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Blog posts tagged as 'magazine'

“Companion Species” in Icon’s special edition on Mobile Phones

Icon #106

Will Wiles, the Deputy Editor of the design magazine Icon, asked us recently to contribute to a special issue on Mobiles Phones alongside James Bridle, Kazys Varnelis, Marko Ahtisaari and Will Self, among others.

I wrote a short piece on smartphones as ‘companion species’, that reflects a lot of ongoing themes and discussions in the studio around designing the behaviour of sensate devices with ‘fractional intelligence‘.

They see the world differently to us, picking up on things we miss.

They adapt to us, our routines. They look to us for attention, guidance and sustenance. We imagine what they are thinking, and vice-versa.

Dogs? Or smartphones?

Mobile devices (can we still call them phones?) are being packed full of sensors, processing power. They are animated by ever-more-sophisticated software, dedicated to understanding the world around them (in terms of advances in computer vision and context-awareness) and understanding us (speech recognition and adaptive ‘agent’ software such as Apple’s ‘Siri’)

They are moving – somewhat awkwardly – from being our tools to becoming our newest companion species.

Donna Haraway, theorist on our transformation into cyborgs, published ‘The Companion Species Manifesto’ in 2003. It addresses the relationship between domestic dogs and humans, but there is much in there to inspire designers of smartphones, apps and agents.

“Cyborgs and companion species each bring together the human and non-human, the organic and technological, carbon and silicon, freedom and structure, history and myth, the rich and the poor, the state and the subject, diversity and depletion, modernity and postmodernity, and nature and culture in unexpected ways.”

Using inspirations from theory such as Haraway, and fiction – such as Philip Pullman’s ‘Daemons’ from his ‘Dark Materials’ books – we can perhaps imagine a near-future that is richer and weirder than the current share-everything-all-the-time/total-gamified-personal-productivity obsessions of silicon valley.

A future of digital daemons would be one of close relationships with software that learned and acted intuitively – perhaps inscrutably at first, but with a maxim of ‘do no harm, with maximum charm’.

Intel’s Genevieve Bell recently spoke of the importance of designing relationships with – and crucially, between our technologies – so that we not in the centre of an arms-race of ever-more-complex 1-to-1 interactions with our phones, tablets and apps. She memorably quoted a research subject that likened her collection of digital devices to a ‘needy backpack of baby birds’

Much better to have one faithful, puppy-smart daemon device, working at our side to round everything (and every thing) up and relate what it senses to us?

At BERG we are fond of quoting MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks – who said that fifty years of sustained work by the brightest and the best in artificial intelligence would get us things that were ‘smart as puppies’ if we’re lucky.

This seems like a fine goal to us, rather than creating uncanny, flawed and frustrating analogues of human intelligence and interactions – such as Siri, or if we cast our minds back a decade – Microsoft’s ‘Clippy’.

This future might also free the form of our devices – from glowing rectangles that suck our attention from the world, to subtler physical avatars representing our companions – things that listen, watch, speak – to us and for us.

Our companion species as are likely to inhabit the biomimetic descendants of the Nike fuelband or the now-mundane bluetooth headsets as Ive’s perfectionist slabs of glass and alloy.

Also, companion species might be shared, as a family pet is now – bound to home and hearth rather than the predominant 1-to-1 ‘personal computing’ paradigm of the last 40 years or so.

What forms might these ‘household spirits’ take? Nest’s smart thermostat has pursued the Ives/Rams route of tasteful (if ironically, cold) elegance, whereas our own Little Printer takes a rather different approach…

There will be more diverse responses to these new categories of digital/physical extensions to ourselves, our homes, cars and cities. Which is as it should be.

I hope it triggers explosion of form and interaction beyond the glowing touchscreen hegemony. The advent of ‘digital companion species’ should be a cambrian moment for design.

My piece on iPad magazines for Icon’s September 2010 issue.

Icon September Issue: piece on (near-)future of digital magazines by me

Outgoing editor Justin McGuirk asked me to write a little about the near-future of digital magazines for Icon #87, in which I talk a bit about challenges of the context they now find themselves in as a media form, as well as things we think we learned during the Mag+ project.

