Music that matters – female fronted rock

Another post that I never finished, circa 2012. Check out some music..
[as an aside, all the guano apes videos I had pasted in here are now unavailable in the US thanks to Sony Music Germany. I’ve replaced with various other, lower quality sources. I don’t understand how this helps Sony’s  business.. yay intellectual property laws. meh]

 

[I published this post and immedately shook my head that the teaser image for the above video is vocalist Sandra Nasic crawling across the floor towards the camera. I wonder how we get rid of these cliches?]

Recently a track by the Guano Apes came up on iTunes while I had it on random. I have to admit that I’ve never given the band a proper listen beyond the song “Open your eyes” and cursory listens to “Proud like a god” the album it comes from. I don’t want to give the impression that these guys are without some cheesiness, because it’s certainly there. Since they are German and the lyrics are in English, there is some odd phrasing and such. There’s also a fair amount of the posturing and style that was pretty common in the mid-nineties.. ie: pseudo-funk bass player with weird goatee and pre-Jamiroquoi fuzzy hat, drummer trying to show off (but not holding a candle to this guy). Maybe I’m becoming more accepting in my old age, or maybe the music is just good.

Thanks to youtube recommendations, I checked out the video for “You can’t stop me” from their “Walking on a thin line” album. It’s pretty good too. Take a look here – http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2anhi_guano-apes-you-can-t-stop-me_music

They had a long hiatus but released a new record in 2011 called Bel-Air. [Note: since I originally wrote this, the band has released another album, 2014’s “Offline”] I’ve only heard a couple of songs from it so far, and they seem less aggressive and more dance-y than prior material. I’ll hold judgement until I’ve been able to get through  the whole album a few times.

 

I don’t know if it was another youtube recommendation, or a random memory firing, but I started watching videos from Storm Large, perhaps best known as a Rockstar: Supernova contestant in 2006. I had seen her in 2001 at the Midwest Music Summit in Indianapolis and liked it enough to buy “The calm years” which I listened to quite a lot. She’s a really charismatic front woman. Apart from her TV appearance, I hadn’t seen or heard much from her in quite a while. Nonetheless, she’s put out a few albums, performed in theater,  (including her own autobiographical show “Crazy enough”) and this year, released a book called “Crazy enough” which was an Oprah book of the week.

Here’s a live video from 2001:

..and for a video with a little better production – here’s another of her original songs from Rockstar: Supernova that charted pretty well for a while:

SF2_JPN_flyer

Business and design – Street Fighter II

I’m going through my old blog posts and trying to dispense with the many posts I started but never finished. This is one of those..

Based on this amazing “Oral history of Street Fighter II” published by video game website, polygon, I had intended to dig deep into some thoughts on how business influences design positively. This is pretty relevant to me, as most of the time it seems like the constraints that business puts on design cause things to be terrible for everyone involved. (don’t get me started on the computer hardware and software industries’ ploy to keep us buying new releases and new crap to run it on, year after year)

Anyhow, I started this post In February of 2014. I’ve slept many times since then, and therefore can’t remember what my contribution to this discussion was to be, but I still think the text below is worth sharing. Yoshiki was the head of arcade development at Capcom Japan. If you’re unfamiliar with the game Street Fighter II, it was a pretty relevant title at the time just before video arcades were overtaken by home consoles. It’s big contribution to the video game world was the two player, head to head setup. I think games like Gauntlet (’85) were already multiplayer, but not in a head to head way, which really increased both the social aspect (I remember the lines to play SFII at Aladdin’s Castle in Castleton Mall, Indianapolis) but also often shortened the play time per quarter, in a “fair” way.

Anyway, a fun story. Check the full tale at polygon – http://www.polygon.com/a/street-fighter-2-oral-history

 

YoshikiokamotoYOSHIKI OKAMOTO:

Back in the day, people at arcades weren’t happy. Space Invaders was popular and cost 100 yen ($1) to play. And we were thinking, if you’re playing a shooter and there’s a lot of bullets coming at you, that’s a lot of fun. But if it doesn’t last very long, then developers are happy and arcade operators are happy, but players aren’t happy. So we were thinking really hard about what would make everybody happy.

