Chromecast

Ordered the Google Chromecast the other day. It's a little HDMI dongle you put into your TV to make it smarter. Amazing gadget, I must say, it's been a while since I was this excited about a piece of electronics. It's not that it's that full-featured — right now it's only actually useful if all you need is YouTube and Netflix (which happens to be the case for me) — rather, it's the implications of the device that excites me.

It doesn't have a remote control, and the device does nothing on its own. The remote is your phone or your tablet or your desktop. All the device does is receive streams from the internet, and you "suggest" those streams from your handheld. In essence it downgrades your "smart-TV" (or in my case, upgrades my dumb-TV) into being simply a display capable of receiving input. It removes every single bit of UI and interaction from the television itself, and propels it onto that thing you have in your pocket regardless.

The concept alone blew my mind when the implications sank in. I doubt it's controversial to say that television UIs have sucked for decades. Just pick up your remote control and look at it, chances are you'll find more than twenty buttons, 90% of which you've used only once. Alright maybe you picked up an Apple TV remote — vast improvement over most other remotes, but why is that? Right: fewer buttons. Which is why requiring all interaction happen on your smartphone is such a novel idea: by virtue of being a sheet of capacitative glass, your television remote now has only the buttons necessary, and only when you need them. 

It's just great.

What's even better is not having to switch on your television and change to the "HDMI" channel. The Chromecast is always listening for input, so if you tell it to play Netflix, it'll turn on your TV for you, on the right channel no less. When you turn off the television again (alright, I suppose you do need your remote for that — and for volume), your Netflix app will pause the show you were watching. 

This is how television is supposed to work. They've cracked it.

Yeah sure, it's early. Most people will need set-top boxes for a while still. For a 1.0, however, the Chromecast is remarkable. If only Netflix would auto-play the next episode in a TV show, if only Pocket Casts was Chromecast enabled… But hey, this dongle auto-updates transparently in the background. Who knows, maybe next time I turn on the televison, there it is. It is Chrome-based, after all.

Good Decisions, Else Options

There's a mantra in the WordPress development community: decisions, not options. It's meant to be a standard to which you hold any interface design decision: if you make a decision for users it'll ultimately be better than forcing them to make decisions themselves. It's a decent mantra — if you're not mindful you'll end up with feature creep and UI complexity, and it's orders of magnitude more difficult to remove an old option than it is to add one in the first place. Adding an option instead of making a decision for the user is almost always bad UI design.

Except when it's not.

The problem with a mantra like this is that it quickly gets elevated to almost biblical status. When used by a disgruntled developer it can be used to shoot down just about any initiative. Like Godwins law for WordPress: once you drop the "decisions not options" bomb, rational discussion comes to a halt.

The thing about open source development is that it's much like natural evolution: it evolves and adapts to changes in the environment. Unfortunately that also means features once useful can become vestigial once the problem they used to solve becomes obsolete. Baggage like this can pile up over years, and maintaining backwards compatibility means it can be very difficult to rid of. Sure, "decisions not options" can help cauterize some future baggage from happening, but it's also not the blanket solution to it.

The problem is: sometimes the right decision is unfeasible, therefore beckoning an option in its absence. WordPress is many things to many people. Some people use it for blogging, others use it for restaurants, portfolios, photo galleries, intranets, you name it. Every use case has its own sets of needs and workflows and it's virtually impossible to make a stock experience that's optimal for everyone. Most bloggers would arguably have a better experience with a slew of WordPress features hidden or removed whereas site owners might depend on those very same features for dear life. By catering to many use-cases at once, user experiences across the board are bound to be unfocused in some way or other.

The "Screen Options" tab is an example of a feature that would probably not exist were "decisions not options" taken at face value. Screen Options exists on the idea that not everyone needs to see the "Custom Fields" panel on their Add New Post page, yet acknowledges that some users will find that feature invaluable. It is an option added in absence of a strong decision, for example, to limit WordPress to be a blogging-only tool. I consider it an example of an exception to the mantra for the good of the user. Sure, the UI could use some improvement, let's work on that, but I really appreciate the ability to hide the "Send Trackbacks" panel.

I'm a fan of WordPress. I'm a fan of good decisions, and I'm a fan of good UI design. I believe that if we relieve ourselves of arbitrary straitjackets and approach each design objective with a sense of good taste and balance, we can make excellent open source software. Cauterizing entire avenues of UI simply because it adds options, however, negates the fact that sometimes those options exist in absence of a higher-up decision that just can't be made for whatever reason.

Twenty Thirteen: Make It Yours

WordPress 3.6 was released today. With it, the Twenty Thirteen theme into which we’ve poured much energy. One aspect that was particularly important to me, when designing the theme, was to encourage users to customize the theme to their liking. For the very same reason, every icon in Twenty Thirteen is an easily recolorable icon-font glyph. So changing the whole color scheme is basically writing some CSS.

To celebrate the occasion, I made a couple of color themes you can install on your Twenty Thirteen blog.

