The Chimerist

Posts tagged design

When it comes to integrating images, text and video in inventive ways, some of the most promising new tablet apps have been produced by museums. It’s a logical fit: Museums are about both information and looking at things. People absorb their exhibits by wandering around, in a self-directed and often non-linear manner. And museums tend to be funded by corporations who like the idea that their investment will result in their logo being attached to prestigious content distributed all over the world, not just in the city where the museum is located. That means the apps are often free.

The new app for the Design Museum in London is, unsurprisingly, beautifully designed. It features 59 exemplary objects from the museum’s collection, everything from iconic chairs and the original, candy-colored iMac to the first plastic-covered nappy (diaper), devised by an American housewife in 1946 and celebrated in the accompanying text as an example of ingenious “design without designers.” Others are simply beautiful.

The items are presented on a grid, with each column and row scrollable either vertically or horizontally. Select an object and the entry expands to reveal a gallery of photographs from various angles, text explaining the object’s provenance and the reasons for its inclusion, and a brief video of museum director Deyan Sudjic talking about why it’s notable. Although Deyan has a pleasant voice and extemporizes comfortably, the videos are the weakest part of the app because they are superfluous. There’s nothing in them you can’t already find in the text or photographs. Occasionally, they miss an opportunity, such as not including the sound of Alberto Alessi’s famous Whistling Kettle, which was designed to sound like an American freight train, and since many of these objects are praised for their functionality, it would be nice to see some of them in action.

A curious effect of meandering through the Design Museum Collection app and other forms of non-linear media is a low-level anxiety that you might miss something. In a physical museum, you can poke your head in every room and assure yourself that you’ve covered all the exhibit territory in the building. Every so often, using the Design Museum app, I found myself scrolling an interesting object off the main page and then not being able to find it again. (The scrollable “strips” seem to change their composition when you move in and out of an entry.) Where was that weird-looking TV, again? Eventually, I found it, but this nagging sensation of incompleteness is something nonlinear-media creators need to bear in mind. The idea is to make art and information accessible to an audience in new ways, not (or at least not always) to make them wonder if it’s been withheld.

Finally, while I’m leery of the mania for injecting social media elements into every cultural experience, I love that the Design Museum app supports comments on every single entry. The objects were all designed to be used, and it’s delightful to read accounts (both laudatory and derisive) of what it’s like to live with them. 

Laura Miller


I’m more drawn to games than you are, Laura, especially when I’ve spent the day writing, but I’ve never been good at shoot-em-up stuff.  I like cards and other kinds of strategy, and things involving connections or geometric shapes. Pipe Dream, derailer of many undergraduate papers, was an old Windows favorite. Tetris, too, but I never had nightmares about it, which is more than I can say about the pipes’ green goo.

I’ve found some great games for the iPhone — Eliss and, before the “upgrades,” Twistlink and Surfacer — but most either haven’t been reconfigured for the iPad or don’t translate well to the larger screen. One exception is Stay, another balance game, this one involving falling squares, rectangles, and skulls. Though Stay is sized for the iPhone, not the iPad, the washed-out, low-res images don’t suffer the way so many others do in the 2x-blowing-up. I prefer the larger version.

In the easiest mode, the idea is to keep your little red triangle on the seesaw as long as you can. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not so hard. Until the skulls start dropping.  They explode into eight or ten deadly little black asteroids.  

I’ve never gotten good enough to discover what horrors lurk in the more difficult settings.

—Maud Newton


LetterMpress is a simulation of an old-fashioned, wood-type printing press, complete with multiple sets of moveable display type and assorted borders, ornaments, dingbats and other images. 

In the Compose mode, you drag the type elements into the work area, which looks like a vintage hand-operated tin-tray press, using blocks and magnets to set the spacing. In the Print mode, you can pick ink colors and density, as well as paper color and texture. Then you drag the the inked roller across the paper. The result is a image of a sheet of paper that looks just like the product of an traditional letter press, although of course it doesn’t exist materially. There are even sound effects in Print mode to simulate the aural environment of a press room, humming, clicking and rolling.

