Wednesday, 2 August 2017

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    08.02.17 7:30 am

Hone Your Data Bullshit Detector With This Free Online Course
The class was so popular it filled up in less than a minute.
Hone Your Data Bullshit Detector With This Free Online Course
[Source Image: da-vooda/iStock]

By Katharine Schwab2 minute Read

Earlier this year, two professors from the University of Washington released the Bullshit Syllabus, a guide to avoiding bullshit when it comes to the use of data in technology and science.
! turning the syllabus into a one-credit lecture class during the spring, the professors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West have posted the lectures on YouTube so anyone can improve their data bullshit detector for free.
The class has several lectures relevant to designers. Take what they call the “Dataviz Duck.” That’s a graphic where the designer’s prerogative is to catch your attention and persuade you of o in a way that’s often misleading. Data viz scholar Edward Tufte calls a graphic where style gets in the way of substance a “duck”–a term borrowed from architecture and named after a reviled, duck-shaped building where its ridiculous shape has no bearing on anything, really, at all. In his lecture, Bergstrom points to examples from the newspaper USA Today and President Obama as purveyors of dataviz ducks with graphs that use human bodies, the wheels of cars, and even stacks of books as ways of conveying numerical information. The lesson? Make sure your graphic isn’t so decorative that it doesn’t convey data irresponsibly. Every element of its design should help make information clearer, not obfuscate the data by making it look pretty.

Bergstrom also discusses the dataviz “Glass Slipper.” It’s named for the Grimm version of Cinderella, where her evil stepsisters cut off their toes to jam their feet into the glass slipper so they can marry the prince. The analogy works for data visualization as well, where designers take certain types of visualizations like the periodic table, subway maps, Venn diagrams, and a phylogeny, which explains how species are related, and try to use them for data that just doesn’t fit. A “periodic table” of data science? A “subway map” of Microsoft’s investments? These are all glass slippers.

Besides data viz, the class also covers common problems with big data, correlation, publication bias, and fake news, with a focus on how to recognize when data has been used spuriously. In the last lecture, the professors offer four rules for calling out bullshit when you do see it (attention: everyone on Twitter)–be right, be charitable, be clear, and admit fault.


West says that the 160-seat spring class was entirely full within a minute, with students from 40 different majors attending. The primary assignment for the class was for students to create a “bullshit inventory”: a list of all the bullshit they encounter in a single week, from bullshit they spot to bullshit they create themselves. The professors will be teaching a full, three-unit class in the fall as well.

Their bullshit gospel is spreading. West says that they’ve gotten requests from more than 40 different schools, including Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and Oxford, about teaching the class. University of Alaska Anchorage, University of North Carolina Greensboro, and Penn State plan to teach a version of the class next year.

The demand for the class shows an appetite for learning how to properly use data as part of a formal education, across disciplines. Because data is one of technology’s backbones, recognizing when it is used poorly and when it’s used properly isn’t just a useful skill–it’s vital for everyone, whether you’re a designer or not.
About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.



You Can Now Sleep In A House Designed By Your Favorite Architect
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    07.14.17

AI Is Inventing Languages Humans Can’t Understand. Should We Stop It?
Researchers at Facebook realized their bots were chattering in a new language. Then they stopped it.
AI Is Inventing Languages Humans Can’t Understand. Should We Stop It?
[Source Images: Nikiteev_Konstantin/iStock, Zozulinskyi/iStock]

By Mark Wilson6 minute Read

Bob: “I can can I I everything else.”


Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to.”

To you and I, that passage looks like nonsense. But what if I told you this nonsense was the discussion of what might be the most sophisticated negotiation software on the planet? Negotiation software that had learned, and evolved, to get the best deal possible with more speed and efficiency–and perhaps, hidden nuance–than you or I ever could? Because it is.

This conversation occurred between two AI agents developed inside Facebook. At first, they were speaking to each other in plain old English. But then researchers realized they’d made a mistake in programming.

“There was no reward to sticking to English language,” says Dhruv Batra, visiting research scientist from Georgia Tech at Facebook AI Research (FAIR). As these two agents competed to get the best deal–a very effective bit of AI vs. AI dogfighting researchers have dubbed a “generative adversarial network”–neither was offered any sort of incentive for speaking as a normal person would. So they began to diverge, eventually rearranging legible words into seemingly nonsensical sentences.

“Agents will drift off understandable language and invent codewords for themselves,” says Batra, speaking to a now-predictable phenomenon that’s been observed again, and again, and again. “Like if I say ‘the’ five times, you interpret that to mean I want five copies of this item. This isn’t so different from the way communities of humans create shorthands.”

[Screenshot: courtesy Facebook]
Indeed. Humans have developed unique dialects for everything from trading pork bellies on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange to hunting down terrorists as Seal Team Six–simply because humans sometimes perform better by not abiding to normal language conventions.



So should we let our software do the same thing? Should we allow AI to evolve its dialects for specific tasks that involve speaking to other AIs? To essentially gossip out of our earshot? Maybe; it offers us the possibility of a more interoperable world, a more perfect place where iPhones talk to refrigerators that talk to your car without a second thought.

The tradeoff is that we, as humanity, would have no clue what those machines were actually saying to one another.
We Teach Bots To Talk, But We’ll Never Learn Their Language

Facebook ultimately opted to require its negotiation bots to speak in plain old English. “Our interest was having bots who could talk to people,” says Mike Lewis, research scientist at FAIR. Facebook isn’t alone in that perspective. When I inquired to Microsoft about computer-to-computer languages, a spokesperson clarified that Microsoft was more interested in human-to-computer speech. Meanwhile, Google, Amazon, and Apple are all also focusing incredible energies on developing conversational personalities for human consumption. They’re the next wave of user interface, like the mouse and keyboard for the AI era.

The other issue, as Facebook admits, is that it has no way of truly understanding any divergent computer language. “It’s important to remember, there aren’t bilingual speakers of AI and human languages,” says Batra. We already don’t generally understand how complex AIs think because we can’t really see inside their thought process. Adding AI-to-AI conversations to this scenario would only make that problem worse.

But at the same time, it feels shortsighted, doesn’t it? If we can build software that can speak to other software more efficiently, shouldn’t we use that? Couldn’t there be some benefit?

[Source Images: Nikiteev_Konstantin/iStock, Zozulinskyi/iStock]
Because, again, we absolutely can lead machines to develop their own languages. Facebook has three published papers proving it. “It’s definitely possible, it’s possible that [language] can be compressed, not just to save characters, but compressed to a form that it could express a sophisticated thought,” says Batra. Machines can converse with any baseline building blocks they’re offered. That might start with human vocabulary, as with Facebook’s negotiation bots. Or it could start with numbers, or binary codes. But as machines develop meanings, these symbols become “tokens”–they’re imbued with rich meanings. As Dauphin points out, machines might not think as you or I do, but tokens allow them to exchange incredibly complex thoughts through the simplest of symbols. The way I think about it is with algebra: If A + B = C, the “A” could encapsulate almost anything. But to a computer, what “A” can mean is so much bigger than what that “A” can mean to a person, because computers have no outright limit on processing power.



