Possibilities

I’ve read the reviews of Apple’s new iPad. “It’s a big iPod Touch!” “It’s a Kindle, but nicer.” “It plays movies, but so does my computer.” “It doesn’t have a camera.” And so on. All are correct observations, but all are wrong. They’re wrong because they look backward. They compare to stuff we already have. The stuff we have is old. The way we live — phone, surf, socialize, whatever — no matter how fresh it seems today, is the result, literally, of yester­day’s vision. Yesterday, Facebook was a hobby. Twitter didn’t exist. We used our cell phones only to make phone calls. Today we live differently because these things caused a change.

The iPad will cause change. No one knows in what way, though. That’s what makes it fun. It’s an unwritten story, full of possibilities.

What’s this have to do with design? Only everything. But before we go there, let’s talk about vision, and I’ll start by digressing.

One of the thrills of youth is that everything is possible. At 18, you can attend any school, follow any profession, travel anywhere, marry anyone or no one. There are practical restrictions but no conceptual ones. The freedom is exhilarating!

As you make choices, the possibilities diminish. Choose one school and you eliminate a thousand others. Marry one girl, and you forsake all ­others. Travel here, and you can’t afford there. Find a profession, and it becomes what you do. The better you get, the more distant alternative professions become. There is some irony in this. As you build your life, decision by decision, the possibilities of youth go away.

For some, this is a good thing. Possibilities are unsettling. Certainty, predictability, routine create a comfort zone. Life feels secure. These people become product reviewers.

But this is not you.

You have a life.

Interviewing Apple’s Steve Jobs for the April 1 issue of Time magazine, author Stephen Fry writes,

“In five years, Jobs has emerged from two serious health scares. His obituaries had been written, much as Apple’s had been back in 1997. ‘Is this then the curtain dropping on your third act?’ I ask. ‘Will you perhaps leave Apple on this high, a fitting end to your career here?’ ‘I don’t think of my life as a career,’ he says. ‘I do stuff. I respond to stuff. That’s not a career — it’s a life!’ ”

Indeed.

Jobs’ vision is not clair­voyance. It’s belief. Call it your gut, call it the love of the game. You do the work and put it out there, then watch the world respond. The combined response is what makes tomorrow happen. What it will become is too complex and inter­woven for any but the most superficial guesswork. Tomorrow is the story that we — you, me, everyone — write together.

So how do you design for this? Make your work beautiful. Make it simple. Make it clear. Put it out there. Cast off the illusion that you can control the results. People respond by comparing to things they already know, so prepare for criticism. Ignore most of it. Listen to the bits that resonate. Understand that the more original your work is, the less others will be able to help you.

Your design may be an iteration of one that has gone before. This is fine. But when you truly envision something new, when you feel that vibe, don’t back off. That’s the one that may change things.

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The post above is my back-page publisher’s letter from print issue 49, which is currently in the mail. The publisher’s letter has been a staple of Before & After for 20 years and is one difference between our print and PDF formats.
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24 Responses to Possibilities

  1. Len Williams says:

    I agree with the majority of this article, but I always keep in mind that at any time, whether due to circumstance, fate or personal choice, it is possible to start from scratch and have all those possibilities back again. Sometimes due to accident, illness, a bad economy or disaster, everything that you’ve planned and decisions you’ve made can be wiped out completely, forcing you to start all over again. To many, this is a crushing blow because of the loss involved. However, if you can put the emotional trauma behind you, it can be viewed as an opportunity to get back that clean slate of possibilities that you had as a young adult. Having an “optimistic” viewpoint means that you have plans for an optimum future (your dreams). It’s only when you lose sight of your dreams that you become a pessimist and no longer actively work toward a bright future.

  2. Pete says:

    Seeing and having had one in my hands changed my mind about the iPad. It was smaller, lighter, and the visual quality surpassed my Macbook. The length of time for the battery is superb. I saw it as a way to get the news back into the home that I can just sit and read. Better than the nightly news. I do like the paper, and to me it is that but better. I’d like to see some extra goodies, but it is a forward item to me. I like it.

