To pave or not to pave the cowpaths

In Eric Meyer’s SXSW talk on Emergent Semantics (slides, notes) he referred disparagingly to the design adage, “Don’t pave the cowpaths.” He compared it to the useful practice of seeing where people walk and building sidewalks to match.

But there’s an important distinction between paving the cowpaths and paving the footpaths: people aren’t cows. The cowpath metaphor comes from the common urban history in which rural cowpaths evolved into city streets. As anyone who has ever driven in a city that developed that way knows, the result is picturesque but unusable. The problem is that cows don’t want to go where people want to go, cows don’t navigate the way people navigate, and furthermore cows don’t have the form factor of the vehicles that people want to drive in cities. Paving paths made by people for the use of people is a very different proposition from paving the paths made by cows for use by cars.

This is mostly a quibble about metaphors, but it does have some implications for Meyer’s subject of implementing microformats in XHTML in order to build a “lower-case semantic web” from the bottom up. Once microformats have caught on, will they get us somewhere we still want to go? And more pointedly, does the microformat concept scale up to a system that is coherent and usable once there are a zillion of them?

(By the way, paving real-world footpaths is an idea to be used with care. There are many places where foot traffic completely obliterates the landscape, and if you paved them all you’d have nothing but a parking lot. The solution is to carefully study the footpaths, pave some of them, and plant hedges to protect the grass. Whether that metaphor can be applied to online technologies is an exercise left to the reader.)

Moleskine reskinned

Moleskine, the delightful outboard brain which inspired the current logo for this blog, is being repackaged — fortunately not the notebook itself, just its presentation in a retail setting. There are, however, two new formats: one with musical staffs and one with little rounded rectangles for storyboarding.

But this post isn’t about Moleskine gossip. It’s about the fascinating presentation by Leftloft which explains in detail the reasoning behind Moleskine’s new retail look.

Fascinating, but frustrating, too, because one of its most intriguing illustrations (coincidentally reminiscent of my logo!) is misleadingly devoid of content.

Moleskine uses

I thought the functions on the right would show some insight into why Moleskine offers the particular varieties of notebook listed on the left. But if you believe this image, you can think only with the squared Moleskine, create only with the plain, and write only with the ruled.

This graphic makes me sad.