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There’s a reason why Elon Musk is being called the next Steve Jobs. Like Jobs he’s a visionary, a super successful serial entrepreneur having made his initial fortune with a company he sold to Compaq before starting Paypal. Like Jobs, he saved his beloved baby Tesla Motors from the brink of oblivion. Like Jobs, he’s a genius generalist with “huge steel balls” (according to his ex-wife) and a knack for paradigm-shifting industry disruption. Which means he’s also hard to work with. “Like Jobs, Elon does not tolerate C or D players,” SpaceX board member and early Tesla investor Steve Jurvetson told BusinessWeek.

But while Jobs was slinging multi-colored music players and touchable smartphones, Musk is building rocket ships and electric-powered supercars. It’s why his friends describe him as not just Steve Jobs but also John D. Rockefeller and Howard Hughes all wrapped in one. His friend Jon Favreau used Musk as the real-life inspiration for the big screen version of Tony Stark. Elon Musk is a badass.

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How do you involve your client in a successful design process? Many of our processes date back to print design and advertising. It’s time we evolved our deliverables to make clients a more active participant in the process. The style tile is a design deliverable that references website interface elements through font, color, and style collections delivered alongside a site map, wireframes, and other user experience artifacts. Learn how style tiles can align client and designer expectations, expedite project timelines, involve stakeholders in the brainstorming process, and serve an essential role in responsive design.

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Mourning the loss of almost 20,000 people gripped Japan yesterday on the anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. While the nation has made enormous strides recovering from the triple disaster, yesterday was was a time for remembrance. But the country is rebuilding even as it still suffers the loss of lives and the economic effects of an estimated $210 billion price tag - the costliest natural disaster in human history. Gathered here are images from memorial services, the rebuilding efforts, and of people forging ahead with altered lives a year on from the catastrophe. -- Lane Turner (40 photos total)
Families release a paper lantern in memory of the victims of last year's earthquake and tsunami, on March 11, 2012 in Natori, Japan. (Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images)

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As a Japanese person living in Europe, I’m sometimes asked: “Japanese is a difficult language, isn’t it?” Those asking are often surprised when my answer is a simple: “No, actually, it’s not.”

While it is true (at least to many Westerners) that Japanese is an exotic language, when compared to learning other European languages, it may seem harder because it has has no relation to their own language. But from my own experiences of learning English and German (and also from seeing some European friends learning Japanese), I can say with confidence that learning spoken Japanese is, in fact, not so difficult. The grammar is in many ways simpler than most European languages. Take for example the fact that we don’t have cases, grammatical genders, nor articles. However, reading and writing in Japanese is… well, not so simple.

While discussing typography we most often focus on English language problems, which is only natural considering that the majority of design material is written in English. However, a lot can be gleamed by looking at how other languages are used as part of communication and design — it helps to lend context and a different point of view.

Japanese Scripts

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three basic scripts: Kanji — which are Chinese ideographic symbols — as well as Hiragana and Katakana — two phonetic alphabets (syllables). There are a few thousand Kanji characters, while Hiragana and Katakana have 46 each. Although there is a basic rule for when to use which script, there are many exceptions, and what’s worse is that words written in Kanji have often multiple pronunciations, depending on the context or conjunction. This is hard enough for native speaker to get right every time, so I almost feel sorry for those non-natives who are learning to read and write Japanese.

Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana Japanese scripts
From top to bottom: Kanji is mainly used for the lexical elements: nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, and so forth; Hiragana has rounded letter shapes, which are mainly used for the grammatical elements of sentences such as particles, auxiliary verbs, and suffixes of nouns; Katakana has an angular letter shape, which is most often used for foreign words and also for the purpose of emphasis.

Some say that the “tragedy” started when Japan decided to “import” the Chinese writing system, inscribing it into their own language in the 3rd century.

Since Japanese is as different from Chinese as it is to any other language, simply using the Chinese writing system was not sufficient, and a more appropriate way of writing Japanese was sought out. Some Chinese characters began to be used not for their meaning, but purely for their phonetic value. So by the 9th century, Hiragana and Katakana scripts were derived from simplified Chinese characters that were used to write Japanese phonetically.

The story doesn’t end there. As if using three scripts isn’t enough, we write in both horizontal and vertical orientation.

Horizontal? Vertical? The Unique Case Of Japanese Typography

“Vertical or horizontal?” — when setting a piece of text in Japanese, this is a question that Japanese designers constantly need to ask themselves. Being able to use both vertical and horizontal writing orientations is something so normal for us native Japanese speakers that most of us won’t even stop to wonder why this is possible, or even when and how it was first introduced.

