Cards Against Clarity

The concept of “card based” web design has been around for at least three years now. So why is it that the following quote from Khoi Vinh, written back in 2014, still appears to be a fundamental truth:

it hasn’t gotten much easier to explain to the uninitiated what, exactly, a card is.

Because here’s the thing: as much as I love reading about web design, I am still very much a member of the “uninitiated”. I can tell because I still have absolutely no idea what a “card” is.

I realised this (yet again) thanks to a recent article that cropped up in my RSS feed. I’ve been singing their praises recently, so hopefully Zurb won’t mind too much if I point to 5 Common Mistakes Designers Make When Using Cards in Design as a prime example of 1 Common Mistake Web Designers Make When Talking about Cards, chiefly, that what a card is fails to be defined anywhere.

Perhaps this whole situation is just down to me. Maybe I’ve fallen so far behind web trends that my outdated ways of attempting to understand “cards” are just not up-to-scratch. But, frankly, there doesn’t seem to be much help out there.

Early articles on using “cards” in design tend to paint a picture of API driven, cross-platform data sharing. A sort of standardised method of pushing/pulling content from/to various web apps; an ecosystem of information, if you will. That all sounds interesting and pretty great, yet presents a concept that is simultaneously vague and highly technical, creating a perfect mixture for people to be excited about yet confused over.

Yet “cards” are also used to describe certain design styles. In that linked Awwwards article a number of examples of “good card-based web design” are cited. Some, such as Dribbble and Pinterest, appear to be examples of the information ecosystem mentioned above. But then you have websites like White Frontier, which whilst being a great example of web design do not appear to have any form of content interaction or applicable data extraction methods. Yet these designs are, apparently, just as “card based” in their makeup.

As far as I can tell from Googling around the subject, “cards” are just rectangular content areas situated on a website. They might pull in information from a third party, they might just be a stock photo and a strapline. The article I initially quoted comes to a similar conclusion, that cards either fit into the “design” or “third-party” camps, which doesn’t seem particularly useful to me. If they’re just a design style then, really, they’re just a particular way of presenting content; a way which, ultimately, seems pretty much identical to how most people have always done it. If they’re only to be used when pulling third-party data then we need a tighter definition, because I don’t feel anyone would be happy suggesting iframes are all cards.

Currently, their only unifying factors appear to include being responsive, rectangular and online. So perhaps that’s all there actually is to them, which would be rather neat. If that is the case, then I can happily claim to have been making card-based websites since 2007, putting my well ahead of the trend!

Scrobbling from the Void

Looking back over what I’ve previously written about Last.fm is a little, well, shameful. Since as long ago as July 2015 I’ve been noting how the service has a large void: analog music. I love having a record of my listening habits, but that record currently lacks any music consumed on CD or vinyl which skews it quite heavily towards bands I’m just getting to know, rather than incorporating those I’ve listened to for years.

The solutions to this glaring issue have grown up a little since 2015. I’ve previously mentioned the Universal Scrobbler, which has become more feature rich than ever, supporting bulk scrobbling as well as integrating database searching from both Discogs and Last.fm to make scrobbling entire albums as easy as single tracks. There is also now a healthy competitor in the form of the Open Web Scrobbler, a brain child of Github and Reddit which does a fantastic job of letting you fine tune your listening record. It also has some surprisingly powerful little features, including the ability to customise a Scrobble’s time stamp which then self-updates with each tracks duration to keep it effectively in-sync.

Despite that, manually entering an entire album in the OWScrobbler is time consuming and prone to errors. Luckily, Last.fm does have an option to delete scrobbles, but still it was enough of an irritation for me to rarely use the service for anything more than a lone track here and there. Whole albums on vinyl or CD? To much effort.

Today, though, Last.fm released my “2016 in Review”, driving home which artists and albums have mostly been lost to the void. I briefly looked at API hooks to develop a self-hosted solution, but was quickly reminded that WordPress remains a barrier. Back to looking longingly at the Universal Scrobbler’s Premium service then I guess. But hold on… something else seems to have changed since 2015. Back then I wrote how I couldn’t “justify the price” of a premium subscription. Well, either the price has come down or my definition of expensive has changed,  because a life time membership only costs $4.99 (USD), which currently seems very affordable.

It’s half an hour later and, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve already made my money back. I’ve scrobbled several albums I own on vinyl multiple times over, effectively updating my listening records for each artist for this year. There’s plenty more I still need to add, but I can now take five minutes out of a day and fire in a months worth of listening habits that would otherwise have stayed lost to the void. As a result I’m hoping my “2017 in Review” will be a much more interesting and balanced affair.

