Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Changing of the (handheld devices) guard

February 16, 2009 9 comments

When designing a web page, it used to be necessary to have a separate style sheet to accommodate handheld devices.  Usually this was called handheld.css and linked in the header.  I’m just wondering; is that really necessary anymore?  New handheld devices like the iPhone seem to render web pages from the same .css file that any other browser uses. 

Categories: Design, Geeky

Rant of the day

July 1, 2008 3 comments

Let’s say you work for a magazine subscription department, the gas company, or a credit card company.  You’re designing a form, such as a bill.  You know that input errors are a major expense for your company and an equally large irritation to your customers.  But what the heck; you just throw the form together any old way.  You didn’t bother with testing.  It never occurred to you to wonder about logical flow, or if people over 40 can really make 8-point-type with a ballpoint pen, let alone read it.  Clearly you didn’t bother to ever read a book by Edward Tufte, Don Norman, or Steve Krug.  You didn’t Google “information design” or even just look at Google’s home page and wonder why it’s designed the way it is.  Nope, you just shot from the hip, dude.

Luckily for you, you’re anonymous.  Your office isn’t in Bloomington/Normal and doesn’t have a sign outside that says; “Office of the person who designs indecipherable forms”. 

Categories: Design, Geeky

Which way is your apartment facing today?

June 25, 2008 2 comments

I don’t know why, but the idea of an apartment building in motion strikes me as pretty cool.  But I’m having trouble visualizing the hallways.  And how do your friends find you?  “We’re usually somewhere on the 18th floor.”

Categories: Design, Geeky


May 6, 2008 11 comments

In Robert Heinlein’s 1957 adventure novel, Citizen Of The Galaxy, the main character – a slave boy named Thorby – finds himself thrown into an empty cell on a spacecraft overnight.  The room appears featureless – just floor, walls, ceiling.  After searching for any kind of switch or shelf, he spends a miserable night curled up on the steel floor with the lights on.

The next day, he is taken under the wing of another boy who is amazed at his stupidity.  The other boy shows him how to operate the controls of the room, revealing hidden bed, table, light and temperature controls, a sink and a viewer full of stored media for information and entertainment.  The featureless cell turns out to be a very well-equipped cabin room.

Which leads to my definition of the term; “User-Friendly”; adj., meaning “That which is familiar to the user”.

I just spent an hour and a half figuring out how to install Flash on my son’s Linux laptop.  Admittedly I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer but it just wasn’t obvious to me.  Turned out to be only something like five clicks using the Synaptic package manager – about the same as in Windows through the browser.  But intuitive, it was not.  There were even contraindications.  What the hell is “Flashplugin Nonfree”?  Turned out that’s what I needed.  Once I remembered that in Linux, you can’t install Flash in the browser like you can Windows.  You need something called a “package manager”.

But hey – it’s easy!  I suppose if I’d spent the last 13 years supporting Linux I’d think Windows was counterintuitive.

Categories: Design, Geeky

Screen font sizes and vision

December 19, 2007 3 comments

Clearly, most web developers have better vision than I do.  I am constantly scaling up font sizes in my browser to read other people’s layouts and the reason is equally clear in the .css page that I am wrestling with now at work.  It starts with a “font-size: 74%;” as a body property and then scales up from there for titles and links.  If you bump the font-size to 100% it completely breaks the layout (which is another issue). 

Now that I think about it this may represent a prejudice on the part of web developers in favor of their fabulous layouts and attributing less importance to the actual content that will later be added by the stakeholder.  Got to make it super-easy to navigate through the site to content which is too small for the site visitor to read.

So I bumped the body font-size to 100% anyway, and started working down the .css, reducing the element font sizes one by one to reconstitute the layout.  But this leads to another observation; element names should be descriptive and should adhere to standards.  It isn’t always clear what actual element they refer to without picking through the haystack to find a strand of hay with a particular serial number.

There’s a quick way to do this: open the .css in an editor, and Search for “font-size” from top to bottom.  As reach each element, change it to 200% and hit ‘ctrl+s’ to save.  Then ‘Alt+Tab’ to your browser and hit F5 to refresh.  You’ll know immediately which element has been affected.  Then ‘Alt+Tab’ back to the editor, set the element to whatever size you want, save, and hit ‘Find Next’.  (This technique works with any property, and by the way it’s also a good time for adding comments to the .css page)

So here’s my message to web developers everywhere:  “Some of us never had good vision to begin with and we’re not getting any younger.  Knock off the itty-bitty type!”

This has inspired me to re-do the .css for my blog over Christmas break, by the way.  The layout and other properties need spiffing up, and lately I discovered the .css doesn’t even load in IE7. So to you IE7 users out there, I apologize.

Categories: Design, Geeky

Microsoft to take over iPod package design

March 1, 2006 2 comments

The handbasket we’re riding in can be a dreary place and I found this spoof hysterically funny:  What if Microsoft had creative control over iPod packaging?