The identical piece of text set vertically (right) and horizontally (left).
The identical piece of text set vertically (right) and horizontally (left). When it is set vertically it’s read from top to bottom, as the lines go from right to left; when it is set horizontally, it is read from left to right, like in European languages.

In general, these two writing orientations have a clear usage: vertical for something “Japanese”, “traditional”, “novels and other humanistic writings”; horizontal for “contemporary”, “business documents”, “scientific & foreign language related writings” and so on. When a main text is set horizontally, the binding is on the left-hand side, and pages progress to the right, like books in Latin scripts. Traditional books in vertical setting are the other way around, with the binding at the right hand side, and pages progressing to the left. So when you handle a Japanese book, don’t confuse the front with the back!

A typical page layout of a Japanese paperback novel
A typical page layout of a Japanese paperback novel using a vertical setting. Ogai Mori (1913), “Abe Ichizoku”, Shincyo-bunko.

traditional calligraphy is always done vertically
With its organic flow, characters are often connected and have different heights and widths
Needless to say, traditional calligraphy is always done vertically. With their organic flow, characters are often connected and have different heights and widths — which makes it impossible to disconnect and align them horizontally. Calligraphy by Keiko Shimoda, 2011 (tsukushidesign.com)


Horizontal setting is preferred for scientific texts, mathematical texts and language related books, where words and phrases in foreign scripts and signs are often included, as they are more easily incorporated horizontally. The example (above) is a Japanese-English dictionary. (Pocket Comprehensive English-Japanese / Japanese-English Dictionary, 2000, Obunsha)

Where the efficient use of space is important — namely newspapers and magazines — both orientations are often combined. Although it may appear a bit chaotic, or even random to foreign eyes, these two directions are usually used in a systematic way as a means to indicate different text elements on a page. For instance, a main text is often set in a vertical setting, but headings and captions may be set in a horizontal setting.

A typical newspaper layout
A typical newspaper layout — the main text is vertical but headings, diagrams, tables, and captions are placed horizontally.

The same newspaper as above, but highlighting the vertical text (orange) and the horizontal text
The same newspaper as above, but highlighting the vertical text (orange) and the horizontal text (blue). © The Nikkei (May 8th, 2009)

In a way, it’s comparable to “typographic variants” which are found in Latin typography — in Latin script text one may use bold, italic, or a different font to differentiate things such as pull quotes from the main text, whereas in Japanese we can do this by using a different orientation. Publications which accommodate non-linear or complex text (as opposed to linear text, such as novels) seem to benefit in particular from having these two orientations, which allow the layout to be highly flexible, and also to create strong visual impact.

The extreme cases of “space-efficiency-oriented typography” are informational-heavy pieces of text, such as diagrams and signage — also exploiting the two directional orientations. The Tokyo Metro map (Fig 10) is a good example of this — as you can see, both orientations are used accordingly, so that everything fits best within the limited space.

Tokyo Metro Map.
Tokyo Metro map

Tokyo Metro map with more typography in differing directions.
Tokyo Metro route map. The large type on the top is the station name which is placed horizontally. The name of the metroline may be horizontal, but the name of the stops are placed vertically.

It’s true that in many cases they look quite chaotic and sometimes even aesthetically questionable to eyes that are used to “orderly” design. But it’s easy to appreciate the visual impact and energy they create — they remind you that effective, appealing informational design does not always have to look “neat and tidy”.

Letters from my friends
Letters from my friends: when it comes to handwriting, orientation is up to a personal preference or simply one’s “mood”. But when you are writing a more official letter, or writing to somebody who is much older than you, it’s probably safer to opt for vertical orientation.

What’s Happening On Screen-Based Media?

Since the introduction of horizontal writing in the Japanese language, print-based media and signage have been employing both of these writing orientations effectively, and in ways that complement one another. But what’s been happening to screen-based media? With a few exceptions — such as word-processing machines made exclusively for the Japanese text output, or subtitles for film and TV screens, which tend to use either depending on the background image — horizontal orientation has been the dominant choice.

The prime example of this is the Web: horizontal orientation has been used almost exclusively. For the past 15 years, I have hardly come across a website that uses vertical setting. Mobile phone screens also use a horizontal orientation. I believe this may be due to the relations of hardware, operating systems and user interfaces that have become the norm, all of which have been designed to work with horizontal writing. It feels somewhat awkward to see vertical writing while all the other elements on the screen, such as the menu bar and UI elements, are horizontal.

