Scrivener for Architecture Dissertation Writing

Scrivener: a writing studio like no other.

Most architects will be familiar with the concept of BIM. Basically, BIM software allows you to manage an entire building design mostly within a single app – so from a single 3D model you can get all the drawings, specs, details, everything co-ordinated and synced (I’m obviously grossly over-simplifing this; I’ll be posting more about BIM, one of my key areas of interest, soon). But the reason I begin this post with BIM is because I think I’ve found a writing tool that, in a way, mimics those organisational characteristics of BIM.

Scrivener is an app I’ve been using for years now to manage my writing projects. I still think it’s one of the best-in-class apps for managing monstrous writing tasks – of which the architectural design dissertation is such a beast. For architects (who are generally more visually-inclined), writing is indeed a step outside our comfort zones. Scrivener, then, is like a gentle friend that guides you through the treacherous waters of design research, writing, and data collation that are the three heads of the design dissertation Cerberus.

Why Scrivener?

Why bother with yet another piece of software when we’ve already got Microsoft Word to handle writing, I hear you ask? Well, where MS Word is a generally acceptable word-processor, Scrivener is a full-blown writing suite. With Word, you can get away with writing a short piece of text, like an essay. But navigating the long chapters of a dissertation – where there are thousands of words per section –  can become extremely painful. You end up losing your place, you can’t always see the full structure of the project, your research has to live in a mess of folders… it’s a nightmare, in my opinion.

Scrivener, by contrast, is like BIM software: you can choose to see either the project in its entirety, or you can break it down into its smaller chunks and work on the little details (scrivenings, in this case). One of the best things about it is that you don’t write everything in a single document; you have a Scrivener project, but this is actually made up of a series of smaller files, like text files (which become your manuscript), images, notes, even whole web pages that form part of your research folder.

You organise things into folders (and it comes with a plethora of great project templates to get started; I’ve customised one of them to suit my theory and technical papers assignment in a fashion that works well for me).

The outliner (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)
The virtual corkboard (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)

Then you can set up your structure, and this is what I really like about Scrivener: it gives you some great ways of organising your writing project into the various chapters and sections. You can either use a virtual “corkboard” (like tacking a series of index cards to a board, but in the digital way), or a great outliner (which I used to put the structure of my papers together).

Everything is organised on the left panel in what’s called the “binder” – think of this as a virtual ring binder that’s highly-organised and contains literally everything you need and are working on: your manuscript, that contains the chapters and sections of the dissertation, your research, images, web pages, ideas, quotes… it’s all there.

The writing environment itself is great; there’s no distractions, and you can even go into a full-screen mode that dims everything on your desktop so it’s just you and the words on an empty, uncluttered screen.

Project targets window  – I should probably be doing my dissertation writing to get that session target counter moving for today…

Scrivener also allows you to set project and session targets, so you can visually (hey, this one’s for you, designers!) track your progress. It’s a great feeling when you’ve reached your session target for the day, and often I find myself wanting to push further for that day, just to nudge closer to the final project target goal.

 

Scrivener + Architecture Writing = 🙂

I mentioned that architects are visual people; our written work reflects this as we’re expected to have images and drawings that are referenced in text to support our arguments. Scrivener deals beautifully with this: you can set an image as the reference for a card in the Corkboard view – which is great to get ideas flowing around a certain topic or case study.

The binder-style organisation of Scrivener also allows you to keep maps and other images well-organised in folders. You can have these opened as “Quick Reference” windows that float next to your writing, so you can see them while you write. This allows you to stay focussed on the writing, and worry less about formatting and images jumping all over the place (something Word is notorious for).

Workflow

So how does Scrivener fit into an effective workflow for large-scale writing projects? I see Scrivener as a writing studio (much like a BIM authoring tool, where you use it to author the design, but then take that into other tools like Photoshop to further refine the presentation). With Scrivener, I can just focus on getting the draft done; it helps me to structure complex ideas and write in a non-linear fashion (so I can quickly jump between sections as ideas come to me, without worrying about intensive scrolling through thousands of words).