They’ve kindly allowed us to republish it here.

Since the launch of the Apple iPad six months ago, the world of digital magazines has seen fevered activity and hyperbolic punditry.

Big names such as Wired, Vanity Fair, Time and Popular Science (which our studio, BERG, helped to bring to the iPad with the Mag+ platform) have released editions into the App Store and made proclamations that it’s the future of magazines.

However, the very term “digital magazine” smacks of “horseless carriage”, Marshall McLuhan’s term for an in-between technology that is quickly obsolete. While nothing is certain about the future of any media, there is no doubt that the digital tablet form will grow in popularity, with the iPad being joined later this year by numerous other (possibly cheaper) competitors mainly powered by Google’s Android operating system.

So, what does the future really hold for digital magazines? We can identify some challenges and some opportunities. One certainty is that the manner by which we discover and purchase magazines will be given a hefty thump by the switch to digital. We are in a world of search rather than browse – which perhaps in turn leads to a change in the role of cover design, from “buy me, look what’s inside” to “you know what’s inside, but here is an incredible, evocative image”. In many ways it’s a return to the “classic” magazine covers of the 1950s and 60s, privileging the desirability of the object itself rather than shouting about every feature.

The bounded “object-ness” of the magazine embedded in the world of the endless, restless internet is seen by most as an anachronism, but it is also one of its greatest attributes. Research we received from our client Bonnier as part of the brief for the Mag+ concept indicated that people really were attached to the magazine as a form of media that creates a bubble of time to indulge in reading – and as a contrast to other, faster forms of media.

Meeting this need – while acknowledging the breadth, speed and interconnectedness of the internet – is a design condition that has not been satisfied fully by the current crop of digital magazine offerings, our efforts included. But stay tuned.

Another change in what we might term the “attention economics” of digital magazines is that their new neighbours in the app ecosystem are not other magazines, but games, spreadsheets, supermarket delivery apps, photography apps and so on. One device is now the conduit for vastly different activities and experiences.

And yet – at least in the current user-interface paradigm of Apple and Google – they all get pretty much the same real estate on screen. You have to decide between killing time with a magazine, playing Angry Birds or ordering your Ocado delivery based on the same visual evidence.

Perhaps future iterations of mobile and tablet operating systems will have a more media-led approach, as evidenced by the new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system (yes, that’s right, Microsoft has made a more media-centric user interface than Apple) – leading to magazine icons being bigger or more varied on the media surface.

Still, having such vastly different neighbours nestling so close creates a new context for an old form that has heavier production costs than its new competitors. A casual game developed by five people commands the same attention of a magazine produced by 25. That is remarkably imbalanced, but don’t think these attention economics will stand. The production and form of the magazine cannot fail to be affected. Internet-native publishers such as gadget expert Gizmodo, fashion maven The Sartorialist or critically minded gamer Rock, Paper, Shotgun are smaller and nimbler. And eventually they’ll be able to publish to the same canvas as the big boys and girls – and be able to charge for their expert curation and commentary.

Which brings us to some of what I’ve started to call “two-star problems”. In the consumocracy of the App Store, star ratings are all, and unfortunately most of the current magazine offerings have only two stars, compared to the four- or five-star world of games and other apps. Even Wired and, I’m sad to say, Popular Science garner a “must-try-harder” three stars. Consumer dismay at customer service, reliability, consistency, pricing and the overall offer seem to lead to these relatively low ratings. Consumers’ expectations are determined by the value they see offered by software producers compared to traditional media producers.

So where to head? What are the opportunities? I think they are supplementary to what magazine publishers see as their existing strengths in writing, curation and design. They will emerge from their less glamorous but equally deep knowledge of subscriptions, service and “belonging”.

Take the best of what you understand of your readership and the decade or so that many magazines have spent on the internet and look to exploit the social technologies of the web, rather than run to present your content as an isolated recapitulation of a mid-1990s CD-ROM.

Create hybrids and experiment – not with the empty (and costly) spectacle of embedding jarring 3D and video, but with data, visualisation, sociality, location-based services, semantic technologies.