2013 Green

twentythirteen-green

Green is my favorite color these days. Did you know when danish people have their final high school exams, they sit at a green table, because green has a calming effect on your mind? It’s true. I tried it.

Get 2013 Green (preview)

2013 Green Sequence

twentythirteen-green-sequential

Twenty Thirteen has emphasis on blogging, and post backgrounds are assigned based on post formats. If you don’t use post formats, but want the colors of Twenty Thirteen, get this one — it’ll simply alternate the background colors sequentially.

Get 2013 Green Sequence (preview)

2013 Blue

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I actually threw in a shade of pink, or “salmon”, in this blue mix. So it’s not entirely shades of sky blue, but I guess you could not use the “status” post format if you dislike salmon. Or you could customize it and make it your own!

Get 2013 Blue (preview)

2013 Blue Sequence

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If you really don’t like salmon but do want an alternating post-format-free blue theme, you’ll want to get this one and customize it. Or you could embrace the salmon. Smoked. On toast. With salt and pepper.

Get 2013 Blue Sequence (preview)

2013 Orange Sequence

twentythirteen-orange-sequence

Having made sequence versions of blue and green, it seems unfair not to complete the triad. So here’s Orange Sequence — that’s the default Twenty Thirteen color scheme, but the colorful post backgrounds are assigned regardless of post format.

Get 2013 Orange Sequence (preview)

How To?

These are child themes. That means they’re WordPress themes that require a parent theme to be present, in this case Twenty Thirteen. So these themes will only work if you also have Twenty Thirteen installed. If you’re on WordPress 3.6 or higher, Twenty Thirteen is preinstalled.

More Options

One of the best things about open source is that you can modify things to your liking, and even redistribute.

Please do so. Make it your own, and share it back.

I would like nothing more than to see you modify and redistribute any of the above child themes. So much, in fact, that if you’d like to re-color the default Twenty Thirteen header, I’ve made you this PSD so you can easily do just that.

Now go play with some colors!

Jony’s iOS 7

Back in October last year, Scott Forstall was replaced by Jony Ive, and I asked the question: did iOS just get interesting again? Last night we found out, and the answer is yes.

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There's a lot to like about the new iOS 7. As a whole, the result looks mostly unique. There's a nice clean aesthetic going with the thin Helvetica, the white UI chrome, the sandblasted layers and the almost complete absence of gaudy textures. It's also colorful. Which is a good thing. Right?

Leading up to this there were jungle-drums touting how flat the new UI was going to look (as though every UI will suddenly be clean and uncluttered if you just run it over with a bulldozer). Fortunately that's not what happened. Don't get me wrong: I do like my UIs to be clean and simple, I just find the term "flat" to be mostly meaningless when applied to design. There are no magic bullets, there's only good design and bad design, and I think Jony Ive gets that. So instead of trumpeting flat, Apple trumpeted true simplicity. Oh, and grid-based icons:

Sure, there's certainly a grid there. I was mostly paying attention to the light-source for those gradients, though: why does Phone looks embossed while Mail looks inset? Also: Game Center? Again?

There will be no tears shed for the linen texture. I will not mourn the loss of green felt. Still, the new iconography alone makes iOS 7 such a departure that there's bound to be some learning curve, which begs the question: why didn't they go further now they were at it?

They had a real opportunity here. Jony could've said to his team:

Team! We've dominated the smartphone market for the last 5 years with a grid of round-rect icons. How do we re-think it from the ground up for the next decade? How do we create something that'll make Samsung scramble to copy us again?

Perhaps they did just that. Conceivably they created giant mood-boards. Maybe they decorated hip little cubicles with smiling model faces and photos of subway signs and collages of differently colored post-it notes. Could be they brain-stormed all the places they see the mobile space go in the next ten years: creepy glasses, holographic watches, voice-controlled smart underwear. No doubt they considered the convergence of the cloud with all these new-fangled features. Perchance they arrived right back at a grid of icons: Eureka! We had it right all along!

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"CarPlay"

I hope that's not the case. I hope they had grander ideas… post-smartphone ideas. I'm hoping they were just so lazer-focused on shipping on time they had to punt their ideas for replacing Springboard. I'm hoping Jony felt the most important thing was to uproot the old linen-clad ways and set out a strong new direction for all future Apple UIs. I want to believe.

I want to believe that maybe one day we'll have smartphones whose strongest visual cues aren't defined by the graphical prowess of 3rd party icon designers. I want to believe that maybe one day we'll look back at websites that use confirm() to alert us of their mobile apps as a dark age. I want to believe that maybe one day it'll be possible to avoid all social interaction in a manner more impressive than tapping in and out of apps. Is that so much to ask?

Four Little Numbers

twentythirteen

Twenty Thirteen, the theme I designed with Konstantin and Lance is now on WordPress.com, and will soon be the default theme of WordPress 3.6.