For referencing, I use EndNote. Like Scrivener, EndNote allows me to see all my references together, and I can easily switch referencing styles if needed. When I want to reference something, I simply drag (or copy) that reference from EndNote into Scrivener, placing it where it needs to be in the text. The reference will look a little weird – EndNote uses a strange code system to identify text as references. (This gets fixed later, as you’ll see…)

My preferred workflow is: Scrivener (draft writing) –> Word (text-style formatting) –> InDesign (presentation and layout

Going from Scrivener to Word

Scrivener can export to a host of formats, including Word. What I’ve found, however, is that the formatting styles don’t translate very well.. For this reason, I’ve found some easy to use methods to get your draft out of Scviener, into Word, ready for formatting and bringing in to InDesign for page layout and presentation.

The problem is that you need a Word file to bring into InDesign, and to ease the formatting hassle, your Word file should be correctly formatted with styles (headings, body text, quotes etc). This allows you to quickly apply the correct fonts and styles to different kinds of text. There’s a simple go-around for this: simply export form Scrivener using a custom compile setting (see below), open the resulting Word file, then run a macros (see below) that will automatically convert the Word file into the correct styles which you can use in InDesign later.

Félix Chénier has an awesome tutorial here that contains the macros you need to copy into Word. But here’s the process:

  1. Go to his website (link above), and download the compile setting for Scrivener; this is a .plist file that you can easily import into Scrivener at the Compile window. This will output your manuscript in a format that can be easily styled with MS Word styles (headings, body, quotes etc).
  2. Copy the macros code, following his instruction, and place it in the Word macros editor. (Macros is just automated actions, and in this case, the instructions you’re copying into Word will allow you to easily convert your Scrivener export to the correct Word styles).
  3. Run the Macros (Tools -> Macros -> Macros…, select “FormatScrivener”, click “Run”).
  4. Voilà! Now, all you need to do is go to the EndNote tab in Word, and turn “Instant Formatting” on. All your references will be correctly formatted baed on your selected referencing style; a bibliography is also auto-generated at the end of the document and you can even switch between referencing styles on-the-fly. How cool is that!?

Closing remarks…

I really think Scrivener is one of the best tools out there to help navigate dissertation writing. It keeps you organised, and allows you to be flexible in how you manage such a large-scale writing task. Yes, my workflow might appear a little convoluted. But there is a method to this madness: Scrivener allows me to write the way I want to write, without the messiness and annoyances that come from working in Word. EndNote allows me to keep the referencing streamlined and organised, and everything comes together in Word, which is simply a go-between from raw text to the formatted product in InDesign.

Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Windows; it’s well worth the $45, and there’s a free trial as well. It’s developed by the wonderful people at Literature & Latte – click here to find out more.

Disclaimer: this is in no way a product endorsement of Scrivener; I’m simply a long-time fan of the software and thought it might be useful to any architecture students out there curious about ways to navigate design dissertation writing.

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Going SSD: Breathing new life into a 2012 MacBook Pro

ssd-drive-iconI’m not the first to extol the virtues of upgrading one’s computer to a Solid-State Disk. But man does it improve your computing experience.

First, some context: I use my Mac a lot. I constantly push it to keep up with my digital projects that range from simple word processing (like writing this blog and some academic essays for university), to really complex tasks like desktop app development via a virtual machine using C# in Visual Studio, manipulating 3D geometry in ARCHICAD, SketchUp, Rhino and Grasshopper, drafting and graphic design with AutoCAD and Illustrator, and some heavy Photoshop work; even the occasional render with ARCHICAD’s CineRender. Then there’s the side stuff like some motion graphics work and video editing for SKKSA.

So the kind of tasks this mid-2012 MacBook Pro has handled have been quite diverse. But the machine was showing its age; boot times were extremely slow, ARCHICAD took forever and a day to load-up, and it was generally a very rough experience toward the end-days of the “old” MacBook Pro ride. There was also this annoying bug where stock Apple apps would crash after a few hours (and I think it had something to do with ARCHICAD or its BIM Server component…)

Without forking out the new Apple tax to get a completely new machine – and my Mac is indeed old enough to justify a full computer upgrade, being in service sine the beginning of 2013 – I’ve managed to extend the longevity of an already solid machine with the upgrade of my RAM earlier this year (to 16GB), and now adding an SSD as the boot drive.

