Monographic

Questioning the Edges of Design

'Influences' feat. Fehler [Early Proof, Detail]

Above: 'Influences' feat. Fehler [Early Proof, Detail]

Welcome! As you can see my entire site is heavily under construction.

This page is in a holding pattern. In the interim, while I knock everything into shape, I'm writing using Ghost (which is lovely). Find me at Ghost. If you’re looking for a daily dose of inspiration while I finish the site, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Windows of New York

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

520 East 14th St. ― Gramercy [Detail]

Windows of New York, by José Guízar, a designer and art director based in New York, is a wonderfully simple idea, elegantly executed. It is, exactly what it sounds like, a series of beautifully illustrated windows of New York.

As Guízar puts it:

[It is] a collection of windows that somehow caught my restless eye… The project is part ode to architecture and part self-challenge to never stop looking up.

Take a look, it's a lovely, "Weekly illustrated atlas."

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Late Binding

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

I’m a terrible procrastiworker. Given the choice between working on the task at hand or moonlighting on something ‘a little more interesting’, I’ll opt for the latter every time.

Don’t get me wrong, I rarely miss a deadline, I’m just late binding.

Late binding is a technical term drawn from the field of computer science, which essentially means delaying decisions until as late as possible. As our computer scientist friends would put it, delaying decisions until runtime.

As Don Norman puts it, in Why Procrastination Is Good, late-binding (delay, or procrastination) offers many benefits:

Delaying decisions until the time for action is beneficial for lots of reason. First, it provides the maximum amount of time to think, plan, and determine alternatives. Second, it enhances flexibility, allowing the actual action to take full advantage of the unique circumstances at the time it is required. And third, because the requirements are continually shifting and changing, delaying decisions allows the most current issues and situations to be accommodated.

All are compelling arguments for late binding, however, it is a passage towards the end of Norman’s piece that caught me:

Note too that deadlines are equally valuable. Without the rapidly approaching deadline when I have to stand up after dinner and deliver this after-dinner talk, I would still be procrastinating. A lack of time pressure allows the mind to be creative, to explore possibilities. A bit of stress focuses the mind, allowing the final compilation of all the earlier random, creative thoughts. Late binding is beneficial.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but late binding might be a strategy worth exploring. It certainly works for me, allowing me the latitude to explore, en route, to the task at hand.

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Three Days, Intensive

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

Thanks to the generous support of Prompt, I'll be in Harrogate to take part in Work in the Web, an education initiative developed and delivered by digital agency Mixd.

Delivered across three days of intensive workshops – 21–23 January – I'll be contributing to a number of the sessions, and delivering a session titled Design for the Web, which explores typography at both the macro and micro level. I'll also be speaking about the importance of work-life balance, and the importance of working on what matters, both topics close to my heart.

The team at Mixd deserve every credit for getting behind education initiatives like this. If education is to improve, it needs further input from industry, like this. Consider this a gauntlet, thrown down.

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Anti-Glacial Education

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

I’m delighted to have been invited to speak, once again, at Hey! in Leeds on Tuesday, 20 January. The theme of the evening is education, and I’ll be sharing the stage with Richard Eskins, from Manchester Metropolitan University.

My talk is titled Anti-Glacial Education and explores the importance of agile approaches to education. As I put it on the Hey! site:

I’ll explore the role educators can play in signposting students towards timely and relevant information; the value of developing ‘a latticework of mental models’; and, last, but by no means least, the importance of educators delivering up-to-date, non-glacial content.

If you’re in or around Leeds, I hope to see you there.

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Love Hate

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

Jason Fried, writing at Signal v. Noise, asks the question: Do you have to love what you do? As he puts it:

Attend enough startup conferences or listen to enough motivational speakers and you’ll hear one piece of advice repeated over and over again: You’ve got to love what you do! If you don’t love what you do, you might as well stay home.

He doesn’t buy it, however, pointing out that – if we look at the opposite end of the spectrum, too, hate – we can find plenty of examples of companies born out of hate. As he says, “The way I see it, many great businesses and important innovations are actually born out of frustration or even hate.” Citing the story of Uber’s inception, he writes:

Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, the co-founders of Uber, didn’t start their ride-sharing service because they loved transportation or logistics. They started it because they were pissed off that they couldn’t get a cab in San Francisco.