    I can now have my magazines and paper without wasting paper or having to wait for it in the post. When it’s ready, it’s ready, and I get it. I can watch a flick while waiting, but I don’t have to be at home or dig out my laptop. Just flip open my cover to the iPad and I am done. Find a good, fast connection and read. Some things are best left for the iPhone or iPod, but the iPad will bring back journalism, I believe.

    Pete :)

  3. Randy Martin says:

    1. You mean I’ve been missing out on essays like this ‘cuz I opted for the new? Not fair!

    2. When we start a business, even a design business, we are unconsciously incompetent. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are, in a word, stupid.

    As we work and learn, we pass through two more stages (consciously incompetent — we know what we don’t know — and consciously competent — if we think about it we can do it) on the way to the fourth stage — unconsciously competent — we don’t have to think about it to do it.

    As entreprenuers, we get to stage four and sometimes get bored. We are no longer unfulfilled. And we want (or need) to start over. We go back to being stupid.

    And that’s when we get the chance to think young again. It’s not a opportunity everyone gets. When/if it happens to you, rejoice.

    It’s a great cosmic kick in the ass.

  4. Joyce Liu says:

    I think iPad will totally change the way we use computer. Instead of mouse and keyboard, our 10 fingers will be the screen control tool. It’s a revolution of personal computer. I am pretty sure it’s a big jump — 11-point control makes iPad so sensitive.
    As a graphic designer, I will still incline to use pen to draw or sketch, so they might should give us that kind of accessory so that we can adapt to the new technology more easily.

  5. Jose Lezama says:

    Sensations are what iPad is all about.

    If anyone has not experienced the feeling, then they cannot talk about it. If you do, you will fall in love with it. This is the highest goal a designer might have. And Apple did it!

    Imagine yourself as a designer with ten brushes at the same time. Creativity is at its best ever. Are you ready fot it?

    But indeed it is not for the uninitiated hardware junkies. Let the techies mumble with bits and bits — they don’t belong to this “brave new world.”

    Designers awake! Make an app and get rich now. Just make sure it is a whole new experience. Apple gave you the tool with no manual — you have the imagination with no limits!

    Sorry Windows, find your place in the Smithsonian.

    I am a heavy PC user. Now iPad has changed my life. Yes L. Williams, fate has reached me, at 60! My new life is on its way.

    Thanks, Steve.

  6. Rob Gilgan says:

    The one thing the iPad didn’t come with is the one thing I need most — more time.

    It’s a great little device that straddles the divide between creating and consuming. I seem to be doing a little of both every time I pick it up.

    My heavy lifting remains on the desktop, but a lot of the research and communication has moved to another room, away from my dedicated workspace.

    It’s a full step ahead of the other mobile technology, with Android hot on its heels — curious to see whether another form factor will appear with the competition. As near as I can tell, the fast processor, advanced battery design and, of course, the two-year head start with the App Store has effectively shut down many competing designs. I’m hoping there will be others in the space soon, keeping not just the technology but the user experience expanding.

  7. Anne says:

    Though I like to think that I am a creative being, working beyond boundaries, breaking out of boxes, my ownership of an iPad has proven me wrong. The iPad is as revolutionary as the mouse and GUI interface were. Those two innovations changed my life in many ways. Owning the iPad from almost the the beginning, I have been in the front row to see how vendors and users respond/adapt. I troll through the App store regularly to see who has decided to address the Flash issue (like ABC), and who has redesigned their content to take advantage of this device (NPR, NY Times). I can tell from user comments how well and how quickly app developers respond (make changes in response to complaints).

    Seeing how vendors have chosen to adapt or not to this device, and watching my own ideas and attitudes change almost daily as I continue to realize how revolutionary the iPad is, has made me think about what boxes I, unconsciously, live in, and how I need to change my thinking to stay open to new ideas, new visions.

    Anne

  8. W_Nelson says:

    But it doesn’t have a floppy!

  9. Kola says:

    This article is more than a thought on the iPad or design. It’s a great lesson in life and innovation.

    I use an iPad, and it’s a device of the future with great relevance today. It’s useful to the geek and the novice alike; to the young and adult alike. When I come home, my two-year-old daughter, after a loving hug, utters the word . . . iPad. And she gets as much fun out of it as I get work and fun out of it. We might not know how much the iPad will change how we do things tomorrow, but it’s certain that we can’t continue to do things the way we used to.

