Colin Dunn

Oct 22, 2014

How and What

More important that any one thing I make is the process in which I make it. The more I learn about highly effective creative groups like the Pixar braintrust or Jony Ive’s design group, the more I realize the how is far more important than the what.

If I’m lucky, the what will change many times throughout my career — the how will repeat, evolve, and become more refined.

Creative work is often the result of individual meditation on a problem. But teams with a very particular chemistry — trust, candor, whimsy, focus — can accelerate that process and unlock new levels of creativity.

Further reading:
Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull
How Do People Get New Ideas? by Isaac Asimov

Sep 9, 2014

Apple Wearable Predictions: Grading

Overall Grade: A-

Design: A+

Many styles, colors, and permutations. Three distinct categories and many bands within each. Even the software is highly customizable with over "two million ways to see time."

Features: B

Apple highlighted three categories of features: Watch faces, communication, and health. These were different from my three, but I would argue that time is just a subset of notifications. The communication bit I missed entirely — with the drawing feature, heart rate sharing, and animated emoji the Apple Watch is unlocking a new type of digital communication.

Health: A+

Apple grouped people into three categories of fitness levels: people who don't exercise, people who do exercise, and serious athletes. The Apple watch is designed to help each of these groups meet their fitness goals and live healthier lives. More than any other health product this watch has a shot at changing people's behavior.

Identity: A-

Yes to paying with your watch, no mention of unlocking your devices. One hotel chain allows you to unlock your hotel room with your watch, but I'm not going to count that.

Notifications: C

This category should have been "communication." Software notifications were obvious and I missed the haptic feedback sensors.

Wild card predictions: B

Not exactly a flexible display, the watch does introduce a new gesture called a "force touch" which can differentiate a press from a tap. And the wireless magnetic charger looks amazing.

Sep 9, 2014

Apple Wearable Predictions

Less than 10 hours before the keynote I've decided to document my predictions for the rumored Apple wearable. If Apple does release a wearable tomorrow I will come back and score myself. Here goes.


It will come in many styles and colors — more than any other Apple product. Not just multiple colors of the same design like the iPhone 5C, but multiple styles and designs. This will be the most fashion-y Apple product yet.

It will have three categories of features: health, identity, and notifications.


It will track health information with many sophisticated medical sensors. But the distinguishing factor from other wearables is that it will offer insights into your health that change your behavior. This is the heuristic that we should use to evaluate the product’s success: By using this product, do I behave differently? Current wearables provide mostly data — number of miles run, steps taken, calories consumed, hours slept. It’s up to me to draw conclusions about that data and use it to inform my behavior.¹

The distinguishing factor from other wearables is that it will offer insights into your health that change your behavior.


The wearable will know who you are so it can process payments and unlock things like your phone, computer, and maybe your car or house someday. (The secure enclave that Apple developed for fingerprint data on the iPhone would be really handy for storing sensitive information like credit card numbers.)


It will be a portal into your phone and can display text messages, iMessages, phone calls, and app notifications. (With relay, the iPhone now has the capability to send text messages and phone calls to other devices. A useful feature for a wearable.)

Wild card predictions: It will have a flexible display and wireless charging.

¹As a small example, if I owned a FuelBand I may take the stairs instead of the elevator. This is a kind of behavior change that results directly from my owning a product.
Jun 28, 2014

Design Tools

I adapted parts of this post for a talk on design tools at a Framer JS meetup. You can watch a video of my talk on Vimeo.

There is a missing tool in my design workflow. Because it doesn't exist, I have to borrow pieces of it from several other tools. I use a vector drawing tool like Illustrator to make wireframes, I use a raster drawing tool like Photoshop to make assets, and I use Quartz Composer for interaction design and animation.

The result is a frankenstein-like workflow that requires constant context switching. Worse than being inconvenient, the inefficiencies of my tools result in poorer solutions to design problems. The longer it takes me to explore an idea the more attached to each idea I become and the fewer ideas I explore. And because my tools are unnecessarily technical, its easy to become distracted solving implementation problems instead of design problems.

We solve the problems our tools are good at solving.

I'm not sure what the ideal software design tool looks like, but I'm convinced that it's coming and it will make workflows like mine seem primitive. Bret Victor has explored some interesting ideas in this space and has written about the subject as well. In lieu of an actual proposal, I compiled a list of criteria that I think an ideal design tool would satisfy.

Direct manipulation

You design by directly manipulating the artwork, not through a layer of abstraction (like code or patches). Feedback while designing is continuous and instantaneous.