One thing is certain, regardless of what initially inspired you – love or hate – there is no substitute for hard work to turn the initial idea into something of lasting value. As I put it to my students: “It’s easy, it just takes hard work.”

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Five Words

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

Gary Provost, in 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five word sentences are fine. But several together are monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

Wonderful.

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A Reservation for Two

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

One of a phalanx of aspiring Noma diners, I awoke earlier today – much earlier than usual – hoping against hope that today would be the day that I secured a reservation at the number one restaurant in the world. I had had this date in my diary for months.

This morning, reservations for Noma opened.

Noma

Noma is, without question, a pinnacle of culinary achievement and reservations are extremely difficult to secure.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, lists it at No. 1, a position it is reluctant to relinquish, and which it has held for four of the past five years. (El Celler De Can Roca wrestled the title away in 2013, but Noma recaptured it after just one year.)

Noma’s chef, and owner, René Redzepi – celebrated the world over as a culinary visionary – describes the period as a, “restaurant mid-life crisis,” and one can only begin to imagine the sheer strain of losing such a prestigious title after three prize years in quick succession.

Past winners have included: El Bulli (2006-09), Ferran Adrià’s Catalonian restaurant, described as, “the most controversial and experimental restaurant in the world”; The Fat Duck (2005), Heston Blumenthal’s Berkshire restaurant, renowned as hotbed of experimental cuisine; and The French Laundry (2003-04), Thomas Keller’s award-winning Californian restaurant. All three Michelin Star restaurants.

Noma is, in essence, a restaurant in fine company.

Our History; Our Future

Noma - the name is a portmanteau of the two Danish words ‘nordisk’ (Nordic) and ‘mad’ (food) – opened in 2003 and is world renowned for its culinary inventiveness. Its creativity has won it admirers worldwide, and its return to No. 1 earned Redzepi well-earned praise:

Redzepi’s meticulous attention to detail, innovative approach to foraging and experimentation with fermentation – all driven by passion and a relentless curiosity – has once again brought his restaurant to the pinnacle.

Redzepi’s passion and curiosity is reflected in a simple message the restaurant displays at its understated web site:

In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.

This philosophy is celebrated in a menu, which is a marvel to behold. Its twenty servings – lunch and dinner – includes: reindeer moss and cep mushrooms; beef tartare and ants; cucumber and scallop fudge; and langoustine and nasturtium. To finish? Three treats. (Wonderful treats, of that there is no doubt.)

Per person, the menu is DKK 2,900 (£300) for those who choose the wine pairing (and who wouldn’t in a restaurant of this calibre?).

Such is its prestigious reputation, the restaurant receives about 100,000 booking enquiries a month. When reservations open they evaporate all too quickly, disappearing into the ether.

Waiting

I had been waiting months for this day to arrive, I had set my alarm early. I had a singular purpose: secure a reservation for two.

Reservations for the final week of March and the whole month of April opened at 10.00 am, Central European Time (CET). Hopeful Noma diners were advised:

Given the overwhelming demand for smaller tables, we encourage our guests who wish to improve their chances of securing a reservation to invite friends, family or colleagues to join them in groups of four or greater.

You increase your chances for a booking if you choose lunch or dinner on a weekday.

I had booked the flights, and a hotel for my wife and I, already (perhaps in retrospect not the wisest move). We had one weekday – Friday, 10 April – within this small window of opportunity to maximise our chances. The phrase, “lunch or dinner on a weekday,” reverberated in my mind, like a mantra. Lunch or dinner?

The wait was agonising. I have no idea what I hoped to achieve staring at my monitor for two long hours as the household slowly breathed into life, but it seemed like an important part of the ritual.

Time crept by. The movements of the hands of the clock seemed to have slowed, the movements like molasses. The waiting was unbearable.

The Lottery

Suddenly, the web site leapt into life and I was greeted with a page, counting down the hours, the minutes and the seconds. Its message was tantalising, if terse:

Online booking for Noma has not yet begun. When online booking for Noma begins, you will be assigned a random place in line.

After all this, my fate was in the hands of the gods. I had no idea how many others were hoping to secure a reservation just like me, but I hoped that today the gods were shining on me.

