DesignInterview

Oliver Reichenstein on design

iA founder Oliver Reichenstein fields your questions on iA Writer, the longevity of digital design, type on the web, skeuomorphism, how he got into the industry and more besides

@elefontpress: Why isn’t Apple as smart as you, re cursor buttons?
OR: I think Apple is smart enough. The reason why they don’t have a keyboard extension is that outside writing apps the keyboard extension is not so essential.

This might surprise you, but one in 20 users actually dislikes iA Writer’s keyboard extension, because it takes away some space. We faced the choice of making the keyboard extension optional, or keeping the user interface minimal and hoping that many of the 5 per cent who dislike the keyboard extension will come to accept or like it in time.

@RealAlanDalton: You say one font and one size is better “… as long as accessibility needs are addressed …” but WCAG says text should be resizeable. See Success Criterion 1.4.4 from WCAG 2.0.
OR: I am not going to argue with w3.org about what works better on the web. Websites need to be scalable. No question. But a writing app is not a website. Writing apps have a different, more specific purpose than websites in general. What I mean by “accessibility needs to be addressed” is that you need the option to make the text much bigger for people with really bad eyesight. To address this we’re working hard on improving accessibility in Writer.

A lot of people complain about Writer’s big font size. We chose a size that works for most people, which seems larger than what most people are used to. But by choosing the font size we paid close attention to making sure that the font size is a good average with respect to the reading distance of each device. We put a lot of thought into it, as you can see in the article I wrote on the basics of responsive typography.

I understand that some people dislike iA Writer for this. However, Writer’s deliberate absence of settings is a fundamental part of the app. iA Writer is not successful because we choose the font size, it’s because it helps people write. It really does. And having no way to procrastinate with typography or other settings is one of the key reasons.

Similar apps copy our style and feature set, then add a few extra options. Tech reviewers usually compare features, and Writer doesn’t check as many boxes. This is the wrong way to evaluate a writing app. MS Word kicks Writer’s ass when you compare features. You can do everything with MS Word. But it’s a terrible program for actually writing.

I think a better way to evaluate a writing app is to ask “How does it feel to write? How productive does it make me?” If anyone manages to beat the experience of writing with iA Writer, it will be with an app with less features, not more.

That being said, we are working on a couple of improvements that might make this discussion obsolete, without adding options or interface complexity. But I don’t want to say more just yet, to preserve the few weeks of head start that makes clear where the innovation that cost us so much time to develop actually came from.

@jordanmoore: A couple of weeks ago you discussed simulation technology and how we use it to simulate “all we have left: the past”. Do you think designers are harking back to an easier time, when their works were less transient and that digital is a format where it is difficult to leave behind relics of our work, and provides no assuring sense of longevity?
OR: This is an extremely complex matter that I have been thinking about for the last few months. I am not seeing clear enough to give you a short answer and this is not the place to answer in full, but I'll give it a shot.

What I know is that this nostalgic trend a lot of people are talking and writing about these days has something to do with that the socio-economic change driven by the analog-to-digital transformation. The main progress that we have made in the last 30 years is not aesthetic or mechanical. What we have seen since the mid-90s is a progress in simulation technologies. Cars look more or less the same, music and fashion is also moving into a state of simulation of what is supposed to be authentic. And often the simulation outperforms the original.

A simulation or a copy that outperforms the original is the basic principle of evolution in design. Progress in design is never a big jump. It is always a processes of copy and improve. Big jumps, as in the advent of the iPhone, are only possible if a lot of that process of copy and improve is kept in the dark. Then it looks like a genius was at work, creating something completely new. But I have never seen any genius innovation out of the blue in technology. The more we learn about Apple's design process through the Samsung court case, the more we see that in that regard Apple is no different from anybody else.

The absolute masters at copy and improve are the Japanese. And I'm not just talking about Japanese cameras, watches and electronics. A lot of French and Italian restaurants there out-cook authentic restaurants in France and Italy. Not only do they make better food – a good French restaurant in Tokyo tastes, looks and feels more French than most French restaurants in Paris. It is a funny experience. They simulate Frenchness so well, that you feel angry and insulted at first, then you feel sorry for the original. This is not just my romantic impression, Japanese pizza bakers often win pizza world championships. Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris. French and Italian tourists get confused when you show them some of these places. While you don’t fully trust this better copy to be really better (especially as a European), after a while you don’t care about original or simulation anymore.

Or take those incredible new old coffee shops in San Francisco. They are evoking an originality and a quality that has never existed before. Coffee in the 70s mostly tasted like shit. And I don’t think that coffee in the 20s was much better than in the 70s. Logistics simply didn’t allow that quality. We actually have much better product quality now than we used to have, but like our grandparents we imagine that once upon a time everything was more solid. We imagine this by looking at the really solid stuff that has survived.