“It’s perfectly possible for a special token to mean a very complicated thought,” says Batra. “The reason why humans have this idea of decomposition, breaking ideas into simpler concepts, it’s because we have a limit to cognition.” Computers don’t need to simplify concepts. They have the raw horsepower to process them.
Why We Should Let Bots Gossip

But how could any of this technology actually benefit the world, beyond these theoretical discussions? Would our servers be able to operate more efficiently with bots speaking to one another in shorthand? Could microsecond processes, like algorithmic trading, see some reasonable increase? Chatting with Facebook, and various experts, I couldn’t get a firm answer.

However, as paradoxical as this might sound, we might see big gains in such software better understanding our intent. While two computers speaking their own language might be more opaque, an algorithm predisposed to learn new languages might chew through strange new data we feed it more effectively. For example, one researcher recently tried to teach a neural net to create new colors and name them. It was terrible at it, generating names like Sudden Pine and Clear Paste (that clear paste, by the way, was labeled on a light green). But then they made a simple change to the data they were feeding the machine to train it. They made everything lowercase–because lowercase and uppercase letters were confusing it. Suddenly, the color-creating AI was working, well, pretty well! And for whatever reason, it preferred, and performed better, with RGB values as opposed to other numerical color codes.

Why did these simple data changes matter? Basically, the researcher did a better job at speaking the computer’s language. As one coder put it to me, “Getting the data into a format that makes sense for machine learning is a huge undertaking right now and is more art than science. English is a very convoluted and complicated language and not at all amicable for machine learning.”

[Source Images: Nikiteev_Konstantin/iStock, Zozulinskyi/iStock]
In other words, machines allowed to speak and generate machine languages could somewhat ironically allow us to communicate with (and even control) machines better, simply because they’d be predisposed to have a better understanding of the words we speak.

As one insider at a major AI technology company told me: No, his company wasn’t actively interested in AIs that generated their own custom languages. But if it were, the greatest advantage he imagined was that it could conceivably allow software, apps, and services to learn to speak to each other without human intervention.


Right now, companies like Apple have to build APIs–basically a software bridge–involving all sorts of standards that other companies need to comply with in order for their products to communicate. However, APIs can take years to develop, and their standards are heavily debated across the industry in decade-long arguments. But software, allowed to freely learn how to communicate with other software, could generate its own shorthands for us. That means our “smart devices” could learn to interoperate, no API required.

Given that our connected age has been a bit of a disappointment, given that the internet of things is mostly a joke, given that it’s no easier to get a document from your Android phone onto your LG TV than it was 10 years ago, maybe there is something to the idea of letting the AIs of our world just talk it out on our behalf. Because our corporations can’t seem to decide on anything. But these adversarial networks? They get things done.
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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    07.07.17

Nest Founder: “I Wake Up In Cold Sweats Thinking, What Did We Bring To The World?”
Tony Fadell, one of the minds behind the iPod and the iPhone, mulls design’s unintended consequences.
Nest Founder: “I Wake Up In Cold Sweats Thinking, What Did We Bring To The World?”
[Photos: Constantin Renner/EyeEm/Getty Images, davide ragusa/Unsplash]

By Katharine Schwab4 minute Read

Tony Fadell’s wife likes to remind him when their three children’s eyes are glued to their screens that it’s at least partly his fault.
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Hard to argue. Fadell, who founded the smart thermostat company Nest in 2010 and who was instrumental in the creation of both the iPod and later the iPhone as a senior vice president at Apple, has done more to shape digital technology than many of his peers. But in a recent conversation at the Design Museum in London, Fadell spoke with a mix of pride and regret about his role in mobile technology’s rise to omnipresence.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?” he says. “Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can–like we see with fake news–blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”

Fadell was speaking as part of the Design Museum’s program around its current blockbuster exhibition, California, which examines the history and culture of digital technology in the Golden State, from early iPhone prototypes to the utopian festival and tech industry networking staple Burning Man to drawings of Apple Park. The conversation, called “Selling Freedom,” brought together Fadell; Bethany Koby, the cofounder and CEO of toy company Technology Will Save Us; David Edgerton, a historian of science and technology at King’s College London; and Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics who studies the social impact of technology. They were charged with examining the consequences of having so much revolutionary technology coming from a single place.

[Photo: Tim Gouw/Unsplash]
The world Fadell describes is one in which screens are everywhere, distracting us and interrupting what’s important, while promoting a culture of self-aggrandizement. The problem? He says that addiction has been designed into our devices–and it’s harming the newest generation.

“And I know when I take [technology] away from my kids what happens,” Fadell says. “They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them—they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”

At its root, this is a design problem. Fadell believes that products like the iPhone, as much as they are communication devices, are more attuned to the needs of the individual rather than what’s best for the family and the larger community.
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Some of Silicon Valley’s history is rooted in the communal idealism of 1960s California, where technologists believed that a democratizing force called the internet was going to empower everyone through shared information. But Fadell says this philosophy has been perverted. The emphasis on community has been lost; instead, companies like Apple market their products by selling the notion of freedom, that technology is a liberating force for the individual. Fadell believes that’s partly because of who designed the seminal products and services of the digital age.

[Photo: rawpixel.com/Unsplash]
“A lot of the designers and coders who were in their 20s when we were creating these things didn’t have kids. Now they have kids,” he says. “And they see what’s going on, and they say, ‘Wait a second.’ And they start to rethink their design decisions.”

And it’s not just that these early Silicon Valley wunderkinds didn’t have children themselves–there were no women or minorities or older people around either, as sociologist Judy Wacjman points out. “Silicon Valley is notorious in particular for not being family-friendly,” she says. “It’s notorious for being full of young male designers. It’s great that they’re thinking about this now that they’re having kids, but I wonder if one could envision a different design community full of people of different sexes, full of people of different ages. Some of the design that you get is the reflection of the limited cultural understanding of the young guys who are doing the designing.”

How are these designers rethinking their choices now that they do have families? One example is many tech companies’ stalwart position that they act as platforms and are not responsible for the content that users post–a stance that has recently come under fire as Facebook’s algorithms enabled fake news about the election to spread faster than real news. Fadell points to Google, which owns YouTube, in particular: “It was like, [let] any kind of content happen on YouTube. Then a lot of the executives started having kids, [and saying], maybe this isn’t such a good idea. They have YouTube Kids now.” (Google bought Nest, the company Fadell started after leaving Apple, in 2014 for $3.2 billion, and Fadell left the company under less than favorable circumstances last year.)

“This self-absorbing culture is starting to blow,” he says. “Parents didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know this was a thing they needed to teach because we didn’t know for ourselves. We all kind of got absorbed in it.”