Here’s the run-down. I found a good deal on an SSD from a local Apple service center in Durban. So earlier this year, on the recommendation of my good friend Bryan, I upgraded the RAM from the stock 8GB to 16GB while I was in Cape Town. According to Bryan, macOS (or OS X, whatever you prefer) loves to be fed more RAM. This OS is RAM hungry, and my first upgrade definitely showed it: I used Activity Monitor to check up on my system, and it was evident that the system wanted to push past the 8GB limit; I was frequently hitting 11GB at times after the upgrade.

Adding RAM allowed me to do more with my Mac. But adding the SSD… that just made this thing feel like a new beast altogether. SSDs, as you know, read data via flash storage; there’s no spinning platter hard drive that needs to spool-up before you can access data. To give a simple example: it used to take over 2 minutes for my MacBook to fully boot-up and be ready to use; sometimes longer, as the Finder and other media took a long time to initialize. With the new SSD installed, my boot time is 20 seconds – that’s 20 seconds from the time I press the Power key to having a fully ready system waiting for me to give it commands. This kind of speed means a heck of a lot to me, as I spend most of my life on this machine.

The Setup

I opted to remove my Superdrive (CD/DVD drive). I reasoned that I hardly use optical media these days. So I moved my existing 750GB hard drive over to that bay, and installed the new 280GB SSD in the original hard disk slot.

macOS Sierra now boots from the SSD; I’ve got all my apps installed on this drive as well. My documents, iTunes library, pictures and other media are sitting on the old hard drive, which is permanently attached to the system (think of it like an always-connected external hard drive). I used a few Terminal commands to create symlinks (System Links) from the folders on the SSD to their corresponding folders on the HD. This ensures that Time Machine backs up all my data correctly. Having my larger media files on the HD allows me to take advantage of all that space, whilst still having the lean speed of the SSD for booting the system and other apps.

Going forward I might use the SSD to store ongoing project files for quick access, and then move them over to the HD once those projects are done.

Going SSD on my Mac was indeed like night and day. I’m still amazed how snappy ARCHICAD is now; AutoCAD is operating like a dream, as are my other creative apps like Photoshop and Illustrator.

I’m still finalizing a few minor apps, and I need to re-do my Bootcamp partition for Windows 10. But overall the system is functional, and I can’t wait to really put it through its paces as my Mac accompanies me on my Masters of Architecture journey starting next month.

Bionic Citizen

Apple WatchWearables are the hot topic in technology today. What once seemed like something out of a Star Trek episode is now reality. And whilst Samsung, Motorola and others are veterans (if you could call more than two years in the product category “veteran”) I truly think that Apple’s design and brand-respected clout will be the final tipping point in solidifying this curious new niche as a distinct product line.

The Apple Watch’s gutsy move in positioning itself as a piece of haute couture is indeed a bold move; I have many questions about the longevity of such a device when the ephemeral (technology) is juxtaposed with the eternal (high-end watch design). It seems like a product conceived of contradiction as much as it is a device seeking to bridge two seemingly disparate factions of society (fashion and technology). However, it represents a progression of technology. A powerful progression, I might add: we are on the cusp of transcending the notion that technology exists as a realm separate to the organic body that is us. The Apple Watch’s ideal of being a fashion piece means it encompasses the design traits distinct of fashion: personality, individuality, intimacy.

But even more than that: wearables are a step closer to the assimilation of the inorganic — the world of binary code and cold, calculated lines of coding — with the organic: us, human beings, sentient creatures who have created these strange contraptions. Are we on the brink of becoming bionic? Is it possible that, by following this progression to its logical destination, we can assume that there will be a convergence: that these two worlds will properly collide; that we will become bionic creatures, beings made just as much with technology as we are with blood and muscle?

The singularity theory postulates a point in time in the distant future, called an event horizon. Beyond this point, we cannot predict, using the cognitive skills we have honed over millennia, what will occur next. The idea that we are assimilating ourselves with the technology that we use can be considered as an event horizon. The current state of technological development suggests that this is the case, but I think that if we examine the nature of our current society, we can further understand why this might very well be the eventual outcome of our species.