Needless to say, the technical limitations (the support of a vertical setting by browsers is a fairly recent introduction) have largely contributed to this too. Perhaps underestimated, maybe the biggest factor for not using vertical setting for screen-based media could well be the mental association with horizontal orientation being used for something “modern” and “contemporary”.

The Nihon Keizai Newspaper website.
The Nihon Keizai Newspaper website. Although the printed newspaper employs a vertical setting for the body texts, the web-version uses a horizontal setting.

A Japanese Tea Ceremony website
So far, even with content as Japanese as a tea ceremony, a website will use a horizontal setting. (Accessed Jan. 20th, 2012)

Will Vertical Writing Orientation Die Out?

Will vertical writing orientation die out from screen-based media? Or can it make a comeback, when the technological environment allows us to use vertical settings more easily? Many e-book apps on smart phones and tablets have already started using vertical settings. With its intuitive way of navigating the screen along with the lack of external input devices (and apps being able to have more flexible/responsive layout), vertical writing seems to be incorporated much more comfortably.

I’ve spent some time reading these e-books — and pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to read. Apart from the fact that you need to scroll the screen horizontally, it’s just as comfortable as reading “normal” or horizontally set text. In fact, it’s even better for some types of publications like novels, or Manga. Our association towards this type of content when compared to the vertical setting is pretty strong mdash; it would somehow feel “wrong” to see them set horizontally.

Amazon’s Kindle has yet to support the Japanese language, but apparently they’re on their way to doing so. If they seriously want to attract Japanese readers, it would be unthinkable for them not to support vertical setting.

Soseki Natsume's “Sanshiro”
Soseki Natsume’s “Sanshiro” (1908) e-book on iPhone.

Kotobuki Shiriagari's
Kotobuki Shiriagari’s “OSHIGOTO” (2010) e-book on iPhone.

The situation also seems to be slowly changing on the Web — some interesting attempts have been made in order to familiarize ourselves with Web pages that have vertical setting. One such example is Taketori, which works just like Google translate — you can type in the URL of a Web page you wish to see in vertical setting, and Taketori does it for you. There’s also a piece of software called Kagetaka, which can switch any Web text into a vertical orientation.

Personally, I’m not too sure how well vertical setting will be supported by the users of normal Web pages, unless the way we navigate Web pages is re-developed, or a new type of browser with more innovative UI appears. Even though I complained earlier about the difficulty of the Japanese writing system, I do appreciate its diversity and flexibility, while making use of its three scripts and two orientations allows us to express subtle nuances of content — and we have been benefiting from that for decades.

I thought it would be a shame if we lose these methods of textual articulation in an age of screen-based media. But what has been happening for the last couple of years on touch-screen mobile devices (as well as the Web) can reassure us that both writing orientations may happily co-exist and collaborate on screen in the future, just as they have done off-screen for the last hundred years.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

(jvb) (il)

© Shoko Mugikura for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Whenever I start my Toyota Prius, I note one number above all else. It's not the time, not the odometer, not even the gas left in the tank. My eyes go straight to the car's average miles per gallon since last fill-up. If I don't exit our vehicle with that number higher than what my wife left it, I have failed. Driving has become a game—and by playing it, I save money and conserve energy.

If only my competitive streak led to greater efficiencies in my far more significant uses of energy: the electricity and gas that light and heat our home. Instead, we live in the dark (figuratively speaking, of course). Our appliances offer no hint of how much electricity they use; my furnace and its associated ductwork operate at some unknown level of efficiency. Monthly bills provide no breakdown of where and when the energy went.

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cylonlover writes "This year is a historic one for nuclear power, with the first reactors winning U.S. government approval for construction since 1978. Some have seen the green lighting of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to be built in Georgia as the start of a revival of nuclear power in the West, but this may be a false dawn because of the problems besetting conventional reactors. It may be that when a new boom in nuclear power comes, it won't be led by giant gigawatt installations, but by batteries of small modular reactors (SMRs) with very different principles from those of previous generations. However, while it's a technology of great diversity and potential, many obstacles stand in its path. This article takes an in-depth look at the many forms of SMRs, their advantages, and the challenges they must overcome."


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Web design is a craft that is constantly evolving and yet also sometimes sabotaged. The moment a design is released, a new version is born. In the beginning, like a baby, it seems vulnerable and weak, but in time it grows up and becomes self-sufficient. Redesigning a website for its own sake doesn’t prove anything; quite the contrary, it reveals a lack of effectiveness on the part of the designer.

Product design is a craft in which new versions come to life with increasing difficulty. We can learn a thing or two from it when designing for the Web. First, let’s look at some examples.