There’s no reason that the feel of a well-designed, valuable, curated object shouldn’t be complemented when placed properly in the roaring, sparkling stream of the internet. And experiment not just with editorial content, but also with advertising. I’d rather have a live link to the latest Amazon price for a camera than a spinning 3D video of it.

Tablets promise to be transformative – in their context of use and how well they can display content – but they do not wish away the disruptive challenge (and opportunity) the internet presents to magazine publishers.

This is the beginning of a tumultuously exciting time for magazines and those who produce them – not an end to the “free-for-all” of the web as many would love to believe. More experimentation, not less, is what’s called for. As a reader and a designer, I’m looking forward to that.

Popular Science+

In December, we showed Mag+, a digital magazine concept produced with our friends at Bonnier.

Late January, Apple announced the iPad.

So today Popular Science, published by Bonnier and the largest science+tech magazine in the world, is launching Popular Science+ — the first magazine on the Mag+ platform, and you can get it on the iPad tomorrow. It’s the April 2010 issue, it’s $4.99, and you buy more issues from inside the magazine itself.

See Popular Science+ in the iTunes Store now.

Here’s Jack, speaking about the app, its background, and what we learned about art direction for magazines using Mag+.

Articles are arranged side by side. You swipe left and right to go between them. For big pictures, it’s fun to hold your finger between two pages, holding and moving to pan around.

You swipe down to read. Tap left to see the pictures, tap right to read again. These two modes of the reading experience are about browsing and drinking in the magazine, versus close reading.

Pull the drawer up with two fingers to see the table of contents and your other issues. Swipe right and left with two fingers to zip across pages to the next section. Dog-ear a page by turning down the top-right corner.

There’s a store in the magazine. When a new issue comes out, you purchase it right there.


Working with the Popular Science team and their editorial has been wonderful, and we’ve been working together to re-imagine the form of magazines. Art direction for print is so much about composition. There are a 1,000 tiny tweaks to tune a page to get it to really sing. But what does layout mean when readers can make the text disappear, when the images move across one another, and the page itself changes shape as the iPad rotates?

We discovered safe areas. We found little games to play with the reader, having them assemble infographics in the act of scrolling, and making pages that span multiple panes, only revealing themselves when the reader does a double-finger swipe to zoom across them.

It helps that Popular Science has great photography, a real variety of content, and an engaged and open team.

What amazes me is that you don’t feel like you’re using a website, or even that you’re using an e-reader on a new tablet device — which, technically, is what it is. It feels like you’re reading a magazine.

Apple made the first media device you can curl up with, and I think we’ve done it, and Popular Science, justice.

From concept to production

The story, for me, is that the design work behind the Mag+ concept video was strong enough to spin up a team to produce Popular Science+ in only two months.

Not only that, but an authoring system that understands workflow. And InDesign integration so art directors are in control, not technologists. And an e-commerce back-end capable of handling business models suitable for magazines. And a new file format, “MIB,” that strikes the balance between simple enough for anyone to implement, and expressive enough to let the typography, pictures, and layout shine. And it’s set up to do it all again in 30 days. And more.

It’s all basic, sure. But it’ll grow. We’ve built in ways for it to grow.

But we’ve always said that good design is rooted not just in doing good by the material, but by understanding the opportunities in the networks of organisations and people too.

A digital magazine is great, immersive content on the screen. But behind those pixels are creative processes and commercial systems that also have to come together.

Inventing something, be it a toy or new media, always means assembling networks such as these. And design is our approach on how to do it.

I’m pleased we were able to work with Popular Science and Bonnier, to get to a chance to do this, and to bring something new into the world.


Thank you to the BERG team for sterling work on El Morro these last two months, especially the core team who have sunk so much into this: Campbell Orme, James Darling, Lei Bramley, Nick Ludlam and Timo Arnall. Also Jack Schulze, Matt Jones, Phil Gyford, Tom Armitage, and Tom Taylor.

Thanks to the Popular Science team, Mike Haney and Sam Syed in particular, Mark Poulalion and his team from Bonnier, and of course Bonnier R&D and Sara Öhrvall, the grand assembler!

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with each and every one of you.

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