We live in an increasingly connected world. The Grid rules our lives: we are beings that connect to it daily; it is what provides us with a large amount of our daily intellectual sustenance. We cannot function without the Grid. Our society is hyper-connected, and devices like smartwatches illustrate how reliant we are on the Grid. That such a device exists signifies the ever-encroaching grip our digital lives have on us. Our lives are lived as much in the virtual sphere as they are in the realm of reality. When technology begins to disappear yet exert an even more potent force upon our existence, we begin to step closer towards that event horizon of the bionic being. Technology is beginning to disguise itself. It is no longer taking the visage of a “device that looks like a computer” — that traditional aesthetic is being challenged as microchips get smaller and more powerful, thus making it possible to insert them into devices that we are accustomed to for centuries.

As design becomes invisible, it will allow technology to ingratiate itself far more easily into our daily lives, slowly tightening the grip the Grid has on our psyche. As microchips become smaller and their power more potent, we will begin to subconsciously slip into a symbiotic reliance with the devices and the virtual networks we’ve created. This is going to change society in incredible ways. Everything from culture to politics to economics to the built environment will be affected. One area I’m particularly curious about is, of course, the urban architectonic. How will our bionic beings navigate an architecture of the future? How will our built structures evolve to support the new lifestyle that will emerge? How can virtual reality coexist with the concrete and steel that is so intrinsic to maintaining our human existence at the base level?

One simple device, oft derided and questioned for its very purpose, can have the potential for a significant sociocultural impact. For now, though, we play the waiting game: watching, patiently, as the progression of technology and society slowly merge, an intricate dance orchestrated by a plethora of parameters and the organic ebb and flow of time…

 

Celestial Jukebox in the Sky: The Life and Death of iPod

My iPod Classic

The first Apple device I owned was an iPod. Specifically, the iPod with Video (fifth generation, 60GB). It’s dead now; its hard drive failed some years ago and prompted my “upgrade” to an iPod Classic. It’s the shiny evolution of the device that changed the trajectory of Apple’s fortunes. The quirky click-wheeled ‘pod launched the company on a hyperdrive trip of success that has eventually led to last month’s announcement of Apple Watch, the latest darling to enter a strong lineage of beautiful industrial design from this Cupertino behemoth.

iPod is effectively dead right now. Its death occurred on June 29, 2007 when Steve Jobs announced iPhone, a “revolutionary” device touted as a “wireless communicator, Internet device and windscreen iPod – all in one.” iPhone, and the modern smartphone revolution it inspired, led to smaller device storage capacities and thus the emergence of streaming: instead of keeping music onboard, music could be – had to be – streamed from this mystical thing called the cloud. No longer are we compelled to maintain ginormous music libraries on iTunes, no longer do we have to carry our entire collection in our pockets: now, we can have the entire world’s music library beamed to us wherever we are (provided there’s network). The future is here, folks. This is the stuff writ in science fiction lore for decades: life in the connected network.

But here’s the thing: iPod was personal. iPod reflected who you were – because music is intrinsically personal, emotional, something that appeals to us all on the most base level. iPod was a tiny mirror of your personality. But with this shift to the cloud, the rise of iPhone and streaming services like SoundCloud, Spotify, Rdio and iTunes Radio, maintaining large libraries is a chore. The very purpose of iPod for the mass market is obsolete. I guess all technology has a shelf life – a fairly short shelf life at that – and it’s impressive that the iPod Classic remained in Apple’s lineup for so long. Its last refresh was in 2009, a mere consolidation of storage capacity to 160GB (that’s the iteration of iPod that I still own).

When Tim Cook announced 1 Infinite Loop’s new creation, Apple quietly pulled the iPod Classic from its lineup. This is a logical move for the company; earlier this year Cook even said in a quarterly earnings call that the iPod business was declining rapidly. Hell, even their accessories category is doing better than the iPod business. And the shift to streaming has caught Apple fumbling to maintain their dominance in the music industry – an industry it helped reinvent over a decade ago with this very device. Apple’s acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics is indicative of their yearning to pull themselves back into the game. iTunes sales are growing disproportionately to the sales of streaming subscriptions from rival services. The message from the consumer couldn’t be clearer: people don’t want to own music anymore. Small storage capacities on beloved smartphones – space that is hotly contested by a multitude of media, from apps to videos to music – justifies the raison d’être for streaming services. Streaming music means more space on devices for more apps. And add to that the notion that you can listen to a catalog far greater than the capacity of your device, and the idea of owning an iPod Classic seems unreasonable.

