The #StarTrek “cheat sheet”

As you may see from some of my other posts, I’m kind of a Star Trek fan, and have been one most of my life. I grew up on reruns of the original series and over the years have watched all the various incarnations (though I have not seen every episode of everything – I got, as they say , “a life”). As a Trek fanboy, I’ve learned a lot about the franchise and so, for your edification, here are some of the key “factoids” that you can use whenever Trek comes up in casual conversation (which I’m sure is… umm, often).

Impress your friends with this, the Star Trek “cheat sheet”.

Each show reflects its time

Star Trek was very much a product of its time, whenever it was produced. The original series was about ambition and hope, inspired by the space program and the “new frontier” that was spoken of by JFK (Kirk is a very effective replacement for JFK). The Next Generation presented stories about the fear that technology would “assimilate” us at the dawning of the Internet. And Enterprise showed a very obvious 9/11 parable through the Xindi story arc. The best Trek presents a mirror to the culture who views it… and by reflecting this culture, great stories are told and people are entertained.

The best movie is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This is indisputable, because it is an absolute truth… the same way water is wet and rocks are hard, The Wrath of Khan is the best Trek film. The interesting conversation comes about when you start to explore why that is the case. The primary reason is you had a singular vision that stemmed from a filmmaker who was less a fan of Trek and more a fan of classical storyteller and Shakespeare… Nicholas Meyer.

Meyer, not being well-versed in Trek lore, realized the rich tapestry and universe that existed and took advantage of it in ways that directors and writers following him failed to… and all of it was steeped in character. Spock, finally accepting himself, sacrificing his life to save the ship and crew.

The best captain argument is pointless

“Kirk!” “Picard” “Archer!” Look, each captain reflected the expected characterizations of the time, and so each one had different traits that resonated with views. Kirk was more action oriented, Picard was more intellectual, and Archer was more humanistic and pragmatic… No captain is “better” than the other (though I’m actually a fan of Archer… mostly because he had a dog).

“Spocks Brain” isn’t the worse episode of Trek ever

No, that honor belongs to the Voyager episode “Threshold”, which dealt with the impact of crossing the Warp 10 barrier to crewman Tom Paris. He starts… devolving. Is this not Trek? No, this is horrible.

A close second place is the Harlequin romance knockoff episode of Next Generation “Sub Rosa”, which has Dr. Crusher having psychic sex with her dead grandmother’s girlfriend. Next to these klinkers, Spock’s Brain is Shakespeare.

Lots of celebrities are Trek fans

The biggest example is Seth McFarlane, who would LOVE to have an office that looks just like a Next Gen bridge. But there are many others: Mila Kunis, Daniel Craig, Nathan Fillion, Karen Gillan, Tom Hanks, Ben Stiller, Rosario Dawson, Kelsey Grammer and more are all unabashed Trek fans.

Paramount is cool with fan productions… for now

Some of the best Trek that has come out the past few years has not been official…it’s been fan-made. I’m particularly impressed with Star Trek Continues, a fan-made episode series that actor Vic Mignogna has spearheaded. It captures the tone and spirit of the original series better than any of the others… better even than the new Trek films. Paramount is cool with the fan productions, as long as they don’t make money. Though looking at a future marketplace when they have to compete with the same eyeballs that these productions are aiming for, that may not last.

The best Next Gen movie is the last episode

One of the most interesting and honest commentary tracks I ever heard is Ron Moore and Brannon Braga commenting on Star Trek: Generations. On the commentary, the two writers of the film basically admit (as much as they can, considering the commentary is on a Paramount-issued video release) that the last third of Generations doesn’t work and that the “better” movie (and what should have been brought to the big screen) was the series finale “All Good Things…”

While there are many fans who love First Contact, I have to say… Brannon and Ron are right. “All Good Things…” wrapped up the Next Gen story in a way that the movies never did, and also was an entertaining romp as well. It worked in ways that Generations and First Contact didn’t. And the least we say about Nemesis, the better.

Gene Roddenberry didn’t create all by himself

There is a myth (one that was largely promoted by Gene himself) that Roddenberry came up with the show and everything in it by himself. Not so. He had some tremendously talented people who worked tirelessly to build and create Star Trek, and it would not have been what we know as “Star Trek” without them. Matt Jeffries, Gene L. Coon, Robert Justman, D.C. Fontana, Herbert Solow… and numerous directors and writers made Trek exceptional. Gene added a lot, obviously… but he didn’t do it alone. For details, I recommend reading the book Inside Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry was also a… ‘ladies man’

Gene was an idea man, and one of his ideas was to have a lot of sex. He bedded lots of women, and one of those was the actress Majel Barrett, who ended up his wife after he got a divorce from his first one. No judgement here, just pointing out… he was human, not some all-perfect saintly figure. Also, we now know where James Kirk’s libido came from.

