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A writer for publications including The New York Times and Wired, Clive Thompson is used to defending the latest trends in digital technology from naysayers and skeptics. In 2008, he was one of the first to describe how sites like Twitter were about more than sharing what you had for breakfast. Now he’s written his first book, Smarter Than You Think, an investigation of how technology is helping us to learn more and retain information longer. Clive took some time to talk with us about the new book, distraction, MOOCs, and how he uses technology with his kids.

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At last year's RSA security conference, we ran into the Pwnie Plug. The company has just come out with a new take on the same basic idea of pen-testing devices based on commodity hardware. Reader puddingebola writes with an excerpt from Wired: "The folks at security tools company Pwnie Express have built a tablet that can bash the heck out of corporate networks. Called the Pwn Pad, it's a full-fledged hacking toolkit built atop Google's Android operating system. Some important hacking tools have already been ported to Android, but Pwnie Express says that they've added some new ones. Most importantly, this is the first time that they've been able to get popular wireless hacking tools like Aircrack-ng and Kismet to work on an Android device." Pwnie Express will be back at RSA and so will Slashdot, so there's a good chance we'll get a close-up look at the new device, which runs about $800.

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Vexing Viewports

“The Web is Agreement.” Jeremy Keith’s eloquent statement neatly summarizes the balance that makes it possible for us to build amazing things. Each week, new devices appear with varying screen sizes, pixel densities, input types, and more. As developers and designers, we agree to use standards to mark up, style, and program what we create. Browser makers in turn agree to support those standards and set defaults appropriately, so we can hold up our end of the deal.

This agreement has never been more important.

That’s why it always hurts when a device or browser maker does something that goes against our agreement. Especially when they’re a very visible and trusted friend of the web—like Apple.

You see, Apple’s newest tablet, the iPad Mini, creates a vexing situation: Its device-width viewport tag defaults to the same values as Apple’s original iPad (768x1024 pixels), even though the Mini's screen is physically 40 percent smaller. That means every button, graphic, link, and line of text on a web page on the iPad Mini appears tiny—even when we try to do the right thing and build flexible, multi-device experiences.

Two iPads, one too small.

But Cupertino isn’t the only culprit out there. This is a problem that’s been brewing since we started using the viewport—and it has to do with not just pixels, but our own practices as well. Let’s take a step back and understand what’s really causing today’s woes—and what all of us need to do about it.

The trouble with pixels

Today’s viewport woes can be traced right back to pixels—yes, those tiny elements we work with every day.

The first pixel challenge is quantity. The more pixels in the display, the more information can be displayed. But as these are physical pixels whose number can’t be altered after the fact, a second factor comes into play: the screen’s physical size.

Imagine two two-inch-wide displays (about the width of the iPhone), as shown below.

Two devices, each with a two-inch-wide display. The one on the right, at 640x960, would pack four times as many pixels into the same space as the 320x480 screen on left.

The first is 320x480 pixels, the second 640x960. This gives the second display four times as many pixels as the first, but fits all of them into the same physical space. This smaller pixel size results in content that is also smaller—making it crisper, but much harder to read as well.

This is exactly what happened on the Nokia E60. In 2005, most mobile phone displays were about an inch and quarter wide, with an average of 176 pixels in that width. But the E60, which sported a “huge” 352x416-pixel display, crammed twice the number of pixels into a similar amount of space. The result: A gorgeous, crisp—but often hard-to-read—display.

The E60 also introduced a now-familiar problem: how users would manage to surf “big” sites on a tiny device. Nokia’s solution was a new browser, the Mini Map. This browser behaved similarly to today’s smartphone browsers by first rendering the full-sized page, then scaling it to fit the available screen size. Superimposed onto this rendering was a transparent red box that could be repositioned using the device’s joystick. Clicking the joystick would zoom the content indicated within the box.