According to Fadell, this is largely a matter of unintended consequences–but that doesn’t free designers and developers from responsibility. Fadell wants there to be a Hippocratic oath for designers, where they pledge to work ethically and “do no harm.” “I think we have to be very cognizant of the unintended consequences, but also acknowledge them and then design them out–make sure that we are ethically designing,” he says. “This is the slowest technology will ever progress ever again in your life. It’s only speeding up. So what are we going to do as designers to bring that element in all the time?”
About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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    06.21.17

Design Didn’t Make Uber Good, But It Made Uber Great
The company, whose CEO Travis Kalanick has resigned, masterminded the dark arts of manipulative UX.
Design Didn’t Make Uber Good, But It Made Uber Great
[Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

By Mark Wilson4 minute Read

I’ll never forget my first Uber. As cheesy as that sounds, I’m sure the feeling is shared by many of us of a certain age. Finding myself stuck on the sleepy streets of San Francisco’s Nob Hill after midnight, not a cab in sight, I hit a button on my phone, a car drove up a few minutes later, and I realized city life as I knew it would never be the same.
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This is the power of design. Uber hid the complicated logistics of connecting cars on the move with customers who might appear anywhere on the map with the simplest of apps. I saw my car. And my car saw me. The mind-numbing calculations behind the scenes were invisible. It all felt, to borrow a word that’s been horribly over-used in the smartphone age, like magic.

Yet it’s quickly become clear that Uber’s design legacy is more of a mastery of the dark arts. The departure of CEO Travis Kalanick this week caps a year during which countless insider reports revealed that the company is, in a way, more incredible than any of us imagined. However, it’s incredible specifically for its unprecedented customer and driver manipulation, along with its leveraging of data to sidestep authorities and whistleblowers.

Perhaps none of this will actually change with Kalanick’s departure, but 20 years from now, we will look back at Uber with the same unsettling reverence that we do an intricate machine of war. More than any other company before, Uber weaponized UX to conquer the digital and physical worlds.

Travis Kalanick [Photo: Wang K’aichicn/VCG/VCG/Getty Images]
Uber started as a black car service for the Valley elite. The approach was standard from any branding playbook: Launch a company marketed to VIPs, then reveal to the middle class that they can have a piece of the high life, too. And who didn’t want a personal car service arriving at their door for less than the price of a smelly taxi?

But behind the scenes, Uber leveraged the data of its riders and drivers to control both groups of users. Reports of a “God View” revealed that Uber execs could see the position and identity of any rider at any time. And it wasn’t just a means for execs to stalk Beyoncé, either. Uber’s rider data gave it extremely personal information on journalists. One executive floated the idea of spending $1 million to hire a team to look into just this information, including the “personal lives” and “families” of journalists, to arm the company with blackmail fodder against its critics. The company also deployed a project dubbed Greyball, which identified certain city officials and authorities, flagging their accounts–sometimes by looking at a customer’s credit card to see if it was linked to an organization like a police credit union–specifically to stop sting operations targeting Uber’s often less-than-legal operations.

[Photo: Flickr user Carl]
Greyball was used for more than tracking individuals. Uber realized that it could actually be deployed to geographic regions, changing the very functionality of Uber for specific segments of the population. For instance, using geofencing–which draws invisible boundaries on an app’s map–Greyball could spot groups frequenting courthouses or police stations. The feature created fake “ghost cars” to confuse regulators who might be operating stings.


Geofencing also helped Uber deceive Apple itself. Uber had been “fingerprinting” iPhones, leaving tracking files behind even after the Uber app had been deleted, despite Apple forbidding the practice. So it geofenced Apple’s campus–on the orders of Kalanick himself–to hide these practices from Apple engineers, presumably just deleting those hidden files on any supposed Apple employee’s iPhone. (For the invasive violation, The New York Times reports that Kalanick got a slap on the wrist from Tim Cook.)

But Uber’s dark manipulation engine was especially inescapable for drivers.

Above all else, Uber wants to keep cars on the road, and it developed a remarkable cadre of data-powered UX tools to do so. Just like Netflix loads that next episode of House of Cards, Uber automatically queues up a driver’s next trip before their last one is done, urging them to binge on work. Those who try to close the app are often pinged with a notification that they’re approaching an earning milestone–and drivers will be pinged in the morning with all sorts of enticing alerts to get them driving again. Perhaps the most unsettling twist is the gamification of rider goodwill–which may serve as a substitute for better driver compensation. When you compliment an Uber driver in the app, they will often receive badges like Above and Beyond. These happy pixels motivate people to work for something that literally disappears once they close the app.

Uber was not the first company to use gamification or psychological manipulation to get a user to do things they wouldn’t normally want to do. And certainly, it was not the first company to mine user locations or leverage that data for more profit. But Uber was the first to layer all of these practices together in a strange new interactive symphony, which hit us deep in the stomach so that we’d sway to the beat.

What happens now? Kalanick may be out as CEO, but Uber’s code and interface are still humming along. Many of the aforementioned policies are still intact.

Indeed, reports of Uber’s dark patterns have been growing for years now, and while data is scarce, none of these practices seem to have brought the company to a halt like the events of the past few weeks. Instead, Uber’s board eventually turned on Kalanick after months of simmering #DeleteUber outrage that began Uber attempted to profit from the travel ban protests in January and reached its crescendo after damning reports of gender discrimination, harassment, and toxic bro culture.


So we shouldn’t assume that Uber’s dark patterns will suddenly change under new management. After all, they’re precisely what built the $50 billion company that Uber is today–with or without its CEO.
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

Now Sidebar founder Sacha Greif is launching a redesigned site. Its updates are Spartan, but Sidebar has always been Spartan. Aside from the layout makeover, Greif added deks–publisher speak for summaries–below the headlines of each story. And the design will accommodate up to one job listing a day. It’s Sidebar’s sole revenue driver, aside from occasional sponsored links.

Greif’s monetization efforts are fittingly casual, despite that newsletters have become the dark horse big business for publishers these days. The email newsletter began as a side project. Greif, a Frenchman who lives in Japan, prefers to follow his own passions rather than some prescribed career trajectory and would rather spend his day coding than maximizing his Influencer status in meetups and on social media. (And for the most part, those passions involve the programming framework Meteor, and one he’s in the process of launching now via the new Sidebar, Vulcan.)

With Sidebar’s relaunch, we chatted with Greif about his thoughts on everything from the way we consume media, to how the major players of the Valley have finally reached a reckoning with their own audience.

Co.Design: In 2012, nobody would have thought newsletters would be the force they are today. Why’d you start Sidebar?

Sacha Greif: At the time, I had another project called Folio, which was a marketplace to put designers and clients in touch. I had a really hard time driving traffic to it. Whenever I wrote about code, I could post to Hacker News. But there wasn’t an equivalent for design.

I thought I’d launch Hacker News for design. As for the original project Folio, I gave it away to someone else. So the side project ended up being more.


Co.Design: Why do you think newsletters have found such a foothold in the age of social media, when things should be easier to find? Co.Design‘s newsletter, for instance, is vital to our daily traffic.

SG: I think it’s the only truly reliable media that exists. With Twitter, you tweet something out, you might miss it. Facebook might change their algorithm. You never know who will see what. Instagram was fairly linear, now they’re using algorithms. As a consumer, if you want to be sure to know about something, email is pretty much the only way.