An eternity later, and the hours, the minutes and the seconds had wound their way down to zero. As if by magic, the lottery was upon us. The screen refreshed and I was informed, “You are now in line.” My heart leapt a beat as I was informed:

Your number in line: 49.

The number ahead of me hopeful of securing a reservation: just 18. Soon: just 12. Moments later: just 6. It seemed to good to be true. On Twitter I could see others who were less fortunate, one 1,450 in line, others even further behind. I offered up a silent offering to the gods, praying that my capricious wireless connection hold true.

The number in line ahead of me edged tantalisingly towards zero, until, all of a sudden, I was greeted with a simple reservation form and the message: “Welcome.” I couldn’t believe it. Success!

A reservation for two. Secured.

Life is about experiences…

Dining at Noma will, I’m sure, be an unforgettable experience. It’s an experience I’m very much looking forward to, and it’s one I am convinced I will learn from as a designer. Noma is a story. A story I’m waiting to be told.

During the three hours I waited this morning, hopeful that I’d secure a reservation, I couldn’t help but wonder about the story of Noma and how it shapes the business of the restaurant.

The aesthetics and inventiveness of its cuisine aside, what Noma has achieved is to create an incredibly engaging narrative, a story so carefully considered, so beautifully built, that it has potential customers from all over the world, neatly forming an orderly digital queue, eager to be the first in line….

Imagine if your business could be like that. Imagine if your story were that powerful.

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Nimbus

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

Berndnaut Smilde’s fascination with the ephemeral and the impermanent finds wonderful form in his Nimbus cloud pieces.

The artist creates indoor clouds using a smoke machine, carefully adjusting the humidity of the room by spraying water and reducing the temperature. This painstaking process allows the smoke to form a cloudlike shape that momentarily holds its form, which Smilde captures photographically before it dissipates.

As Smilde puts it:

I cannot really control the cloud – it’s different every time. So, I create hundreds and hundreds [of images] and select just one to be the [final] work.

The resulting cloud installations have an impossible fragility, capturing an unlikely meeting of interior and exterior. Utterly beautiful.

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A Good Teacher

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

The wonderful Mortimer J. Adler on The Great Ideas:

My definition of a good teacher […] is a person who is himself dedicated to continued general learning. That is, the best teacher, is the teacher who, in the course of teaching, is learning.

Delightfully inspiring and, if you're at all involved in education, well worth watching.

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The Exoplanet Travel Bureau

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

The Exoplanet Travel Bureau [Detail]

Enjoy a winter getaway on Kepler-16b, “The land of two suns.”

Discovered in 2011, the planet is one of three exoplanets portrayed in a series of interplanetary travel posters, designed by Nasa visual strategists Joby Harris, David Delgado and Dan Goods.

The posters, designed in an iconic Art Deco style by the fictional Exoplanet Travel Bureau, are the first in a promised series advertising destinations beyond our solar system. Pack your bags, a 44 light year journey awaits you.

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Prompt

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

Prompt [Detail]

I’m honoured to be joining Prompt, officially, as a speaker, from 2015 onwards.

Prompt’s mission, “to start a conversation about mental health in the technology sector,” is one I passionately believe in, and I’ve been fortunate to speak at a number of events, thanks to their support, to date.

If you’re running an event and are looking for someone to speak about the importance of work-life balance or mental health, please do get in touch. Engine Yard generously provide financial support to cover the cost of flights and accommodation and I will happily waive my speaking fees.

Mental health is an important, if often overlooked, topic. I believe we need to talk about it more openly. If you’re running a conference, I’d encourage you to consider working with Prompt and join a growing list of conferences that are putting this important issue centre stage.

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Pop

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

When Withings released its beautifully designed Activité watch in 2014, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Fast Company pondered: “Can a Fitness Tracker Disguised as a Swiss Watch Solve the Problem of Wearables?” HODINKEE, one of the most widely read wristwatch publications in the world, also chimed in, “A Swiss Made Smart Watch That Links to Your Smart Phone… and Actually Looks Good.”

There was just one problem: Price.

As Fast Company put it: “The Activité does have an Achilles heel: its $400 asking price.” Withings’ CMO, Julien De Préaumont, was quick to underline that the Activité was more than comparable to the price of other watches of similar quality and, of course, it was.