This shift is reminiscent of the music industry’s transition from vinyl to tapes, the Walkman to the Discman and CDs, to MP3s and the iPod. An industry susceptible to change, at the mercy of the never-ceasing flow of technological invention will always face the challenge of maintaining its emotional connection to the human spirit – emotion is at the core of music, after all. And emotion is what many designers of music services and technologies try to imbue in their creations, creations that by their very nature are ephemeral.

iPod changed the game. It reflected who you were through something intangible: music. It did the impossible. It created magic. In a way, devoid of myriad features, the infinite possibilities of a canvas-like multitouch interface and a massive app store – devoid even of any network connections – iPod was the most magical device Apple created. It forged invisible yet strong connections between people through music. And its death, its yielding to a far more exciting, intense era of technological possibility, signals also the death of this singularly beautiful experience: the idea of the focussed technological device, the product that does one thing, but does it insanely great.

So, where to now? What is to become of the iPod line with the death of its last great ancestor, its direct line to the original iPod? Apple still has one more event left for this year, its October event that was historically dubbed the “music event” – the one that was reserved for announcing new iPods and a new version of iTunes. In recent years that has been replaced with iterative updates to the Mac line, and new iPads. The only iPod getting any love is the Touch – and rightly so. It is the only iPod that bridges the origin line (iPod) with the newer kids on the block (iPhone and iPad) through iOS. I don’t think iPod as a brand is dead. A new iPod Classic with a solid-state drive and support for high-fidelity music files has been talked about a lot on Apple forums. But only by diehard audiophiles, because that is exactly to whom this kind of device would appeal. It’s a highly-focussed segment of a small marketshare, and hardly anything that a behemoth like Apple, already deep in existing and well-performing product lines and ventures into entirely new industries (high fashion with Apple Watch) would even bat an eye at. It is for this reason – a pragmatic one, coldly looking at the statistics of market share – that I think iPod Classic is dead; iPod nano, shuffle and touch will continue on to ride out the ever-diminishing sales of a brand that brought a struggling company back from near-extinction, as Apple focusses on pushing people onto iPhones and the iOS ecosystem.

Tony Fadell, “father of the iPod”, put it succinctly when he said in a recent interview with Fast.Co Design:

“It was inevitable something would take its place. You know, in 2003 or 2004, we started asking ourselves what would kill the iPod […] And even back then, at Apple, we knew it was streaming. We called it the ‘celestial jukebox in the sky.’ And we have that now: music in the cloud.”

Like many people, I love music. It’s an incredibly important part of my life. iPod was – no, is – still a fundamental part of my personal tech setup. I am sad to see the Classic go, and have (begrudgingly) come to accept that, logically, there cannot be another Classic; that’s not the direction that the world is moving in. But I hope that the experience, the magic that Apple created with iPod, remains coursing through its DNA as it shifts focus from a consumer electronics company into a lifestyle one.

Technology’s Disappearing Act: Apple Watch and the Next Big Tech Era

A curious thing is happening in the technology sphere. As we crave mobile devices with larger screens, a consequence of the ever-deferring nature of content to the smartphone that our hands are seemingly glued to, the very nature of technology is becoming… invisible.

As a long-time admirer and fan of Apple’s work, you might expect me to be raving about the new Apple Watch CEO Tim Cook unveiled this week. Here’s the thing, though: I’m still skeptical about this category. Apple has successfully redefined several categories in the past, but the problem with smartwatches – with wearables, in fact – is that we don’t exactly know what it is we want from them just yet. This product type is still largely in its infancy. And thus, can Apple truly change the game when its rules are still being debated?

But with Apple Watch we see this idea of “technology’s disappearing act” come alive. Here is a device that, unlike its competitors (Samsung Gear and Moto 360), actually seeks to address the nature of a watch in this connected age. Apple hasn’t merely taken what works at one scale (the UX of iPhone) and resized it; rather, they’ve first decided to probe the sociocultural implications of what timekeeping means. This, in essence, is what design is all about: understanding a move, critically examining your position and its effect, before executing it.

Our technology is increasingly becoming invisible, permeating almost every facet of our lives – not just for entertainment, but work, play, health, fitness. Thus moves like Apple Watch, the entire smartwatch category, wearable tech: this is an exercise in disrupting a logical path. It’s about re-imagining the way technology fuses with how humans have been living for centuries, because these devices are inherently intimate. They will be more connected to your physical being than any bit of tech before. Following a logical trajectory of design will only result in technology that is trying to solve problems that don’t actually exist: this is the conundrum I’ve been facing when thinking about this next paradigmatic shift in tech.