People are siloed on Facebook, Twitter. They don’t venture out to home pages as much as they used to. I remember, I used to have my daily bookmarks. Every day, I would check out 10 to 15 sites as part of my daily routine. I don’t do that anymore.

Co.Design: What was initial growth like?

SG: It actually took off pretty fast in the beginning. Definitely, getting to 30,000 subscribers was a lot faster than going from 30,000 to 40,000, or however large it is now. In the beginning, it was a new concept, so I saturated my sphere of influence [laughs]. Also maybe I haven’t been as active as I should have been to promote the site. From working on Sidebar, I ended up working on a lot of other side projects. That’s how I operate.

Co.Design: You don’t seem like a big self-promoter! And you obviously monetize Sidebar, but not nearly as aggressively as I’d think a lot of people would.


SG: I think part of it is due to me being easily distracted. I really enjoy building things, but when it comes to marketing them, and doing all that more pushy advertising and monetization, I get bored pretty fast. I don’t really track analytics. I don’t do A/B testing. There’s a lot of things I know I should be doing but . . .

I find the only way I can motivate myself to improve a project, or Sidebar, is to redesign it. I have a low motivation to go back to work on old code that by now seems all wrong. That’s why I’m launching a new version. I get a chance to give it a new coat of paint.

Co.Design: 2012, the year you launched Sidebar, is coincidentally the same year I started at Co.Design. And I don’t know about you, but for me, the way I evaluate a design has changed entirely over those five years. It’s not just about, “Is this a convenient or beautiful product that solves a real problem?” but about social consequences, dark patterns, the implications to our privacy–things like that.

SG: I think there’s a lot more awareness of these issues now. Especially with the political climate. A simple example: It’s very popular to set up an email sequence when people sign up for your service, and pretend like you’re a real human. But it’s just an automated sequence. I think this sort of thing is going to go away as more and more people are uncomfortable with that ambiguity. It’s kind of like the fake news thing. The first wave, people got duped by it. But there’s a reaction where the people are going to question the validity of sources more, I hope. And the same thing will happen with dark patterns, or even just deceptive practices. A lot of focus will go to questions like, “Is your data really secure?” “Is the company you’re dealing with being truthful?” “Can you explore your data?”

Co.Design: So the consumer is going to push back. They’re going to care more, not just get numb and care less?

SG: Another example is YouTube. There’s so much controversy with ads on violent videos, or Pew Die Pie, and I think it just shows that YouTube and Google weren’t ready to deal with any of that. Same with Facebook. And they don’t have any policies that make sense in place. They’ll do nothing and then they’ll overreact. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing people are, up to now, only a tiny minority of people cared about these issues. Now YouTubers have huge audiences. I don’t think you can treat them the same way. I think it will be the same thing for every big service like this.
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Co.Design: What else is exciting you in design right now? What’s rocking your world?

SG: I’m really excited about all the new design tools like Adobe XD, Figma. Sketch is doing pretty well, Framer. I grew up with Photoshop, and for 10 to 15 years, that was the only thing you had, and nobody ever questioned if you could do something better, and nobody ever wondered why were we using something called ‘Photoshop’ to design websites. Now, I’m glad we’re moving away from that and using tools tailored for web, designing UX, and so on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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You Never Thought You’d Tear Up Watching An Ikea Ad About A Bag[Still: Ikea]

Ikea’s bright-blue Frakta bag has become something of a dark-horse design icon. Who would’ve guessed a 99-cent crinkly plastic tote would be as beloved and as indispensable, to some, as an iPhone?

Now, Ikea is taking advantage of the bag’s status in a new ad that tugs at the heartstrings.

Amid a montage of people around the world—-old and young, rich and poor, rural and urban–using the bag myriad ways, the ad’s narrator asks, “Why should function and quality be a privilege for the few? That question is behind everything we do. So in a way, when you carry this blue bag around, you carry a lot of the stuff we believe in as well.”

Ikea casts the bag in a democratic light, showing how it’s a does-it-all-design–grocery bag, makeshift umbrella, beach tote–in virtually every scenario: vacation, biking, at home, at work, even when kicking out your ex and all his junk. In Ikea’s eyes, the bag is common ground for everyone. At a time when we’re becoming more culturally insular and retreating into our bubbles, it’s a heartwarming sentiment (despite its obvious consumerist origins). Frakta for president?

    06.07.17

Don’t Blame Us If You Waste Your Day With This Neural Network Drawing Tool
1/16 [Image: courtesy Jonathan Bobrow]

Neural nets have been trained on vast databases of all kinds of images–dogs and cats, cities, Pokemon, penises. When you try to train one on pictures of people, things get creepy–and now you can play around with such a neural net yourself, transforming your idle doodles into fleshy, leering blobs.

[Image: pix2pix]

To demonstrate how machine learning works, one Dutch radio station has trained a neural network on hundreds of drawings and images of one of its reporters. When you draw a face, the program translates your sketch into what’s supposed to be a photorealistic image, based on its database of drawings of reporter Lara Rense. But the results are generally horrifying, mixing fleshy shapes with dark hair to create monstrous images that resemble a distorted human face. Or balls (see image eight in our slideshow).

[Image: pix2pix]
The radio station used the Pix2Pix neural network. It can be trained on thousands of photos to generate a photorealistic image from a sketch.

[Image: courtesy Jonathan Bobrow]
Fair warning, the program is intensively addictive. The Co.Design team nearly broke Slack uploading sketches of everything from Trump to a bicycle to Magic Mike. Try it yourself here–and send your best drawings to CoDTips@fastcompany.com. We’ll publish the best ones.

1/16 Submitted by: Dan Puchalla


s take you seriously. Jesus!” Exasperated, he turned to his VP. “Gonna have to fit ’em in the truck.”advertisement

The problem? My business partner’s new Prius. Apparently, the client thought plant managers for municipal engine facilities wouldn’t take kindly to brand consultants (pansies) driving a foreign (what?!) hybrid (get a rope).

As five of us crowded into the cab of his Chevy pickup, he spat good-naturedly. “And for chrissakes, don’t talk about ‘green energy.’ Keep that stuff out of it — no environmental crap. These guys don’t wanna hear it!” It was an odd request, considering his company engineered components which could not only upgrade and extend the life of a 60-year-old industrial engine indefinitely, but also convert it to biodiesel. My partner and I exchanged glances and kept silent.

Clean energy has a major image problem. Among skeptics, its value is debatable, at best. But as the experience with our client illustrates, it’s worse than that: For detractors, clean energy options are less powerful, less masculine, less authentic, less American. Clean energy, and environmentally friendly options in general, are in trouble when it comes to broad acceptance in the mass market — and the branding profession is uniquely positioned to change the odds.

Ironically, our best bet for helping the environment might just be to convince eco-friendly brands to stop talking about it.
Repositioning the Category

Climate change is the most pressing environmental issue of our time. As global temperatures rise, it’s imperative that we invest in solar and clean energy solutions in order to cut CO2 emissions and reverse the damage being caused by greenhouse gasses. Government, business, and citizens must pull together to save the environment — and ourselves. Solar power: Energy for a greener planet.