Enter viewports

Mini Map was probably one of the first commercial uses of a dynamic viewport—a construct designed to dynamically change the size or scale of the visible screen area in order to improve the user experience. But it was far from the last.

In 2007, Apple released the iPhone, a much larger device than the E60, but one with a similar problem. Even on a “huge” two-inch display, surfing the “real web” on an iPhone meant loading large pages onto a small device. Apple chose to solve this problem through a series of carefully orchestrated enhancements.

The first was the creation of a virtual viewport similar to the one Nokia designed for Mini Map. When encountering desktop websites, the browser would render them at their full size (based on a default canvas width of 960 pixels). It would then scale them down to fit the two-inch display. Users could interact with the page to scroll and zoom in on areas of their choice.

Apple didn’t stop there. It also developed a new viewport meta tag. Sites not using the tag would be rendered using the default, legacy-web viewport of 980 pixels. But developers who opted to use the tag could declare the viewport for their sites, including setting the width to the all-important device-width value. This value tells the browser, “please pick a width that fits this specific device’s screen best.”

Other mobile browser vendors were quick to follow Apple’s lead. Nowadays just about every mobile browser supports the viewport meta tag, including the device-width value. This provides us with an even playing field: It respects the efforts of those who take the time to adapt sites for the multi-device web, while those who haven’t yet made this transition still receive a “good-enough” default experience.

Mini problems

The value device and browser vendors assign to device-width is directly related to that device’s physical dimensions. Physically smaller devices need a smaller device-width value (which will result in larger content). Set a value that’s too large, and most content will be too small to comfortably read.

And that’s why Apple’s iPad Mini has a vexing viewport. It uses the same 768-pixel device-width as the regular iPad, even though its physical size is much smaller. One would expect to see a device-width more in line with those of similarly sized tablets like the BlackBerry PlayBook or second-generation Samsung Galaxy 7″—around 500 to 600 pixels, as shown in this chart.

Because of this device-width, web pages appear 27 percent smaller on the iPad Mini than they do on the Google Nexus 7 (calculated based on the relative size of device pixels)—all because Apple decided to describe the device’s viewport as 768 pixels.

Solving for content size

One of the first places this causes problems is in text: More pixels in a smaller space means that fonts sized in pixels will look correspondingly dinky.

Of course, many of us aren’t sizing in pixels anymore—we’re using relative dimensional elements like ems, right? Only, that doesn’t quite solve the problem this time.

When we use ems, we imply a certain trust that the browser’s baseline font size at the default zoom level—1em or 100 percent in unit parlance—is sane and readable. But that’s not always the case. The browser’s baseline font-size value (1em) roughly equates to a 16-pixel square. This ratio serves as a ligament that binds absolute and relative units, but it can vary from browser to browser.

On the iPad Mini, font-size at baseline is precisely 16 pixels. That may have worked fine when fewer pixels were packed into our screens, but on a dense display with an improperly defined viewport, that’s going to be uncomfortably small.

Not all browsers toe the 1:16 em-to-pixel line, though. The Kindle Touch’s browser, for example, has a high-density viewport, but adapts by using a 1:20 ratio, kicking the default font size up a few pixels for readability.

This might not fix all of iPad Mini’s viewport problems, but at least the content would be legible.

Three seven-inch tablets. Note the difference in rendering.

So why did Apple do this?

To understand why Apple would release a product with such a vexing viewport, we don’t have to look further than our own habits.

In the wake of the iPad’s initial release, web folk worldwide scrambled to adapt sites to look good on the new tablets. Somewhere along the way many of us collectively settled upon pixel-based notions of tablet-ness, and those notions often resulted in fixed, 1024x768-pixel layouts precisely targeted at these devices.

Were Apple to decrease the device-width value for the iPad Mini on account of its smaller physical size, it would guarantee a second scramble as existing tablet-adapted sites assuming a 1024x768 viewport suddenly looked unexpectedly wretched on the new device.

