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Why Helvetica was a bad font choice for Yosemite

When Apple announced that the next version of OS X, Yosemite was to use Helvetica Neue instead of Lucida Grande, I was disappointed, but not surprised. The inevitable harmonising of OS X and iOS has meant the former taking design cues from the latter more recent system.

Helvetica looks nice in lighter and heavy weights shown large, but for small menus like this I detest it. Lucida Grande may have been missing an italic version, and looked clunky in bold above 14px, but it works well as an interface font. It also had some character, without being in your face. In a small text context, Helvetica is the absence of character, a bland ‘default’. A nothing.

Fast Company interviewed Tobias Frere-Jones, who identifies the problem with Helvetica succinctly:

Despite its grand reputation, Helvetica can’t do everything. It works well in big sizes, but it can be really weak in small sizes. Shapes like ‘C’ and ‘S’ curl back into themselves, leaving tight “apertures”—the channels of white between a letter’s interior and exterior. So each shape halts the eye again and again, rather than ushering it along the line. The lowercase ‘e,’ the most common letter in English and many other languages, takes an especially unobliging form. These and other letters can be a pixel away from being some other letter, and we’re left to deal with flickers of doubt as we read.

Read the full article on Fast Company Design

Good Management is Like The Beatles

My model of management is the Beatles. The reason I say that is because each of the key people in the Beatles kept the others from going off in the directions of their bad tendencies. They sort of kept each other in check. And then when they split up, they never did anything as good… so John kept Paul from being a teenybopper and Paul kept John from drifting out into the cosmos, and it was magic. And George, in the end, I think provided a tremendous amount of soul to the group.

I don’t know what Ringo did.

Steve Jobs in an interview from 2004

Truly, it is made of unicorns

Is a Macbook Air up to the job of being a primary working machine? It has for me…

Since 1995, I’ve always used a Mac laptop as my primary (and only) work machine. When at the office, I plug it into a large screen with keyboard and mouse, and then at home or travelling I’ve got absolutely everything I need with me. Having seen the new generation Macbook Air in the flesh/aluminium, and how small and light it is compared to my unibody MacBook Pro, I wondered if it could be the way forward. The fact that I now cycle to work gave me more impetus to get something that wouldn’t be so heavy on my back.

Just as Frank Chimero says in his post about the Air, you have to know what your needs are first. I wanted the power of my 15” MacBook Pro, but in a more portable form, that would allow me to run my day to day apps, and in particular the two resource hungry ones:

  • Adobe Illustrator CS5
  • VMWare Fusion with an XP and Windows 7 disk images

From what I read of people’s experiences on Twitter, I was confident it would work. The lady I spoke to at Apple Leasing felt different though, and quite fervently wanted me to get a Pro, but I ignored it and went for the top spec Air – 13” with 4gb RAM, 256gb SSD drive and 2.13ghz processor. The resolution is the same as my MacBook Pro, so while the screen size is 2” smaller, I fit in the same as I always did before.

It’s absolutely amazing.

Amazing, light and jolly fast.

The Air is leaps and bounds faster than my Pro, despite having a less powerful processor and graphics card. The speed gains must therefore come from the SSD drive. All computers (especially Macs) feel fast when they’re fresh out of the box. Over the months things start to slow down though, so it’ll be interesting to see if that happens with SSD. At the moment, restarts are matter of a few seconds, and the biggest test for me, my Windows 7 virtual disk with aero enabled, runs incredibly smoothly. On the Pro it would drag everything down with it, now I can use it without any issues.

When used on a desk, the wedge shaped body means my hands sit so much more comfortably than with the MacBook Pro – there’s no edge to dig into my wrists. It’s dramatically lighter as well of course.

I don’t miss the CD drive either, and 256gb is just enough to work with and keep a good iTunes Library around. Having Spotify helps too, until a proper cloud-music solution appears. Neither have I particularly missed the ethernet and firewire ports.

I’ve run it in clamshell mode (Macbook closed, connected to an external screen) all day without it feeling like it’s going to boil – something I’ve never been able to do with a Mac laptop. Many prefer to have the screen open, and make use of the extra space, I prefer one screen. In fact with the Air, it’s beneficial to do so, as the RAM is shared with the graphics card, it’s not powering two screens. It works great with my 24” LED Cinema Display (you can only get the 27” these days).

There’s only two negatives that I’ve found: Firstly, in some tasks, such as Flash, the fans can really kick in. It doesn’t get particularly hot (like the MacBook Pros always did), but it is rather noisy. In fact, running it in clamshell mode can exacerbate this, but it still doesn’t overheat.

The other is display issues after being connected to my 24” LED Cinema Display. If I don’t makes sure that the display looks right on the Air before I close the lid to sleep it, I can’t get it to come back on wake. The only solution is to force restart.

However, these are still pretty small negatives compared to benefits of this super-lightweight, fast workhorse. Hands down, it is the best Mac I’ve ever owned.