This is what’s increasingly described as a skeuomorphic app, in that it simulates the look, functions and limitations of an earlier technology. (The Wikipedia entry on Skeuomorph makes for diverting reading.) I’m not sure that label fits perfectly, since a skeuomorph is usually an extraneous, ornamental design element on a modern object that’s retained purely to trigger a nostalgic or reassuringly familiar feeling. A perfect example of this is the little, round, non-functional handles near the necks of some glass jars of maple syrup, mimicking the shape of the handles on jugs. These subliminally signal that here you have authentic syrup, just like Pa Ingalls used to make in the Little House in the Big Woods.

With LetterMPress, on the other hand, the nostalgia is not only overt, it’s the entire purpose of the app (which you can also buy to run on your Mac). If all you really wanted was the image, I’m sure there are easier ways to make it. With this app, the process, complete with the maddening way the type blocks jostle out of alignment or end up printing backwards when you’re still figuring out how to use it, is as important as the results, if not more so. It’s toy as much as tool. Kids love it.

I’m not much for games, so when I want to play around on my tablet, this is the kind of app I prefer. It’s a craft project that requires no materials and makes no mess, one that can be tinkered with even when you’re stuck at the airport. The likelihood that I’ll ever get my hands on a real-world letter press are pretty slim, and even if I did, I’d probably fret about wasting paper with my amateur noodlings. Someone I described this app to seemed bewildered by the fact that you don’t actually end up with a physical piece of paper (although the creators of LetterMPress are supposedly working out a service that will produce one for  a fee). I’m not sure that’s such a big problem. What would I do with these but file them away somewhere until I was finally forced to toss them out? Who would ever see them?

Nevertheless, I have used LetterMPress to make title cards for photo albums uploaded to Facebook, and I’m sure there countless other uses to which the images could be put. They could be mailed to friend using one of the many photo-to-postcard services out there. You could design a CD cover for a band or perhaps labels for homemade gifts. I haven’t tried any of that, so I can’t tell you how well it works. 

For me, the immaterial nature of LetterMPress — or rather its strange immaterial evocation of an all-too-material tool — is the essence of its appeal, and one of things that makes it so chimerical. The fact that nothing gets used up except bits (the ultimate recycleables) is liberating.

Laura Miller


Beautiful Tarot is an app I delete periodically, by turns out of superstition and rationality, and then restore out of curiosity. I’m told I broke the rules and thus cursed myself by buying my own deck, if indeed this iPad edition even counts as a deck, but that’s okay because I was taught as a child that using the Tarot at all invites demon possession and curses you and your family for seven generations, so I’ll take my chances.

My desire to know the future — however metaphorically, however falsely — trumps both reason and anxiety. And this app is gorgeous to look at, much prettier under glass. It’s also fun to play with.

For cards you can use the full Rider-Waite deck, or the major arcana of the Tarot de Marseilles (above) or the Le Gringonneur. As “paths to understanding” go, you have the option of the Celtic Cross and several others.

Once you’ve chosen, the app shuffles for you and (key for a relative Tarot novice like me) shows you where to put each card and what it will signify (“The Present,” “The Querent,” “What Will Come”) when you flip it over. As you lay the cards out, you can rifle through the deck to select exactly the one you want. 

Interpretation-wise, this is not the complex and nuanced tarot of  YeatsEliot, or Kafka; the descriptions, “adapted from Wikipedia and the public-domain work A Pictorial Key to the Tarot," are awkward and often opaquely archaic.  

I suppose for $2.99 in the Apple Store it’s not fair to expect the poetry and insights ofAlexander Chee (aka Rebellitor) or Elizabeth Bachner. One cool thing about the tablet era, though, is that all a good writer with a passion for and knowledge of the Tarot needs is a willing developer. Cryptogram, Beautiful Tarot’s creator, has the skills; maybe they could get together, rope in a designer or take inspiration from the Kimono pattern people, and make a whole new deck…

Anyway, I can dream.

Maud Newton