As the old cliche goes, “It’s funny because it’s so true”.  And brilliantly well done. 

Categories: Design, Geeky

A Good Sign

February 9, 2006 4 comments

Having breakfast in the newly retro-remodeled McDonalds, I could hardly believe my eyes;  an actual Men’s room?  And across the little entrance, a Women’s room?  Will Wonders never cease.

Imagine!  Not a stupid little icon of a man or woman, just the actual word.  No apparent concern for people who would get all in a snit over perceived patriarchal discrimination or an oppressive ambiguity for transsexuals.  No worries over the problems of travellers so dimwitted they would go to another country without bothering to learn how to find a place to pee.  Just a common English word denoting a common physical reality.  Simple.

If you guessed that I’m not a fan of ‘icons’ on doors and dashboards and computer screens and every damn unguarded designed surface in our physical world, you are right.

Categories: Design, Geeky

Car commercial

January 21, 2006 18 comments
An old-fashioned car door handle.  Even covered with ice and snow, you can get a good grip on it and pull when you need to.
Car-door handles as they are made today.  The flimsy little panel tilts upward unlatching the door so that, under ideal conditions (no ice), the door opens easily.  It does not afford pulling on the door.

Camera shows a woman scraping thick ice off her windshield in a freezing wind.  With some difficulty she unlocks the door and tries to open it, but the flimsy faux-handle tilts upward, unlatching the door which is frozen shut.  The dome light comes on but there’s nothing to grip to pull the door open.  Exasperated, she says; “Oh, no, please!  I’m late for work!” and starts trying to pry the pry the door open with her ice scraper, chipping the paint.

Just then a clean-cut man in a suit and tie walks up carrying a clipboard.  He is smiling and magically appears warm and comfortable;

“Good morning, maam!  How are you today?”  Before she can answer he launches into his spiel: “I’m from XYZ car company, and we’re taking a survey of the features consumers want on our next model car!  Do you want GPS navigation?  A twelve-speaker stereo?  A DVD player?”

The astonished woman drops the ice scraper, grabs his necktie, and pulls him eye-to-eye with her:

I want a real #@!!!% car door handle I can pull on!!!

Camera cuts to survey guy standing next to a frozen car in a parking lot.  He looks like he’s been beaten up by a dozen or so car owners.  He smiles weakly at the camera; “Introducing the 2008 XYZ Urban – a car with real door handles!” 

Survey guy pulls on the handle, there’s an ice-crunching noise, and the door opens.  He gets in and closes the door, and looks at the camera through the window.  His voice is muffled but we hear him say loudly; “So you can pull the #@!!!% door open when you need to!”  (drives away)


  1. All my old cars had real door handles – all my Beetles, my ‘67 Dodge Coronet 440, my ‘66 Rambler Classic, my ‘68 Fiat 124. 

  2. I’m pretty fond of wind-wings, too.
  3. How about simple light and wiper controls on the dash instead of some complicated, multi-functional stalk on the steering column?
  4. Anyone have any other suggestions?
Categories: Design, Geeky

Brakes failed

August 27, 2005 3 comments

Last week as I approached a red light, the brakes failed catastrophically.  The pedal went “squisssssh” down to the floor but the van slowed only a little.

This is where being a conservative driver pays off handsomely.  My last ticket was in 1975 – I don’t speed or tailgate.  So I had enough room to assess all the traffic in the intersection, change lanes, hit the gas, thread the needle, and go through without hitting anything. 

Someone mentioned “emergency brake” but like a lot of old cars, the emergency brake was more of a “keep your car from rolling down the hill” brake.  Not much good in a moving emergency.

Alas, the repair bill for the brakes, and some front-end work needed (this vehicle seemed to eat up front-end parts) were, shall we say… substantial.  If it were a classic vehicle, or if it didn’t have twenty other things wrong with it, I’d go ahead and fix it.  But it’s been falling apart for the last fifty thousand miles – and it only has 102,000 miles on it.  So I’m not going to fix it.

I am sorry to let it go for reasons that are sentimental, if irrational…  I inherited it from my father when he died almost 15 years ago.  It was something of his, and I liked the connection.

See the article on with the hilarious title; GM, Ford downgraded to junk.  Well heck,, they’ve been doing that on the assembly line for years!  Could there be a connection?

In a dispassionate frame, living with the machine for so long gave me some insight into its design.  Just in case any GM executives are reading, here’s what was right and wrong about the van:

  • Cargo space is excellent.  Don’t try to ‘style’ a cargo space.  “Big ‘n square” is the way to go here.
  • The Astro looks for all the world like some executive’s kid drew it with a crayon.  Hire that kid, and fire some stylists.
  • That van had the shortest turning radius of any vehicle I ever owned – considerably smaller than my VW Beetle.  A very useful feature.
  • Seats were comfortable
  • Excellent rust resistance!  The old joke about “on a quiet day, you can hear a Chevvy rust” can be retired, I think.
  • It got pretty good mileage for a v-6 powered shoebox – around 21 in town, 26 highway.