  • How many designs for the iPhone has Apple released since 2007? The answer is one, with only two tweaks. How many Motorola phones for Android can you find on the market right now? Thirteen, not counting the old models.
  • How many designs of the Mini Cooper do you know of? Just that one brave design that has continually evolved since 1959! How many Toyota Corolla models can you count since 1967? Nineteen.
  • Zippo lighters have retained their appeal since 1933!

Forget marketing, technical specs and hardware. Products such as the iPhone, the Mini Cooper and the Zippo lighter have become wildly successful because of their outstanding design. Such massive success springs from three sources: the designer, sticking to the scope and iteration. These aspects can help us in Web design, too. In this article, we’ll look at what we can learn from successful product design.

The Ability Of The Designer

Zippo
Zippo lighters have remained elegant and reliable through time. (Image: cell105)

Do you trust your instincts? You should! Because when you see a design, you judge its attractiveness in less than a second. We all know what we like, even if we can’t always explain it. It’s about aesthetics. Aesthetics is a child of harmony, and harmony is not magic. It can be achieved when the designer embraces certain principles, such as balance, contrast and dominance. Becoming a fantastic designer, though, requires more than pure technique. It requires that you see the context and make decisions accordingly.

A couple of comments by Karim Rashid, featured in the documentary Objectified are fascinating and revealing. First, Rashid talks about a stereo that he loved as a teenager:

It was a white kind of bubble stereo with these two bubble white speakers. And it was probably very inexpensive — it was a real democratic product, and it had a turntable and the whole thing built in. It was a beautiful thing. Looking back and thinking why it was a beautiful thing, it was very self-contained, and the message was very strong and very simple, and at the same time it was very human. There was a quality about it.

See? A democratic, self-contained, human, simple thing with a strong message.

Here is Rashid again on thinking outside the box:

Why do we feel like we need to keep revisiting the archetype over and over and over again? Digital cameras, for example, [whose] format, proportion, the fact that they’re a horizontal rectangle, are a model of the original silver film camera. So, in turn it’s the film that defined the shape of the camera. All of a sudden, our digital cameras have no film. So, why on earth do we have the same shape we have?

How is it that Karim Rashid extracts such clear conclusions? What hinders us from doing the same? And not just in theory. Let’s do it for real. The next time you are about to make an important design decision, stop and ask yourself, What would I do if I were Dieter Rams or Jonathan Ive or — since you’re a Web designer — Douglas Bowman?

Asking this kind of question briefly expands our skills of judgment and makes us ultra-alert. Doing it regularly can drastically heighten our perception, values and actions as designers. Is this enough? No, but it is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with design.

And the Zippo lighter? It looks both friendly and solid, a comrade that needs your attention in order to keep working. Ιt has its own scent; it’s windproof; and above all, the sound when you flip open the lid is distinctive. And if you’ve owned a Zippo for a while, you must have noticed that it learns how you touch it when you light it.

All together, a Zippo is a product of craft — just as our designs for the Web should be. This is as simple and as hard as it sounds.

Focusing On The Scope

Mini Cooper
Once a Mini, always a Mini. (Image: Shelley Gibb)

Let’s go back to cars for a moment.

As noted earlier, the Corolla models of Toyota are nothing spectacular in their design. But what is a Toyota car known for? It’s a reliable, relatively cheap family car. Is Toyota successful? You bet!

What’s a Mini Cooper? It’s a beautiful small car that appeals mostly to young people. Is it successful? Of course, it is.

Cars are complicated machines. They do more than transport people. If a Toyota were as fancy as the Mini, then it wouldn’t be affordable. If a Mini were reimagined as a family car, then it would lose some of its charm. Oversimplification? Perhaps. But you get the point.

There’s a scope behind each product. As long as the scope is met, the product will be effective and remain on the market. The same happens in Web design.

Consider a metaphor. The closest physical product to a website is a periodical. Take Wired magazine (the physical magazine, that is, not the website or iPad app, which have slightly different characteristics). I’ve been reading it for more than 10 years, and if I had to describe it succinctly I would say “forward-thinking and cool.” Wired reinvents itself every once in a while and persistently fine-tunes the design, but the scope remains the same. Excellent design and illustration, superbly written long articles and a ton of clever short ones serve the main purpose: to introduce its audience to a new era. Audiences change over time, and new eras dawn, but Wired remains. Why? Because it has always respected a higher purpose. Sure, many magazines are well designed, and enough of them have great content. But you rarely find one with a unique identity, an identity that can’t be easily copied.