To get back to the question: I believe that the traditionalist trends in music, fashion, and TV, as well as Apple’s use of old metaphors and Microsoft’s return to Swiss graphic design in Windows 8, is a sign of a creative process at its beginning. We are about to experience a back and forth from the digital to analogue that will eventually lead to a different understanding of reality. As different as this future reality is, it won't necessarily look that 'new'. It might look like the spoof of that Mad Men episode called The Carousel:

When you first look at this, especially after watching the original, it feels ridiculous. You think "something is lost" or "there is no emotion", but the more you watch the satire the less you will see a difference and realise that the old, analogue reality was as constructed as the digital one. There is no authentic reality and there never was.

As we can learn from that episode 'new' always was and always will be a good sales argument.

"The most important idea in advertising is 'new'. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion."

Advertising is not what it used to be. Classic advertising has become that weird thing from the past. It still kind of works, but it's becoming more and more obvious how surreal advertisement is. What used to be advertising now is 'The Web'. The web is how we now make buying choice; the web is where we get our product information. So the promise of 'new' doesn't work that well any more, because:

  1. Online, things just get old really fast. After the 50th retweet, new is old. And with the right account it takes less than a second to get that 50th retweet.
  2. 'New' is very easy to say, but innovation is very hard to do. A lot of things that used to be sold as new, actually were just old things with a new package. If you promise 'new' and don't deliver, your product will not be seen as "a kind of calamine lotion" but as snake oil.
  3. The appeal of 'new' is part of a modernist bias. That bias is about to become conscious.

I believe that culturally, we are about to witness a capitulation in front of the modern ideology that 'new' or technological 'progress' is generally better. The above cited same Mad Men clip goes on explaining nostalgia as a "deeper bond with the product", calling it "delicate but potent".

The nostalgic trend is not the next ad strategy. And I don't think that it's just an escape back to the past. It is as a sign of distrust against the supremacy of 'new', that technological progress does not necessarily equal improvement. Progress can mean 'improvement', but it can also mean 'even more trouble'. Whether you 'believe in' or 'accept' global warming or not – you have probably learned that we cannot escape environmental entropy with more technology. Less, more intelligent technology is a smarter way, but we might fool ourselves there. We do not fool ourselves when we accept that less consumption will lead to less chaos, but that's much harder to accept than the idea of a deus ex machina that will save us all from the mess we are heading into.

The entropy of the 'new' is not a mere technological problem; we witness the same entropy affecting information. The incredible access to information we have does not lead to an overflow of information. But it doesn't lead lead to more clarity. It leads away from the 'either or' ideologies that claim to know for certain which principles human knowledge must follow. The nostalgic trend is in essence postmodern. That everything you say describes a human perspective, not a divine cosm. I used to make fun of the word postmodern; I still dislike it, because the essence of postmodernism is exactly that it is not an -ism, that it has no global belief. But I am quite certain that the nostalgic trend marks the end of modernity. Especially since it treats modernity as something of the past, something that in some ways is desirable, in others not. There is a lot to say here (for instance how hard it is to fool ourselves into our grandparents' nostalgia of our past that the internet documents in detail), but let's move on ...

@iqonicdesign: Do you feel partial to serifs or sans-serifs (in the context of the web)? Also, any chance we can get our hands on your fonts?
OR: Our fonts are work in progress. I hope we'll see another major update before next year. Whether it will be commercially available or not mostly depends on whether I feel that they are professional enough for me to ask for money in return. Currently, they are not at that level at all. I think it's OK to ask people to pay in return for professional work. But asking people to pay for goods that don't have the level of professionality you expect from your daily work is bad practice and detrimental to the new economy that gives us the freedom to sell pretty much anything from anywhere to anybody.

The choice of serif vs sans serif is more a matter of taste and purpose. I have no absolute personal preference.

@soully: Are you ever going to write a book?
OR: If I were writing a book, I wouldn’t say that I’ll never write a book. This is what I have learned after 100 failed attempts to write one.

@benhowdle: Any tips of getting 'minimalist' design just right?
OR: Forget the tag 'minimalist' and just design as well as you can. Imitate only to learn. Maybe you’ll discover 'maximal' design by copying what you call 'minimal'.

@anselmhannemann: What do you think about responsive images – are they a good way; not the 'correct' or 'wrong' way?
OR: Looks like it, but I’m not sure when it comes to the technical details. I’m still trying to figure things out there. As for text, we are usually going for different fixed widths (= fixed line lengths) at different breakpoints, rather than the RWD way of fully liquid (= changing line lengths). There is an exception there: mobile phones. But I digress again.

