Quick and Dirty High-DPI Images

While working on this page, I discovered just how awful the web can look on the the the iPhone and iPad with their “retina” screens. In native applications, normal resolution images are scaled without anti-aliasing, but in Mobile Safari images are scaled with anti-aliasing, and as a consequence, many important pixels can get badly blurred.

This isn’t an unrecognized problem and it has been solved elsewhere, but the accepted approach seems require JavaScript and class names, which strikes me as unnecessary – CSS declarations alone should suffice.

To that end, the approach I use is this:

@media only screen and -webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio:2 {
  img[src="images/icon.png"] {
    content: url("images/icon@2x.png");
  img[src="images/store_small.png"] {
    content: url("images/store_small@2x.png");
  img[src="images/screen_fail.png"] {
    content: url("images/screen_fail@2x.png");
  img[src="images/screen_play.png"] {
    content: url("images/screen_play@2x.png");

*I swear I read about content negotiation for this at some point, but all I can find is an old, unresolved discussion at webkit.org.

The Developer’s Dilemma

People always like to quip that “real artists ship,” as a quick one-liner I guess that’s pretty good, but as with everything else… only sorta true. Anybody familiar with creativity has to admit that an end result of any quality usually requires a great deal of quantity in the background. Photographers will take hundreds of pictures in the process of producing tens of photos. Films emerge from hours worth of additional footage thrown in the waste bin. Graphic Designers build copious numbers of mockups to produce a final design.

We developers are in the idea business too and, although I feel wholly unqualified to say this, the good developers are the ones with lots of ideas. In my experience as a mediocre programmer I spend a lot of my time hounded by ideas of my own creation.

I found this great passage in an article by Richard P. Gabriel:

John’s world is a world of ideas, a world in which ideas don’t belong to anyone, and when an idea is wrong, just the idea – not the person – is wrong. A world in which ideas are like young birds, and we catch them and proudly show them to our friends. The bird’s beauty and the hunter’s are distinct.


Some people won’t show you the birds they’ve caught until they are sure, certain, positive that they – the birds, or themselves – are gorgeous, or rare, or remarkable. When your mind can separate yourself from your bird, you will share it sooner, and the beauty of the bird will be sooner enjoyed. And what is a bird but for being enjoyed?

Every creative would love to claim a monopoly on divine inspiration, but since we can never quite manage that we settle for just hiding away all those half-finished, not quite thought-through, potentially embarrassing ideas of ours – and it’s a really nasty habit.

For developers, we have trouble kicking things out of out our ~/Projects folder and sharing them with others because they’re “just not done yet.” Doneness is a dangerous idea – especially for perfectionists. It is always so tempting to keep polishing this or that project until you can really say it is done. Or worse, putting something pretty good to the side and promising to come back to it later to finish it off.

I’ve without a doubt fallen into that trap, granted I’ll make an argument for school getting in the way, but the truth is I’ve been sitting on a whole lot of “not done yet” projects for no great reason at all. Now that I’m nearly out of school, with new-found time on my hands, I’m resolving to drag them out of the closet, give them the once-over and throw them out for others to have – done or not.

UIUC iCard [Free Design Advice]

I’ll start this post being blunt – I hate our new ID cards. I had been holding off for as long as I could, but with its swipe strip wearing through and the prospect of getting locked out of important places at inconvenient times, I decided to get proactive, suck it up, and trade my original card for the new and “improved” version.

There, that said, let’s begin. Last year the university began a transition to new ID cards. Starting in the fall 2007 semester all new cards issued are of the new type and the old cards will eventually be phased out completely sometime after 2009.

Pre 2007 ID Card

According to the document announcing the new design:

The i-card has a new look! After nearly 11 years without a major design change, the University of Illinois i-card is getting a facelift. The new card embodies both aesthetic and functional upgrades essential to the support of new card-based services. The new design represents several months of collaboration, consultation, and planning with multiple campus leaders. In addition, designs were approved by standing campus ID Committees and representatives from several campus units that provide card services.

With regard to the aesthetic and functional improvements, on the former they manage only by virtue of default and to the latter the card is an abject failure. Concerning the “several months of collaboration, consultation and planning…” well, on second thought let us not go there.

The purpose of an ID card is to present information and absolutely nothing else. Sure, it can look good, but it is not a fashion accessory. In this context the designer’s job is to convey information as effectively as possible, only working to make it pretty to the extent that it doesn’t detract from it’s effectiveness. it’s all about usability.


In this application it’s very important to understand that not all information is equal. Some items are more important than others; I care about the person’s name more than I do their card’s number and so on. In order to account for this a good designer should make sure that useful information pops out at the user and other information fades into the background – the ways you do this are pretty standard, changing the text size, color, typeface, and/or position.

With that in mind lets see how effectively each version does its job. Here’s a list and subjective ranking of how apparent each bit of information is on the card:

Old Card New Card
Pre 2007 ID Card Post 2007 ID Card
  1. Name
  2. ID number
  3. Campus
  4. Expiration date
  5. Username
  6. Classification
  7. Library number
    Card number
  8. Issue date
  1. Name
  2. Expiration date
  3. Classification
    ID number
    Library number
    Card number
  4. Campus

The number one thing that amazes me with this new card is that its designers managed to reduce the amount of information presented while, at the same time, reducing the usability of the remaining information. For any non-designers out there, just be aware that this is not how things are supposed to work. How did they manage this? THEY DESTROYED THE HIERARCHY.