High fidelity

The tool supports the same inputs and has the same properties as the medium being designed for. Any difference in how the tool behaves and how the medium behaves will limit the types of ideas the designer can have. The tool should encourage the designer to solve the right problems in the right order.¹

Separate the data

Views are separate from the data. Layouts are not dependent on any one dataset. Using real or representative content should be trivial so as to avoid designing for the ideal.

Design is implementation

Design is not separate from implementation; there is no need for an engineer to make the design "real" by implementing it in code. And because the designer is responsible for implementation, she is exposed to the constraints of the medium. These constraints will inform the design instead of creating feedback loops where engineers tell designers what is and isn't possible.


The tool has the right level of abstraction. Too much abstraction will limit the types of ideas that the designer can have; not enough abstraction will slow the designer down and force her to solve unnecessary technical problems. The designer can move up and down levels of abstraction while she works. If a particular abstraction is inappropriate or needs to be modified, she can do so on the fly. If the appropriate abstraction doesn't exist, the designer can create it. And because the tool is adaptable it will evolve to support inputs and displays that do not yet exist.

¹ As an example, Photoshop is a static design tool that is great when designing for a static medium like print. But it's completely inappropriate when designing for a dynamic medium like an interactive computer screen. When a designer uses a tool like Photoshop to design a smartphone app, website, or desktop application they end solving the types of problems that static design tools are good at solving: color, typography, iconography, and layout. Then the engineers solve the interaction design problems during the implementation phase because they are the ones who are working in a dynamic medium: code.
May 7, 2014

The Beauty Trap

Yesterday I went to see Edward Tufte, Bret Victor, Jonathan Corum, and Mike Bostock speak in San Jose as part of a lecture called See, Think, Design, Produce. There was a lot of really rich content and deep thoughts shared during the day but one idea in particular stood out to me. It was an idea that Jonathan Corum spoke to during his presentation: don't overvalue aesthetics.

The idea goes something like this: people have a natural bias toward beauty. We like things that are aesthetically pleasing and we tend to attribute value to things that are beautiful. As a result we are at risk of being distracted, or worse, blinded to certain ways of thinking.

I thought of Johannes Kepler. Keplar was the first to discover the true nature of planetary motion. He was also the first to suggest that planets move in elliptical patterns at varying speeds. How ugly! Prior to Keplar, everyone presumed that planets moved in perfect circles at a constant speed, for God is perfect and all that he produces is perfect, and what is more perfect than a circle and constant speed? Before Keplar, Ptolemy went to great lengths to reconcile the assumptions of perfect geometry and constant motion with what he saw in the sky. He invented an absurdly complex system of deferents and epicycles.

As someone who has self-selected a career in visual arts and visual problem solving, I'm probably more at risk of the "beauty trap" than others. I probably place more value on things that are aesthetically pleasing than other people do.

As Jonathan pointed out, this trap isn't limited to the visual arts. The Russian-American theoretical physicist Andrei Linde expressed a similar anxiety that he was drawn to ideas because of their beauty. "I'm always left with this feeling of, what if I'm tricked? What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?" (Andrei Linde is a on the short list for a Nobel Prize for his work on the inflationary universe theory.)

Jonathan Corum showed lots of work that he and his team have produced for the New York Times. Some examples were more beautiful than others, but all of his work conveyed meaning and prioritized understanding.

Dec 13, 2013

Hello, Goodbye


It is with sadness, excitement and a little bit of fear that I announce today is my last day at Facebook.

Facebook is one of the rare companies in this world that is trying to solve really meaningful problems at a global scale. We are chasing elusive ideas that have the potential to impact over a billion people. Being able to chase one of those ideas, Graph Search, for over a year was a really incredible experience. I was lucky enough to work with a group of intensely smart and talented people and I'm incredibly grateful for that.

After the holidays I'm going to start somewhere new. I'll be joining the Dropbox design team where I will get to think about a new set of problems. I'm excited and humbled to be joining such a talented team. Dropbox has built a rock solid syncing platform and a brand that people love and trust. I can't wait to see what we build.

Sep 29, 2013

Great Brands

Picture a great brand.

What comes to mind? Are you picturing an inanimate object? Or are you thinking about a person? When I think about Harley Davidson I get the image of a burly dude with a great beard wearing a leather jacket riding down Route 66. He just happens to be riding a Harley. Nike brings to mind a tremendous athlete sprinting down the track who just happens to be wearing a pair of Nike shoes. Apple makes me think of a young creative person pursuing self expression who just happens to be using a Mac.