Failures of things before 70,000 miles that really ought to last the life of the car:

  • door handles
  • The sliding-door track
  • window tracks
  • turn-signal control stalk
  • interior headliner
  • exterior turn-signal mount
  • grille
  • instrument lights (all)
  • cup holders
  • headlight switch mount
  • horn
  • tilt-wheel steering
  • radio speakers

Recurring themes:

  • Two starter motors
  • two alternators
  • two front-end repairs
  • two tailpipes
  • three distributor caps (HEI eats caps.  Use better caps.)


  • Do not hire any engineers or designers who have not worked in auto-repair for at least two years!!!  Find top mechanics and send them to school if you have to. 
  • Window tracks should be riveted to the door, not spot-welded.  Think about the force at the doorjamb when a door is closed.
  • Put the steel brake lines where a mechanic can reach them.  Between the body and frame is just idiotic.
  • Why are fuel pumps inside the gas tank? (all manufacturers) This is idiotic.  Put the stage 1 electric pump somewhere where it can be easily replaced.
  • I’d rather have a sun roof than air conditioning, but that’s just me
  • Ditto for wind-wings.  I don’t care what your justifications were, wind wings were awesome.
  • How about a screen at the fuel-tank filler neck, eh?  To keep rust and crud from the filling station from entering the tank.
  • If you’re going to use crap-for-speakers, at least make them easier to replace
  • The interior was just plain shoddy – use better stuff
  • Do not use that line “If we used better quality, you couldn’t afford the car” on me.  Other manufacturers manage it. 

No need to thank me, GM – it’s a public service.  No, wait… if you really want to thank me, send me a Pontiac Vibe.  They’re made by Toyota at your California joint-venture plant.

Categories: Design, Geeky

Sound experience

June 16, 2005 2 comments

(If you hate powerful, gas-guzzling cars, you might want to skip this post.  I promise I am well aware of the environmental issues…)

I had the windows all rolled down, driving to the gym this evening, on account of perfectly wonderful weather.  So I could hear various engines near the car.  Despite being somewhat hard of hearing I’ve always been attuned to the sound of internal combustion engines.

A Ford Mustang was nearby for a number of traffic lights.  It had a 302 V8 but it had to have been customized from crankshaft to tailpipe to sound like it did – a deep and friendly rumble, sonic harmony of components and combustion that spoke of kingly authority.  Louder than other cars, yes, but musical.  You can’t get that by bolting a cheap “performance exhaust” on a stock engine. 

(The 302, while not huge, was the starting block for one of the fastest – and coolest-looking – cars ever made, the Shelby Cobra 302 GT, which inspired Bill Cosby’s routine; “Fast Car.”  Ford used their American-made 351 for its mid-engine Ghia-styled aluminum-bodied Italian Pantera back in the ‘70’s.  I could never understand why it didn’t simply push the Corvette off the market.)

A Harley roared by, its rider a nerdy fellow in jeans and a polo shirt with cell phone and pager on his belt.  It sounded like a two-wheeled version of the Mustang.  No wonder the Harley-Davidson company tries to sue companies that imitate that sound.

A high-performance Japanese “rice-rocket” motorcycle screamed past.  Not quite as loud as the Harley but sounded like absolute crap.  Imagine mechanical dissonance revved way up and amplified on a cheap stereo system.  The rice-rockets are also severely overpowered for a motorcycle – really racing machines that are dangerous on the street.  I’ve heard emergency-room people call them “donor-cycles.”

Several small cars of different makes with round stainless straight-through mufflers in place of the original (much quieter) mufflers were buzzing around.  My son calls these aftermarket mufflers “loudeners” – an apt description.  They are not well-engineered, they sound awful, and the owners wasted their money.  Most small cars (especially Japanese) are better off with the quietest mufflers available.

I heard a Ferrari once – beautiful.  There must be as much art as science to making an engine sound like that.  It sounded … mighty. 

An engine need not be large to sound beautiful.  Other engines that sound “right” to me are the early Porsche 911 and its smaller counterpart, the VW 1600 (especially when fitted with a high-quality glasspack exhaust).  The Fiat Spyder 124.  My friend’s VW Passat.  An old BMW motorcycle I once rode.

Sorry, I have never heard a 428 Hemi that I liked, stock or custom.  But it does have fans, and is the only engine (to my knowledge) to inspire the Chilton’s manuals to use the word; “awesome.”  I don’t much care for the way large-block Chevvy engines sound, either.

I wonder why automakers don’t pay more attention to the quality of the engine sound.  It certainly is a major part of the driver’s experience, so it has tremendous economic importance.


Categories: Design, Geeky