The responsibility here goes two ways. Browser makers need to provide reliable baselines of viewport and text sizing, yes. But we as implementers also need to stop grasping for pixel-perfect control over our layouts (the “control” is an illusion, anyway).

A way forward

The only way for us to move forward is together. As developers and designers, we need to hold up our end of the bargain and be mindful of how we do our work—and that means letting go of the notion of pixel precision once and for all. We need to earn the trust of browser makers so they hear us out when things just frankly aren’t right. We hope this article illustrates we’re trying to do the right thing. We hope browser makers acknowledge that and follow suit.

Standards and consistency are more important now than ever before. Please let browser makers and device manufacturers, like Apple, know that we rely on consistent and reliable decisions about default viewports and their zooming. We’re willing to hold up our end of the agreement, and we need them with us.

Let’s move into the future—together.

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BYTE spoke to IT manager Brent Shinn at Double Fine Productions to see how he operates the lean IT department, what he thinks about Windows, and his feelings on BYOD in the workplace. While producing a video game traditionally costs millions of dollars and takes years to make, companies such as Double Fine are using consumer tools like Kickstarter to raise money and to speed up production.

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Today marks the start of the five-day festival of Diwali, celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs around the world. During Diwali, originally a harvest festival, lamps are lit to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, fireworks are set off to drive away evil spirits, and prayers for prosperity are offered to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Collected here are images of this year's festival, as celebrants color their world, give prayers, and wish each other a happy Diwali. [33 photos]

A girl lights earthen lamps in a formation to form the shape of Hindu god Ganesh, the deity of prosperity, on the eve of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, on November 12, 2012. (Reuters/Ajay Verma)

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“So, you do nothing all day.”

That’s how many people would respond to someone who says they spend the day with a pen or pencil in their hand. It’s often considered an empty practice, a waste of time. They’re seen as an empty mind puttering along with the busy work of scribbling.

But for us designers and artists, drawing pictures all day is integral to our process and to who we are as creative people, and despite the idea that those who doodle waste time, we still get our work done. So, then, why are those of us who draw pictures all day even tempted to think that someone who is doodling or drawing pictures in a meeting or lecture is not paying attention?

What does it mean to be a doodler, to draw pictures all day? Why do we doodle? Most of all, what does it mean to our work? It turns out that the simple act of scribbling on a page helps us think, remember and learn.

What Does It Mean To Doodle?

The dictionary defines “doodle” as a verb (“scribble absentmindedly”) and as a noun (“a rough drawing made absentmindedly”). It also offers the origins of the word “doodler” as “a noun denoting a fool, later as a verb in the sense ‘make a fool of, cheat.’”

But the author Sunni Brown offers my favorite definition of “doodle” in her TED talk, “Doodlers, unite!”:

“In the 17th century, a doodle was a simpleton or a fool, as in “Yankee Doodle.” In the 18th century, it became a verb, and it meant to swindle or ridicule or to make fun of someone. In the 19th century, it was a corrupt politician. And today, we have what is perhaps our most offensive definition, at least to me, which is the following: “To doodle officially means to dawdle, to dilly dally, to monkey around, to make meaningless marks, to do something of little value, substance or import and,” my personal favorite, “to do nothing.” No wonder people are averse to doodling at work. Doing nothing at work is akin to masturbating at work. It’s totally inappropriate.”

It is no wonder, then, why most people do not have great expectations of those who “draw pictures all day.” Or perhaps they are inclined to think that those who draw pictures all day are not highly intellectual and are tempted to say to them condescendingly, “Go and draw some of your pictures.” As designers, many of us have heard such comments, or at least felt them implied, simply because we think, express or do things differently.

Why Do We Doodle?

Consider that even before a child can speak, they can draw pictures. It is part of their process of understanding what’s around them. They draw not just what they see, but how they view the world. The drawing or doodle of a child is not necessarily an attempt to reflect reality, but rather an attempt to communicate their understanding of it. This is no surprise because playing, trial and error, is a child’s primary method of learning. A child is not concerned with the impressions that others get based on their drawings or mistakes.