Designing Twenty Thirteen has been a pretty remarkable experience, mainly because I got to work with such an amazing community. There's nothing to temper a theme into shape like hundreds of people submitting patches. It's as much a privilege as it is a learning experience and the design has changed so much since my initial mockups, all for the better. Here's how it all started.

Brief

Through machinations I have not yet fully understood, an invitation to design a new default WordPress theme landed in my lap at the end of 2012. After an ensuing song and dance show with no-one watching, the reality of the situation slowly descended on me.

The overarching vision for the theme that Matt had set out, was a focus on blogging, and great support for post formats. On top of that, we wanted a colorful, warm and friendly vibe. That plus total creative freedom was pretty much the extent of the direction given. Blue skies are both daunting and exhilerating.

Keeping those core values in mind, I started creating palettes, picking fonts, and drawing shapes.

Note: It's important to understand that there's a new Twenty theme every year, and one goal is to be different from the year before. Twenty Twelve is CMS oriented and features a squeaky clean codebase. Twenty Thirteen is focused on the blog, putting your reverse chronological post stream front and center. Will next year be a CMS theme again? Perhaps; I personally cannot wait to see what will be created for Twenty Fourteen.

Design

It was quite a relief that the theme didn't have to be anything like the previous Twenties. After all, Twenty Twelve is still a fantastic theme. It's current and it's wonderful, and the year-naming of the Twenty themes (unlike with Microsoft Office) does not indicate "newer or better" — just: different. This gave me the freedom to explore a bunch of ideas, including dropdown menu widget areas, multi-column posts, crazy abstract headers, tiled galleries, large pictures, huge fonts and bold colors. Some of those initial ideas survived, others were tempered by reality.

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Post Formats

Posts are posts, right? Sure, but what if there were special layouts that were tailormade to different types of content? That's the genesis of post formats in WordPress, and the feature is getting a huge bump in the upcoming 3.6 release. With Twenty Thirteen, we wanted to hook into that new ecosystem, and encourage the use of different post formats to better highlight a variety of content. So I spent a great deal of time trying to find a pattern for each post format: what does a "status update" look like? Let me tell, you, I have stacks of paper sketches — many of them angrily crossed out, some of them so quickly jotted down they're barely readable anymore.

mockups

In the end the key to cracking the design was assigning a color swatch to each format. You'd be able to create your own alternating tapestry of colors.

tapestry

The mockups were quite interesting and difficult to do, because a zoomed out view of such a tapestry of posts doesn't do the overall design justice. You have to zoom in 1:1 and watch the colors change as you scroll down the page — like how users will see it. Scrolling becomes almost magaziney.

Icon Font

One aspect of theme design that becomes much more difficult when a wide range of background colors is used, is iconography. Icons for comments, tags, categories etc, are usually PNG files. The problem with that is that you bake the icon color into the graphic file, making it necessary to create a rather large stack of different-colored icon files in order to ensure contrast on all background colors. Since we wanted it to be super easy for users to change the default Twenty Thirteen color scheme if they wanted to, PNG files weren't ever going to be an option. Fortunately I was allowed to release an icon font I'd created for WordPress.com, and use that. The result, Genericons, is a free and GPL icon font full of symbols that are useful for WordPress themes. I hope to see it in use far beyond Twenty Thirteen, because it's just so wonderful to be able to add colors, drop shadows or even CSS animation to fully resizable symbols, compared to dealing with PNGs.

Header

With a tapestry of alternating colors, how does a header fit in? The answer was to treat the header like we treated post format backgrounds: have the background illustration full size, regardless of browser width, cropped if seen on a mobile device. This made the header a decorative element and part of the tapestry. As for the contents of the header, I explored abstract color shapes, flat and simple like the post backgrounds themselves.

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Here's a video of me creating one of the headers in Photoshop:

Here's a fun header that didn't make it:

scrapped-header

Speaking of kooky, one way to create a warm vibe, I find, is to not take everything too seriously. So we put little tweaks here and there to hopefully make you smile. The 404 page is an example.

Make Your Own Kind Of Music

Twenty Thirteen is not for everyone — it's for colorful blogs with a variety of content. If you're into that, I really hope that you'll enjoy using Twenty Thirteen. I hope you'll customize it, re-color it, hack it and make it your own. In fact at some point in the not too distant future, I'd like to release a couple of alternate color schemes and templates to get you started. This is not the end.

It's been such a privilege to work on this theme, and I thank Matt and the community for not only giving me the opportunity, but for embracing the colors and shapes I concocted. Probably the greatest privilege of all was to work directly with Lance Willet and Konstantin Obenland, my partners in crime. These guys took my mockups and made them sing. Seeing the theme come together was like magic. A design is just an idea, but for ideas to become real they need to meet with reality with all that entails. Lance and Konstantin were supportive and they understood and appreciated what we were trying to do, and for the work they did (and are still doing) they have my undying admiration. I'm tremendously proud to have my name listed next to them in the great halls of the Twenty theme developers. It's a bucket-list item I never thought I'd be able to check. So thanks so much for that.