The problem that the Activité faced, however, was one of perception. Marketed as, “A new generation Swiss Made watch, combining time and activity tracking,” the Activité’s competition wasn’t Nike’s FuelBand, the FitBit Flex or other wearable health trackers, but other Swiss Made watches. The Activité was Swiss Made, a distinction many overlooked.

Withings’ latest unveiling, the Activité Pop, represents a new, and much more aggressive foray into the wearables market. At just $150, the Pop is now well within reach of many and, as such, has been garnering considerable attention.

The Pop offers the best of both worlds: elegant, timeless design coupled with impressive, unobtrusive activity tracking. This is the sweet spot that has, to date, eluded many developing products within this space.

Withings might not have the profile of Apple, but it’s definitely a company to watch. 2015 will see an increasing focus on wearables with Apple’s unveiling of Apple Watch (rumoured to be released in March). What’s interesting about Withings, however, is its focus on developing a family of connected health products.

Withings is selling health infrastructure and, as interest in the quantified self makes the transition from an edge case activity to a mainstream undertaking, Withings looks well placed to profit.

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The Pastry Box

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

I’ve always enjoyed The Pastry Box. The ‘Bakers’ who conjure up its thoughts, read like a who’s who of a community I love (and very much learn from).

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be writing for The Pastry Box throughout 2015. My dozen articles will follow a carefully defined narrative arc. As I put it, in one of many emails to Alex Duloz and Katy Watkins (who make the magic happen at The Pastry Box):

It’s 13 years (a baker’s dozen) since I embarked on a career as an educator. My idea – assuming you’re happy – is to use my twelve posts to reflect upon some of the things I’ve taught my students along the way. My structure, broadly encompasses the creative process, from start to finish.

My first post, Designing a Mind is now published. It provides an overview of my plan for the year, I hope you find it useful.

If you’d like a little context on The Pastry Box, I’d suggest starting at Alex Duloz’s wonderfully static and unstyled page: On The Pastry Box Project. It’s 100% content-focused, as the web – in my opinion – should be.

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Time, Please

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

I don’t plan on cross posting here often – the focus of my other, low resolution journal, fsck, is quite different – I did, however, want to stress that your time is valuable, don’t waste it. A lesson I learned, sharply, on New Year’s Day.

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Lettres du Havre

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

In an age of digital books, delivered instantly, via the ethereal medium of bits, I remain a resolutely old-fashioned lover of analogue books, delivered slowly, via the permanent medium of atoms. I’ll happily wait for a book, that’s been beautifully wrought into existence.

Lettres du Havre is one such book. As the publishers put it:

The book plays on the dual meaning of the word ‘letters’: typefaces, signs, logotypes on the one hand, and fictional letters (love letters, letters to relatives, professional letters, administrative letters…) on the other hand, in order to investigate the role of identities in a city, the evolution of brand design and signage, the interactions between social state and graphic signs.

As a result, one hundred imaginary letters are inspired by a selection of one hundred photographs of signs located in Le Havre.

A visual and social archive, Lettres du Havre unites fact and fiction. As its publishers put it: “One hundred fictional letters are inserted in a spread of photographs.” The result is an aesthetic millefeuille, “two books woven into one.”

If you still value the physicality of books, Lettres du Havre deserves pride of place in your library.

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Grammar

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

Grammar [Detail]

Adam Cutler, Program Director at IBM Design Studio, on Big Blue’s recently announced IBM Design Language:

We quite deliberately steered away from creating patterns and templates for the first iteration of the IBM Design Language. The concern is that patterns encourage a type of lazy design through conformity.

This ‘lazy conformity’ is, I believe, one of the reasons that design for digital platforms has become so homogeneous. All too often designers install a framework, or other tool, and use it ‘as is’, with minimum modification.

It’s great to see IBM placing its emphasis on the ‘units of design’, the core building blocks. This approach theoretically allows an infinite set of expressions whilst retaining a core look and feel. As Cutler puts it, the emphasis is on: “Unity, not uniformity.” This focus, on developing a unified visual grammar, is why the IBM Design Language (and, preceding it, Google’s Material Design) matter.

Together, both IBM Design Language and Google Material Design, represent attempts to create considered lexicons for design, visual languages that afford a multitude of forms of expression. A grammar of design, if you will.