Wearable technology, in order to justify its raison d’être, will need to tackle this very issue: how can it enhance human life, rather than try and solve unnecessary, non-existent problems? This is where I think Apple Watch excels. Whilst I am not entirely blown-away by its industrial design, I think that particular design decisions made by Jony Ive and his crew set this device apart. The digital crown, deep connection to the art of timekeeping through fun digital watch faces, and the tactic engine that gently pulses on one’s wrist, providing a distinctive tactile dimension, are elements that will significantly add to the user experience. I understand the digital crown as a new interaction model that will define the smartwatch, just as the click wheel defined iPod. And, of course, wearable tech is intimate; it’s personal. Watches are a reflection of one’s taste, style, and fashion sense. How can digital technology, ephemeral in nature, with an ability to rapidly skin new themes and change experiences through the dynamic essence of software, be used as a conduit to channel this idea of enabling personality to surface?

The Apple Watch is pretty, and it tackles some serious issues that others have lacked to do so in favour of getting their products out first. But justification for its actual existence is what bothers me, and what I found lacking in Tim Cook’s delivery of his first significant product as CEO. The thing is, unlike iPod, iPhone and iPad before it, this device faces a critical challenge: that of actual necessity. Why would I want a tiny screen strapped to my wrist when a larger iPhone (which I have to carry with me anyway, since Apple Watch is highly dependent on this) can provide a less-frustrating experience when doing things like showing photos or sending messages? I think that where a device like this will truly excel is in the fitness category, and that itself is a fledgling arena.

When Steve Jobs introduced iPad, he spent a significant amount of the keynote before the unveil to explain the iPad’s purpose: as a device to fit a gap between smartphones and notebooks; Apple’s response to the then-burgeoning “netbook” craze. But with Apple Watch, Tim Cook launched straight into it after an ode to his predecessor (“one more thing”). After the slick video intro, he returned to stage, arms held up in triumph. No explanation of the watch’s purpose, its reason – it felt like he was relieved to finally release his first defining product as new CEO. It’s a problem, I think, if we cannot understand the Apple Watch’s significance: what makes it unique and not just a response to the strong competition from Samsung, LG, Motorola and the others? What purpose does it serve that will define it, apart from its innovative user interface design and complexity of customization options?

So, invisible tech…

Today, software defines our mobile experience. When the hype around new hardware dies, it is the software that remains as the defining experiential aspect of a device. And this is where technology is beginning to shrink its physical appearance and maximize a more intimate, invisible force. A device that is as personal as a wearable offers the opportunity to craft products around experiences that augment daily life, where the physical object moves to the background, providing subtle feedback on various operations. Apple Watch’s tactile engine and digital crown are two elements that come to mind here.

Wearables are going to be the next decade’s smartphone: as content gets bigger and more mobile, the opportunity for daily tasks to be augmented or replaced by digital variants will be great. It is in this sphere that wearable tech and the permeability of software into daily objects will enable technology to effectively disappear as it transcends from objects that exude “tech”, to more mundane guises that are powered by clever engineering and sleek industrial design.

Apple’s Style

Apple has a major media event planned for September 9th. It’s being described as Tim Cook’s “big moment”, his defining touch on Apple – a company that has largely been defined by its enigmatic co-founder Steve Jobs. Whatever Cook and his team announces to the world will undeniably be the moment when his era truly points us to which direction Apple is headed. This will be the culmination of a series of steps taken since Cook ascended the ranks to CEO of one of the largest companies in the world: the “Designed by Apple in California” statement of identity, the emphasis on time, care and design at the opening of WWDC 2013, the plethora of iterative products in the form of iPhone 5, 5c, and iPad Air, and the moments of true departure – free offering of OS X, the revolutionary design of the new Mac Pro, an overhaul of the iWork and iLife suites.