If you’re nodding your head as you read this, there’s something you should know: We lost half the American public at “climate change.”


A few dispiriting facts: while 70% of the U.S. population believes climate change is happening, only half believe it’s caused by human activity. And in the latest Pew poll — prioritizing issues the public feels the government should be focused on solving — climate change ranks 18th out of 21. (Concerns like terrorism and the economy rank highest.)

In a recent Sierra Club article chronicling his journey from climate denier to climate activist, former Congressman Bob Inglis explains part of the problem: As a Republican, he initially thought it was all “a bunch of hooey.” If Al Gore was talking, he was against it.

According to Inglis, a major problem is that, for decades, the climate conversation has been led by the left, using language that reflects progressive values. Framed in liberal ideology and steeped in leftist politics, it’s an issue half the country rejects as soon as it’s raised. Approaches to convince the right that climate change 1.) is real and 2.) needs to be addressed must shift to be effective.

Progressive messages about interdependence, pulling together, saving the planet, and eco-justice don’t resonate with conservatives — who instead value individualism, American ingenuity, free enterprise, boot-strap prosperity, and hard work. Worse, Inglis warns that the right sees progressives as self-righteous alarmists who envision an apocalyptic future in which “we all walk instead of drive, do with less, and eat bugs.” It’s easy to laugh here, but the perception is real — and that’s a real problem. We need to be on the same side.

What would get a conservative audience excited about solar power? Let’s reposition the pitch:

America needs energy independence, job creation, and clean air and water for working families. And Republicans are poised to be innovators in the field — since free enterprise can solve problems more efficiently than big government. American ingenuity applied to solar power will mean economic growth and prosperity while ensuring our beautiful country stays that way. Solar power: Energy, made in America.


Conservatives used to own the idea of conservation — and could, again. There’s nothing in right wing ideology to prevent investment in conservation-minded enterprise. These days, however, the divide is so deepthat even otherwise staunch conservatives who challenge the party line are suspect: Hostility toward climate activism cost Ingliss his seat in 2010.
[Photo: peangdao/iStock]
Changing the Conversation

Reframing clean energy is one thing. But the truth is, partisan disagreement isn’t the whole picture. Global warming is the type of threat humans are worst at dealing with — our lack of motivation to solve long-term, somewhat abstract problems is well documented. Few people believe they’ll be affected by climate change personally — or that individual actions make a difference. Even among believers, the issue lacks urgency. Which puts policies and products designed to address climate change at a potential disadvantage in the mass market.

The fact of the matter is, climate change doesn’t sell. It’s time to talk about something else. But what?

What’s your first thought when you hear the name Tesla? Chances are the words “fast,” “cool,” and “expensive” come to mind before “environmentally friendly.” While a Tesla car runs on clean energy, it’s never the first thing consumers think of. In fact, the Tesla owners I interviewed admitted that environmental impact was not the main driver in their purchase decision. Performance, design, and convenience (hello, carpool lane) topped the list, with the clean energy aspect as a welcome plus. While egregious styling and clunky operations make most clean air vehicles feel like a penalty, Tesla’s sleek lines and “ludicrous” mode inspire admiration, envy, and internet posts. It’s not just the right thing to drive — it’s the cool thing to drive. A Tesla is sexy.

And in their latest move, the company has absorbed SolarCity into an impressive portfolio of vertically integrated systems — including home storage batteries and high-end solar tiles — newly branded as Tesla Energy.

To date, branding in solar has been uniformly mediocre. Unexceptional naming conventions abound (Sunthis, Solarthat), with brand identities ranging from dull and engineering-oriented to generic lifestyle concepts — easily confused with roofing companies, or bland home-furnishing stores promoting a summer sale. When something does manage to stand out, like this funny commercial for Sunrun (whose name sounds like a nasty digestive malfunction), that old, tired progressive framing is firmly in place — with a nebbish liberal insisting he’s in it for the money. Sunrun invokes the frame even as the ad “rejects” it.


Growing clean energy is going to require moving from commodity-based thinking into the realm of self-image and aspiration. The majority of clean brands currently rely on the category itself to sell products, rather than moving forward with a bold agenda of their own. Think of another market — athletic shoes, for example. Foot Locker depends on consumer interest in the brands they carry to draw people into their stores, rather than their own efforts. (Fair enough; they’re an outlet, not a manufacturer). Nike, on the other hand, creates desire for what would otherwise be a niche product (how many people actually need a $225 pair of cross trainers?) — thereby redefining and expanding the category. SolarCity rebranded as Tesla Energy will do the same thing, adding attributes of innovation and style carried over from their line of luxury cars. When more brands begin to behave similarly, we can expect interest in the category to increase exponentially.

Tesla has done what all clean tech products should do: start a conversation that people want to have. Rather than leading with environmental impact, the brand speaks to performance, innovation, and high design values.

When the American auto industry follows suit to make clean air vehicles desirable across the market spectrum, emissions will plummet. Nearly a third of CO2 emissions come from automobiles. With trucks (some of worst polluters) comprising 59.5 % of car sales in 2017, it’s great to see Tesla developing one. Electric motors are ideal for providing low-end torque — perfect for hauling heavy payloads. It’s an idea long overdue, but we’re going to need more players to change the game. With the price of batteries plummeting, the only thing preventing electric Jeeps, Fords, and Chevy pickups from dominating the market in a few years is category perception.
[Photo: Tesla]
Talking about What Matters Most

And speaking of Chevys, my client — remember him — the one who wouldn’t let us drive a Prius to the power plant?

We listened to him. We listened to his customers. And we rebranded the company. There was a lot of “green” messaging we could have brought to the conversation. Want to reduce a power plant’s carbon footprint? Try keeping 40 tons of iron out of landfill by upgrading your engine instead of replacing it. Or convert it to run on biodiesel — all while outperforming any other entry in its class.

We didn’t talk about the environmental aspect of the Powerhouse offer, because it didn’t matter to the audience. What did matter was innovation, performance, expertise, reliability, and pride in American industry. So, yeah. We talked about that.
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Changing the Game

Creating a groundswell of demand for clean products and systems will go a long way towards solving climate change. But mass market consumers will never want them because they’re “the right thing to do.” We’ll want them because they’re high-performance. Because they’re smart. Because they make us independent. Because they’re stylish, convenient, reliable, rebellious, or cool. The key is framing and persuasion. This is where the branding profession excels — and where we can add the most value.

Education is about facts. Brands are about feelings. We are failing as a nation to change our behavior to address climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that we need to. Activists and progressives may dislike the idea of appealing to consumer’s short-term interests and self image in order to get them to do what’s best for the planet. But providing accurate information doesn’t change behavior, because it’s too easily discounted. People don’t want to feel lectured — they want to feel smart. And they want to know their needs and interests are understood.

Sustainability shouldn’t be an apology positioning — expecting that people are willing to give up something for their values. As clean brands become as good or better than the alternatives, shedding sustainability as primary message will be key in crossing over from niche to mass markets. Clean energy needs to leapfrog environmental discussions and simply make products desirable.

It’s time. Let’s do this.

