flickr ixd photo visual web

The Flickr style / Ugh

It's hard to ignore the fact that Flickr pro­motes a dis­tinct style of pho­tog­ra­phy; I say "pro­motes" because Flickr's "Explore" tab dis­plays pho­tos that are deemed "inter­est­ing" by Flickr's "inter­est­ing­ness" algo­rithm, and the pho­tos in this area are gen­er­al­ly char­ac­ter­ized by what many are now call­ing "Flickr style." This is short­hand for "exten­sive­ly post-processed" — col­or-cor­rect­ed, cropped, mon­taged, and so on — tech­niques that turn sim­ple pas­toral land­scapes into vivid, sci­ence-fan­ta­sy dream­scapes like the exam­ple below. 

Flickr interesting - sci-fi pastoral sceneThis was in Sunday's inter­est­ing pool, and it's a pret­ty strong exam­ple of the "Flickr style," i.e. heavy-hand­ed, post-processed and much-adored by like-mind­ed mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty. Pho­to: James Neely

I don't patent­ly dis­like post-pro­cess­ing, but I find that the pho­tos deemed "inter­est­ing" fre­quent­ly have a creepy unre­al­i­ty about them, a flat­ness, an obses­sive visu­al "per­fec­tion." The result is that many of these pho­tos seem like scenes from Dune, or Lewis Car­roll, or a Bjork video, or a Thomas Kinkade land­scape. Every­thing is in focus, per­fect­ly lit, tight­ly com­posed. In short, I dis­like "inter­est­ing­ness" because it feels like a sort of Pixar-iza­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy. (I love Pixar). But I don't like that CG-esque feel creep­ing into a medi­um that, for me, derives its essence from its sim­plic­i­ty and imperfection. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm down with post-processing and unreality

I just appre­ci­ate when post-pro­cess­ing sup­ports the nat­ur­al aspects of the pho­to, when it adds lay­ers to the scene. The pho­to below is called "The Flood­ed Grave," and the pho­tog­ra­ph­er is Jeff Wall. It's a mon­tage of 75 sep­a­rate pho­tographs from two sep­a­rate grave­yards and Wall's stu­dio. Why all the cut­ting, past­ing and blend­ing? Well, If you look close­ly, you'll see that there's actu­al­ly a small coral reef grow­ing at the bot­tom of the grave. 

Jeff Wall - Flooded GraveWall says, "I worked with oceanog­ra­phers to cre­ate a momen­tary frag­ment of a real under­sea cor­ner. I didn't want an aquar­i­um dis­play, a cross-sec­tion of sea-life from the area, or any­thing like that. I want­ed it to be a snap­shot of every­day life at a cer­tain depth of sea water." Read more at the Tate Modern's online cat­a­log.

So where does the Flickr style come from?

I've been excit­ed to talk about Vir­ginia Heffernan's arti­cle in last week's New York Times, Sepia No More. She address­es the dis­con­cert­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of high-dynam­ic range cheesi­ness in the Flickr style, and she strikes at the heart of what is emerg­ing as a for­mu­la for pop­u­lar­i­ty on Flickr. She dis­cuss­es Rebek­ka Gudleifs­dót­tir, one of the Flickr style's "lead­ing proponents:"

[Gudleifs­dót­tir] dis­cov­ered … how to cre­ate images that would look good shrunk, in "thumb­nail†form; and how to flirt with the site's vis­i­tors in the com­ments area to keep them com­ing back. As per­haps is always the case with artists, Gudleifsdottir's evo­lu­tion as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er was bound up in the evo­lu­tion of her modus operan­di, a way of nav­i­gat­ing the insti­tu­tions and social sys­tems that might gain her a fol­low­ing and a living.

Creating images that look good shrunk

I'm intrigued by the inter­pre­ta­tion of the UI's effect on the Flickr style, i.e. that the Flickr inter­face for brows­ing thumb­nails informs the way in which peo­ple com­pose and upload pho­tos. It makes sense to me. The brows­ing mech­a­nism is tight­ly-tiled matrix, so pho­tog­ra­phers are going to want to craft indi­vid­ual ele­ments that look good when they're (a) cropped to be square, (b) shrunk down small, and © snug­ly packed together.