  10. Joseph says:

    Perhaps, not having used one, it’s not fair of me to comment on it; but my initial thoughts are that I’m not totally sure where I would use one.

    It’s too big to carry around everywhere with me, and when I’m at home I can just use my desktop or laptop to browse the Internet. If I’m home I’ll watch movies on my TV.

    Perhaps it is the way of the future, but at the moment it isn’t a Mac or a PC; i.e., you can’t install software for either of those operating systems, so you’re stuck using the applications in the application store.

    One can only hope that it will get better — i.e., with a CD rom, slots for USB cables and SD cards, etc, etc.

    So, I’m sure it will develop into something more useful, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet.

  11. Chris says:

    Fantastic read. Zeitgeist if not epoch defining (Steve Jobs rather than Before & After).

    I think the iPad will change “where” as much as “what” we do. Twenty years ago not many people knew what an Internet was. Now many find it hard to envisage lift without it . . . for “what”ever aspect of modern, western life. iPad opens up “where”ever . . . and forever takes the Internet out of the spare room.

  12. Joann Sondy says:

    A very insightful article. While I’m not jumping on purchasing the first-generation iPad, I do see it as a “game changer” for various reasons and numerous industries. You hit upon something here — weaving the notion that Apple is more than just products, but rather about possibilities — for everyone.

  13. Nice posting. And speaking as one of the lucky ones to have worked directly with and for Steve (Lead Macintosh Support from 1991 to 1997 and the only Macintosh credit in Toy Story), I have a different perspective than most.

    iPad is genius. You may not like that it’s “missing” this or that, but the things you do like about it will overshadow those very quickly.

    Get one, use one, and it grows on you quickly. One thing that does is the silence that allows you to think and be creative with it. No moving parts, no fan, no leg burns; it’s not a laptop. It is a new way of thinking while computing.

    It’s a new way of looking past the past and touching the future in ways others will try to mimic, but can’t.

    How do you design for it? As was said, make things beautiful. But, do not make them so large that they fall into obscurity. Make them usable, but make them space conscious, as space to hold your creation is shared with much else.

    Most of all . . . just make it! Don’t hold back for some other platform and deny yourself a chance at greatness.

    Michael Murdock, CEO
    DocMurdock.com

  14. David Goen says:

    Hmmm, so you have failed to adapt to devices like the iPad by not including the publisher’s letter in the PDF version?

    Perhaps I have been around too long, because I’ve seen previous designs try to do what the iPad has attempted. Ironically (at least to me), it is the hardware that changed and made the vision possible, not the vision itself.

    I prototyped a device similar to the iPad for a school project back in the 1980s. Although, to be fair, my device design was a little closer to the device that Plastic Logic is launching this year.

    The iPad is a shiny, happy toy, a larger iPod Touch, and I don’t see anything revolutionary about it. It’s evolutionary. I love my Touch, but the current iPad is not what I want. Even my 17-year-old daughter desperately wants to like the iPad, but can’t find anything about it to justify the purchase beyond the coolness factor. It is a solution in search of a problem.

    I’m not saying that the iPad won’t be successful; I’m just saying that it isn’t the birth of the new. And I’m sure that Apple will make it much more interesting in its second generation. In the meantime, others can live with the smears of skin oil that obscure that pretty screen when you actually use the device.

  15. Mev Wilson says:

    Excellent. Perfectly put.

    Just like the iPod changed the way we listen to music, the iPad will change the way we are informed and entertained.

  16. A-Rock says:

    Good perspective. I hadn’t thought about the iPad in that way. So many tech blogs and reviewers feel that they have to be first and loudest, and the easiest way to do that is to find faults. Thanks for taking the time to focus on the possibilities.

    And a great reminder about the importance of original work. So much we do requires the approval of others (bosses, clients, etc.), I had forgotten that real innovation often isn’t appreciated when it first appears.

  17. Modernheretic says:

    I have yet to see anyone hold this device comfortably, and with talk of a kickstand and keyboard, wouldn’t that just make it a desktop/laptop/netbook again? Sure, it’s a nice, colorful reader, and you can do things with it that you can already do on your phone — an added luxury for the gotta-have-it gadget fiend? or a revolutionary product that acts, does and does less, I might add, than what you already can do with what you already own.