A great brand should transcend the products or services they represent. It should be emotionally complex, opinionated and have personality. It should feel human. Product is what you do, a brand is why you do it. A compelling brand will pull you into its orbit. Its message is clear enough that you can disagree with it, but cogent enough that you don't.

Take this Proctor & Gamble video ad. On the surface it has all the makings of a good brand video. But "The power of the everyday" is a meaningless message. What gives brands their power is their contrast to the everyday. It should make you feel special, like you are part of an exclusive club. By attempting to appeal to everybody, Proctor & Gamble's brand appeals to nobody.

Companies who focus on the what and ignore the why compete on features, performance, and price. But without a strong brand, they are vulnerable. There is no loyalty among customers. If someone else can offer a competitive product that is cheaper/better/faster people will have no reservations about jumping ship.

Driving growth, engagement, and monetization is important, but focusing entirely on what attributes doesn't build trust or loyalty among customers. If a company has answered the what, explaining the why is an opportunity. Give people a reason to love your product.

Apr 14, 2013

Thoughts from an Ex-Graphic Designer

I recently got an email from two MICA students asking for advice about transitioning from student life to "real" life. They wanted to know what I had learned since graduating. This got me to thinking about just how much my perspective has shifted since being a graphic design student and what I would want to tell my past self.

For context, MICA is a fine art college in Baltimore that offers a degree in graphic design. I studied at MICA for four years and it afforded me the opportunity to work at traditional print design studios including Pentagram, Post Typography, and Oliver Munday Group. At these studios "interaction design" means applying the principles and concepts of print design to a digital format. A website or app is no different than a book, business card, or product package: it is just another vehicle for expressing a brand. Typography, aesthetics, and editorial pacing are the chief concerns while little attention is given to usability or the inherent properties of the medium.

I say this with love: MICA students and faculty worship at the alter of the printed page. We value tactile design. Our practice is rooted in fine arts. Technology is the enemy and a threat to our way of life. We lament the rapid decline of print and limited jobs at design studios, branding agencies, and letterpress shops.

We are chasing a reality that is rapidly fading. We are skating to where the puck has been.

There is a tectonic shift to digital and design is playing a huge role in this new world. While many new grads from schools like MICA are competing for a limited number of jobs in the graphic design space, there are literally more jobs than there are people to do them in the digital product design space (words uttered by one of the recruiters at Facebook). My generation is uniquely positioned to have a massive impact on the world. Many of the architects of the technology industry are under 30. At Facebook, for example, the product managers I work with are 25 and 21. The engineering team has an average age of 25. I'm 23. We present our work directly to Mark Zuckerberg who is 28. This is a company run by children.

Print, by comparison, is a very mature industry. It takes much longer to reach a similar level of impact. Most of the leaders in the industry have been working for 20 or more years. Think about Paula Scher, Michael Bierut, Jonathon Hoefler, Tobias Frere-Jones, Stefan Sagmeister, and the rest of the people art school designers look up to.

I'm not saying everyone should be an interactive designer. The world does (and will continue to) need many talented print designers, branding specialists, advertising agencies, and environmental designers. But there is a space that has began to emerge and it is providing significant opportunities for many people, especially young people. We are digital natives and there is nobody who understands this stuff better than we do. But also realize that this is an anomaly of our time. In 20 years, we will be the Paula Schers, Michael Bieruts, and Jonathon Hoeflers. Interaction design will be a mature industry and something else will come along to take its place.

Jan 12, 2013

Social Business

Last October I quit my job at Lore and started working at Facebook. It was a really hard decision to leave my life in New York. I had been on the east coast for four and a half years and in New York for only five months.

I feel like years passed in those five months. And the truth is it didn't matter that I was in New York. I spent my waking hours in an office in SoHo and slept in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. I experienced the city primarily through subway rides and carry-out food. I was working days, nights, and weekends. It was unhealthy and I was unhappy. I wanted to be closer to my family in Oregon.

But being at Lore, and now Facebook, has allowed me to take a closer look at business. I'm fascinated by business. I'm fascinated by the art of business. It's democratic and darwinistic. I love the idea of making something and putting it into the world and if people buy it you get to keep making it. And make it better. And make new things. Art making is responding to your environment and art is anything done well and good business is the distribution of art.

It's a shame then, that the yardstick for success in business is profit. Companies have been optimized against this constraint. They have been distilled into profit maximizing machines. But people are complex creatures, not money making robots. Material possessions by themselves cannot satisfy our spiritual needs. Our world deserves better. As Muhammad Yunus has pointed out, the instruments of capitalism can be used for many things, including solving social problems. We deserve a new type of capitalism that measures success in social impact. That's the world I want to live in.