An Example of a doodle
An example of a doodle.

Their constant drawing, picture-making and doodling is a child’s way of expressing their ideas and showing their perceptions in visual form. It comes from a need to give physical form to one’s thoughts. Similarly, an adult doodles in order to visualize the ideas in their head so that they can interact with those ideas.

Visual Learners

According to Linda Silverman, director of both the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center and author of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, 37% of the population are visual learners. If so many people learn better visually, we can expect, then, that some of them learn better by putting a speech, lecture or meeting into visual and tangible form through pictures or doodles, rather than by being provided with pictures or doodles (which would be the product of another person’s mind).

37% of the population are visual learners

Humans have always had a desire to visually represent what’s in their minds and memory and to communicate those ideas with others. Early cave paintings were a means of interacting with others, allowing an idea or mental image to move from one person’s mind to another’s. The purpose of visual language has always been to communicate ideas to others.

Secondly, we doodle because our brain is designed to empathize with the world around us. According to Carol Jeffers, professor at California State University, our brains are wired to respond to, interact with, imitate and mirror behavior. In an article she wrote, she explains the recent research into “mirror neurons” which help us understand and empathize with the world around us.

A cave painting
Cave paintings were our first means of communicating ideas to others.

Think of it this way. When you’re at an art gallery and find a painting that intrigues you, what is your first reaction? You want to touch it, don’t you? I thought so.

When I was a ballroom dancer, I used to sit and watch those who I considered to be great dancers, tracing their forms in space with my index finger as a way to commit them to memory. I used to go to galleries and museums and, at a distance, trace the lines and forms that I saw in the paintings and designs. I did this out of curiosity and a desire to physically record what I saw to memory.

Nearly 100 years ago, Maria Montessori discovered the link between physical touch and movement and learning in children. Montessori education teaches children to trace the letters of the alphabet with their index finger as a way to commit their shapes to memory. My son used to trace forms that he found interesting in space. It’s safe to say, then, that we doodle to visually commit to memory a concept that we want to both empathize and interact with.

An experiment conducted by Jackie Andrade, professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in England, demonstrated the positive effect that doodling has on memory retention. In the experiment, 40 people were given a simple set of instructions to take RSVP information over the phone from people going to a party. The group of 40 was divided in two. One group of 20 was told to doodle (limited to shading in order not to emphasize the quality of the doodles), and the other 20 would not doodle.

The doodlers recalled 29% more information.

Doodling a lightbulb
Doodling helps us retain information.

The study showed that doodling helps the brain to focus. It keeps the mind from wandering away from whatever is happening, whether it’s a lecture, reading or conference talk.

Still, we have become bored with learning.

Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, Joseph D. Novak argues that this is because we have been taught to memorize but not to evaluate the information being given to us. In many traditional settings, the pattern is simple and dull: sit, receive and memorize. Many traditional educational systems do not encourage active engagement with the material. Doodling, drawing and even making diagrams helps us not only engage with the material, but also identify the underlying structure of the argument, while also connecting concepts in a tactile and visual way. Jesse Berg, president of The Visual Leap, pointed out to me in a conversation that doodling is a multisensory activity. While our hand is creating what might seem to be random pictures, our brain is processing the stimuli that’s running through it.

Many of us are the product of traditional schooling, in which we were made to numbingly memorize dates and facts, and many of us continue this pattern later in life. While some of us were avid doodlers (I used to fill the backs of my notebooks with pictures and draw on desks with a pencil during class), some of us stopped at high school, others in college and others once we settled into a job. At some point during the education process, doodling was discouraged. Teachers most likely viewed it as a sign of inattentiveness and disrespect. After hard preparation, educators want nothing more than unwavering attention to their lectures. The irony is that, according to Andrade’s study, doodlers pay more attention to the words of educators than we think.

