Monthly Archives: June 2013


“We spend a lot of time on a few great things.” — Designed by Apple in California

In 1940, Ub Iwerks, the animator behind Walt Disney’s first Mickey Mouse shorts, came back to the Disney studios after a 10-year absence. Ub had famously produced hundreds of drawings alone each day for one of those first Mickey Mouse shorts, but Ub’s return to Disney would also be remembered for his contribution to the technical side of film production, with advances in cameras and special effects. In an industry with extreme specialization — you either did backgrounds, or animation, or ink-and-paint — Ub’s talents bridged both the artistic and technical.

One of Ub’s inventions while away from Disney was called the multiplane camera. Perfected by others leading up to Snow White, in a massive camera stand over 10 feet tall, the multiplane’s innovation was to allow a background to be split into levels. Foreground trees might be painted on the glass of the first level, then the characters sat underneath that, and then farther back layers for a building, with others behind that for hills and sky.

To provide a sense of depth, camera operators could vary the distance between each plane. And movement for each level could be synchronized at different speeds, giving it a beautiful parallax effect. Distant background levels moved more slowly and were naturally blurred and out of focus.

80 years after Ub’s invention, the multiplane is alive in iOS 7. Previous versions of iOS were built on a single plane with raised and textured areas on that surface, like a topographical map except with buttons instead of mountains. iOS 7 is instead designed with multiple flat layers. Each level is strikingly flat, but by layering two or three, spaced apart, Apple has achieved an overall sense of depth.

It’s a return to basics. Simple things can remain simple, readable. When clarity is needed, everything goes flat. But it’s a framework that allows for subtle motion and depth without changing what works about the new, content-first flat design. iOS 7’s control center blurs the layer below. The home screen background sits deeper too, as if only the app icons are touching the screen. Photos scroll under the navigation bar.

Each plane is painted flat as if on glass. There can be no text drop shadows, no textures, without ruining the effect. And the result of this strict metaphor is equally valuable: there are no drop shadows to distract or obscure an app’s real content.

Disney’s multiplane camera, first in a dedicated rig and then recreated in software, lasted for decades, until the era of 3D computer animation. iOS 7’s new look won’t last that long, but the core concepts should carry Apple for years. I really like where they’re headed.

Searchpath open source and themes

I have big news for Searchpath today. The client-side portion of Searchpath is now officially open source and available on GitHub. While I do think one of the innovations of Searchpath is the JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, it’s really the simplicity of setting up Searchpath that makes it work. A single line of JavaScript adds a search box and indexes your site, and the crawling and storage will of course remain private on my servers.

Now that part of the service is on GitHub, customers who wanted to extend the JavaScript can have a clear path for doing that. Not only is it easier to host the JavaScript yourself, but I’m accepting pull requests to integrate your improvements back into the core product for everyone to use. Special thanks to Brett Terpstra for already submitting some tweaks.

I’m also very excited to announce a simple themes structure for Searchpath. Because in addition to the JavaScript, the second part of customizing Searchpath is the design. While I document CSS class names you can use to override styles, I wanted to make it even easier to design completely new user interfaces and share them with others.

On GitHub you’ll find a “themes” folder. Any sub-folder here will be routinely synced to the main Seachpath server, where you can access it by adding “theme=folder_name” to the JavaScript include URL. To create your own theme, just add a sub-folder with your own custom theme name and submit a pull request. When the theme is added to Searchpath, all your CSS and images will be hosted by my servers. (The first person to use a specific name will effectively become the owner of it, and I’ll only accept pull requests from that person.)

Want to learn more about Searchpath? You can try it out here for free, or sign up for $8/month.