Doth the Bell Toll for Zurb?

Today’s lunch started no differently to any other. Grab some food, open Internet Explorer (I know, it’s not by choice…) and fire up theOldReader to chip away at the ever mounting pile in my inbox. I dipped into the Oatmeal and realised I have, once again, missed a Kickstarter for a product that I genuinely want. Read some interesting thoughts from Adactio, Dan Mall and UNSTOPPABLE ROBOT NINJA (now, sadly it seems, going by the far less awe inspiring Ethan Marcotte). And then I looked at my inbox and wondered if it was about time that I started removing some of the feeds which I’m no longer excited to read. Feeds like the one Zurb publishes.

Although I’ve been subscribed to Zurb’s RSS for years now (possibly a decade) I struggle to think of a single article over the past six months that made me sit up and think: aha! Updates have been flowing as routinely as ever, but mostly they have focused on their internal business. Posts about new product updates or team members have been, seemingly, the core output for quite some time and whilst these do occasionally feature interesting anecdotes or clever imagery, ultimately they don’t feel particularly relevant. So then, I thought, today I will catch up on what I haven’t read and if nothing jumps out it’s bye-bye Zurb.

I am, admittedly, a little behind on Zurb’s feed so it was back to mid-October for a post titled The End of the Black Turtleneck, featuring a prominent image of Steve Jobs. As someone who laments the grasp Apple has on most of the industries I admire, a review of their glorious leader’s preferential attire didn’t exactly fill me with excitement. However, the old adages are true: you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Far from being a humorous or anecdote laden parade of fanboyism or irrelevant commentary on how Zurb have learnt to design the ‘Jobsian Way’ (which is hopefully something I just made up, though I can believe somewhere out there a design agency has it engraved into the ceiling…), The End of the Black Turtleneck is filled with genuinely interesting incite and actually takes several shots across Apple’s bow. In other words: things just got interesting!

I’m not going to say too much more on that article or the subsequent follow ups that were just as enjoyable and arguably more useful, except to highly recommend you go and read them yourself. If you’re in any way interested in the struggles that the design industry faces or even just the issues inherent with casting false messiahs or getting engrained in past zeitgeists, they’re definitely worth a read. I can’t say everything I’ve caught up on so far has been riveting, vital content but The End of the Black Turtleneck and The Perversion of Beautiful Design, both written by Zurb’s head honcho Bryan Zmijewski, are some of the most intriguing and thought provoking blogs I’ve read in a while. They’re clear, well written and have valid criticisms at their core. Most importantly, they gel well with my own belief that design should be as much about aesthetics as it is functionality; that function = form and vice versa, with neither greater than the other.

Plus, I learnt that the term ‘pixel’ was coined to describe the picture elements of videos shot by probes around the Moon and Mars. That titbit came from The Mighty Pixel, which is also well worth a read. I guess there was a reason to stay subscribed to Zurb’s feed* after all. In fact, it looks likely that there might be several.


* I wanted to link directly to Zurb’s RSS feed here but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. It clearly still works, but they obviously don’t feel it’s a feature any visitors want. So, I guess, there’s at least one aspect of Zurb that I disagree with. Either that or I’m a moron…

Hamlions and the Importance of Colour

Humorous comparison of the storyline of the Lion King and Hamlet
To wish to be king or not to be, surely that is the question?

The Logo Smith recently reblogged a selection of fun, quirky and often informative infographics put together by Stephen Wildish. Amongst them are some very interesting illustrations regarding how we interpret colour. There are also several that are just generally amusing and clever, such as the Hamlion comparison above. Either way, the result is a website and project steeped in fun, humour and good ideas that is well worth a browse.

Month in Media: November 2016

Yes, yes, yes: I’m behind. I know! Still, look here and see a month completed! At least I think it is. Honestly, I’m surprised myself at how little media I’ve seemingly consumed, but then there are a couple of factors muddying the water. The first is that I am actually playing video games and reading at the moment, but one instance from each genre has dug in. I picked up Pokémon White midway through November and have been playing pretty solidly; I’ll leave a full review to next month (at the earliest) but I will say I’m pleasantly surprised at how much fun it is playing a Pokémon game where I have no idea what each of the creatures are. Every new encounter is a genuine surprise, even when the designs aren’t all that great.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the written word, I’ve just become the immensely proud owner of the entire first ‘season’ of Ctrl+Alt+Del, one of my all time favourite webcomics. Again, a full review will await another month but it has been utterly brilliant re-reading these strips which have impacted my life and social development so heavily. As good as gold!

