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Giving Design

Why design will save the world and a potent remedy for your quarterlife crisis.

Yves BeharDesign is at its best when it truly gives something back to the world. Which is why we love industrial design icon Yves Behar. And while his credits include a long list of brilliant products, today we’re focusing on one: the XO laptop of One Laptop Per Child fame — a (near) $100 laptop for children’s education in the developing world.

And while business strategy has certainly been one of the propelling forces behind the project’s success, OLPC would be nothing without the computer’s brilliant design, which makes all of the device’s technological and cultural feats possible.

(For more on the project, watch founder Nicholas Negroponte’s incredibly inspirational TED talk.)

About the size of a small textbook, the rugged learning tool has built-in WiFi that enables the XO to communicate with nearby peers. The unique screen, which rotates 360 degrees, is readable even under direct sunlight — for children who go to school outdoors. It’s extremely energy-efficient and resists high temperatures and high humidity.

The brilliant design extends to even the minutest of details, like the logo — the “X” and “O” on the back of the screen each come in 20 color options, making for 400 possible combinations so that each kid in a large classroom gets a distinctive XO laptop — both a way for kids to connect with their laptop better and a clever tactic for avoiding mix-ups.

Yves Behar reveals the inspiration, the technology, and the meticulous thought behind the design process:

Some say the notion that design will save the world is a stretch. But the XO laptop is a testament to the fact that design will certainly play a strong part. Because we believe that the real epidemic drowning the third world is ignorance and the lack of access to information — deadly yet preventable diseases like malaria and AIDS can be halted through simple education about their mechanisms; poverty and armed conflict over resources can both be ameliorated by educating citizens about simple business models that enable them to lead self-sufficient, self-reliant lives.

And it has to start with children’s education, laying the foundations for a more economically sustainable society of tomorrow.

So why are we bringing this up now, when OLPC has been around for quite a while?

Let’s face it, the holidays are pretty much upon us — a time for giving, a time for getting. And we’re all about efficiency here, so we like the idea of a two-birds-one-stone approach to the whole giving/getting thing. Especially if it means “giving” in the true, altruistic, make-yourself-feel-like-a-better-person kind of way. Case in point: OLPC’s Give 1 Get 1 program.

Initially a two-week experiment in raising donations, G1G1 launched in November 2007 under the premise that anyone donating $399 to OLPC would not only get a laptop sent on their behalf to a child in the developing world, but would also get one of their very own. G1G1 was so wildly successful that it got extended beyond the two weeks into the entire holiday season and well into the spring of this year.

OLPC logoThis year, G1G1 is back for seconds. So if you’re a fan of world-changing design and are feeling altruisic this holiday season, or you’re looking for a perfect gift for your kid relative, or you’re simply undergoing a severe quarterlife crisis and need to feel like you’re giving back to the world, consider G1G1.


RSS Minimalism

What Google, minimalism and the world’s most celebrated font have in common.

We love Google Reader. We also love minimalism. So we’re all over Helvetireader, a brilliantly minimalist userscript for GR by Oxford-based duo Hicksdesign that takes the “real simple” of RSS to the design front.

Helvetireader screenshot

The interface, inspired by the highly acclaimed Helvetica font, uses Google Reader’s nifty keyboard shortcuts, eliminating on-screen buttons to present feeds in expanded view. It’s available for Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, and any Webkit browser with Greasekit installed. And if your browser doesn’t support userscripts or you’d like to further customize the interface, you can download just the CSS file.

You can follow Helvetireader on Twitter for updates on tweaks and answers to troubleshooting questions.

Compared to Google’s recent themes for Gmail, which we must say left us underwhelmed, Helvetireader hits the sweet spot.


Geek Wednesdays: The Ephemeral Web

A modern time machine for data and what we can learn about the web from Victorian toys.

Kevin Kelly: The One MachineWith the constant proliferation of data and its spread across the social web, we’re closer than we think to what Kevin Kelly has dubbed the One Machine. The final leap in information systems lies not in accumulating more and more data, but it in making sense of the information that does exist — which, of course, is increasingly hard the more of it there is out there.

That’s why we’re digging Zoetrope, a breakthrough development by four University of Washington students in partnership with Adobe Systems. It’s a revolutionary visualization system that allows interaction with the evolution of data as it changes across the ephemeral web — a set of operations that analyze content stream and extract temporal data.

And when you think about it, that’s pretty damn novel — after all, we’re used to looking at web pages that are nothing but static snapshots that stay a certain way for a given period of time, then update into another static snapshot.

Zoetrope lets you create a “lens” — a dynamic filter that tracks something you’re interested in as it fluctuates over time.

You can set up a lens for a specific topic, bind two lenses together to explore the correlation between two topics, anchor a lens to a specific portion of a web page and track how it changes over time, or even create a lens for the price point of that shiny new gadget you’ve been dying to get your hands on so you can pick the best time to buy it.

