Category Archives: Artwork

Academic Papers Artwork baby names Blog blogging democracy Design ethics Facebook firefox Flickr folksonomies Google Google Docs Google Spreadsheets how-to information-architecture information-retrieval information design internet iphone journalism listserv mailing list maps mass media Online News Papers Photography plugin poll social-bookmarking social networking social software spam tagging trust Twitter Usability web-development Web2.0 webspam web standards WordPress Writing

A quick, simple tip for taking better group photos

DSCN2027 The group photo – that awkward assembly of a group of friends or colleagues trying their hardest not to look like they are posing while they violate each others’ personal space.  For a long time I thought it was impossible to take a good group photo, or at least it required huge amounts of creativity in choosing a setting, angle, or lord help us, props.

But I stumbled on a technique that is quick, easy, and seems to work more often than not.   I’m not necessarily claiming I invented it, but I will happily share it with you.

Step 1:  Tell the group the to act like it’s the worst day of their lives, and take a picture.

I know, it sounds like exactly the wrong thing to do.  You want to immortalize smiles and togetherness, not hatred and melancholy.  So here comes step 2…

Step 2:  Now tell the group to act like it’s the best day of their lives.  Take the picture, upload it to Flickr or whatever you use, and bask in the many kudos you will receive.

The key is that step 1 gets everyone loosened up, so that they’re willing to ham it up for the final photo.  It also gives everyone a good emotional contrast to gauge how happy to be in the happy photo.  No more sneers or unsure half-smiles.

Here’s a case where it came in handy – the setting was a restaurant, with bad lighting and a big yellowish wood background.  The camera was held by a random waitress.  Once in a while you’ll get a server who’s studying photography in art school, but not always, so this tip is a great way to make sure you get a fun photo.  First, everyone is sad:

Saddest day of our lives at Tommy's

Then, they are insanely happy!  Doesn’t it look like we were having a good time?

Happiest day of our lives at Tommy's

Keep in mind that the sad photo doesn’t have to be convincing – note that two of the people here are having a hard time keeping a straight face.  We don’t want great acting, we want to shake everyone up a little.


And it works!


How do you take a good picture on a gray, rainy day?  Again, we use the procedure.  Saddest day of their lives :


Happiest day of their lives!  Smiles despite the miserable weather.


Go forth and use the technique.  I’ve created a Sad vs. Happy photo pool in Flickr.  Please share any shots you take to it.

Have you tried it and it worked?  Didn’t work?  Got a better idea?  Leave me a comment below.

Why I am sharing my photos with a Creative Commons License

DSCN0563 I do a bit of amateur photography.  I’m not very strong technically and I don’t have particularly good equipment, but I enjoy finding interesting angles and compositions.  I’ve been putting up photos on Flickr for a while to share them with friends and the public.  I also have an account on Panoramio with some photos that show up in Google Earth.

No matter the particular photo site used, sharing photos online has been a great experience.  I’ve had a number of encouraging comments on my photos and people have emailed me to ask if they could use a photo in a report for school or a pamphlet for their non-profit.

When I signed up with Flickr I noticed they had options to add Creative Commons licenses to photos by default.  I’m more than happy to let people use my photos for noncommercial purposes, so why didn’t turn on Creative Commons licensing from the start?

Part of it was the number of options available.  Creative Commons licensing allows other people to share your work but it’s not the same thing as releasing the copyright or putting photos in the public domain.  You have some options:  do you want people to be able to make money off your work, or do you just want it available for non-profits, educational, and personal use?  Do you want people to be able to alter and remix your work or just present it as-is?

DSCF0662 So I was a bit struck by the paradox of choice and decided to skip ahead and start uploading photos.  In retrospect, that was a mistake.

There’s a great page at the Creative Commons site that explains the options.  I am going to license my photos with an Attribution Non-commercial (by-nc) license.  That license covers my default attitude about my amateur photography – everyone is welcome to use my photos for non-commercial purposes, so long as they give me credit. This is, of course, in addition to fair use rights that people already have.

Another important point:  it doesn’t mean people can’t use it commercially, they just have to contact me and get permission.  Depending on the use, I might put a price on it.  And I can always sell prints or make products myself.

I might even switch over to allow commercial use as well, if I can get over my delusions of being the next Ansel Adams.