On top of both of the above, TV is worming its way into daily life once more with on going seasons. Lucifer has just dropped Season 2, The Grand Tour has begun and, lacking a TV license, we’re getting our fill of Attenborough by rewatching the first series of Planet Earth. With all that future content out of the way, then, there has been little to actually comment on this month!

Films

The Magnificent 7

Lets just point out what the Magnificent 7 is not. It is not a blow-for-blow remake of the original; in reality it only borrows the era, small town setting and total number of main characters. It is also not a thoughtful, meaningful, plot-heavy outing.

It is a bit of fun, with a great ensemble cast giving decent-to-noteworthy performances, well choreographed action sequences and just enough plot to keep you captivated and interested. Denzel is, well, himself, albeit himself clearly having a lot of fun and proving thoroughly suited to the Western genre. Chris Pratt is as funny and riveting as ever. Ethan Hawke is as weird and gritty as ever.

Basically, you get what you expect: guns, horses, cowboys and a clear delineation of morality. Sure, the “7” aren’t exactly the most angelic of individuals, but heroes in Westerns never are, whilst the villain of the piece so clearly evil he seems permanently one step away from cackling maniacally.

The elephant in the room is Django Unchained, the masterpiece that arguably reinvigorated the genre and likely lead to this remake being funded. Clearly, Django remains in an entirely different league to Magnificent 7, with far more interesting characters, settings, plotlines, action and dialogue. There are some clear (even if unintended) homages at work here too; indeed, with a black, lynch survivor collecting bounties as your main character this could easily be ret-conned into a sequel. Similarities aside, however, the reality is that Magnificent 7 was clearly never trying to be Django and does successfully manage to tread its own path.

Where Magnificent 7 actually elevates itself is in the diversity of the cast. Sure, it still isn’t amazing, but the core group of heroes contains four nationalities, five races and two genders, which is pretty good. Better yet, the diversity doesn’t feel forced or needlessly highlighted. For the era, the characters remain racist and sexist in their language, morality being reflected in their actions instead. They’re also a well picked group for the setting, playing with stereotypes that oftentimes feel far too relevant today. Each of the 7 is a social reject, whether due to their race, gender or political affiliation. The only one who doesn’t have a clear disadvantage is Pratt’s character, whose presence helps ground the rest and blur their boundaries whilst having the clearest redemption arc of the lot. I genuinely found this aspect of the film both clever and refreshingly simple and believe that the writers deserve much credit for that fact.

tl;dr: Diversity done, if not right, then certainly better than required in an entertaining, action packed retelling elevated by an excellent cast.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I never thought I would be hugely excited about a new series set in the Potterverse, but Fantastical Beasts has continuously impressed with its design, marketing and concept. Luckily the film genuinely stood up to all of those expectations. The beasts are fantastic, the action is impressive and the world building remains as magical as the main series. Honestly, I don’t really have many negative comments at all.

Getting to view a new part of the wizarding world was exciting and the clever use of a (wonderfully portrayed) “No-Mag” as the foil through whose eyes the wonder of the audience could be expressed worked seamlessly. I never really expected anything else, but it was great to see how different and diverse the American witches and wizards were compared to their more familiar British counterparts. The film also managed to create a nice balance between referencing the original series just enough to feel connected without ramming it down our throats (*cough*Hobbit*cough*).

Dan Fogler may have been the stand out performance, but the whole cast works wonderfully. I never doubted Eddie Redmayne, nor Colin Farrell, but both bring truly brilliant performances (Redmayne admittedly more so) to the table, and Ezra Miller and Katherine Waterstone only help round out an impressive cast.

The plot isn’t too imaginative, though it retains its twists and turns neatly and had far more depth to it than the trailers belied. Again, Fantastic Beasts finds itself in debt, really, to the continued expansion of its lore through Pottermore and similar side projects Rowling has worked on since the main series ended.

The one instance which felt like a true nostalgia trip, rather than an exciting exploration of regions unknown, were the beasts themselves. Here, once again, serious credit must go to the attention of detail present throughout the film. Each beast feels real, with truly exceptional CGI throughout, even those whose illustrations appeared too abstract to work. Indeed, this may have been the first instance of a film where the practical creature effects were noticeable in their lack of life in comparison to the CGI offerings (despite remaining exceptional themselves).

In reality, my only disappointment is that the beasts were not centre stage more often, though on the flipside getting the time to study some (such as the stage stealing Niffler) to greater detail was immensely rewarding. There is definitely a rich and expansive world here left to explore! Which is lucky, given four more films are on the horizon… a prospect that now fills me with excitement rather than trepidation!

tl;dr: Fantastic, brilliant beasts and an epic return to a wonderfully detailed, intriguing world.