comes along and points out a key insight, and the vision clicks into place with tentacular obviousness of the wheel. If you shout the solution from the rooftops, others will say, “of course the wheel is round! What other shape could it possibly be?” This makes it frustratingly hard to show off good design work. — pg. 200

This is inline with what Alan Dye, Vice President of User Interface Design at Apple, said about Apple’s design goals:

Inevitable is the word we use a lot. We want the way you use our products to feel inevitable.

The goal is to make it seem as if the designers at Apple can’t even control the form and function of their products because the end goal is so natural and logical, i.e. inevitable.

Article: Miyazaki on Creative Dissatisfaction

Hay Miyazaki, a famous Japanese animation director who created classics such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, described an aspect of his creative process that pinpoints how many of us feel in technology:

Making films is all about—as soon as you’re finished—continually regretting what you’ve done. When we look at films we’ve made, all we can see are the flaws; we can’t even watch them in a normal way. I never feel like watching my own films again. So unless I start working on a new one, I’ll never be free from the curse of the last one. I’m serious. Unless I start working on the next film, the last one will be a drag on me for another two or three years.

Article: The process of design

This was written back when iOS 7 was first introduced to the world. I read it then and made this note. In the years since, I’ve always done a “spring cleaning” of my notes and this one always persisted. I think Frank captures perfectly a description of my job the last three years.

Every time I read this quote, it feels more and more relevant. Likely because “Experience gives a person the eyes to imagine their small choices in aggregate.”

Part of being a good designer is having a hatred for inconsistencies, so I take the interface’s unevenness to mean a hurried timeline, rather than an unawareness of the inconsistencies. Working on multiple screens, apps, and userflows means that certain aspects of the whole system will fall out of sync with each other as the later parts’ lessons override previous choices. The last step of most design processes is to take the lessons learned along the way and apply those best practices to the niggling incongruencies that have inevitably sprung up. This last step usually gets cut under tight deadlines, because the work is technically “done,” but just not “right.” Unfortunately, this kind of consistency is usually seen as a design indulgence that can be postponed. “We’ll iterate,” designers are usually told, but everyone knows you loose a bit of the luster of a tight first impression.

Video: Interview with Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne, an American singer-songwriter who’s been inducted into the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame, did an interview around his newest album Standing in the Breach and revealed a few nuggets about the creative process of making his album which I found relevant to any kind of creative process in general.

One of the first questions the host asked was if he had a personal favorite track on his record. He responded:

No I like them all. Each one of them, at one time or another, has been my favorite song. That’s what it takes to finish them, they have to be something I’m really interested in…[my] songs aren’t always finished when I start recording them. I may just rewrite a verse, or I may actually take something out. It’s a process of exploring. I want to know what the song is capable of doing musically before I finish the subject in terms of lyrics. Nothing’s worse that writing too many verses and having to throw some out. You know, if you find out you don’t really want to hear two verses before the chorus but you’ve already setup the narrative. That’s happened a couple times, where I songs just on the acoustic guitar but when I started to play it with a band I realized “I don’t want to hear another verse, I want to [go right into the chorus]”. I’m always rewriting but I don’t like to throw things away.

That last sentence of his is great: always rewriting, refining, simplifying, making better, making more concise yet impactful and deep. Great stuff.

Later in the interview he talks about his relationship with his album producer how well they work together and compliment one another:

We’re a perfect match because he’s a good engineer but he’s got infinite patience. I’m a neophite, in a recording I’m not technical at all, so I need someone to sit there with me while I think about what I want to think about and who doesn’t engage me with what he wants to do, but just does what he wants to do. Some engineers are ambitious and want to talk about what they want to do, ”I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, can we do this?”. I need somebody that’s much more … patient. Someone who’s almost passive and who will allow me to move things around and turn the balances upside down. And things may remain out of balance for long periods of time and then [i’ll bring them back] … In a funny way, we’re bystanders to each others’ work.

I love this idea he expresses about allowing yourself (and having your producer, co-worker, boss, etc. allow you) to put things out of order to discover possibilities so when you arrive at the final product, you know there’s no other way the thing could be because you’ve explored all possible permutations.

In this same vein of continually exploring possibilities, the host asks if it’s hard for him to release songs because, at that point, the song would officially be considered “finished”:

It’s a bit of an acquired skill to know when a song is done because it’s very easy to keep going and keep adding things because it’s interesting, it’s fun. In a way you’re never done. The song is going to continue to grow after the album too, you just have to know how far you can go with this particular recording.