Feedbacklove matrix
Here's an exam­ple from a pho­tog­ra­ph­er I like, a nice­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed matrix with some intrigu­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions. Pho­tos: Feed­backlove.

Is "Flickr style" a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Maybe the ear­ly users and founders were graph­ic design­ers? Maybe they real­ly liked glossy, vivid stuff that often looks like the back­ground of beer bill­boards? What­ev­er it is, I feel like the "Flickr style" is much less free-form than most may think. The for­mu­la behind "inter­est­ing­ness," as stat­ed on the site: "Where the click­throughs are com­ing from; who com­ments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are con­stant­ly chang­ing." Inter­est­ing­ness as a func­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty actions makes sense. Tag­ging, assign­ing pho­tos to groups, favorit­ing, com­ment­ing — all of these things seem like use­ful vehi­cles. But my sense is that every­thing that's being fold­ed into "inter­est­ing­ness" is com­ing from a fair­ly closed sys­tem, a group of like-mind­ed peo­ple with sim­i­lar tastes pro­mot­ing the same stuff again and again. Back and forth, for­ev­er. ))>((


I've got a list of my own "un-inter­est­ing" pho­tog­ra­phers, most­ly gleaned from the group I Shoot Film. I also fol­low the feeds of a few Flickr pho­tog­ra­phers — This Is a Wake­up Call, Feed­backlove, and Last Leaf, to name a few. Still, it seems like most inter­est­ing stuff still lives out­side of Flickr. I look at SUCKAPANTS and The Con­stant Siege pret­ty often, both of which can be NSFW, by the way.

ideas ixd web

Idols / Khoi Vinh of

I've fol­lowed Khoi Vinh's excel­lent blog, Sub­trac­tion, for a long time. A cou­ple of years ago, he became the Design Direc­tor of the New York Times web­site, and in the mean­time the site has real­ly changed, for the bet­ter, most­ly, I'd say. This week he's doing a Q&A about his work, the NYT, design, and all of that.As I've always been curi­ous about what he does in his role, and the struc­ture of the UX depart­ment, I was glad to see that some­one went there right off the bat:

As the design direc­tor, my respon­si­bil­i­ty is to over­see the cre­ative aspects of these con­tin­u­al improve­ments. Each one is a project of its own with some range in scope, from very short and dis­crete to long and drawn out over many months. And each project requires one or more of the mem­bers on my team: infor­ma­tion archi­tects (who are charged with orga­niz­ing the fea­tures and the flow of infor­ma­tion so that peo­ple can make use of them most intu­itive­ly), design tech­nol­o­gists (who do the actu­al cod­ing of many of these sites, using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Flash, etc.) and/or visu­al design­ers (who han­dle the over­all look and feel, includ­ing lay­out, typog­ra­phy, col­or, pro­por­tion, etc.).You could say that all put togeth­er, the final prod­uct of our efforts is the user expe­ri­ence, or the sum total of the con­tent and the frame­work as it's used by vis­i­tors to the site. Of course, it's not true that my design group is the only team respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing this expe­ri­ence; it's real­ly the result of con­tri­bu­tions across the board, from edi­tors and reporters to project man­agers and soft­ware engi­neers and many more.

More here.

ixd mobile urban

UX / Cellphones & world poverty

Jan Chipchase seems to be the "it" guy1 of user expe­ri­ence these days. He lives in Tokyo, works at Nokia, and plays this kind of swash­buck­ling, Indi­ana-Jones-ish role in research­ing mobile tech­nolo­gies in devel­op­ing cul­tures. He keeps an intrigu­ing blog called Future Per­fect, where he doc­u­ments UX-relat­ed nuggets from the shan­ty­towns of Lagos, the mar­kets of Accra, the Sin­ga­pore air­port, and so on. This week's NYT Sun­day mag has an arti­cle about him — "Can the Cell­phone End World Pover­ty" — which, aside from hav­ing a some­what puz­zling title, pro­vides an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive on the field of UX in general.

Indian bike ride
My own per­son Jan Chipchase expe­ri­ence: Walk­ing through a back alley in Bom­bay, from my trip there to deliv­er design train­ing to GE engineers.

First, what's the title all about?

