Look on this and despair, fans of street food. Look on it and realize that it may be ruining some of your favorite dishes.
It’s a three-section takeout container, a superbly convenient invention. The clever construction, wide availability, and relatively low price make it an obvious choice for many food trucks, food carts, food kiosks, or whatever your town calls quick and convenient food-grab businesses. I understand why this is popular—believe me, I do. But I’m here to say I wish it were a little less popular, because its design hurts some of my favorite dishes, even when they’re prepared well otherwise.
I’m writing this after eating a passable Indonesian lunch out of one of these containers. My meal included totally solid beef rendang, some pickles, and rice. Typically, a dish of this sort would be served something like this:
So, a small mound of rice, and a bunch of things around it. The banana leaf would typically be larger, and when taken to go (the above was served in my kitchen) it would all be folded into a convenient little portable bundle.
The bundle is handy, but it’s more than that. Using it also means that all your food is now packed together, steaming inside a fragrant banana leaf. You are continuing to cook it, letting no moisture escape, and melding the flavors together.
No such thing happens in our high-tech, plastic container. The three sections mandate the quantity of each ingredient, and it’s all way off-balance: you get nearly a pound of rice, laid flat so it dries out. Two smaller sections get awkwardly filled with some split of the other ingredients, and it’s all closed with a good 1.5” of headroom, letting all the moisture rise up and then drip back down. This isn’t “steaming”; it’s could be described as a weird dry-out-plus-spray cooling method.
The whole “wrapped bundle” thing isn’t some fancy fad. It’s a tradition that arose from dozens (if not hundreds) of years of food service in many different countries. It just makes sense. It’s also cheaper; banana leaves cost next to nothing. For compliance with US food-safety regulations, the banana bundle might have to be further wrapped in butcher paper, but that wouldn’t change things much. That’s how my favorite food cart in Portland, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, does things, and you can taste it—your chicken and rice stay juicy and warm for a very long time.
Imagine ordering a burrito and being handed that three-section takeout container filled with a mountain of rice, a side of pork, and a side of beans. You’d scratch your head, at the very least. It’s not the missing tortilla that’s the worst offense here; you probably don’t order burritos because you adore the (lack of) flavor of an industrial flour tortilla. You just recognize that these ingredients taste better when they’re tightly pressed together.
This, then, is my humble plea to Southeast-Asian food vendors all across Portland and the rest of the nation: don’t use plastic containers for foods that are normally served wrapped in some way. Wrap it, brother and sister, wrap it. You’ll save money, earn street creed, and serve tastier meals.
When I’m given an opportunity to ask people a random personal question, I often choose this one:
What do you think about before you fall asleep?
You’re in bed, you’ve put your book away, you’ve locked your phone. Do you have default thinking-material you reach for at this point, something to help transition you to sleep?
In answer, I usually receive what I consider a comedic cover-up: something like, “all the mistakes I’ve made that day”, or “the futility of life”. While it’s possible that this is indeed all that goes through everyone’s head in bed—yikes!—I doubt it. On very bad days, sure. But what about the good days? What about the most common of days—the average, nothing-to-write-home-about ones?
Perhaps some day I’ll get a different answer. For now, I’ll just offer mine. Here, then, revealed for perhaps the first time, is what I do before I go unconscious: I think up stories. Books, movies, comic-book characters, TV show pilots, biopics. Even made-up nonfiction material: reviews of nonexistent works, passionate defenses of imaginary topics, wedding toasts for fictional people. And here’s the key: these fictions have to be kind of cheesy and not that great.
We’re talking genre material: corny sci-fi, beefy action flicks, eye-rolling detective stories, sappy romance, spy thrillers, superhero fluff, faux Shakespeare. It can’t be very good stuff, really; if it is, I run the risk of getting excited and intellectually involved, which would defeat the purpose of lulling myself to sleep with this mental bubblegum.
When I land on a particularly soporific subject, I latch on to it and usually revisit it for a period of a few weeks (or even months!) I can still remember some of the pillow-candy stories I put myself to sleep with in high school.
You may be wondering if any of it has ever broken out and turned into a real thing, a serious, daytime work. The answer is, sadly, no. But I don’t consider my nighttime imaginings a waste of time. It’s all good brain-exercise, if nothing else. And it sure beats worrying about bills and lost arguments.
Just about the most asinine, presumptuous, hubris-filled thing a designer can say is that someone else’s design is “wrong”. That word is reserved for judgments of absolute truth or ethical guidance; for flawed mathematical proofs and crimes. And yet, allow me to declare the following: Jony Ive’s icon grid in iOS 7 is wrong.
Or perhaps I should say, it’s being used wrong. Let me give a specific example, and then I’ll explain.
Jony Ive’s new “icon grid” is a guide meant to ensure that different apps’ icons look harmonious on the home screen. That’s a lofty goal. The issue of whether a grid can really accomplish that is complex; most designers think that non-block-based designs (so, not paragraphs of text, not photos, not headings) require a lot of “optical adjustment”. This is fancy talk for “tweak it so it looks right.”
But whether we accept the idea of a grid or not, here’s the bigger point: no icon designer I’ve asked thinks Ive’s grid is helpful. In that sense, it’s wrong. The large circle is too big. Many apps in iOS 7 use it: all the Store apps, Safari, Messages, Photos… In all these icons, the big shape in the center is simply too big. Every icon designer I’ve asked would instead draw something like the icon on the right. To our eyes—and we get paid to have good ones, we’re told—this is more correct.
Now, it’s possible that Ive’s grid is simply being misinterpreted by the actual designers who put pixels to screen to make these icons. (I doubt that Ive himself fired up Photoshop and cranked these out.) His grid is a good guide of bounding boxes. That large circle represents the outside edge beyond which your icon’s shape should never extend.
Here’s an illustration of this concept:
The blue, hollow box is the maximum area the icon can fill in this toolbar. If your icon is a “full shape” (one that fills space very efficiently) it would be a mistake to simply make it the size of this bounding box. It would look too big. Instead, it should be inset slightly. That way, “pointy shapes” (with a lot of “inefficient”, protruding parts) can extend to the edge of that bounding box, and the two kinds of shapes will look good next to each other.
(It’s also worth noting that you should absolutely mix up “full” and “pointy” shapes. This kind of visual rhythm makes icons recognizable, and gosh darn it, it’s what makes all art look good.)
So, in this sense, the new app icons in iOS 7 are wrong.