Your probably less complicated Web project needs to perform similarly. You must define the objectives. The design must promote them. Good content should prevail. You know the rules; make sure to follow them. Moreover, know where to stop. If it’s a new idea with vague potential or yet another feature or a last-minute change, just say no.

Websites are like breathing organisms. They evolve; new features are added and others are dropped, but they never stay still. Or at least they shouldn’t. Thus, while a promising fresh idea shouldn’t be discarded, it should be held until the next major update.

Big, ambitious, well-funded websites often seem to lose focus. Their owners try to satisfy all requests. This is a recipe for disaster, because it creates unnecessary friction between everyone working on the project. It dulls the impact of the best features and, above all, the scope. Tension fills the air. The worst days are ahead.

Such practices have led to the infamous concept of design by committee. Simply put, if everything is important, then nothing is important.

Iterations

Apple Store, London
Is what Apple does magic? I think not. (Image: Jon Rawlinson)

Let’s talk Apple. Apple’s iconic design and its founder’s exceptional way of thinking have been overanalyzed lately.

No matter how many words we write about Steve Jobs, we still seem to explain away his success as being a kind of magic. But that’s plainly wrong. People are inclined towards the least complicated, least demanding explanation to a conundrum. It is written in our genes. We think more deeply only when there’s a serious reason to do so. (But I digress.)

So, let’s do away with what Adrian Slywotzky refers to as the “Eureka” myth:

Apple would love us to believe it’s all “Eureka.” But Apple produces 10 pixel-perfect prototypes for each feature. They compete — and are winnowed down to three, then one, resulting in a highly evolved winner. Because Apple knows the more you compete inside, the less you’ll have to compete outside.

If Apple iterates so painstakingly, why shouldn’t we?

Inspiration for a great design roars when it comes. And implementing the idea brings a rush of enthusiasm. And our eyes sparkle when we anticipate outstanding success. And yet it rarely works that way.

Why? Because ideas and their execution are seldom free from flaws. You know the old cliché, “There is always room for improvement.” It still stands. There is always room for improvement, and accepting that your idea is the one that needs improvement takes courage. Demolishing your next great product in order to make it better takes nerve and self-discipline. But it also makes you wiser, and can dramatically improve the product.

Iterating extensively and in detail doesn’t depend on a certain type of project or a certain budget. It’s a tricky thing, because it forces us to confront our imperfect nature as human beings. To embrace our inner flaws is to walk the road of truth and maturity, silently, without making a show that we’re doing it.

This weight might feel a little heavy on our shoulders. If it does or if you dismiss Apple’s success, consider what Oliver Reichenstein, head of Information Architects, says about the iterations that his team makes in each development phase (this quote appears in the comments section):

It’s often almost impossible to explain easily why things look like they do, because we went through so many iterations, that it feels like explaining a chess game with all the ifs and whats.

The same goes when designing for the Web: there’s no excuse to avoid making as many iterations as we can.

Final Thoughts

When successful designers are asked where they seek inspiration, they often say something like, “Everywhere — I go for a walk and observe the world around me.” And it’s true. But what they don’t often say is that they also know what to observe and how to ignore the noise of the world.

There are many beautiful well-functioning products around us. Each has a story to tell, a story that is strongly attached to its design, its scope and the iterations that the designer took before releasing it to the world.

Take the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Its design is at least impressive, and its scope is clear (to suck dirt better than other cleaners and, thus, to make your environment healthier), and it took hundreds of prototypes for the designers to figure out how to make it work without a bag. The first Dyson vacuum cleaner was sold in 1970! To explore further and find similar products, just search for our three key words: “design scope iteration.”

Creating a lasting website is no easier than creating a lasting vacuum cleaner. But neither is it impossible. It requires a holistic approach, focus and maturity, just like the products we’ve looked at here. Not to mention, it requires a paradigm shift.

(al)

© Yiannis Konstantakopoulos for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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More than 500 teams are currently speeding across the deserts of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, racing more than 8,300 km (5,150 mi) in the 33rd annual Dakar Rally. Competitors pit themselves against the elements, driving specialized off-road cars, trucks, motorcycles, and quadbikes through challenging terrain for two weeks. One rider, Argentine Jorge Martinez Boero, has already died this year in a crash. The 2012 Dakar Rally began in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on January 1, and racers reached the finish line in Lima, Peru, on Sunday, January 15. [41 photos]

Stefan Svitko rides his KTM during the 10th stage of the Dakar Rally 2012, from Iquique to Arica, Chile, on January 11, 2012. (Reuters/Jerome Prevot)

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