design writing

Designing Metal

It was a w00t moment. It was all the way up.

“You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?”

— Nigel Tufnel
Caricature of Derek Smalls as played by Harry Shearer
Not Nigel Tufnel

First, research and competitive analysis. I pressed the power button on my trusty MacBook Pro, the dulcet tone of the logic board yawning to life. With my client seated next to me slurping on a Pepsi, we surfed the Interwebz. He wanted to incorporate existing design concepts into a new guitar build. Being a fan of heavy metal, it had to have a particular look and feel. It had to be ‘metal.’1

To create a ‘metal’ guitar, you have to place yourself in a unique state of gracelessness. Metal is studded leather and motorcycles, feedback and booze, fractured rainbows and epileptic bunnies frolicking in the Power Tools section of the third aisle of Home Depot.2 Metal is a thunderstorm of angles, offset with sweeping, melodic curves. It’s everywhere filled to the brim with nowhere.

“Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? Eleven. Exactly. One louder.”

— Nigel Tufnel

My client went so far as to craft a wooden mock-up of the guitar to insure it cradled comfortably in his lap. The lower hook opposite the neck offered issue. We wanted to be certain it wouldn’t pierce his leg while playing.3 This guitar need to look the part but we didn’t want to be too clever with it.

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

— Nigel Tufnel
  1. ‘Metal’ in feel. For example, when looking at a photo of Britany Spears, she isn’t ‘metal’ – though in the past one could deduce she might be punk after shaving her melon.
  2. The Power Tools section of Home Depot is actually located in aisle 2 near electrical. If you can’t find it, ask for Phil.
  3. Ironically, this would be very ‘metal’.
design social media technology writing


In the 70’s, most kids I knew wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. The romance of walking on the moon sparkled with a Hollywood sheen. Space travel was our great aspiration to break the chains of gravity on our beautiful, blue pearl of a planet. Most kids embraced the romance.

Now, most kids would rather be YouTubers. Rather than ascend to the Heavens, children deep dive into the rich, dangerous landscapes of the Internet. It’s a different adventure entirely amongst the plump zeroes and emaciated ones that comprise the unreal estate of the Web. The romance is changing from aspirational to commercial. Kids are replacing the freezing vacuum of space with real-time social burnout viewed by a worldwide community that’s not quite communal and a bit less worldly. Don’t believe me? Just review the comments section.

Online communities propelled by social media platforms offer an unprecedented form connectivity. They are catalyzed by entrepreneurship wrapped in capitalism. It rewards prolific posting rather than profound publishing. I don’t believe this is explicitly bad or good, just business as usual. All things being equal, quantity trumps quality.

Quantity is rooted in the attention economy: retinas are revenue. Attention is retention. Popularity breeds income culminating in a bizarre, digital welfare state exploiting our culture’s fascination with celebrity status. The more often you post, the more often you reap the rewards of that communication, either social or financial (or both). Quality be damned, I must publish: if the world doesn’t see me, if I don’t stay ‘out there’, I’m lost in the noise — a dinosaur in a world of mammals.

But which mammals own the world? This dynamic is reflected, funhouse-like, in the fact that social networks own their communities. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, Pinterest, all preen bizarre caricatures of real world community as though words, however thoughtful, can replace presence. They partner with both paid and unpaid creators. Social media networks subsidize publishing with community advertising.

These platforms clearly recognize the power and privilege of community. They do not permit users with large follower counts to export those followers and pursue other distribution channels. There are no nomads on the Internet, just surfers walking the same beaches, capitalizing on the same tasty waves. The community, free to enter individually at anytime, is trapped in that beach. You can check in, but you can’t check out if it costs us ‘likes’. In the larger digital landscape, social is not just status—it is leverage.

Social is the new gravity, chains and all.

design technology writing

“All Empires Vanish”

Wired’s Virginia Heffernan writes an excellent, concise brief on Sheryl Sandberg, the embattled Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of Lean In. Heffernan stages the piece in a interesting way1, focussing not on a #meToo angle or tangentially the feminist perspective though Sandberg’s brand effuses both. 

Instead, Heffernan posits Sandberg’s failure is one of vanity and hubris, not femininity. No single human can do what Sandberg is trying to do: capitalize on self-publishing within the framework of moral obligation.

Facebook has democratized publishing for the world. While there are a litany of technical challenges to this, two ideological problems stand out:

One, the world is untrained in the importance of self-editing. Newspapers, though gasping and choking now, quickly learned the symbiotic importance between writing and editing. Two, mostly unlegislated capitalism is not good for democracy. Bad actors exploit self-publishing for financial and political gain. There are numerous financial incentives in doing so.

Facebook didn’t know what it was getting into. If it did, its leadership is sadly incompetent2. If it didn’t, its leadership is naive of the war-ravaged political and historical context of publishing. Facebook is not a service, as its marketing collateral unequivocally states. It is a publishing platform.

Act accordingly.

  1. Heffernan benefits from contributing articles to Politico, so she is keenly aware of the political lens through which stories can be viewed.
  2. It’s fashionable in the current media landscape to attack Facebook. It’s also fair to say that Facebook’s accomplishments are amazing from a technical standpoint. But there is historical context for the dangers posed by publishing. Adding the layer of publishing for an untrained everyone increases the complexity and severity of those dangers.

design technology


Alphabet’s Waymo division is testing driverless taxis within a limited operating area of Arizona. Apart from the overt business advantages of this technology, I’m still trying to understand how driverless vehicles make life better. I’m certain there are incredibly bright people working on this technology, but I often think that technology should fundamentally support that singular goal: improve life.

Major challenges remain, starting with technical hurdles. A Waymo One taxi tested by Reuters last week proved slow and jerky at times.

Alexandria Sage for Reuters

Slow and jerky is just a bug — a smaller experiential piece that can be addressed over time. The more alarming bit of Sage’s piece:

“Waymo is now accelerating … because if they wait two or three years longer they will get overtaken,” Froehlich said on the sidelines of last week’s Los Angeles auto show. “So they have to move early, even though that’s quite a risky thing for them.”

Klaus Froehlich, BMW’s global head of development

The race to be first to market when you have not only your business to consider but the lives of customers in your hands is disturbing. We’re living in a historical period wherein technology doesn’t necessarily work as prescribed. If you want to find at a plausible culprit for technological failure, start with the rush to market and the deadlines imposed.