At the end of the interview, the host opens the discussion to questions from the audience. A guest in the crowd asked him how he remembers and tracks his half-baked ideas. He answers by talking about how he keeps track of snippets on his iPhone which helps him a lot because sometimes he remembers the idea of a song better than it actually was, like “oh yeah I was working on this thing that was really great” and then he’ll look up the snippet on his phone and realize “oh wow, that actually wasn’t very good” but that bad idea can spur other good ideas:

Most of my ideas come from mistakes that interest me…I could disappear into my music room with some of my recordings and make a bunch of songs out of the boxes and boxes of my recordings because each of them represents a moment when I thought I was doing something of value or interesting.

Love that first sentence: “most of my ideas come from mistakes that interest me”. That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid of anything you’ve done in the past. It’s all experiential fodder for good things in the future.

Article: Can Technology Be Humane?

What’s so interesting to me about this article is that it was written in 1969. It’s one of the timeless articles where you think, “man how did the author so accurately foresee the future?”

This passage encapsulates how I increasingly feel seeing the results of tech announcement events, where companies tout their innovative, revolutionary products which will solve all your problems. But underneath, these solutions are merely more technology presented as the solution to the problems caused by our current technology.

The recent history of technology has consisted largely of a desperate effort to remedy situations caused by previous over-application of technology … Every advanced country is over-technologized; past a certain point, the quality of life diminishes with new “improvements.” Yet no country is rightly technologized, making efficient use of available techniques. There are ingenious devices for unimportant functions, stressful mazes for essential functions, and drastic dislocation when anything goes wrong, which happens with increasing frequency. To add to the complexity, the mass of people tend to become incompetent and dependent on repairmen—indeed, unrepairability except by experts has become a desideratum of industrial design.

“Technology is causing problems, so let’s throw more technology at the problem.” I believe this quite acutely applies to our current trend in technological innovation. It’s this idea we are wrestling of treating the symptoms rather than finding a cure:

It is discouraging to see the concern about beautifying a highway and banning billboards, and about the cosmetic appearance of the cars, when there is no regard for the ugliness of bumper-to-bumper traffic and the suffering of the drivers. Or the concern for preserving an historical landmark while the neighborhood is torn up and the city has no shape. Without moral philosophy, people have nothing but sentiments.

The author also touches on technological automation (emphasis added):

In automating there is an analogous dilemma of how to cope with masses of people and get economies of scale, without losing the individual at great consequent human and economic cost. A question of immense importance for the immediate future is, Which functions should be automated or organized to use business machines, and which should not? This question also is not getting asked, and the present disposition is that the sky is the limit for extraction, refining, manufacturing, processing, packaging, transportation, clerical work, ticketing, transactions, information retrieval, recruitment, middle management, evaluation, diagnosis, instruction, and even research and invention. Whether the machines can do all these kinds of jobs and more is partly an empirical question, but it also partly depends on what is meant by doing a job. Very often, e.g., in college admissions, machines are acquired for putative economies (which do not eventuate); but the true reason is that an overgrown and overcentralized organization cannot be administered without them. The technology conceals the essential trouble, e.g., that there is no community of scholars and students are treated like things. The function is badly performed, and finally the system breaks down anyway. I doubt that enterprises in which interpersonal relations are important are suited to much programming.

But worse, what can happen is that the real function of the enterprise is subtly altered so that it is suitable for the mechanical system. (E.g., “information retrieval” is taken as an adequate replacement for critical scholarship.) Incommensurable factors, individual differences, the local context, the weighting of evidence are quietly overlooked though they may be of the essence. The system, with its subtly transformed purposes, seems to run very smoothly; it is productive, and it is more and more out of line with the nature of things and the real problems. Meantime it is geared in with other enterprises of society e.g., major public policy may depend on welfare or unemployment statistics which, as they are tabulated, are blind to the actual lives of poor families. In such a case, the particular system may not break down, the whole society may explode.

In our haste to see what computers are capable of, we so often misconstrue how well they are actually doing the job we’ve handed off to them:

It is so astonishing that the robot can do the job at all or seem to do it, that it is easy to blink at the fact that he is doing it badly or isn’t really doing quite that job.

When a task is done by a computer rather than a human, its significance and holistic effect are not the same, though we often convince ourselves otherwise.