James Acklin

Future Interface

A Tumblr for everything—and now, Human-computer interaction, as imagined by science fiction.


The Fly (1986)


Escape From New York (1981)


Blade Runner (1982)

My Life as a Unicorn

As a visual designer / front-end developer / budding interaction designer hybrid, I’m opposed to the term “unicorn” as it makes an exception out of generalists, rather than hyper-specialized niche workers. I grew up with the Web and came of age around the time of table-based layouts and browser-specific hacks. As far as I can tell, the prevailing thought of the time was that “he who can do x in addition to y is merely doing his job.” It’s skill survivalism—become too over-specialized and you run the risk of being steamrolled by someone who can execute passably but also has three or four other skills.

I spoke on a panel in 2011 at Refresh Pittsburgh on the imperishable topic: “Should Web designers know code?” Soon thereafter, the inimitable Geoff Barnes gave a profound talk at 2012 Web Design Day titled, “It’s 2012 & I’m Still Writing ‘Should Web Designers Know How To Code?’ on All My Checks.” The talk exposed the logical fallacy of confirmation bias in our industry that people dig themselves into when asking that question—or really, any rhetorical question loaded with some inherit judgement. So, “ Should Web designers know how to code?” becomes “Web designers should know how to code.” An important distinction to make.

Which brings me to a post by Cennydd Bowles, a design lead at Twitter. In it, he writes:

Over the last year I’ve spent long hours studying graphic design, learning more about its techniques and tools, and creating a new role for myself that combined my interaction design expertise with my new visual design skills. In popular digital parlance, such a designer has come to be known as a ‘unicorn’: a rare, flighty being never encountered in the wild. It’s a cute label, and a damaging one. It reinforces silos, and gives designers an excuse to abdicate responsibility for issues that nevertheless have a hefty impact on user experience.

[...] I’m no longer hired as a UX-shaped peg to fit a UX-shaped hole; instead, my clients hire me for my individual skills.

This is precisely the world we should be working toward—one where the designer takes on whatever role he sees fit. Should UX designers only make wireframes? No. Let’s rephrase: UX designers should only make wireframes. That’s an absurd statement.

It’s my adamant position that the job of the designer is to, above all, be flexible. If a particular problem calls for a high-level interaction spec, whiteboard it to death and fire up Balsalmiq. If it needs a wireframe, wireframe away. If it needs a detailed visual solution down to the pixel level, be ready to open up Photoshop. If the problem needs to be tested, fire up your favorite HTML editor and get cranking with Bootstrap and be ready to test.

Pigeon-holing designers into narrow, prescriptive titles and roles is not only damaging to the designer’s morale and career, but also to the organization’s  flexibility and adaptability. The “unicorn” term is a misnomer—really, a “unicorn” is an all-rounder that will serve your organization far better than serveral narrow specialists.

Bloomberg: How Americans Die

A beautiful exploratory experience made with d3 (from what I can tell).

How To Lie with Data Visualization

A hot-button (and well-written) article from the Heap blog caused a bit of a stir on Twitter, specifically this graph originally published on Business Insider.

At first glance, it looks like gun deaths are on the decline in Florida. But a closer look shows that the y-axis is upside-down, with zero at the top and the maximum value at the bottom. As gun deaths increase, the line slopes downward, violating a well established convention that y-values increase as we move up the page.

However, as Andy Kirk (@visualizingdata) pointed out:

This was indeed the case, as the inspiration was the fantastic visualization of the Iraq death toll.

Thus, some salient points from Kirk:

The issue of graphical literacy is incredibly interesting and important. The ability to read and interpret chart types is something we are not trained to do. We ‘get by’ through experience, practice and exposure. Some people find different charts and graphics easier to read and interpret than others so there is rarely a common experience. As designers, our objective has to be to try help overcome any obstacles people might experience in the readability of our representations, either through our design choices or through explanatory annotations.

DHH on Sleep Deprivation

On Signal vs. Noise:

(…) It seems that the tech industry has developed a masochistic sense of honor about sleep deprivation. At times it sounds like bragging rights. People trying to top each other. For what? To seem so important, so in need, so desired that humanity requires you to sacrifice? Chances are you’re not that special, not that needed, and the job at hand not that urgent.

Bike Lanes and Congestion

An interesting analysis of congestion on roads before and after the addition of bike lanes. As it turns out, adding a bike lane on low-trafficked roads only marginally increases congestion.

From Gretchen and Aaron Johnson (@railsandrockets) on FiveThirtyEight:

Bike lanes don’t cause a lot more congestion if you put them on the right streets. If you cut down the size of streets that are already near capacity, you’ll create severe congestion. But if you start with roads that are well under capacity, you’ll only increase the congestion a little bit. And it may not even be noticeable. Slimming down these roads that are too “fat” is known as a road diet — and yes, that is the technical term.

Tesla Motors, a Grid-Storage Company

From Green Car Reports:

Most recently, John McElroy, a strong proponent of natural-gas vehicles, suggests that Tesla is not in fact only a car company, but an energy-storage enterprise.

(W)hile Tesla’s proposed gigafactory would allow it to “make and sell batteries for its own electric cars…it also plans to sell battery packs to electric utilities and others.”

We suspect that the gigafactory may end up as a joint effort among not only Tesla and its cell partner Panasonic, plus raw-material suppliers for batteries, but also Musk’s Solar City or another entity that’s closer to the static energy-storage field.

It could be argued that outside the batteries, everything else about the car is mature technology at this point. I’m increasingly interested in companies whose core product is masked by the application—for example, Netflix is a data warehouse posing as a content provider.

David Foster Wallace: Five Common Word Usage Mistakes

Farnham Street has a handout David Foster Wallace wrote in 2002 for his advanced fiction writing class at Pomona College.