Zoetrope is also brilliantly extensible and data extracted by it is usable in many other information services, like the wonderful Swivel (which we’ve featured before) and IBM’s Many Eyes — systems whose forte lies in representing data in slick ways, but not necessarily in tracking the information in the first place, which is where Zoetrope steps in.

Victorian ZoetropeThe system’s name is an allusion to the Victorian zoetrope device — a cylinder that creates the illusion of action by spinning static images in rapid succession.

Ironic, since the web is actually the complete opposite — action taking place faster than we can process, forcing us to artificially create static safe spots so we can keep up.

No word yet on when we’re to expect Zoetrope in public beta, but something tells us this one won’t have trouble on the VC circuits.


2008 in Album Art

The year’s best cover art — from albums that actually didn’t suck.

All too often we see killer album artwork, only to find it covering a total musical let-down — perhaps banking on the trite notion that people will indeed judge a book, or in this case an album, by its cover.

So we sifted through a sea of mediocrity and sheer hideousness, both graphic and musical, to bring you the most innovative album covers of 2008 — from albums that were actually good. Really, really good.


Just like movie sequels, second albums are usually more of a disappoint than an upgrade. Always the non-conformists, electro-pop-hop duo Gnarls Barkley does nothing of the sort. Their second album, The Odd Couple, oozes cinematic beats, powerful vocals and compelling lyrics.

The cover art belies the album’s unique urban sensibility bent through a prism of crisp electronica and vibrant Brit-pop-like undercurrents and an urban sensibility.

Best track: Going On.


From the UK’s smoky underground bar scene straight to the soundtrack of just about every American primetime drama, British sensation Adele is just that: a sensation. Amy Winehouse without the substance-induced self-destruction, her powerful raspy voice and infectious melodies stick to your soul like a housefly on melted licorice.

Adele: 19

And there’s something to be said for using pure portrait photography in cover art — perhaps because it’s so incredibly difficult to do tastefully, it’s a rarity these days. The few contemporary artists who do it mostly go for an overly Photoshoppy textured and filtered photo, or simply bail with an abstract illustration.

19, however, is supreme in its clean, bold simplicity. The rich negative space and minimalist color scheme yield to the meticulous lighting and the natural curves, building a powerful sense of mystery and allure — a perfect visual metaphor for the music within.

Best track: Right As Rain.


Another breath-of-fresh-air British import, Kate Nash burst onto the global scene this year. Made of Bricks vibrates with her perky beats and angst-driven yet profound lyrics, it’s like The Clash was reincarnated in the body of a 23-year-old girl.

Kate Nash: Made of Bricks

The album art captures the Tim Burtonesque magic of Nash’s music — poppy, almost child-like beats and vocals that turn chilling and heavy in a split second under the burden of an adult mind.

Best track: Pumpkin Soup.


The artist who took SXSW by storm and invaded the hipster scene faster than a new American Apparel V-neck did so in good right. Her eponymous debut album is nothing short of brilliant, with a sound so utterly unique that it may just be the stuff of tomorrow’s music history books.

The album artwork, much like the music inside, is a bold manifestation of minimalism with a punch, from the quiet, grainy black-and-white photograph blasted with an unexpected burst of gold, to the provocative layout and muted yet unusual typography.

Best track: Lights Out.


Yep, we were all over David Byrne and Brian Eno’s latest album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today — a more-than-worthy compensation for the pair’s 27-year-long absence from the music frontlines.

The cover design itself is both refreshing and nostalgic in that eerie retro-futurism kind of way, complete with slightly-off 3D imagery and an oddly metallic color scheme.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Our favorite track, Strange Overtones, also happens to be a free download on Amazon, so go grab a copy and be your own judge. Yep, it comes with the artwork.


There was buildup. There was anticipation. There was hype. Which means Radiohead’s In Rainbows had a lot to live up to and could easily disappoint. Except it didn’t.

Radiohead: In Rainbows

The artwork itself captures the crisp, high-energy and indulgently vibrant sound of the album in all its organized chaos. Not to mention it inspired arguably even more awesome fan covers and a ton of utterly brilliant motion graphics.

The cover art even inspired an iGoogle spin-off — three artist themes designed by the band and an amazing motion graphics gadget for the House of Cards video.


Speaking of buildup, no one comes anywhere near Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails in that department — we’re talking elaborate secret immersive games, iPhone apps, user-generated music videos, and a very clear message to major labels instructing them to perform anatomically impossible acts.

Their latest “surprise” album, The Slip, was released label-free and without any promotion under a Creative Commons license and despite (or, Trent Reznor may argue, because of) intentionally releasing the album to bit torrents first, it generated tremendous response with over 1.6 million downloads from the official website alone, on top of torrent downloads and CD sales.

Nine Inch Nails: The Slip

And as far as the album artwork goes, the cover image — creepy-cool as it may be — isn’t really the album’s greatest feat. Each song on it actually comes with its own artwork, some alluding to older albums and clearly part of a bigger message for fans to decode.

We have to give it to NIN for extreme originality and innovation across pretty much every facet of the music industry and every fan touch point.

Best track: Discipline.


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