Taking a look at the ranking for the old card design, it has a clear order that seems to correspond with what I would consider the relative importance of each morsel of information – name and number at the top and onto the library and card number (two seldom used items) at the bottom. On the other hand, for the new card the hierarchy formed only has half as many levels and I notice that half of the items of the new card fall into the 3rd stratum… uh oh.

The old card was designed smart… it was designed so that the very first number that appears to the searching eye was the most important – the university ID. In the “redesign” finding this number requires real, conscious effort. Where in the old it was set in a larger, bolder, unique color; in the new it is thrown into a big lump of useless information set in 10pt grey Arial – blech.

The very same thing could be said about the classification label. The label was a beautiful little piece of usability, where it could be color coded to the class of the card holder – along the lines of green for “Undergraduate”, orange for “Faculty”, etc., but now it too is dumped in with the always-grey text at the bottom. And I just don’t know what to make of the expiration text, with its bright-yellow color it is near if not possibly above cardholder name in noticeability.


Like I mentioned above… the claiming their design is an aesthetic improvement over the past really isn’t terribly impressive, it would be hard to argue that the original was even trying.

Post 2007 ID Card

First things first, why did the card get set entirely in Arial? I’m not one jump onto the Arial-Helvetica hatefest too readily, but I do ask that there be a good reason for using Arial over the original. Apart from the (distinct) possibility that this card was designed in MS Word I can’t think of one.

Next up is the gaping whitespace in the upper-right of the photograph. Huh? It is completely detracting and a bit unbalancing. In the physical version where the entire card is higher contrast (pre-press issues?) I will occasionally think a part of the card has gone missing.

And finally onto the business of this whole “i-card” thing. The cause of my university’s compulsion to brand everything will probably never be understood and I don’t feel like debating its premise… though it certainly is debatable (Email at UIUC is Express Mailâ„¢), but I would like question this i-card idea. 1, It does not add value – mentioning to my friends that I have an “i-card” does not impress them. 2, It does not aid identifiably – I don’t expect to get confused between this ID card or the zero (0) other university cards I have in my wallet. 3, The i-card logo is a ridiculous comic-sans-like handwriting that has no place in a formal document like this.

What to Do

Since being a responsible critic means having a reasonable solution at the ready. And since a coping strategy of mine for living in this terribly designed world of ours is dwelling on “better” solutions, I went about designing a card of my own.

Proposed ID Card

I’ll spare you all the designing details (as this post has already gotten very long), but I would like to spend some time to justify the design. I’ll begin with the hierarchy. Front and center is are the 3 most important identifiers (excluding the picture) each of which are unique easily identifiable. Following is the expiry date and then the classification, coded with color for at-a-glance recognition. In the background are the library and card numbers, in small (but legible) type. Out of sight and to the side is and orange banner with the campus’s short name.

Except for the issue date, the design retains all the information of the old card. It returns the barcode and username that were removed in the revision. It also adds a printed signature field that was on the back of the original card (and curiously missing completely in the revision).

It also, IMHO, looks better than the previous designs too.


This is not to say that UIUC’s card is the worst of the bunch. The university ID card is an apparent backwater in the world of design. Below is a gallery of cards I collected as research:

ID Card Gallery

Out of the lot Wisconsin, MIT, and PennState came out with what I’d consider to be the best designs (and Chicago gets an honorable mention). But as a general rule they all either did pretty good in appearance (UCLA & Minnesota) but failed as far as usability went, or they failed in both respects. Eastern Illinois, without question, took last place. The beveled Gill Sans Ultra Bold “panther card” text is nauseating.

Sounding Smart pt.I

Ever find yourself in the middle of a conversation touching on usability or cognition? Well, incase you ever do, here is a great little piece of information to quote:

A few years ago, while analyzing an experiment on number comparisons, Dehaene noticed that subjects performed better with large numbers if they held the response key in their right hand but did better with small numbers if they held the response key in their left hand.

[other interesting info]

He even suspects that this may be why travellers get disoriented entering Terminal 2 of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, where small-numbered gates are on the right and large-numbered gates are on the left.

Now I could never advocate blindly quoting someting like this without (at the very least) a peak at the source article – especially one as interesting, accessible, and informative as this one was.

Found amongst the many other quite interesting facts about cognition with a neurological slant on the wonderful Mind Hacks blog.

My Announcement Type

For those of you who may not now, my handwriting has a bit of a notorious reputation. A full explanation of how my writing came to be will have to wait for another day, but today I’m posting about the newly adopted writing style that I’ve began using on occasion.

So… getting more to the point – my handwritting, while it might look “good”, it certainly cannot be construed as legible by any measure. Now this isn’t a problem for me in my normal writing (I’m the kind of person who is quite happy putting up with a few inconveniences for something of aesthetic value), but it does become an issue when you want people to notice and read your message – which was just the situation I found myself in a few days ago…

Handwriting picture

Thankfully I had spent the last week drawing sketches of type for typography class, so when it came time to post a few notes on the wall, I was quite prepared. For my nice clean, readable (and easy to draw) typeface I chose the fine typeface Futura.

I still need to work on getting accustomed to the large counters in the ‘e’ and perfecting the curve of the ‘s’, I’m pretty proud of my new note posting script.

It’s all about the Brackets, Baby!

Obj-C hands picture

With C4[1] starting tomorrow (which I, sadly, won’t be at). It seems apropos that I put out my graphical rendering of Rentzsch’s Obj-C sign from C4[0]. There you are!


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