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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977

Archive for March, 2007

Let’s Talk About Appropriation, Baby

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

My friend and co-author Jeff posed an interesting question a few days ago, about what he calls design “appropriation”—the main question being, essentially, if part of the learning process of design is to learn from the works of others, and if incorporating those styles and patterns of design is part of a designers evolution, then where (or even how) do we draw the line between acceptable influence and ripping someone off?

“You might call it remixing or influence, or you might refer to it as theft, rip-off, or copyright infringement.”

Jeff’s parallels between jazz are a terrific starting point, but the big difference between jazz (or any music for that matter) and design is that (judging by many of the comments on his post) many people can’t make the two relate: music is art (even when done for profit), and design isn’t art.

So, while as a musician (jazz and all sorts of other styles) I get Jeff’s point, and I see and experience it with the music I listen to (the Verve Remixed series is a perfect example of sampling in this manner), I think comparing the issue to product designs will make things even more clear (assuming we all agree that a primary difference between “art” and “design” is that design is meant to be used).


Let’s look at something most of us use every day: the car. Since its introduction, designs have varied a bit, and certainly manufacturers and designers continue to come up with new concepts, but it’s clear that every car design out there has been directly influenced by what has come before, and not just from the same designers or manufacturers. Do you think Henry Ford and his team designed the Model A without first looking at what others had done, and incorporating the good parts?


This shouldn’t need any further explanation for this audience: think of almost any worthwhile feature of a laptop, and then think of how many manufacturers copied that feature and incorporated it into their own designs. It’s exactly like the comment Jeff mentioned from the Microsoft guy at SXSW last year about Vista’s window switching mimicking Exposé: how many Apple laptop features have become standard in all laptops over the years?


Easy example: Apple wasn’t the first company to think “ooh, let’s allow people to put music on a portable device and carry it around with them!” They weren’t even the first to allow you to do that with digital files. And do you think they were the ones who came up with the idea to let users listen to their music using headphones? Sure, they invented and pioneered other parts of the physical interface, and engineered an entire experience, but much of the core concept that is critical to the device was not original.


Think about it for about 10 seconds, then make your own list. This one’s easy. (yes yes, Apple is doing new things with the iPhone, but seriously, it’s still a phone, still makes and receives calls, still has a speaker and a mic, and is hand-held–think about the cornerstones of the design and you find an existing idea with an Apple skin–and you’re damn right I’m buying one :)

A few others for your perusal

I can go on like this for hours listing things we use every day without thinking about the design process that went into them, and how many designers of those products copied the good ideas and conventions that came before.

Without this natural process of appropriation, products would not improve as rapidly. I argue that the same goes for any interface, whether physical or virtual, and forcing yourself to start from a blank canvas every time you design only limits your ability to invent and innovate, rather than enhancing it.



Pre-SXSW 2007 Hype-mobile

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

Won’t you join me, just for a moment, in a SXSW Interactive sing-along?

“It’s that time of year, when the (geek) world falls in love, every sound you hear seems to say… “let’s go to Austin and get crunk!”

OK, so it’s a poorly bastardized version of The Christmas Waltz (as for the “crunk” reference, I’m looking at you Mr. Keith), but I’m just in a singing mood today, in large part because I’m already dreaming of (no, not sugarplums) the six days I’m about to spend in Austin, TX, for SXSW Film & Interactive 2007.

Speaking of which…

If you haven’t added it to your SXSW calendar already, I highly recommend attending The Influence of Art in Design on Saturday at 11:30am, in room 10AB (and not just because I’m on the panel, of course). I have the pleasure of moderating a fine group of folks, and I’m sure you’ll all appreciate what Anton, Patrick, Glenda, Erik and Dave will have to share with you over the course of an hour. Those of you who attend will also get to go to lunch with us following the session, but we’re only going to share our destination with those in the room, with the hopes of continuing the conversation over food and beer (as if the panel itself weren’t reason enough to attend :)

Don’t Hide Your Shame, Display It Proudly

My panel is all about influence, and so on a related tangent, the panelists of my session and Tags to Riches (Saturday at 4:05pm, room 19AB) thought it would be fun to see how much fashion influence we could pull, so we’re all going to wear Cindy Li’s Geeks * tshirts for our panels, and we want to see how many audience members we can get to do the same on Saturday. I already know a good number of folks who will be dressed accordingly, but if you don’t have your shirt yet, don’t worry: Cindy is bringing a ton of the shirts with her, so all you have to do is track her down and fork over the cash.

