All posts by Alexander Van Berg

Great Design

“Old Fashioned” Health Care By Elvis?

I drive by this billboard often.  I’ll tell you what my gut reaction was the first time I saw it.  To be completely honest, I thought the owners of this company were totally insane.

But as time went on, I realized I was actually warming up to it for some reason.  I just couldn’t figure out why!  On the surface, this is a zany billboard advertising some kind of health care service that is somehow old fashioned, and as far as I can tell, one of the proprietors is dressed up like Elvis.  How could this possibly work?

I now believe it is successful on multiple levels.

The first level is simply that people are used to medical experiences that are cold, sterile, and even painful.  In contrast, Vicki and Chad aren’t wearing suits or hospital gear, and they have genuine smiles on their faces.  This might be low-tech,  but it works.  I honestly believe they care.  The color scheme, especially the pink, also works to this effect.  It feels welcoming.  Maybe they could achieve the same effect without the 1950s Elvis theme, but this very theme imbues them with it the most, which leads me to the second level.

The second level is something deeper and much more complex.  I believe people, deep down, yearn for “Golden Eras”.  Even if they consciously know that these eras were sometimes barely different from any other, the eras still possess some intangible magic.  Whether it’s Augustan Rome or the post-World War II United States, the mere concept of these individual periods automatically convey a number of emotions and ideas.  And while I can’t possibly list them all, near the top of the list we would surely find stability, prosperity, and that classic trait, quality.  So, I believe the message of Elvis and old fashioned has probably triggered some kind of (most likely subconscious) switch in my mind anchored to the popular concept of the post-World War II U.S., circa 1950s.  As a result, I have a newfound affinity for this business.

The good ol' days?
The good ol’ days?

The third level is that it’s out of the ordinary.  Therefore I remember it, which of course is the major goal of advertising.

Just as a basic disclaimer, I have absolutely no affiliation with Vicki Roy Home Health Care, nor have I heard of any reports or reviews of their service.  I’ve simply come to the conclusion that their marketing is well done.

Points of Controversy

Clarity Is King…

The importance of ensuring clarity in written work isn’t all that controversial.  The general reason is simple: the total amount of time everyone spends reading something is typically much greater than the amount of time it took one person or one team to write it.

The controversy alluded to is in the bucking of several bad habits that have very large followings.  These bad habits fly in the face of clarity, and unfortunately they don’t receive the appropriate level of scrutiny.

The first bad habit is a bizarre programming style where curly braces are placed on lines occupied by other text.  This is a holdover from antiquity when screen monitors were tiny and every pixel was highly coveted.  In that age, you could have made a case for sacrificing clarity in order to have a few more rows of code on the screen at once.  These days it is inexcusable, and when you have to read this stuff, sometimes it can seem almost unforgivable.  With the prevalence of huge monitors, multiple-monitor setups, and futuristic code editing tools, why would you make your code harder to read in order to save a few pixels?  Screen space is cheap.

programming unclear vs clear

The main difference between the left and the right example above is symmetry.  Things that are symmetrical are easier to read.  They’re easier on the eyes.  Also, on the right, things are more structured and orderly in that the curly braces are on their own lines and so you don’t have to read around them as if they’re clutter.  And so, all of that is simply to say, the style on the right is objectively better.  Now, if you don’t program and don’t know whether to believe me, try reading the next two fragments and decide for yourself which is better.


I’m not aware of any other engineering discipline which creates documents or artifacts that regularly sacrifice clarity in this manner.

Two other questionable habits involve constructs in the English language: the Oxford comma, and sentence spacing.  In both cases, the method that promotes the most clarity ought to be chosen, but yet many people opt for the alternative.  I claim we ought to put two spaces between sentences, and we ought to use that final comma when listing things (except in rare cases where it actually introduces ambiguity).

I really believe the Oxford comma speaks for itself.


And if there’s any doubt about leaving two spaces between sentences, just consider how many spaces we put between paragraphs, and then think about the reason behind that.  If an author merely wanted to express a change in something, such as a new speaker, this could theoretically be done without jumping to a brand new line.  For example, a hyphen prefixing the next sentence could indicate this change, and that would be much more economical in terms of space.  Of course, we all know which method is used to indicate a new paragraph, and I believe the reason it’s been around for so long is because readers perceive change more easily with the help of additional white space.  This type of visual aid is as applicable to sentences as it is to paragraphs.

Although the two English language examples sacrifice much less clarity than the programming example, all three are valid subjects for inspection.  In general, why not adopt the approach which promotes the most clarity, especially if the cost is negligible?  The cost of not doing so for any one piece of work is nominal, but in the aggregate, the cost is much larger.


Great Design

New To Me: In Gmail, Folders Are Labels And Labels Are Folders

This definitively solves a general problem I had been wanting to find a solution to for quite some time.  The solution is extremely simple, and kudos to whoever put it together.  (I don’t know if Gmail was the first to solve this and I almost assume they weren’t.  They’re just the first ones I’ve happened to see using it.)

The problem is what to do when you want a folder system to organize your information hierarchically, and you also want a tagging/labeling system so that each piece of information can also have multiple descriptors assigned to it, but you don’t want to keep the two systems in sync manually.  The solution is to treat folders as labels and vice versa.  The big implication is that if you apply multiple labels to a piece of information, that piece of information then exists in multiple folders.   If you delete it from one of those folders, the corresponding label is also removed.

Gmail folders are labels

Poor Design

World’s Most Dubious Security Measures @ PayPal

Surely there are businesses with security practices even more dubious than those at PayPal, but relative to a company’s size and capital, I’m not sure any come close when it comes to passwords.

Just do a search for paypal 20 character password.

world most dubious security measures

Now, if you’re thinking that you’ll just enable 2-step authentication to mitigate this risk, think again.  Look at how PayPal almost appears to be working against you!

world most dubious security measures II