This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Review: "The Laws of Simplicity" by John Maeda

John Maeda's "The Laws of Simplicity" has been popping up on a lot of the best-of-design-books lists I've seen lately (see Speak Up, for example). I received a copy for Christmas, and recently buzzed through it during a couple of commutes (Maeda tells us the book was purposefully limited to 100 pages to allow just such quick reading -- a prime example of form following function, I suppose).

The book is intended as a primer in the merits of simplicity for not only designers but also technophiles of various stripes and business leaders as well. The wide range of intended audiences also results in a style that is rather jarring for those used to a different style of writing about design -- the book often feels like a mix of design criticism, personal anecdotes, and the often-mushy self-help language of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"-type bromides intended for wealthy executives.

Another consequence of the wide range of audience is that many of the laws are fairly obvious to anyone with a basic grounding in the theory of design -- groupings help communicate (Law 2, "Organize"), whitespace is good (Law 6, "Context") -- and they can all be effectively summed up (the ultimate in simplicity) in the final law: "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."

The one idea that did resonate with me in a way that had never struck me before was the idea that simplicity requires complexity (Law 5, "Simplicity and complexity need each other). He uses musical rhythm as an example: the simplest rhythms have their place, but are rendered far more effective in contrast with more complex ones. This is, of course, the very essence of something I am very passionate about: the writing and arranging of pop music. What makes a great pop song is often, the establishment of a pattern which is then suddenly changed (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, BRIDGE), or stood on its ear (building up to a chorus only to go back to the verse).

All told, "The Laws of Simplicity" is an interesting book if for no other reason than that it may give designers something to recommend that their clients read as a justification for why they really don't need to make the logo bigger; most designers, though, will already have internalized most of these "laws" already.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My 15 Seconds of Fame

In an earlier post, I mentioned that one of my favorite podcasts is called Freelance Radio; it discusses all manner of topics relating to doing freelance work of any sort, from dealing with difficult client to drumming up new business. I just happened to listen to Episode 9 of Freelance Radio, which features a "Mailbag" question from yours truly about how the practical matters necessary to prepare oneself to freelance full-time (don't worry, I'm not going to quit my day job just yet). Thanks to the folks at Freelance Radio, and keep up the good work!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lost & Lonesome

Last Saturday, fellow Lost Cartographer Gabrielle Schafer and I played a short three-song acoustic set at the Charleston as the guests of the Long Gone Lonesome Boys. Aside from being incredibly nice guys, the Boys put on an amazing show, and the LGLBs' John Milne was kind enough to give me a copy of their second cd, "Lonesome Time." While the disc doesn't quite capture the fun and energy of their live set, you should check it out if you enjoy 50s and 60s country along the lines of the Louvin Brothers or anything from Sun Records. Like fellow Chicagoan Robbie Fulks, the LGLBs provide this classic material with wicked wit and a decidedly 21st-century twist (e.g. one of their songs is called "www.lonesome.com," and features the line "tired of Googling porn/and playing with my flugelhorn"). If you can catch them live, by all means do so -- but if you can't, you should pick up this record.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Project Update: Recent Design Projects at the Law School

While my day job as Manager of Electronic Communications at the University of Chicago Law School tends to lean more toward the tech and information architecture sides of web-work than the design side, I do occasionally get to undertake projects that use as much of the right side of my brain as they do the left (while our upcoming site-wide redesign promises to explode both sides).

Since starting the job in August of last year, I've had the opportunity to do a couple of these projects. The highest profile one so far was a redesign of our Faculty Blog, which had been launched in 2005 using a slightly modified version of one of Typepad's standard issue templates:



When I redesigned it this past fall, my primary goal was to make it more usable -- get rid of the gray text on a gray background, add a prominent search box and make it easier for visitors to subscribe to the blog and get to the Law School website. I also separated out the podcast feed and added a widget in the sidebar so people could listen to the podcasts without leaving the blog page.


I was very pleased to see a presenter at the CASE V conference in December hold up the redesigned blog as an example of higher ed institutions "using social media well."

I also used this design as inspiration for a Flash e-card that the Law School's Annual Fund asked me to create. Considering it was my first attempt at Flash, I think the card came out pretty well. This was an especially fun project because I had the chance to create the music for the card as well. The music for these things is usually classical music calculated to be almost unnoticeable. I used a collage of samples from Apple's Garageband program to create a piece that sounds to me a bit like it could have come from "Six Feet Under;" I even had someone ask me where they could purchase a copy.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Bollywood Review: Yuva

As I mentioned in my first posting, I'll occasionally be delving into Bollywood news and reviews on this blog... I just can't help it. Once you go Bollywood, you can't go back.

Last weekend we watched Mani Ratnam's 2004 flick Yuva (the title means "Youth"). It was playing during the summer I spent in India, but I never had the chance to see it. As a big fan of Mani Ratnam (I spent a lot of time watching Bombay over and over for a research project back in the day), I was looking forward to this one, despite the lukewarm reviews I had heard from friends who did see it.

The story begins with an assassination attempt on a bridge in Kolkata, and most of the movie is told as a flashback of the stories of the three young men involved in the incident. Ratnam is no stranger to politics -- his films have addressed political terrorism (Roja, Dil Se..) and communal violence (Bombay), and he was himself the target of a terrorist bomb after the release of Bombay -- and in Yuva he uses the three main characters to comment on today's Indian youth and their political engagement (or lack thereof). Ajay Devgan is Michael, a student organizer who attempts to rally the local populace against a corrupt politician. Vivek Oberoi is Arjun, a happy-go-lucky recent graduate who wants to go to America to find good times and his fortune (Ratnam describes him as "the most MTV-ized" character in the film in an interview with, erm, MTV India).

The big surprise to me was Abhishek Bachchan's amazing channeling of his father Amitabh's Angry Young Man role from the 1970s, but with a much darker and more disturbed air. His character, Lallan, is a petty thug who works for the politician that Michael is trying to defeat (he managed to win the Filmfare Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role AND a Special Mention from the critics who vote for that award as Best Actor, but did not win "Best Actor in a Villainous Role;" even Bollywood's awards ceremonies are dramatic). As in many of Ratnam's films, the female characters are barely developed, though Rani Mukherjee does an excellent job bringing out the pathos of her role as Lallan's abused wife (she too won a Filmfare award).

Much of the film (aside from the songs, which Ratnam had originally intended to omit) avoids the sumptuous color of usual Bollywood fare, in favor of a gritty, grayish patina. The songs, by frequent Ratnam collaborator A.R. Rahman, unfortunately fall far short of his previous work. He stretches for dance club hits and eschews the slightly more traditional elements that have always been his strength. Like the film as a whole, the music compares favorably to much of the Bollywood standard, but suffers by comparison to its creators' earlier efforts. I suppose there are worse things to be cursed with than greatness.