In her TED talk, Sunny Brown goes on to explain the benefits of doodling and even offers an alternative to the definition found in the Oxford Dictionary:

“Doodling is really to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think. That is why millions of people doodle. Here’s another interesting truth about the doodle: People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts. We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”

How Can Designers Use This To Their Benefit?

As designers, we have a unique advantage when it comes to doodling. We don’t just doodle to keep our minds focused — we also deliberately sketch ideas in order to problem solve and to get immediate feedback from clients and peers. Designers such as Craighton Berman and Eva-Lotta Lamm are two of the biggest proponents of the “sketchnotating” movement. Berman states that sketchnotating “forces you to listen to the lecture, synthesize what’s being expressed, and visualize a composition that captures the idea — all in real time.”

In 2009, I came across a book titled The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Roam is a business strategist and founder of Digital Roam, a management-consulting firm that uses visual thinking to solve complex problems. He uses a simple approach to solving problems visually. Every idea is run through five basic questions to encourage engaged thinking and to ensure a meaningful meeting. The process takes the acronym SQVI^. S is for simple or elaborate, Q is for qualitative or quantitative, V is for vision or execution, I is for individual or comparison, and ^ is for change or status quo. These simple choices are worked through with simple doodles in order to better understand the problem and find a solution. In his book, Roam says:

“What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered? What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and — as much as I hate to say it — perhaps even more fun? There is. It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures.”

After discovering Roam’s book, I decided to doodle again. Once a prolific doodler and drawer, I had become inactive in lectures and similar settings, often forgetting what was said. Taking notes felt too cumbersome, and I often missed words and ideas. I decided to give doodling another shot. Instead of focusing on specifics, I would focus on concepts, key words and ideas.

Since 2011, I have been actively promoting doodling in my design classes, making a deal with my students, saying to them, “Doodle to your heart’s content, but in return I want you to doodle the content of my lectures.” They are skeptical at first, but they soon realize that doodling is better than having a quiz. I reap the benefits of doodling, and by allowing them to doodle — with the requirement that it be based on the class’ content — they become more informed of the topic and they engage in more meaningful conversations about design.

A sketchbook
A designer’s best friend: a sketchpad.

The typographic novices in my classes naturally start to apply the principles of visual hierarchy and organization, grouping ideas either by importance or by category. They will group ideas with lines, boxes, marks and more. Headings and lecture titles might be made larger, more ornate or bolder, and key concepts might be visually punctuated. It is fascinating how natural and almost second-nature the idea of visual hierarchy is to all of us. The learning curve of typography is steep for some of us, but doodling and sketchnotating really makes it easier to grasp. Below are some doodles by students in my classes.

Introduction to Typography lecture doodle by Alisa Roberts
Doodle by Alisa Roberts from my “Introduction to Typography” course.

By picking out concepts, ideas and topics, the students start to establish a hierarchy by making visual groupings and start to use visual punctuation. By the time I assign work on typographic hierarchy, the sketches tend to show more astuteness. Transferring these sketches to the computer is a challenge for those new to typography, but once they naturally understand the relationships in what they are doing, they start to make smarter design decisions.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Doodle by Aubrie Lamb from my “Identity and Branding” course.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Another by Aubrie Lamb from the same course.

As we have seen, doodling has many benefits, beyond what designers as visual communicators and problem solvers use it for. Doodling also helps our brain function and process data. Those of us who doodle should do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. We are in good company. Historically, doodlers have included presidents, business moguls and accomplished writers. Designer, educator and speaker Jason Santa Maria says this:

“Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist. They’re about being a good thinker.”

Doodling, drawing pictures and sketchnotating are about using visual skills to solve problems, to understand our world and to respond effectively. So, what are you waiting for? Doodle!

Further Reading

Unless otherwise stated, images are from Stock.XCHNG.

(al) (il)

© Alma Hoffmann for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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