Kimberly Cross heads up Cakewalk Creative, a San Francisco branding consultancy. In addition to creating identities for brands like KFC and Quiznos, she’s interested in the intersection of branding and environmental issues. She’s currently collaborating with StoryCats on “The Sinking Manhattan: A Drinking Guide to Climate Change.”




    06.06.17 wwdc

Why Does Apple Think It Can Get Away With Selling Overpriced Stuff?
Just because it’s worked before doesn’t mean it can work today.
Why Does Apple Think It Can Get Away With Selling Overpriced Stuff?
[Source Photos: Apple]

By Mark Wilson6 minute Read

I want to tell you a story about three amazing products.
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The world’s most popular smart home speaker.

The world’s most popular laptop computer.

And the world’s most popular smartphone.

Which belong to Apple?

The speaker? That’s the Amazon Echo. The laptop? It’s a Lenovo or HP. And the phone? Currently, it’s Apple’s iPhone. In the past, Samsung’s Galaxy line has challenged that, though. And if you consider all of the Chromebook laptops and Android smartphones in the world made by different manufacturers? Google wins twice, Amazon once, and Apple not at all.

Most investors and fans will assure you that this isn’t a problem. Apple is one of the most profitable companies in history, after all, making $215 billion in revenue last year. And that’s because the company makes money by selling hardware, on average, for about two to three times the price it takes the company to build it.
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[Source Photo: Apple]
The $650 iPhone 7 has a build estimate of $220 (not counting research and development)–which is actually high for iPhones, historically. Apple made nearly 70% of its revenue specifically from selling iPhones last year. Add in iPads and Macs, and you’re at 85% of Apple’s revenue. Say what you will about those margins, but consumers have deemed it fair with their wallets, paying a surcharge on industry-leading industrial design, commonly dubbed the Apple Tax.

But what happens when our objects matter less than the software inside of them? When Apple’s best UX breakthroughs like touchscreens have been copied? When Siri can’t keep up with the Google Assistant, iCloud is a middle schooler in the face of Amazon Web Services, and nobody needs iMovie because they just Snap and Instagram anyway?

Apple reveals its ultimate strategy: put fingers in ears. Sell its latest product, the smart home HomePod speaker, for $350–or about the cost of 2.5 Amazon Alexas or Google Homes.

Apple will continue to make money off of its premium hardware, while its competitors continue cutting corners to sell devices at cost, but make up the money with ever-present services in your life rather than gadgets in your home.

Why not? It has worked before. Apple introduced the strategy most successfully with the iPod line in 2001, and perfected it through the release of subsequent editions of iPods, iPhones, and iPads.

Compare that to what Amazon does. While tight-lipped on the matter, Jeff Bezos has said the company makes no money off Kindle hardware sales, and one report says the Echo has actually cost Amazon hundreds of millions of dollars to date. The company’s annual report also reveals that even Prime is something of a loss lead product. But Amazon keeps consumers close, because it believes there’s money in the service end, sooner or later. Now, the company makes billions off of Amazon Web Services. That’s right, all of the server infrastructure it built for its own business of serving people, Amazon now sells to power much of the web.
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[Source Photo: Apple]
Google is in a similar spot. The Google Home speaker is not a profitable piece of hardware, but Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s claim to shareholders is that with such devices, “We are very focused on the consumer experience now . . . I think if you go and create these experiences that work at scale for users, the monetization will follow.”

Services from Search to Android itself are offered freely to consumers. (Manufacturers don’t pay to run Android on their phones, either.) Google’s revenue primarily comes from serving us ads, for, again, keeping the consumer so close, that it can find money to be made in the digital bits, not the physical blocks.

Amazon won’t reveal how many Alexas it has sold–at least one estimate says about 10 million–but in a sense, it’s an irrelevant stat to the balance sheet. Amazon only needs to worry that, if and when people order toilet paper or Domino’s pizza with their voices, Amazon has a product ready to take the order. Likewise, the Chromebook has started eating into dwindling iPad and Mac sales for all sorts of reasons, but chiefly, that schools can buy students a fully functional laptop for less than the price of an iPad, and Macbooks are all more than $1,000. And Google gets to raise the next generation of internet users on Chrome, Search, Google Docs, and other services core to the intimacy of Google’s ultimate ad play.

Are Kindles or Chromebooks as polished as anything Jony Ive would let off the assembly line? Generally, no. But the best design isn’t always the most polished, with the tightest tolerances and finest materials. Mass-produced goods first and foremost have to be affordable, too.

[Source Photo: Apple]
Back to Apple. To sell an iPhone at cost would literally destroy the business. Only about 10% of the company’s income is off of services, detached from glass and aluminum.

Even Apple seems to understand that hardware is ultimately a limited business in 2017. Because the company call its apps, not its phones or tablets, its “fastest growing, highest margin” product. Apps that Apple, for the most part, doesn’t even make. But Apple still gets a hefty 30% cut of app sales and in-app purchases.
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In other words, even though it’s a small chunk of Apple’s revenue, the wunderkind of Apple’s business is technically software! Because software you don’t code but can still profit upon are one of the best businesses of all.

So the question becomes: Can Apple keep doubling down on its hardware margins, ignoring the sort of service-level diversification that keeps us using Amazon and Google things all day long, without really giving them another thought? Consider that the middle class is shrinking, and 63% of Americans don’t have $500 in their bank accounts, and the answer is, maybe not. It’s a stark outlook for Apple, that only gets worse if you consider that, if the next billion customers are in Africa and India, hardware needs to be cheaper. Here, Apple is at a disadvantage. Geeky arguments over whether the iPhone 7’s curvy edges are superior to the Pixel’s machined frame are moot when smartphones need to be $500 cheaper to be in your life at all (and not have a screen that costs over $100 to repair).

However, if Apple has any particular hope, it’s this: Amazon and Google are both invasive with consumer data. These companies track our activity largely with the goal of selling us something at just the right moment. Apple is far more transparent. It’s actively pushing machine learning to the device level by developing an on-device machine learning API and working on a specialized machine learning chip to bring advanced AI to your phone, theoretically, without all your data going to a server, where it might be accessible by the government, advertisers, and more. It’s making cross-device encryption a standard, which means a federal agent who seizes your phone at a border crossing–which happened during the Muslim ban–can’t as easily download its contents and read it all. And most of all, that new HomePod speaker, powered by Siri, will anonymize and encrypt everything you say. That means your private questions are not tied to your Apple ID for later reference. Such is not the case for Amazon’s and Google’s assistants.

