pixel smiley face eats text "die pixels"

Die Pixels Die!

Produce one vector-based smart, digital unit and use it on the screen of an Apple Watch or on the billboard by the highway – no new files, no change in file size.

Let’s start with what a pixel is: a pixel is a square of color comprised of various amounts of red, green, or blue. When you hear digital artists speak of an RGB value, it’s this combination they’re talking about. Computer screens are composed of pixels and, as most people know, digital images are formed when pixels are colorized into a recognizable form or picture, like the image at the top of this post. So, what are these little squares of color teaching us in the digital world?

Pixel Problems

Digital artists are all too aware of some of the media production problems that various screen resolutions create for images across device screens. These days media, resolution, and hardware have become tightly coupled and problematic for digital artists. Before the introduction of the retina display and mobile devices things were pretty simple. It used to be that web developers and designers created media at 72 ppi, that is pixels per inch (ppi), and they were targeting desktop monitors. But then Apple started introducing hardware devices that displayed imagery at quadruple that resolution. This meant that artist now had to double the width and height of an image for it to appear sharp and clear on an iPad since the hardware now had a greater number of pixels. Complicating things further for digital artists and motion designers was the introduction of digital video specs like 720p, 1080p, 4K, and yes even 8K. Digital agencies struggle to support all the screen sizes that are proliferating in the digital marketplace. This led to the emergence of responsive layouts – content that adapts to the width and height of the screen that displays it. So what are developers and artists to do? Make all kinds of images depending on the device they will be displayed on? That way the image doesn’t get squished, or stretched, or the very worse thing you can ever say to an artist, “pixelated”. OMG! Never say the word “pixelated” to an artist!

I guess you can’t blame the poor pixel. The problem isn’t the pixels themselves but all those damn resolutions. But recently people have begun to call for the death of the pixel and they just might be on to something.

Die Pixels Die!

‘What?”, you say, “Absurd!. Pixels can’t die!” Well they can, and they just might. On February 11, 2015, David Shapton wrote “ There will probably be no 8K. In fact, there will probably be no pixels at all in the future.” He was writing about 8K video. You might still be catching up with 720p video, or 1080p video. You might be aware that 4K video is coming and that 8K video exists. Right now might be a good time to dust off the Atari, or put the Bob Dylan mixed tape in the JVC, or get the Snuggie from the closet, push the Star Wars Trilogy into the Betamax and make a weekend of it, ’cause times they are a changing.

If pixels die, what will replace them? Well, vectors will. If a pixel is a square of color; a vector is more like a line drawing. An excellent explanation about pixel versus vector by Laura Coyle can be found here.

So, who cares if pixels die? Well, apparently a lot of people do. When David Shapton wrote his first post on the subject, RedShark had the largest volume of traffic ever (history of the debate here). It was Professor Phil Willis from Bath University who fueled the debate over the death of the pixel when Bath University wrote about his research into vector-based video. Below is an example of vector-based video.

What does it all mean Basil?

Why all the fuss about pixels versus vectors? As Austin Power once said with a toothy grin, “What does it all mean Basil?” Here’s why this stuff is important and this is how all this impacts everything in the digital future.

What if, and it’s a BIG “what if” you could produce vector imagery that didn’t look like line art but looked more like photography. If the vector-based video above wasn’t enough to wet your appetite, take a look at the one below.

You might be wondering why you would bother creating vector imagery or vector-based video. Let’s forget about vector-based video for the moment and simply focus on vector-based imagery. Right now artists and web developers deploy a myriad of pixel-based images in order to match all the portrait, landscape, Retina displays, hi-res screens, etc. But what if you only had to produce one vector-based image that could be used on the screen of an Apple Watch as well on the billboard by the highway. What if your product image could be created once and used everywhere. That is where vector-based imagery would play a major role. Because to a vector, size doesn’t matter. A vector will scale to any size. And if you zoom in on a vector, the quality doesn’t degrade, or “pixelate” as they say, because it is not a pixel-based image. I don’t know about you but I find this stuff exciting! If I had to create imagery for my product, nothing would sound better than creating it once to be used everywhere. No matter the screen, no matter the resolution, the same image made once and used everywhere, and the file size of it would never change. I wouldn’t have to make a super, hi-res version for the billboard or print because my one vector-based image would be hi-res no matter where you viewed it or to what purpose.

Responsive design, smart objects, and digital signage

So much of what we see in digital signage and around the web is fairly static. We still can’t get our heads around the fact that we can do more with less. OK, now that we have a vector-based product image that we’ve made once and can be displayed on any screen at any size, what if we made that object smart. What if these smart, vector-based images could all be blown into a screen like someone blowing insulation into someone’s attic, and these objects would be autonomous i.e. they would know what to do and how to position themselves. Wouldn’t that be cool? A cookie image might have the smarts to know it should be close to coffee. An image of a bottle of coke might decide to congregate with the other bottled beverages and mosey on over to a specific location. Now because they are vector images, and they are smart images, perhaps they could have an overriding instruction that gives them further direction i.e. coke needs to sell more. So, because it’s a vector image, the coke bottle now grows in size while the rest of the products decrease in size, because, hey, they’re vector images. They can do that! And they can do that in real time! Now the interesting thing about this scenario is that there’s a huge number of screen configurations that could be displayed. I want to illustrate my point by showing you an example of autonomous, smart objects controlled by a central program. It’s an IoT example (Internet of Things).