We thought about putting big machines in arcades, so you would need to spend 500 yen per game — developers would be happy because they would make more money, players would be happy because they would get a better experience, but arcade operators wouldn’t be happy because it would cost a lot to swap these big machines in and out.

So we thought about it more and came to the conclusion that if two people played at once … operators would get twice the money. Players would essentially split the cost so they could both play for longer. We kind of did that with Final Fight since players help each other out, but we realized some players still felt cheated because the game was too difficult … If we dictated the difficulty, players could always get frustrated. But if players were competing against each other, whether they won or lost would be up to them. So we were thinking that could take out the frustration.

On the topic of pop music driving anti-intellectualism..

As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.

While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.

I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?

Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:

  • lyrical
  • Strong
  • Fresh
  • New
  • discussing the art of MCing
  • good analogies
  • good wordplay
  • good sentence structure
  • good visuals
  • not about negative things (?)
  • having a message
  • telling a great story
  • grabbing you / pulling you in
  • understanding life
  • witty
  • intellectual
  • smart rhymes
  • clever rhymes

I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.

Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.

The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.

Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.

So what?

I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?

 

big data needs big tools to sort it

The idea of “big data” is very popular in big business, but it’s trickling down into a lot of other things we use. This should be good; more is better, of course. Well, it is when it doesn’t add to complexity of use. I wanted to share an example of a less than great implementation of big data in a consumer use case…

strava heatmaps

This is the route builder in popular bicycle ride tracking app, Strava. It has a “heat maps” feature that is the big data implementation. It does some mathematical aggregation of all ride traffic to give an idea of how often individual roads are used. The idea, at least I think, is to help you choose “better” bike routes based on the logic that the most people would use the best route. (whatever “best” is a measure of) This is kind of handy in some areas.. Rural places. Small Towns, like Lafayette, where I moved from. But in highly populated areas, like San Diego, where I am now, it’s not as useful. There is a lot of tourist traffic, making some paths, like beachside walkways with high foot traffic, appear to be the right place to ride. My choice of “best” comes from wanting to get to work fast or wanting a hard training ride, so dealing with foot traffic is far from ideal.. but there’s no way to separate it out.

Strava has already started to divide groups by population in other features. “Segments” of routes show a listing by time duration of every user that’s ridden them. This feature has long had a gender segregation, but more recently for paid members offers filtering by age and by weight. Why is this useful? Well, it helps competitive cyclists know how they are doing against other people they might be racing.

I’d really like to see them add to this – it would be great if there was a way to break down the heat map by some categorization. Maybe it’s just max speed on that particular ride. This could weed out the beach cruiser people, or, depending on what you were trying to get out of it, could weed out the folks who are competitive/training.

Regardless, I think this is a decent illustration of lots of data needing more advanced tools to be useful. I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of this as time goes on. It’s a rife place for Interaction Designers to develop new standards.

Skills to help you land a UX job.

This past weekend I had the chance to attend the IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) Western district conference.  I’ve been to several IDSA events in the past, but skipped last years. It was good to get back and hang out with the Industrial Design “tribe”. (The idea of tribes were one of the themes of this years event) I met a lot of nice people, learned a lot of new things, and had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative “design swarm”.

On the flip side, as a UX designer, I was one of a minority. It’s not a huge difference – much of the methodology of the two disciplines is the same, and many Industrial Designers are taking work in UX as of late. Still, I felt like a bit of a representative of the UX side of things, and people were asking me questions.

Two of the most common questions I heard were: “How do I get a job in UX?” and “What goes in a UX portfolio?” These are both particularly salient areas of thought since UX as a field is still relatively new. Trying to come up with answers on the spot got my mind working, and I put together a short list of things that I think should go into a UX portfolio. I think these things are really representative of the work that happens in industry (at least as far as I’ve seen) and also the stuff that really provides value – whether that’s to clients, or development teams or project managers.

