Creativity and constraints

When Shigeru Miyamoto and his team designed the original Mario Bros. arcade game, memory constraints forced them to use identical designs for the first and second brother. This presented a problem: How do you differentiate between two players if their characters look exactly alike?

Their solution, via Rolling Stone:

‘Well even if we have the same character, we could potentially change the color of the character.’ But again we were limited in the color palettes – we didn’t have much in the way of additional colors that we could use. And so we looked at the turtles in that game. Their heads are sort of skin-toned, their shells are green, so what we could do is we could use the color palette from the turtle on this character. And so from those technical limitations we said ‘Okay. We have these two characters. They look the same, other than the fact that their colors are different. Obviously they must be twins.’

Thirty years later, Luigi’s personality is distinct from his brother’s, even allowing him to star (or at least share billing) in his his own unique games. Quite an achievement for a technical workaround!

Miyamoto-san elaborates:

This ultimately is the role of a designer: How do you take those constraints and create something that’s unique and then layer on a story or some kind of a background that explains why those things exist? Ultimately that’s the reason that Luigi is green, but it’s one of those little development anecdotes that I wanted to share and is to me an important facet of designing: how you use what could be a constraint and use that to develop something new.

The romantic notion of creativity as a product of divine inspiration or artistic serendipity is a farce. Peanuts was designed to be a “filler” strip publishers could rearrange into any available space. Jaws was scary because the malfunctioning shark forced Spielberg to emphasize the “threat of the unseen.” Musical genres are often invented to suit a performer’s surrounding architecture.

Don’t avoid a project’s technical requirements. Embrace them. Enjoy the focus they provide and the ideas they inspire.

Is it just me…

…or does Google Glass give everyone a shiny unibrow?


I get strange looks from anyone who sees me pocket my iPhone 5 so I can break out my iPod classic. Five years since I won the device at a company raffle, it remains my favorite little music player.

It isn’t perfect. The not-so-solid-state drive makes everything a little sluggish. The interface looks pretty dated. There’s no Wi-Fi, so it will always be tethered to a computer with iTunes installed. On rare occasions an album’s tracks will show up out-of-order (cleaning their ID3 data usually fixes it).

But it plays music. All of it. Not most of it through a streaming service. Not whatever I synced to some emaciated SSD, failing to predict what I’ll want in the hours, days or weeks ahead. Every forgotten 60s masterpiece, every underrated indie group, every B-side that could have been a single is playable, immediately, wherever I am.

There’s no touchscreen, so I can play, pause and skip tracks by touch alone. No Wi-Fi means no interruptions… I can listen to Side 2 of Abbey Road without some spammy notification tri-toning its way into “Polythene Pam.”

I love my iPhone. It would probably be my “desert island” device (assuming this hypothetical island has LTE data). It’s pretty great at most of what it does.

My iPod classic is better at music, because that’s the only thing it does. And sometimes that’s okay.

Cloud Four (plus one)

The folks at Cloud Four are awesome. Their responsible mobile experiences make the web a better place. They give illuminating talks and helpful workshops. They wrote the book on this stuff, for crying out loud! And starting Monday, they’ll have one more designer in their ranks.

I’m proud to be joining a team that’s been a consistent source of inspiration for me since 2009. Job titles are tricky… we went back and forth until Lyza suggested “Design Architect.” I hope it hints at visual design, front-end and UX skills while avoiding the more unpleasant connotations of “Web Designer.”

 I’ll be capping off my first day (March 25) with Mobile Portland, 6pm at Urban Airship. If you’re there, you should come say “hi!”

I want to thank the team at WishPop for the opportunity. It was a wild ride, and I learned a ton. I’m looking forward to seeing where they take the app next!

Make email suck even less (an update)

I wrote a post in 2009 called Make Email Suck Less in which I bemoaned the slow roll-out of Google Wave (heh) while offering a better way to manage email (stolen from inspired by Merlin Mann’s inbox makeover article) as a consolation prize.

Three and a half years later, the technique still works. I still use Gmail, and I still file incoming messages into “Action,” “Hold,” “Respond” or “Waiting” labels based on the action required to archive or delete them. My email doesn’t overwhelm me… inbox zero is the norm.

What has changed are the apps. Three years is an eternity in internet time. Here’s what I use now.

Mailbox for iPhone

List settings in MailboxI know, I know, this app has been hyped to the point of ridiculousness… but not without reason! If you’re unfamiliar with Mailbox, I suggest you watch the trailer to get a sense of its mad gestural skillz.

Mailbox automatically syncs its lists to Gmail as labels, which is awesome. The default lists are “To Buy,” “To Read” and “To Watch,” but you can easily make new ones or remove any you don’t need. (If you’ve been paying attention, you can probably guess which four lists I created.)

Once synced, all the lists you created will be nested in the [Mailbox] label in Gmail. If you’re as big a fan of Gmail’s Multiple Inboxes feature as I am, you’ll want to update its settings to reflect the new labels. (It’s up to you whether or not to bring [Mailbox]/Later into the fold as well.)

Gmvault for backups

In 2009, I used Postbox primarily to keep a local backup of my email. I abandoned desktop email apps entirely after Google introduced a much nicer compose and reply experience. This transition made backup a lot less straightforward.

If you’re not afraid to roll up your geeky sleeves, I recommend giving Gmvault a whirl. It retrieves all messages in IMAP-visible labels to a local file system in a non-proprietary format, with options to compress, restore, encrypt and more. All it’s missing is a GUI… but I’ll forgive it for such a technical task.

It’s a good idea to keep your backup up-to-date by running Gmvault regularly. Tutorials exist for doing this automatically in OS X and Windows.

Why I still care

From my original post: “Because email is a beast, a sickly mutant beast that eats at your productivity and requires specialized care no matter how you access it. This is what it takes to make me happy with it.”

I’m thankful for every technique, app or service that makes my inbox a friendlier beast to care for.