Eye candy

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The landing page on Portfolio’s project for a Bloomberg “fantasy makeover,” as it was billed on their teaser.

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A Flash gadget designed to showcase the three design firms entries. Note the black background.

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Thehappycorp’s terminal view, dominated by the Newsmap, which they didn't design, and, for some reason, a golf game.

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Happycorp credits Newsmap.

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Ideo redesigned the screens and the monitors. The dual frame looks fixed. Many traders need to put the screens up high and tilt them down. And many use four Bloomberg monitors.

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Ideo suggests that a white background is easier on the eyes.

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Ziba Designs keeps the black background.

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Ziba suggests a calmer color palette. This may be a good idea, but Bloomberg has been color-coded for a long time, and whos going to tell the customers that blue is the new green?

i MAY BE getting more irritable as I age, which is saying something, but I am increasingly rankled by design that is a superficial visual fix for a complex problem. It seems that the only design that gets attention is “cool”. But you don’t hear about how well it works or how well it solves the problem.

We get cool web sites where you can’t find anything; cool magazines that you can’t read; cool automobiles that you can’t figure out how to turn on the ignition.

At the bottom of Condé Nast Portfolio’s home page right now you’ll find an exercise unintentionally dedicated to the notion that design is simply a trivial coating over a product.

A former New York Times and Reuters hand, Zubin Jelveh takes on the Bloomberg terminal. He notes that the boxes themselves were nicely redesigned a couple of years ago by Antenna Design. “But the displays,” he writes, “still look like MS-DOS.”

Actually, not. “The Bloomberg” goes back to the command-line interface of the mini era. The first displays were monochrome — black and amber. The fonts were bitmaps. Users typed in mnemonic codes to move around the system — and then hit a green “Go” button. Customers were traders in the financial markets. The Bloomberg was optimized for Michael Bloomberg’s old colleagues in the pits, whose well-being depended on getting the right information to make a buy or sell before the next guy.

All you have to do is watch a currency trader follow the movement and color changes in the Bloomberg cross-currency chart, to realize that these customers are not interested in sharpness, accuracy and speed. Not “cool.”

As the system developed over the last 26 years, news feeds were added, then original stories. The display became color. The real-time graphics added enhanced color-coded tables and 3D. Bloomberg skipped DOS altogether and moved to Windows, but the interface with all its short-cut commands remained the same, just faster. Customers in the trading pits count business advantages in seconds. And Bloomberg has gotten 275,000 subscribers, at $1,900 a month, by listening to what they want. (Aside: If you figure a 15 percent EBITDA, Mike Bloomberg’s month draw, if he took it, is more than $50 million. How many month’s income would it take him to run for President?)

The point is, the thing is working like nothing else on the planet. Sure there are improvements that could be made (reportedly, ClearType fonts are on the way), and the IT department is a little like the Russian coders in the movie Space Cowboys, but I would hate to be the CEO who ordered a big redesign, only to look down from my fabulous office in the fabulous Cesar Pelli building with the fabulous Paul Scher graphics to see a mob of angry Wall Street customers brandishing torches.

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The Portfolio exercise ignores this customer base and the details of the Bloomberg product. Jelveh called up three design firms and asked asked them to do what was described on the home page as a “fantasy makeover” of the Bloomberg: thehappycorp (now that’s branding), Ziba Design and Ideo. You can see them in a nicely designed pop-up gadget that you get to from the story page.

Thehappycorp’s effort looks good at first, but much of it is taken by a direct (credited) quote from Marcos Wescamp’s Newsmap, a headline cloud based on Google News. Brilliant, perhaps, but not quite the thing you want to puzzle over while you’re trying to figure the exact trajectory right this minute of bond yields.

Ideo, as might be expected, does a very creditable job. The screens are now white, and a caption reads, “The white background causes less eye-fatigue than the current design’s black background.”

Is this true? Doesn’t a field of white on a flat screen tend to glare? Isn’t legibility simply a function of contrast and edge definition? Jelveh brings in the experts: Elliott Malkin, who is described as an information architect at The New York Times, and Jacob Nielsen, the Grey Wizard of Information Architecture.

Like Malkin, Nielsen points to the use of color, suggesting that dark text on a light background is easier on the eyes than the reverse. (On the Web, Bloomberg has decided to use black text on a white background for its news stories.)

White backgrounds are a matter of convention. We are used to seeing black type on white in print, so we are comfortable with web sites that are black and white, but I find myself turning down the brightness if reading a long text. (Another aside: Please, no more comments about our red background. It was a stunt to make this same point.)

I know something about the Bloomberg web site redesign, although by contract I can’t say why, and the decision to use black backgrounds on the index pages and white on the landing pages was based on convention. The black says Bloomberg, but the web site is aimed at everyone except Bloomberg customers. Once they get into it, the black, it was thought, the black would seem quirky and annoying. As Matthew Carter says, readability is 90 percent familiarity. . . .

The last fantasy makeover was from Ziba, which went for black minimalism. Thin, but nice, until you read: “Ziba replaces the keyboard with a circular puck-like tablet that integrates visual and tactile interaction.” The iDrive comes to the Bloomberg!

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Design is not just style, it’s problem solving. This exercise may be interesting and impressive on the surface, but good design must work beneath the surface. The approach here is a little like the ad agency practice of delivering the whole creative strategy at the first meeting. It’s as though design is simply an intuitive — artistic — process that requires more inspiration than knowledge.

This is why I won’t participate in design “bake-offs,” like the one recently held at Fortune magazine. Nor do I do speculative presentations. To be successful, a redesign of the graphic system that produces a newspaper, a magazine or a web site, must be based on real knowledge of the product the brand, the staff, the resources and the audience. Intuition has a big role, but if momma sent you to design school because you showed some artistic talent, you probably got an unpleasant awakening at your first job.

Design ain’t art. And Bloomberg doesn’t have to look cool. It is cool.

Architects and engineers work differently from ad agencies. They do research and compile a brief to define a problem. The client may then choose from alternative solutions — but the solutions are all based on a shared understanding of the problem.

The three talented design firms (agencies?) engaged by Portfolio, cannot have really understood what Bloomberg is all about. And as Portfolio is intended for “business leaders,” this effort can only reinforce the tendency of decision-makers to think of design as so much window-dressing. Or as the late Richard Mitchell, the writer of the well-designed “Underground Grammarian,” gratingly put it, “Design is not an essential. Design is only an interesting particular.”

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