Situational Awareness / Presentation skills

This is not as much a portfolio piece as it is a factor in how the portfolio is presented. And this is a tough one to demonstrate. There are two main factors here:

  1. UX folks should be dealing with people who use, or will use whatever it is that’s being designed. We could pawn that off onto a researcher, but throwing this kind of stuff over the wall is a waste of opportunity. That said, a designer has to be sensitive to those being interviewed/observed and understand their needs; even if it’s just in the context of the interview.
  2. You have to present your work to someone at the end of the project. If you’re just presenting it to your design director, maybe it doesn’t matter as much how you approach the presentation, but there is real value in being able to talk to a dev team, a PM or even the C suite. You have to know what drives them, and address it as you talk about your work.

Structured Research

I’ve seen a lot of really nice student projects with absolutely no basis in research. (or reality) Make sure you’re showing that you can do the science to prove to your audience that you made the right design decisions.

Sometimes just having research isn’t enough. It has to be structured. What was your plan going into the research? Did you have key questions that you asked all respondents? How did you choose them? What did the results statistically tell you?

Insights

Insights are kind of easy. Most designers have these throughout. But as in the above, can you tie the insights to real data and real users?

Process

Industrial design has really provided us a lot of structure in terms of documentation. Any ID process book is a good starting point. It’s important to talk about all of the design activities you did, but maybe more importantly, you should tell why you did them.

Wireframes / Prototyping

This is a gimmie. Everyone should know how to do basic wireframes. But go further – make sure they’re annotated and explain the functionality and the reasons that design decisions were made.

Detailed Design

It’s the next step after wireframes. Know how to specify visual style in a “pixel perfect” way, and be able to show and explain design patterns.

Information Visualization

As we move further into a “big data” world, it’s important to be able to use visuals to help users make sense of statistical data. It’s one thing to come up with a flashy, novel idea, but another to make something that is easy for a user to get use out of.

Strategy

Strategy is emerging as an important part of the UX package as more businesses are using UX to drive sales. The idea is to understand the business goals, design for them, and explain why your design helps the company achieve them. You could say that this is designing with an eye to the business, but it should be more holistic – How does this impact the dev team? How can the marketing team make use of your work?

 

 

 

There are surely many other things I could put in here, but these are the things that guide my work. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in flashy presentation, which is great in it’s own right, but the real value is giving your clients a good return on their investment, and I think the above list does that.

Style guides

This is surely something from the boring side of design, but I figured it was worth throwing up here.

As a part of my thesis work I’ve come to a point where it seems prudent to develop a style guide. I’ve done one of these once before for a student data management web app, but it was a pretty low impact affair. The one I’m doing now is a little more robust, and kind of spans the two different types of style guides that I’m aware of – Brand and Layout.

Both of these have some bleed into each other, but I think each is important for it’s own reason. For my project I’m doing a slight re-branding, something that the company hasn’t really thought about for 40 years. This is particularly important because the company doesn’t have a mission statement, and their existing brand is a little watered down by a non-specific name and failure to adapt the brand when the core product/service changed.

Among some of the other resources I used to try and figure out what should go in here was this article which provides links to several corporate brand guides that I thought were pretty useful.
20 Inspiring Brand Guides

From this, the key elements that I’m including in the brand guide are:

brand values
a new logo and usage guide
colorway and usage guide
type faces

Layout is another very important part of my thesis, as I will be designing a website, interactive touch screen displays and in-store signage. In fact, these needs are really the impetus for taking on a style guide, as it should make it quicker to churn these out with consistency. This is also a little bit of a headache, as I’d originally hoped that I would be playing the role of designer in a strict way for these parts – with output being hi fidelity photoshop/illustrator mockups. This would have freed up _a lot_ of my time, but my committee, probably rightly so, requested that I actually build out functional stuff. What this means for a layout oriented style guide is that it’s going to be more of a CSS pattern library. Here’s an article I found that was a pretty good example. Creating Style Guides.  I would love to find something that’s a little more verbose as far as a bullet list of elements I need, but this is highly dependent on the project I suppose so it might be a tall order.

So far here are the sections I’m working with:

web site (incl component CSS patterns)
touch screen
signage

Anyway, I had better get back to it. Just wanted to post those links because I thought they were useful.