A space shuttle was named Enterpise because of the fans (and Gerald Ford)

The first, experimental space shuttle was named Enterprise thanks to the fans… they wrote NASA and insisted the first shuttle be named after the ship James Kirk commanded. The final say was with Gerald Ford, and after he heard of the write-in campaign he approved the naming. He said he was “partial” to the name.

Gene Roddenberry “helped” the letter campaign that saved the original series

One of the “dirty little secrets” of Trek is that the campaign that saved Star Trek for a third season wasn’t exactly a spontaneous demonstration. Way back in 1967, when Star Trek was in trouble, Roddenberry and his staff started contacting the vestigial fan groups and began to ask them to write NBC to renew Star Trek. He even paid for protest materials and bumper stickers that fans plastered on studio execs bumpers! So the idea that the fans “rose up” to save Star Trek is true… from a certain point of view.

For a while Gene Roddenberry was a dealer of Star Trek collectibles

Gene never owned Star Trek (Desilu, then Paramount, did). So, he was paid a flat salary as a producer and a writer… and when the show ended he tried to get new shows off the ground with very little success. To keep the bills paid, he opened Lincoln Enterprises, a mail-order company that sold Star Trek collectibles (including scripts and 35mm film strips from the show). He… “secured” many of the items he sold through this company from the studio, which rubbed some the wrong way. He eventually folded the company, but for a while the best Dealer of Star Trek collectibles out there was Gene Roddenberry himself.

We can thank Lucille Ball for Star Trek existing at all

I love Lucy… not because she was a brilliant comedienne, but because she bankrolled Star Trek. The original producers of Star Trek was Desilu, the production company mutually owned by Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball. After a pilot that didn’t really work, Desilu asked Roddenberry to make a second pilot, and it is rumored that Lucy herself made the decision to green-light the series.

Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do, but not about this. Thanks for the laughs, and thanks for Star Trek!

Happy anniversary to Jaws and Chinatown!

I found out, to my amazement, that two of my favorite movies were released on the same date, one year apart (in 1974 and 1975). That date is today, June 20th.

Chinatown was, and is, a seminal work rich with detail and packed with amazing moments and performances. Jack Nicholson has never done better work, in my opinion… nor has Faye Dunaway, or John Huston, or Roman Polanski, or Robert Towne. Heck, even James Hong is superb in a bit role (and I had a chance to tell him that, happily, many years ago – the only member of the cast I ever met). It’s a miraculous thing, a film that could have not worked at all (the plot is difficult to follow for many, and it’s a period film with a barely-likable protagonist) and yet… it does.

Another film that could have been a disaster was Jaws. A movie set almost entirely at sea, with only three characters to watch for the bulk of its running time? A mechanical shark? Again, the fates were with Spielberg and the result is one of the most perfect movies ever made. I wouldn’t change a thing (OK, maybe I would show less of the shark at the end). Even though I have decided to stop rewatching films I’ve already seen, if I’m flipping channels and Jaws is on TV… I am drawn back in every time.

Today Chinatown turns 40, and Jaws turns 39… but in the end, both are timeless.

Building a pattern library for fun and profit

One of the most beneficial activities you can do on a large design project (especially if it’s a web application) is to define a pattern library. This architectural document details the framework that all the UI screens and screen elements must use/follow. I like to explain what a pattern library is from the perspective of a journalist (it was my first college major) – I ask the standard questions who what when where why and how:

Who will use the pattern library? Developers? Other UI designers? QA? The details of the documentation supports the intended audience(s).

What does the UI element look like? How is it displayed and presented to the end-user?

When do you use one UI element rather than another? Provide examples of usage so that this can be clear.

Where in the UI are the elements presented? The pattern library should provide “templates” of the different types of screens so that positioning and placement are clear.

How do the UI elements behave? That should be specified explicitly and clearly. You notice I left out the “Why,” and that’s because the question is: Why have a pattern library in the first place. There are several reasons:

  • It provides a reference for future UI design work.
  • It documents UI behavior in one place instead of having to document it at the field level on al the design specifications.
  • It allows for one “source of truth” for all parties, thus reducing confusion.
  • It provides for a mechanism for enforcing consistency, which allows for structured design work.
  • It reduces design churn, it enforces consistency, and helps ensure quality.

The pattern library should have three primary pieces of content:

Templates: Details of the different screen types in the site or application

Containers: Collections of different UI elements (such as a results table)

Elements: Details on the discrete UI elements and rules around usage and implementation

A pattern library is traditionally NOT a style guide and so does not contain branding information – it to be used as a reference for UI designer. You can design a pattern library one of two ways – bottom up or top down. Bottom-up means you look at an existing UI structure or set of screens and you define the patterns based on them. This is the right approach if you are redesigning a legacy application, and you can do this at the same time you do a heuristic review of the application. Top-down means you look at defining page templates and standards from scratch (leveraging best practices and existing pattern libraries, of course).