I really don’t regret going Air one bit, but as always, your mileage and needs, will vary…

Apple TV 2, double take


After the announcement of the new Apple TV my disappointment was perhaps inevitable. I try not to let the rumours build up my expectations of a unannounced product, but in the case of the AppleTV I couldn’t help it.

2 weeks later, and I’m coming around to the idea. I’ve calmed down about the whole rental thing, and realised that I’ve missed the ramifications of Airplay. Thinking of Apple TV 2 as more of an airport express that does video and photos, and it suddenly starts to feel right. The ability to stream from Macs and iOS devices is very appealing, and could well be the winning aspect. I can see how much better this is than syncing in the long-run, I just wish it could pick up content from a NAS drive rather than having to have a Mac running all the time.

It’ll be really interesting to see the tear-downs when the box starts shipping. How much local storage is there? Enough to run apps, or hack it? Even Steve Jobs hasn’t ruled that out

He tells Bloomberg Businessweek that when the time is right, Apple could open an App Store for the TV that could do for television sets what all those apps have done for the iPhone.

Who knows how far off that is though?

In the meantime, I’m eyeing up and deliberating over both an Apple TV2 and a Boxee Box (finally available to pre-order in the UK from Amazon !), but only one can be purchased of course.

Apple TV 2


As I’ve waffled about before on The Hickensian, I’m on the never ending search for the right digital media centre setup. For quite a while now, the PS3 has given me what I want, due to it’s ability to do many things in one package. The only areas where it lets me down is that its too fussy about video formats, and a lack of folders to organise videos on its hard drive. It wins over a HTPC for me, because it’s designed to be controlled by a remote, rather than keyboard and mouse.

I also own an original Apple TV. While its 160gb HD isn’t enough for a movie collection, it is for my music, and it grabs new albums from my Mac without me having to think about it. I can then play anything I want via the lovely Remote App for iOS. Musically, it’s a setup I’m very happy with.

Recently, I’ve become rather lazy though. Lazy enough to not want to go through the chore ripping and encoding of my DVDs, and have just downloaded movies from the iTunes store instead. This it very much at odds with my anti-DRM principles, but having a ‘Season Pass’ for Doctor Who this year felt SO GOOD. With the exception of the week delay to get episodes (presumably a BBC restriction) it was convenient, took zero effort, and gave me high quality, legal downloads. I know I’m getting too comfortable in the iTunes ecosystem, but it feels like an easy life. Maybe junk food is a good analogy here? It takes more time to prepare a meal from scratch, but is worth the effort in the end.

I’ve also been experimenting with streaming content on the NAS to the AppleTV, via an always-on Mac. The trouble is, with those files encoded to suit the PS3, they don’t all play well with the AppleTV. The prospect of re-encoding isn’t a pretty one. Something more flexible is needed here.

So, I waited with excitement for the announcement of the new Apple TV this week. The rumours of an iOS based box started me thinking about the possibility of a really flexible device. I could get a BBC iPlayer app, and a Plex or Boxee app to play the contents of my NAS, as well as the DRM stuff I’d bought. I’d convinced myself into thinking that the new iOS Plex App was for this purpose!

It turns out that while the new AppleTV is iOS based, it doesn’t allow the installation of other apps. You could argue that Apple might add this ability later, but I’m not optimistic. The original AppleTV had a plugin framework too with it’s ‘.frappliance’ (Front Row Appliance) files, and it was never used officially. This seems like a real lost opportunity for Apple, but it also makes the new AppleTV even more of a ‘iTunes Storefont’ than it was before. A box for their media, not mine. It’s very similar to Ping, Apple’s new music social network, which is based on iTunes store purchases, rather than Last.fm, which is what I actually listen to.

The rental-only model is a pain too, and my feelings were summed up by Dan Cederholm

Renting is great and all, but not when my kids watch Toy Story 2 645 times in a row.

I prefer to own films, even if they’re DRM restricted. The concept of AirPlay is appealing however and I can see that the Netflix integration is too, but we don’t get it in the UK, and neither do we get a great variety of rental choice on the iTunes store. So, all in all, I’m a bit disappointed. It’s small, good-looking and inexpensive, but doesn’t seem to fulfil the needs of family Hicks.

More promising is the rise of Plex, the Mac-only media centre based on XBMC. On top of a sparkling new version 9 this week, have announced that they’re partnering with LG to integrate their software into a new range of tellys and blu-ray players next year. I don’t plan to upgrade my telly, but I’m hoping that these new resources will see Plex continue to grow.

In the meantime, it’ll be interested to see what the hacker community make of the new Apple TV. Maybe a ‘jailbroken’ ATV with Plex, Boxee and iPlayer is still possible!

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Upcoming Talks

I sometimes pop up at conferences and waffle about design, icon creation in particular. Here's where I'll be next:

An Event Apart Chicago- "Icon Design Process" - 25-26th August 2014

Web Expo Guildford- "Icon Design Process" - 26th September 2014

Beyond Tellerrand Berlin – 3rd-5th November 2014

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