SXSW Interactive 2007 Panel Smackdown

It can be a might frustrating when more than one exciting panel is scheduled opposite another, and this year, you’ll have the pleasure of deciding between the above mentioned session and another, both with similar topics, and both at the same time. Rather than pimp the competition, I think you’ll enjoy the friendly-but-competitive banter found in the comments on Jason Santa Maria’s recent SXSW post. We’ll try to keep it professional once we get to Austin, but no promises… ;)

Book Signing, Sheet Stamping & Related Tomfoolery

This year, I’m all about the printed word: I’ve coauthored two books over the last 6 months, and been technical editor for yet another two, and I’m happy to report all will be very well represented in human form in Austin.

Pro CSS Techniques

The authors of Pro CSS Techniques will be in Austin, and we’re scheduled for a book signing on Sunday at 4:30pm at the SXSW Book Store. This is a great chance to meet and chat with Jeff, Ian and me in person, plus get our John Hancock’s and maybe even a picture (I promise, we’re all rather photogenic, though somehow we always take better pictures with women…).

Web Standards Creativity

What do you get when you ask 10 designers who all live and breathe web standards to write a chapter each about the design side of the business? A pretty kick-ass book if you ask me, and Web Standards Creativity is the result of this designer-mind-meld.

Unfortunately, the book is about to ship, which means there won’t be any copies at SXSW. “Woe is me!” I hear you wail in disappointment. “How can I possibly make use of the 9 authors who will be in Austin if I don’t have a book for them to sign?” Well, thanks to Rob Weychert (one of our dastardly band of scoundrels), we have a plan: A free copy of WSC will go to the first 10 people to track down the authors during SXSW.

9 of us (minus Simon Collison, who has already been apprehended by the appropriate authorities) will be on the run while in Austin–by following these instructions, you’ll not only have a good excuse to meet us face to face, but if you’re quick on the draw, you could win a free book:

  1. Download and print this WSC wanted poster. Got it? Good.
  2. Track down each of the authors/outlaws, using the location information included on the poster (feel free to improvise and find us outside of our scheduled appearances)
  3. Get us to stamp your poster (starting Friday night, we’ll each have custom rubber stamps on our person throughout the week)
  4. When the final stamp has been applied, the stamping author will note the date/time the task was completed (make sure you put your email address clearly on the poster!) and collect your sheet.
  5. The first 10 time stamps will win a copy of the book!

That’s all there is to it (ok, so it’s not as simple as some publishers are making it, but c’mon, it’s fun! :)

The Art & Science of CSS + Beginning CSS Web Development

I noted earlier that I have also been the technical reviewer for two terrific books, and although one author will not be at SXSW (Colly, as mentioned above), I want to make sure you check out both the books and the authors during the conference.

The Art & Science of CSS is a new multi-author book from Sitepoint, and in addition to having two Sidebar Creative friends on the cover (Jon and Steve), the ever-impressive Jina Bolton makes her publishing debut, plus Cameron Adams and David Johnson round out the group nicely. This is a solid offering in the same vein as WSC, especially for designers wanting to try their hand at improving the visual details of their standards-based sites.

Beginning CSS Web Development is Colly’s prequel and companion to Pro CSS Techniques, and a damn good read. Even though Colly isn’t able to make SXSW this year, you can always get your humble technical reviewers (Richard Rutter and yours truly) to sign our bio pages :)

Once For The Bulk, And Again For The Remainder

What would a conference be without schwag? With the web award nomination I figured I should have something with me to commemorate the occasion, so I’ll have a very limited edition of 50 buttons with me for those of you who would like to show support at the SXSW Web Awards ceremony on Sunday night (I’ll be in attendance for as long as I have to before heading over to the Avalonstar Bowling Extravaganza, which is my recommended course of action to anyone wishing to attend both). I mean, I really love Twitter and all (seriously, I’m addicted), but I would love kicking their Obvious-ass even more ;)

And More Buttons

I’ll also be splitting another short run of 50 buttons for an not-quite-revealed project I’m working on with the lovely and talented Jina Bolton, so make sure you find one of us early in the conference if you want to grab one and find out what it’s all about :)

Party Together, Die Alone

So I’ve been watching too much Lost lately, sue me—the parties and events at SXSW are essentially more important to many attendees (and speakers) than the panels, so here’s a short-list of the ones I’m planning to crash-erm, attend (though don’t hold me to it–if you really want to keep track of my whereabouts, get on the Dodgeball train or enable your Twitter account for SMS). Check the SXSW Evening Events page for directions and locations:

As Porky says, that’s all folks–leave a comment if you’re going to be in Austin, I’m looking forward to seeing and talking with everyone!