Pattern libraries aren’t for everyone, as it takes a focused perspective to create an artifact that is useful and usable, and some projects are small enough that such effort is overkill. I was on one project where the person who created the pattern library took upon the work like it was the Great American Novel, and the results was a top-heavy document that was not the least bit user-friendly. For a good example of how to do a pattern library right, look here:

Good luck!

The documentary Who is Harry Nilsson pulls on all my heartstrings

I love Harry Nilsson.

If you are thinking, “Who?” then I feel sorry for you. Harry Nilsson was a singer songwriter in the 1960s and 70s who wrote and/or sang a lot of great songs: “Without You”, “Coconut”, “One”, “Everybody’s Talkin’” and more. He was also an eccentric who drank and partied to excess with people like John Lennon, Randy Newman and Ringo Starr. He was whimsical, funny, dark and amazing – often all at once.

He’s dead now.

Harry Nilsson left an incredible body of work, a sizable collection of ground-breaking albums and singles that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Thankfully, the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? provides a great overview of his life and work through film footage, videos and interviews with his friends and family.

While I took slight exception at the documentary mixing up the chronology a bit (it ignores two albums and shows events slightly out of order) as a fan of Nilsson I couldn’t be happier. While we still have the music, it makes me miss the larger-than-life personality that was responsible for it – even though I never met him, I “knew him” through his words and songs.

Do yourself a favor and watch this documentary – and if you don’t seek out one or more of Harry’s albums after watching it, well… there’s no hope for you.

The presentation style of Don Draper


The latest episode of Mad Men had a great exchange between Peggy Olsen and Don Draper, where she finally asks Don “Teach me. Tell me how you do it.” Don responds in a bemused way, as Peggy tells him her take on how he pitches his ideas to clients. “You say the tag line as if you just came up with it.” “I do?” he asks, like he does’t know that is exactly what he does.

Don does a lot more than that, and anyone who wants to get better at presenting would be wise to watch how he does it and take some notes. Here’s the presentation style of Don Draper. Pay attention.

He stands up

When Don wants to command a room, he stands – like a camper trying to scare off a bear, he makes himself big… to impress and intimidate. It shows he’s in charge, he’s driving the conversation. When Don pitches while he is seated, he is at the same level of everyone – and if you pay attention, that is usually when the pitches don’t work.

He tells stories

It’s not about a concept, or a tag line – it’s about a story. It’s about how people use the product, how they need it to make their lives better and/or complete. It’s about making things better. Whether he is selling cold cream or cars, he’s telling a story about the experience of the product – what it brings to the buyer. As a user experience designer, I know how important that is to success… Don “realized” this five years before I was born.

He acts spontaneously, reading the room

This is what puts the management at SCDP on edge – Don is a wild card, and he will go “off script” based on the response to how he sees things are going. He changes focus on the fly if he sees one point resonates stringer than another. He “plays the room.”

He lets the client contribute

Don listens to the clients when they react, and when they contribute ideas he uses them – because he knows if the client feels they have had input they will fight for the idea on his (and the agency’s) behalf. Don knows that the pitch doesn’t end in the room – it continues in the client’s executive offices. By giving the client the idea that they “own” part of the idea, he knows that they will fight for it in those later meetings.

He’s positive

He is usually smiling and maintaining eye contact with the client – he’s paying attention to his audience. He is present in the moment, and he is completely focused on that moment where he has to engage and sell the idea.

He (usually) hides disappointment

Don may see that the pitch didn’t work, and inside he may be infuriated that the client didn’t “get it” – but he doesn’t show it. He smiles, says we’ll think about it some more, and shakes the client’s hand. Of course, he doesn’t always do that, as some (memorable) melt downs have shown us.

He uses visual aids appropriately, and sparingly

He knows that words are the most powerful tools, and that any art or slides that are shown are about supporting the story – not replacing it. It’s the words, and the story, that matters. The visuals are supporting that.

He know when to listen

He always provides “pause points” – opportunities for the client to contribute. He needs to give them a voice, and let them respond. He also knows that the lack of response is ALSO a response – if they are disengaged, the pitch isn’t working.

He chooses his words carefully.

Don is measured in his speaking. He can use words as a hug or as a dagger, and is well aware of their power. He says the precise thing, because he is verbose in the best possible way.

He finishes quickly

He knows that people have narrow attention spans, so he never outlasts his welcome – he frames the pitch, tells the story, and finishes. He never belabors his point.

He’s confident

Don comes to the table knowing what he and his team has done is good, and doesn’t show weakness. He supports the idea 100%, even if he doesn’t believe in it fully himself.

There you are, the presentation style of Don Draper. If you do similar “pitches” in your job, hopefully these techniques can help you tell the story and close the deal.