In the Nano Quadrotors video, each quadrotor has its individual logic and the group of them has a program that can give them all instructions so they act as a group. Now, my artist friends will all be chiming in, “What about my design? What about my artwork?”. Well, what about it? Maybe the way things are being presented digitally is changing. Instead of thinking big, maybe we need to think small. Instead of “designing” one big screen, we need to design each independent object really well and then bring those really well designed things together to form the screen in much the same way that a whole lot of pixels come together to form an image.

We are not alone!

Well, I’m not alone in my thinking. Instead of painstakingly assembling these behemothic masterpiece screens we should be creating micro-masterpieces and then assembling and disassembling them as we see fit.

I recently read some very interesting posts ( 1, 2, 3) by Paul Adams, VP of Product @Intercom and he echoes the thread that I’m developing here. In these posts he writes about designing systems rather than pages, or apps, or products.

[…] When everything is connected, we need to design systems rather than products. Let me give you an example; Facebook is not a blue and white website. It’s a system of connected things which exist independently and in aggregated views.

[…] That thinking about designing destinations, or apps, was missing the bigger opportunity. Thinking about systems rather than destinations is critical but it is not how most designers think today.

[…] Systems are comprised of individual components that are connected. These connected components have relationships between them; they can change each other. They can be separated and re-aggregated in different ways.

[…] These atomic units are critical to the future of the Internet. The job of designers is to create amazing atomic units, and have people consume and interact with them.

[…] Designing static, linked web pages is a dying profession.  – Paul Adams

LinkedIn is an example of such a system. A system where you upload a profile picture which is attached to various views and cards in the system. If you look at my profile, you’ll see my picture. While I write this post, I see that same picture at the top of it. When I publish this post my photo will go along with it. Once this post is published, I can share this post – an autonomous unit of information that can exist here within LinkedIn, or exist in some other environment.

As Paul puts it, “Systems are comprised of individual components that are connected. These connected components have relationships between them; they can change each other. They can be separated and re-aggregated in different ways.” What I’ve been talking with my colleagues about for years is the notion of ‘organic’. Living, if you will. It’s almost as if these ‘things’ are becoming more alive, whereas before they were so stagnant and dead and controlled. We are opening the digital cage and setting them free. It could be that when social media gets a hold of these assets, they might morph into something completely different and that’s good: they will take on a life of their own.

An excellent post by Stacey Epstein, “ Why the traditional ad agency is a dying breed“, discusses how data and media are gaining a life of their own. I particularly like the way the Under Amour campaign with Giselle captures social feedback in real time and marries it with the media.

How do ad agencies stay relevant in a social and data-driven world? They have to transform or they will die. Many ad agencies are still cranking out millions of dollars in video buys that most people — particularly those who are 18 to 35-year- old — have stopped looking at. A fleeting 30-second TV ad does little to nothing in the way of engaging those who have almost entirely switched over to digital and mobile.

Instead, ad agencies must look to the massive amounts of data available to them and help their customers understand what it means. They have to truly understand where people consume content and what the demand is, and then tap into the global conversation that’s currently happening across 7 billion mobile devices.

This means bolder investments in social and the tools available to measure and capture social data beyond the hashtag, such as the number of brand impressions across social networks. Agencies have to act on this in real-time.

Gone are the days when my 8-year-old self-singing jingles inside a Piggly Wiggly could drive genuine ROI. Today, it’s not about the short-term ad, but, rather, harnessing the constant, dynamic social conversation happening around us. –  Stacey Epstein

In a recent post by Tom Goodwin, “ Microsoft Windows 10 Shines a Light on the Future of Advertising“, Tom states, ‘In the Future, The Device Won’t Matter.’ And he’s right.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 is a software platform designed to pull content from anywhere onto everything. […] It’s about responsive design, where everything is optimized to the user’s context. In short, it’s about a philosophy of thinking about devices as relatively dumb screens through which we pull optimized content — it’s a world of thinking of media or the devices we use to consume it as a context, not as a channel.

This can have profound effect on marketing. Instead of looking at the world in terms of devices and aligning budgets and ads around specific devices — whether it’s a smartphone, tablet or TV — marketers can now start to embrace this new world where virtually all media is digital, and start creating ideas around these new contexts for advertising. –  Tom Goodwin

Perhaps we are learning from the lowly pixel and it yet has something to teach us: instead of thinking big, we should be thinking small. Yet when these smaller things are intelligently combined with other smaller things, the result is organic and powerful. You can do Moore with less.

Social is fundamentally changing the way digital does business. It is changing how we design “things” and how we assemble these “things”.In this new world of creating small masterpieces, having the right tools and work-flows within your organization become critical. Take a look at my other posts that pull out this theme a bit more: Chasing digital strategy and Silo Connectors.

Change is either working for your organization or against it. If your organization is a rock in the change current, you will only survive if your rock is big enough, but sooner or later the current will win and you’ll be gone. Social is either working for your business or against it. If there is a social iceberg heading for your company which would you rather be, a speed boat or the unsinkable Titanic? You may have already hit the social iceberg, and you just don’t know it. The lower decks have been taking on water for years, and there may not be time to save the ship.

sun rising over horizon of the earth, caption reads "integrity rising"

Here's a very interesting update regarding the pixel vs vector debate.

Steve Harrington

- not the douchebag one