@ozlubling: Do you have any more stories about writers using iA Writer to do their work? Also, how has user feedback helped to evolve the product?
OR: I wish I’d documented this better. In the beginning we were extremely excited to see who uses our app, but in the meantime we read more and more user feedback, trying to figure out how to make people happy. User feedback helps; any user feedback. The more you get the better. While there is stupid feedback, this is also helpful. Angry feedback, trolling, competitors trying to smear you … it’s all really helpful information if you take a step back and look at the motivation behind what people say. You learn to grow a very thick skin. When we release a new update and there is no negative feedback for more than a couple of hours I get nervous. No negative feedback means that you are doing something wrong. A product that doesn’t polarise has no energy. This doesn’t mean that you need to make people angry on purpose. What you need to do is try to make a product so strong that it’s obviously only for a clear target audience. Then you need to find ways to solve the big problems it has, so it becomes a product for everybody in your target audience.

@OldGuard: Is your company's shift away from client work towards product work working out? Do they compliment each other? What percentage is each one?
OR: We are still doing both, and that’s working out perfectly. While some say that you either have to do one or the other, we say that you have to do both. Client work gives you invaluable insight in different industries and commercial strategies that a product company only can get by paying expensive blue-chip consultants. Developing your own product gives you insight into vendor psychology that you simply cannot achieve if you don’t sell your own product. Since iA Writer, we understand our clients much better. Since iA Writer we can also offer our clients battle-tested experience in app design and sales that practically no other service-oriented design operation has.

@scottsweb: How does providing a service through iA compare with selling products (iAWriter itself)? Will you focus on just one in the future?
OR: My favourite aspect of doing both product and service work is that as a service agency we are independent enough to choose our clients, and as a product developer we are free enough to go our own way. Economically we are not too dependent on the market situation, so I have no plans to change this.

@JayRay: Recently, you wrote about iCloud’s single-level folder structure. Will there be a day where IA is no longer necessary?
OR: Information architecture is not a matter of card sorting and drawing massive trees on whiteboards and finding the perfect philosophical balance of notions. It’s about simplifying structures to their essence.

Take a corporate site: you look at a company structure from inside, then look at it from outside. Then you make sure that the unified structure fulfills and exceeds the expectations from outside. Sounds simple, but it’s usually as intense as a bare-fisted cage fight. Mostly you have to cut down what the inside view believes to be essential, while dealing with the politics, noise and fear. However, the view from inside can reveal hidden gems in a corporation that will enrich the IA in way that can't be achieved by only looking at it from outside.

Before I ramble too much, no: information architecture is not going to disappear, no matter how much the group around the I've-called-myself-IA-before-you-knew-what-it-meant tech hipsters are bashing it. It will continue to change its name every two or three years, (like most of our subdisciplines), but who cares.

@janvanderasdonk: To skeuomorphicise or not to skeuomophicise? That is the question.
OR: Not. Skeuomorphism is by definition bad design. But when it comes to using metaphor to make you user experience more vivid, then yes. The Desktop, Folders and the Trash Can are metaphors. There’s nothing wrong with them, if used appropriately. But as with metaphor in writing, it’s really hard to come up with the right metaphors, and it’s really, really easy to fall into the trap of using old, lame or wrong metaphors.

@sivocha: How did you get into the UX industry? Did you see something you wanted to change or was it something else?
OR: This is a megalomaniac comparison, but it illustrates perfectly how I feel. When Keith Jarrett was asked how he got into jazz, he said:

“And then I heard Oscar Peterson, then I heard, oh, Brubeck live in Allentown. And when I was in the audience, I remember listening and saying, ‘This is really great, but there’s more to do.’ Now I was a kid, you know, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s just – he’s not doing everything that you could do in this situation,’ you know.”

This is exactly how I felt, when working on the first websites back in the late 90s. It didn’t take long for me to get a copy of Photoshop and try out my ideas. It took almost 10 years before I could do what I felt back in the day needed to be done. It was the feeling that everything needs to be simpler and cleaner, more delicate and easier and more beautiful. What I was missing, not having a classical design background, was typography. I was lucky enough to get into typography at a time when only a few people were thinking about it.

@finagrejer: Your business and outlooks are generally international and even antinational, but you cheer for Switzerland in the Olympics. Explain!
OR: Moving to Japan made me realise how Swiss I was. Moving back to Switzerland made me realize how Japanese I have become. I cheer for Switzerland in football and tennis. Ironically, to get rid of the patriotism left in some dark alley of my brain. Other than that I despise patriotism.

Subscription offer

Log in to Creative Bloq with your preferred social network to comment

OR

Log in with your Creative Bloq account

site stat collection