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A Living Language

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

A Living Language [Detail]

Announced as 2014 drew to a close, Big Blue’s recently unveiled IBM Design Language marks a substantial – and welcome – shift towards a design-centered culture at International Business Machines (IBM).

Coupled with the company’s recent MobileFirst partnership with Apple, IBM’s Design Language represents a potentially transformative (and lucrative) strategic shift. As noted analyst, Horace Dediu, puts it:

As corporate romances go, IBM and Apple’s must rank among the most unexpected. […] This new union is profoundly important. It indicates and evidences change on a vast scale.

It’s interesting to note that the title of the new IBM Design Language page is ‘Living Language’, signalling an understanding that design is, by its nature, ever-evolving. It will be fascinating to see how IBM’s “shared vocabulary for design,” unfolds. The company has long understood the importance of design – witness its well-documented relationship with Paul Rand – let’s hope it’s rediscovered passion for design is, on this occasion, long-term.

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Perspective

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

I was fortunate to receive a copy of Letters of Note as a gift, this Christmas. It’s a beautifully designed book and filled with inspiration. (If you’re getting a copy – and you should – don’t buy the Kindle version, get the hardback, it’s a book to be held in the hand and savoured.)

One of the letters that caught my eye whilst reading it was written by Hunter S. Thompson, at the tender age of just twenty-two. A letter to a friend, in response to a request for advice on life, it offers some profound insights. The following, given recent experience, resonated with me, in particular:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

In short: we are shaped by life, and life, in turn, is shaped by us.

Thompson’s letter is reproduced in full at Farnam Street, where Mr Parrish observes it offers, “some of the most thoughtful and profound advice,” he has ever come across.

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2015

Christopher Murphy · January, 2015

It’s a new year, which means it’s time to actually finish this site off, once and for all. Well aware that I’ll never get around to this on top of my writing, speaking, teaching and other commitments, I’ve teamed up with Pete Coles, Creative Director at fffunction, to knock everything into shape.

I hope to have something uncovered soon. Until then, I’ll be writing – right here – in good old-fashioned HTML, sans CSS. On the bright side, this means everything’s responsive, right out of the box. Wonderful. (It’s just like the good old days, when everything was so much simpler).

Writing Yourself Into Existence

I’ve missed having a home for my writing. I’ve really missed it. I’ve always taught my students that ‘A Good Writer is a Good Thinker’. Writing shapes your thinking. Writing is a process. A process through which new ideas are developed, challenged and tested. (I’ll be exploring this further in a talk I’ll be giving at Smashing Conference in March, 2015; and I can’t very well deliver that talk without practising what I preach, can I?)

When I called it a day at The Standardistas, I planned to establish a new site, here, but work unfortunately got the better of me. I hope to change that this year. I need to change that.

My focus has shifted. At The Standardistas, my interests were primarily centred around the web, exploring design and technique (with a healthy sprinkling of typography added to the mix). Having run a conference, Break – which ‘Questioned the Edges of Design’ – I’ll be pursuing that agenda here. (You can find out more about my intentions at this site’s /purpose page.)

I’m getting older and – I’ll be honest – I’m finding it harder to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the web (which isn’t to say I’m giving up… far from it). I’m interested, however, in writing around a wider array of topics. I’m fascinated by design and its impact upon the world around us. I plan to explore that interest further here.

I’m opening up the aperture and widening the frame of reference a little.

In part this is driven by a personal process of cyclical re-invention. I’ve never enjoyed settling on a single topic for too long, and it feels like it’s time for a change. I’m interested in the design of business, and the business of design (more on that soon); that, coupled with an interest in the wider, human aspects of design, is where I’m heading.

The I in Writing

I’ll be making one last change; it’s a small, but important one. Until now – other than at fsck, which is a deeply personal project – I’ve always written in the second person, my writing abstracted and ‘objective’, not an ‘I’ in sight.

I’ve always lived in fear of judgement, endlessly worrying about what others might think of me. (I’ve written about this for 24 Ways, Offscreen, and Smashing Magazine, amongst others.) I worried what others might think when I expressed an opinion, so I dodged the bullet by never writing in the first person.

I’d like to address that, finally. These are my opinions, they’re written in the first person. I’m nailing my colours to the mast, no more hiding behind abstractions. I hope you find what’s written here useful; if not, that’s fine too.

So, let’s get started. Happy 2015, everyone.

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