San Francisco skyline and flowers The abuse and incessant extension of copyright might not seem like a life-or-death issue, but it’s one of those issues where technology and public policy are inextricably linked.  It’s like the problem of software and business method patents.  There’s a great story by Spider Robinson that illustrates what happens if taken to extremes.

So take a look at the licenses and consider applying the appropriate copyleft to your work.

The information design and aesthics of five-year-old me

I recently came across something at my grandmother’s house – a drawing I made when I was five years old. Normally it would be more appropriate to post it on a refrigerator than a design and usability blog, but bear with me. The interesting thing about this crayon drawing is that it’s a representation of a real place – so we can see a little bit about how I saw my world at that age and how I tried to represent it.

Let’s look at this picture from three perspectives to find the good, the bad, and the ugly.

My house, according to 5-year-old me

The Good – Information Design

First, how well does this image convey information to the viewer?  Most of the time when we talk about information design we’re worried about accurate infographics, legible labels and structured documents.  Since this image was intended to represent a real-world place we can look at it the same way.

Young me apparently had an eye for color and texture. The red and black brick makes the house immediately recognizable – I bet that if I handed it to a stranger and lead them to the right street, they would pick out my parent’s house immediately. The barn to the right was my dad’s large shed, and the color scheme and pattern of the beams is pretty accurate.

My house, according to 5-year-old me When viewed as a thumbnail, it’s clear this image actually has a fair degree of information density – and this is years before I had read anything by Edward Tufte. The viewer gets a good number of identifying characteristics in a small space, including architectural style and building materials.  I had even included a bit of topography (the barn is uphill from the house and front yard).

The Bad – Artistic Aesthetics

Now let’s look at it from a more artistic point of view.  Aesthetics are subjective, so I like to take into account the intent of a piece if possible.  For this drawing, accuracy is the most immediate concern.  Not all art has to be photorealistic or even representative, but I have no doubt that young Jason was trying his hardest to draw the place exactly as it existed.

For an objective piece this has many errors and omissions.  For example, my parents’ house does indeed have a door, a number of additional windows, and a garage. The house is a ranch and my guess is that the shape shown here was influenced by the boxy, generic house shape that shows up in cartoons and childrens’ books.  The window in the barn was never actually there and the driveway shouldn’t reach all the way back to it, instead ending at the missing garage.

Note that everything is completely flat – there’s no notion of perspective. I can’t be too hard on kindergarten self on this point because even the Ancient Greeks and Romans never mastered linear perspective. It’s hard to believe, but the brilliant minds that designed and built the Parthenon did not understand that to accurately represent our three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, parallel lines should converge toward one or more vanishing points.

Classic photo of the Parthenon

The two human figures represented in the windows are trite, generic stick figures.  They show no emotion or individuality, and are poorly executed compared to the house and barn.  The green grassy ground ends abruptly to the left of the house leaving an unbalanced, awkward composition.  Overall I would have to say that this work was a failure, with some consideration given for the limit of the medium and the spotty recall of my five-year-old brain.

The (Potentially) Ugly – Childhood Development

Now for the analysis that is a little too close to comfort – where does this artwork put young me on the timeline of childhood development?  I remember getting a lot of praise for my drawings when I was little, but lately I’ve begun to notice that adults praise any mark a child puts to paper.  Was the foundation of my self-worth built upon patronizing indulgence?

Psychology researcher Viktor Lowenfeld mapped out childhood drawing development into stages by age.  Here’s a page illustrating some of the stages and here’s a great comparison between his stages and those of Betty Edwards of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain fame.

Lucky for my inflated ego, 5-year old me falls comfortably ahead of the curve.  The ground is defined as a flat line, and there’s a clear spacial relationship between objects.  Colors reflect the real world, especially when you take into account the limited Crayola palette.  This places 5-year-old me firmly in the Schematic stage of development, usually see at 7 to 9 years.

I should stop congratulating myself long enough to note that in this stage, size often reflects emphasis or importance.  The barn is much larger in this picture than in real life, and the stick figures are small and deemphasized.  Did the barn stand out in my mind simply because I spent most of my time in the back yard, or was it because that’s where my dad kept cool things like the sledge hammer and gas for the lawnmower?  Are the people small and anonymous to fit the window spaces, or do they reflect some lack of social development?