It's called "Can the Cell­phone End World Pover­ty," but it's real­ly a pro­file of a researcher rather than an eco­nom­ic analy­sis of the effect of mobile tech­nolo­gies. And Jan's research — if his blog and con­fer­ence keynotes are any indi­ca­tion — focus­es on the ways in which peo­ple in devel­op­ing cul­tures *use* and *adapt* the tech­nol­o­gy, not about the ways in mobile tech­nol­o­gy can effect macro­eco­nom­ic change. It's a quib­ble, real­ly, but it seems strange to describe mar­ket research as an effort to "end world pover­ty," and to cast Nokia in an altru­is­tic light when what they're doing is real­ly iden­ti­fy­ing and under­stand­ing a unserved mar­ket and poten­tial customers:

… No com­pa­ny churns out phones like Nokia, which man­u­fac­tures 1.3 mil­lion prod­ucts dai­ly. Forty per­cent of the mobile phones sold last year were made by Nokia, and the company's $8.4 bil­lion prof­it in 2007 reflects as much. Chipchase seems dis­tinct­ly uncom­fort­able talk­ing about his part as a cor­po­rate rain­mak­er, pre­fer­ring to see him­self as a most­ly dis­pas­sion­ate ethnographer …

I also sym­pa­thize with Jan. It would be impos­si­ble to do the kind of research he does with­out a high­er pur­pose, and I know I've spent a lot of time ratio­nal­iz­ing some our client work (which is always about the ben­jamins) with what I imag­ine the greater good to be. It's easy to say that Nokia's stock will ben­e­fit from tap­ping the bil­lions of peo­ple below the pover­ty line, but it also seems pos­si­ble that mobile tech­nolo­gies and con­nect­ed­ness in gen­er­al could effect pos­i­tive change. Nev­er­the­less, I real­ly think that the arti­cle should be called some­thing like, "How the devel­op­ing world sees tech­nol­o­gy," or "What the devel­op­ing world tells us about tech­nol­o­gy," or some­thing way less catchy than end­ing world poverty.

What methods are used to gather input from folks in developing nations?

I was most curi­ous to hear anec­dotes of what exact­ly he was ask­ing peo­ple, how exact­ly he was gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, whether he was sim­ply observ­ing or con­duct­ing sur­veys, or what. (He has a num­ber of inter­est­ing entries on "field research" on his blog, but none that give much insight into his meth­ods). The arti­cle has an inter­est­ing descrip­tion of the out­come of an exer­cise in which peo­ple around the world were asked to draw their ide­al mobile phone:

[Jan's research­ing cohorts] said they'd found … [that] the phone rep­re­sents what peo­ple are aspir­ing to. "It's an easy way to see what's impor­tant to them, what their chal­lenges are," [a cohort] said. One Liber­ian refugee want­ed to out­fit a phone with a land-mine detec­tor so that he could more safe­ly return to his home vil­lage. In the Dhar­avi slum of Mum­bai, peo­ple sketched phones that could fore­cast the weath­er since they had no access to TV or radio. Mus­lims want­ed G.P.S. devices to ori­ent their prayers toward Mec­ca. Some­one else drew a phone shaped like a water bot­tle, explain­ing that it could store pre­cious drink­ing water and also float on the mon­soon waters. In Jacarèzinho, a bustling favela in Rio, one design­er drew a phone with an air-qual­i­ty mon­i­tor. Sev­er­al women sketched phones that would mon­i­tor cheat­ing boyfriends and hus­bands. Anoth­er designed a "peace but­ton" that would halt gun­fire in the neigh­bor­hood with a sin­gle touch.

Hmm. I can see how some of this stuff could be help­ful in aggre­gate. Peo­ple see the phone as a plat­form — and per­haps there's a sense that it's some­what mag­i­cal — a "peace" but­ton, a land­mine detec­tor, a cheat­ing boyfriend mon­i­tor, etc. (Maybe?) But does the per­son in Liberia real­ly want a phone, or does he want a land-mine detec­tor? I won­der about this.1 Not I.T. guy. It guy, like it girl. It's sort of amus­ing to me that it's total­ly clear what is meant by the words "it girl" but that the words "it guy" just seem to relate to the guy who fix­es your internets.