Apple has and will make trade-offs to protect consumer privacy. (Many of us, at the end of the day, get some value out of a Google knowing our history of things we’ve searched, even if it’s constantly creepy.) It might not work, but at least we’re getting a clear picture of Apple’s big gamble going into the next decade: that people will continue paying more than they should for hardware, with the hope that it’s not just nicely designed, but that it operates with discretion, too.
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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    05.31.17

We Studied Brands Around The World. What Consumers Want Isn’t What You Think
We asked more than 5,000 people to tell us about the brands they sought out, then we analyzed what those brands did. The results were surprisingly consistent.
We Studied Brands Around The World. What Consumers Want Isn’t What You Think
[Photo: Afton Almaraz/Getty Images]

By Brian Millar6 minute Read

Traditional advertising went after “share of mind”–the idea was to get you to associate a brand with a single idea, a single emotion. Volvo: safety. Jaguar: speed. Coke: happiness. The Economist: success. Bang, bang, bang, went the ads, hammering the same idea into your mind every time you saw one.
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Advertising briefs evolved to focus the creatives on a single USP and a single message. Tell them we’re the Ultimate Driving Machine. Tell them in a thrilling way. It worked when you saw ads infrequently on television, in a Sunday magazine, or on a billboard on your morning commute.

It hasn’t worked online. Audiences have stopped engaging with advertising. Big brands like Pepsi and P&G have slashed investment in Facebook spending. The agencies’ response has been to create new formats of ads that take over a page, dominate our mobiles’ screens, and generally scream at us. And when somebody screams at you for long enough, you put in earplugs and ignore them. Or, in the case of the online world, you install an ad blocker, as much of the U.K. population has now done.

Yet there are many brands online that people don’t want to block. We asked over 5,000 people around the world to tell us about the brands whose content they actively sought out, then analyzed what those brands did. The results were surprisingly consistent. Popular brands had multifaceted personalities. They could make you laugh, or cheer, or lean forward and take notes. They’d stopped hammering away at a share of mind, and were expanding to achieve a share of emotion.

Some of Victoria’s Secret’s biggest hits have been funny: the hijinx of models on Instagram, blooper reels on YouTube. Taco Bell is beautiful on Instagram, hilarious on Twitter, and inspiring in its online Live Mas campaign. Movember has grown into a global movement on a tiny budget by creating Facebook content that celebrates the glories of mustaches, moves us with cancer survivors’ stories and provides insane moments of slapstick.

    When bestie got you like ???? #regram @taylor_hill

    A post shared by Victoria's Secret (@victoriassecret) on Sep 28, 2015 at 11:13am PDT

So we commissioned a second piece of research to help us understand the emotional landscape of the internet. Forget advertising for a second: What is it that makes the internet so compelling that countries have to pass laws to force us to tear ourselves away from it while driving? Our study showed that there were four kinds of emotionally compelling content: funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring. When we checked back over the most successful online brands, yup, most of them did all four.
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1/5 Men aged 16-24 have a broad range of tastes, reflecting their “snacky” approach to content. They over-index (darker segments) on satirical humor and pop-aesthetics things like manga. [Data: © The EIA 2017]
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Yet most online brands still do only one, as if they’re still appearing on television once a night, rather than following us around as we chat to friends on Facebook, search for inspiration on Pinterest, or scream into the void on Twitter. No wonder engagement is plunging and ad blockers are on the rise.

To increase your share of emotion, and join the ranks of the brands people love online, you need to ask a new set of questions about your audience:

What kinds of things do my audience find funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring?

Where does my audience go for those kinds of content?

How does my brand produce content that will mesh with more of my audience’s emotional needs?

Take BMW, for example. Our data shows that people with an affinity for the brand-–its core audience–love sensual beauty most of all online. They’re also in the market for laughs, and love parody. They find thrilling things inspiring, hate heartwarming stuff (don’t you love it when the data confirms your prejudices), and have little sense of wonder.
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The good news for BMW is that it’s nailing the “thrilling” genre of inspiring content. The bad news is that “thrilling” represents about 15% of a BMW driver’s emotional life online. Much of the rest of BMW’s content is what we’d categorize as inspiring–TED Talks, designing for the super-future. They’re completely missing the bigger emotional picture.

Jaguar isn’t. The company’s “Good To Be Bad” campaign completely nailed parody, a “blue ocean emotion” for the luxury automotive category. It brought surprise and delight to a rather stuffy brand and forced its audience to reevaluate its range.

You don’t have to be multinational to be multifaceted. Rude Health is a great example of a small U.K. brand that’s grown a cult online following through its unpredictable content. It alternates beautiful food images with racy humor, authoritative rants about the food industry, and inspiring healthy lifestyle tips.

Useful:

    *FINAL TICKETS* AVAILABLE FOR THE FOLLOWING EVENTS IN #YoureInRudeHealthWeek: WoodCarving lesson with @grainandknot. Tuesday 6th June. 6.30-9.30. Edible Cosmetics Masterclass and SupperClub with @madeinhackney. Weds 7th June. 6.30-9.30pm. Yoga, Cocktails and Gong Baths with @soulcircusfestival. 7.30-9.30 Sat 10th June. Evening of Self Massage class, Reiki and @jamukitchen tonic. 6.30-9.30 Thurs 8th June. You only regret the things you don't do in life.

    A post shared by RUDE HEALTH (@rudehealth) on May 29, 2017 at 10:00am PDT

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Inspiring:

    Is this you?

    A post shared by RUDE HEALTH (@rudehealth) on May 19, 2017 at 1:16am PDT

Beautiful:

    Oreos step aside. We've got rude health crackers and @chicpfood's cacao hummus instead. Drop by the @rudehealthcafe tomorrow to sample some chocolate themed @chicpfood hummus, Rude Health granola and porridge pots. Easter n all.

    A post shared by RUDE HEALTH (@rudehealth) on Apr 12, 2017 at 6:36am PDT

Funny:

    You’re in rude health when… you get your kit off for a good cause. You stand up and speak up for what you believe in. You cycle naked through the city. _______________________________ Ever wondered what it would be like to bike through your home city in nothing but your birthday suit? Sick of the lack of cycle lane on your route to work? Frustrated about the cult of the car? What about the green alternatives? Join us as part of #YoureInRudeHealthWeek and get your kit off for a good cause at the London Naked Bike Ride 2017. More info in bio.

    A post shared by RUDE HEALTH (@rudehealth) on May 16, 2017 at 10:05am PDT

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Online, being multidimensional beats being single-minded. Surprise beats consistency. Share of emotion beats share of mind. The best online brands have always understood this instinctively. Now we have the data to prove it.

Brian Millar is cofounder of the Emotional Intelligence Agency, an internet data and strategy company.

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    05.02.17

22 Movies And Shows Every Designer Should Watch On Netflix
Netflix’s queue is constantly changing. Here’s a guide to the latest stuff.
22 Movies And Shows Every Designer Should Watch On Netflix

By Mark Wilson7 minute Read

(This is an updated version of a list we published two years ago–the majority of which was no longer streamable, given Netflix’s content churn. We miss you, Objectified!)
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The Netflix queue is one of the most dangerous time-sinks on earth. But to designers, it can actually be a great source of inspiration, with everything from design documentaries to films that are pure visual art. Here are 22 must-see design movies and shows on Netflix.
[Photo: Magnolia Pictures]
Iris

In this very watchable, critically acclaimed short documentary, interior designer and round-glasses-loving fashion icon Iris Apfel is profiled by documentary legend Albert Maysles. Even though she’s in her 90s, Apfel still quips, and dresses, better than you do today. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Blinkworks]
Indie Game: The Movie

What’s it like to make a hit video game with a staff of one or two people, taking meetings with Microsoft execs before going back to 12 hours of pixel painting? This very watchable documentary profiles two teams of designers while they created Super Meat Boy and Fez, a couple of the biggest critical and financial indie hits of the past decade, in a high-stakes race to make both deadlines and ends meet. [Watch here.] There’s also a sequel now. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Touchstone Pictures]
The Films Of Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom are both currently available for streaming. Who can ever get enough of the quirky prop magic created by Anderson’s long-time collaborator, Kris Moran? (Not us.) [Watch here and here.]