This got me to thinking about Apple’s “style”. What is it that separates them from the rest of the technorati? Each company out there today is doing phenomenal work, but Apple is the one company that changed the game more than once, with the desktop PC, the entire music industry, and this new age of the smartphone. They’ve done this with a sense of quiet surety, steadily riding the rough tides of underwhelming product deliveries when the world yearned for the “next great thing”. Apple has a style, and I don’t mean just an aesthetic quality – something that they’re renowned for – but a presence in the tech world that many of their competitors either lack, or try (mostly unsuccessfully) to imitate.

It begins, I think, with their core philosophy. Apple is rooted in a design-first approach. Everything defers to intense research and development, in the creation of an experience rather than an end-product. It’s for this reason that they’re sometimes late to the party: case in point, wearables. Samsung undeniably beat them to it with the Galaxy Gear series, and whatever Apple announces on September 9th will be the culmination of an extensive design process where it is the experience, the sense of wonder and euphoria that its design team strives to imbue in the otherwise stark brushed metal and glass device, that will drift quietly to the foreground. Once the dust settles on the explosive announcement, once the media buzz quietens, it will be that experience – much like it is with iPhone and iPad, and how they ushered in a new way of interaction with our world –that will be the true character of the product, not necessarily the (iWatch?) itself.

I’m not saying that Apple is without flaw. Like any mega-corporation, they will have their darker side. But it is in the zen-like philosophy of simplicity through design, of a quietness and stillness that they go about in an industry that is electrifying and hectic, that Tim Cook’s team distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack. And I can’t wait to see what they have in store come Sept. 9th.

Google, Design and the Age of Flat Unity

materialdesign-goals-landingimage_large_mdpi

A curious thing is happening in the world of digital design. Skeuomorphism, the art of translating real-world design cues into the virtual sphere (e.g. concepts like the “desktop”, “folders”, and, recently, faux-leather stitching in previous versions of Apple apps for iOS and OS X) has been shunned in favour of a flat, clean, colourful aesthetic that aims to convey a more honest-to-the-cyber-world user experience.

This is a good thing. It means that designers are starting to push new thinking into the highly volatile world of user interface design. Android has been doing the “flat dance” for a while, and Apple has only recently joined the bandwagon with iOS 7, and its decision has indeed catalyzed much of the developer community still holding-back to be swept by the Apple-effect of cascading influence.

Google just announced “Material Design”, a new design language set to rival iOS 7’s flat UI, and which aims to bring more user experience consistency to the highly-fragmented and popular Android OS. Android has long since faced the challenge of scaling with its rapid growth. It is the most popular mobile operating system by far, and its open source nature means that it is susceptible to modifications. Samsung and Amazon, for example, both re-skin the generic Android interface with their own variants. Amazon goes as far as calling their theme an “OS” – Fire OS.

What does this mean for the end-consumer? Well, consumers are more concerned with hardware than software; fancy features like fingerprint scanning and more megapixels are what drive sales, after all. But design fragmentation means that the user experience of a particular app across various Android flavours is unsteady. A user that jumps from one Android phone to another may experience subtle design changes that make for slightly jarred experiences. Apple’s iOS is designed in-house by a tightly-integrated hardware and software team, so the hardware-to-software experience is quite consistent. Android, by contrast, is nurtured by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, but hardware companies like Samsung and Sony implement it as the soul that gives life to their hardware creations – the Galaxy range, the Xperia range, etc. Each manufacturer makes it seem like there are a multitude of operating systems out there that are kind-of linked, when in fact there’s just one powering all their devices: Android.

What Google is doing with Material Design is a huge deal: they’re giving developers a comprehensive design guideline, from the ground-up, to ensure that their app designs, and by extension their user experience, remains consistent across the multitude of Android flavours out there.

Material Design is just another step in this new Age of Flat Unity: utilising flat design elements to rapidly unify disparate experiences. By alluding to real-world experiences through the implementation of physics-based effects (like the Parallax effect in iOS 7) and nature-inspired animated cues (Material Design’s abstraction of natural effects), designers can skip skeuomorphism in favour of an experience more intrinsic of the digital age. Google describes Material Design as:

“a unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion.”

 

Material Design will be rolled-out across Google’s services and platforms (Chrome OS and Android being the major players). The Verge has a good breakdown of everything you need to know about the new design language; check it out by clicking here.

Material joins Microsoft’s Metro Design and Apple’s iOS 7-esque flatness; I’m really interested to try out Material Design-inspired interfaces, and welcome this as a great addition to the Age of Flat Design.