    You decide. It’s your money.

  18. Michael G. says:

    Great piece, and piece of mind. I’ve been imagining how we can use what’s out there to do new things. The iPad seems to be one of those devices that’s just such a great tool for new “hows.”

    I remember in a news meeting being mesmerized by a PC that had a touch screen, a stylus and a flip display. News designers could sketch a page right there on the spot and pass it around.

    Looks like another “how” moment just got better. But maybe less the print side . . . I guess today we would be sketching web possibilities.

  19. jennifer saffo says:

    Beautiful thoughts as always. Can’t wait to see your B&A iPad app !

  20. Truthbearer says:

    Nice article. Two things —

    1. There is lots of precedent for defining new things in terms of what we have and what is different — i.e.; horseless carriage, wireless (radio); tubeless tires, now wireless telephones. Good sales are always based on establishing common ground and then building from there.

    2. All change is initially seen as loss and must and will be mourned accordingly. With it come four emotions: Mad, Sad, Bad and finally and wonderfully Glad.

    The way that translates into new technology is that for three months the new user says angrily, “It doesn’t do it like the old systems.” For the next three months the user says sadly, “I guess I can make it do what I need.” And finally at six months or after, they begin to say gladly, “Wow, this really is a better way to do things.”

    Now it is time for the next new product.

  21. Skip Savage says:

    Wonderful advice for life and work near the end of this piece. It made me feel good about the future in general, whatever it ends up being.

    Like Truthbearer, I can’t help but notice that really great inventions get their share of fans along with a number of doubting non-fans.

    Back in Edison’s day, there must have been people who greeted the invention of the light bulb by lamenting the death of the gas lamp.

    “Why spend extra money when gas lamps work so well?”

    “So what? It’s only an electric gas lamp.”

    “Light bulbs need constant replacement. It’s a scam.”

    “I already have gas lamps in my house.”

    “I’m waiting for light bulb 2.0.”

  22. coffeebeanzzz says:

    This is the device I’ve wished for, waited for. Something in between the too-small screen of my iPhone, smaller and more maneuverable than my iMcac. I wished for it before I knew it existed. To sit on my couch, or my bed, to watch when I wanted. To take into my kitchen to display a complicated recipe, to hang it on a cabinet wall like a photograph or a piece of art , but not as a static piece, but a dynamic work of art that will help me find whatever I need, and display it for me. I see it not as a closed-end device, but rather open, to discover together what I want and need from it. If I was gainfully employed at the moment, I would already have one working for me.

  23. GA says:

    My grandmother lived to 99 and walked till the day she died. She never had a cell phone, computer, Kindle, iPod and whatnot. She lived more than everyone I know today. People are now connected to equipment and not people. I love design, but slow down and appreciate what you have, and stop buying a new cell phone, computer and whatnot each year. These items are bad for the environment. I’ve had the same cell phone and computer for almost six years now. Still work. I do not need an iPad and never want to read a book on a screen.

  24. Mushtaq says:

    I see this article as on two separate lines — which may or may not be parallel:

    A wonderfully written life view, and a perspective on the devices that impact it.

    I’m definitely in agreement with John’s life view.

    And the impact of everything upon it is secondary.

    In other words, the impact of the iPad is secondary to how I’d approach design, for example.

    Let me clarify: I cannot create with the iPad. I can only consume. Is that a limiting statement? Perhaps.

    Am I imposing limits on myself by saying that? Well, let’s take a look:

    I’ve been using the iPad since it came out, and I find it to be a beautifully designed device. The interaction and interface with the iPad is seductive. And yes, applications yet to be developed may alter my thinking in some ways. But at a fundamental level, we need materials/tools that will deliver the results of our creative endeavors, whether it’s something as simple as pencil and paper, or as complicated as software applications/hard-drive storage and a usable keyboard.

    It’s the difference between creating and consuming.

    I see that as the defining difference between the iPad and other tablet or computing devices.

    Will the iPad become a creative device? I don’t think it was designed to be that.

    It’s a beautifully designed consuming device, but when I need to create, I leave it for my computer, for my paper and pencil, for my other tools.

    And how true are the words of Len Williams . . . a clean slate can start anytime for those who dream!

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