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei is China’s most prominent artist-activist, known for openly challenging the Chinese government (and even being imprisoned for it). The documentary takes you inside his studio, work, and philosophies. [Watch here.]
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[Photo: Exit Through the Gift Shop]
Exit Through The Gift Shop

If you haven’t heard about this “documentary” about graffiti artist Banksy, we’d rather not spill the beans. Come for the street art. Stay (or leave) for the conspiracy theories. [Watch here.]

Metropolis

Yes, it was filmed in 1927. Yes that means it’s silent. But Metropolis is still an amazing piece of architectural sci-fi, set in a dystopian future in which just about everything has gone to crap except for the unbelievable set budgets. It’s hard to believe that the film was made before the advent of computer-generated imagery. Director Fritz Lang relied on tricks like mirrors and miniatures to pull off the film’s special effects. If you can’t take the pace of the movie’s narrative, we won’t judge. Just load it up in the background for a bit of visual splendor. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Happy Movie]
Happy

What makes us happy? Really? This hit documentary by Roko Belic profiles the question by profiling different happy people from around the world, examining the question through spirituality and science. It’s more of a survey of the field than a conclusive or authoritative documentary, but it will leave you with a greater understanding of what is, perhaps, the most important topic in human existence. [Watch here.]

Sky Ladder

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang likes to blow things up. Sky Ladder is a gorgeously filmed portrait of his work, with a subtle respect for sound that will make you feel the fizzles and booms. [Watch here.]
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Abstract: The Art Of Design

Produced in-house as a Netflix Original, this series is basically Mind of a Chef for designers, which profiles the design elite including starchitect Bjarke Ingels, Nike footwear designer Tinker Hatfield, and Pentagram graphic designer Paula Scher. Critical the series is not. But there’s no better portrait of the place and time of design today than this slickly produced series. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Long Shot Factory]
If You Build It

This inspiring, beloved documentary follows a group of North Carolina high school students as they learn to design and construct a new building for their school. The movie opens with a TED talk about the project itself–so there’s a certain self-aware pat on the back that might make the film cloying to some. But watch a kid build a twisting chicken coop that looks straight out of an architectural biennial, and it’s tough to be too cynical about the power of design thinking. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Untold Creative]
The True Cost

In the era of social media, the fashion industry has gotten faster. Trends go viral, and manufacturers like Zara, Uniqlo, and H&M have responded by transforming from seasonal lines, often planned a year in advance, to clothing that goes from factory to store shelves in a matter of weeks. But there’s a price to all of this surprisingly cheap clothing. This documentary by Andrew Morgan examines fast fashion’s unadvertised sins. [Watch here.]
[Image: Focus Features]
Kubo And The Two Strings

What happens when you combine some of Japan’s most beautiful arts–origami, ink washes, and ukiyo-e wood painting–with stop-motion animation? You get a beautiful movie also happens to be only the second animated film in history to be nominated for an Academy Award in Best Visual Effects. But since it grossed well under $100 million in its 2016 release, barely making back its own budget, there’s a good chance you’ve never seen it. [Watch here.]

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Mind Of A Chef And Chef’s Table

Your friend has told you that you need to watch Mind of a Chef and Chef’s Table 100 times now. Your friend is always right. So if you haven’t partaken in these two series, we guess it’s time to enjoy some of the most beautiful plates of food come together in slow motion–even if the chef-as-genius motif is a bit overplayed. [Watch here and here.]
Encounters at the end of the world

In this Werner Herzog documentary–a filmmaker who has been accused of artfully blending fact and fiction–Herzog takes us to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a place of desolate landscapes to explore “the prospect of man’s oblivion.” The visuals contrast between vast, empty spaces and tight quarters where you feel almost too close to the film’s subjects. As with all Herzog’s work, it jumps between the sublime and mundane, the inspirational and the utterly boring. [Watch here.]

Tales By Light

If you’ve ever watched the behind-the-scenes of Planet Earth, you know: The stories behind the photography can be every bit as exciting as the captured moments themselves. Tales by Light is a Netflix Original that profiles nature photographers at work. It’s all a bit meta. You’re watching photographers, getting these amazing photos–all being captured by camera operators, who are getting the amazing video that you’re actually watching of the photographers at work. But if you’ve ever had the fantasy of traveling the globe, camera in hand–well, this series won’t cure it. [ Watch here.]
[Photo: IMDB]
Sneakerheadz

Let us get this out of the way first: Sneakerheadz is not a great documentary. But it’s a superb primer to a cultural movement and big business you may know nothing about. This very hand-holding documentary goes as far to define words like “colorway” before explaining how Run DMC planted the seeds of Adidas’s business strategy today. Critics agree that the film backed off where it should have pushed. Indeed, one of the more interesting subtexts is the evolution of the sneaker market itself–from a hobby that was about originality and discoverability, to one driven by carefully marketed, corporately coordinated “drops” of limited-edition kicks. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Disney and Pixar]
Finding Dory

If you don’t have a child in your life who has forced you to watch Finding Dory–and then watch Finding Dory again–it’s a must-see purely for its visual splendor. In an age when Hollywood computer animation cuts every corner possible, Pixar demonstrates the height of the medium, with an impossibly intricate octopus (the studio’s most complicated character built to date), and scenes that squeeze what must be a thousand or more fish into a single tank. It’s hard to believe there are enough animators in the world to build such a thing. [Watch here.]
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Fresh Dressed

Today, it’s a given that hip-hop culture has influenced the catwalk–Fresh Dressed is a documentary by writer Sacha Jenkins that takes you into the history–for looks at the origins of trends like fat laces and oversized clothing. Plus, interviews with famous faces like Kanye West and Sean Combs keep things moving. [Watch here.]
[Photo: Dogwoof Ltd.]
Dior and I

As Raf Simmons prepares his first couture line for Christian Dior, preeminent fashion documentary director Frédéric Tcheng follows him through the design process with a single camera and seemingly unfettered access. Unlike many design documentaries, which are more promotional than critical, Dior and I reads imperfect and honest–especially in a simple scene in a car, as Simmons provides some seemingly earnest introspection about his own career and how people see him. [Watch here.]

Black Mirror

In 2015, Netflix commissioned its own run of the hit British show Black Mirror, which gives a Twilight Zone twist to technologies of the modern day. By many reports, the series is only getting better over time. And in a world full of social networking, AI, and augmented reality, it’s not just science fiction anymore, either. It’s a demonstration of what the world could become if technology and design choose to consume our world instead of improving it. [Watch here.]
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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