Gamified favicons, Legos, and Instagram for prisons: our favorite stories of 2019

Kipaya Kapiga
Jan 8 · 6 min read

2019 is over and what a wild year it was! Before we get too far into the new year and new decade — sorry not sorry — we at thirteen23 wanted to take a look back on some of the tech stories, small and large, that stuck with us and continue to inspire us. Take a look, and please let us know what stories stuck with you.

Humane by Design logo
Humane by Design logo
Tech tends to monopolize our attention, encourage our worst habits, or pilfer our private data. Job Yablonski sees a different path. (Source: Humane by Design)

Humane by Design

It’s not an easy or comfortable time to be a tech user. Election interference, companies that monetize privacy, the seemingly unstoppable intrusion of surveillance technology into our daily lives — there’s plenty for both worrywarts and optimists alike to fret about. Although it’s easy to feel powerless, designers play a key role in the creation of that technology, as Job Yablonski puts it.

Job created Humane by Design, a curated collection of best practices, tips, and resources for any designer interested in practicing ethical design. The website’s main content is structured around seven principles like Thoughtful and Finite, with examples of each in action.

A Lego figurine with visual impairments who is wearing a red cape stands upright.
A Lego figurine with visual impairments who is wearing a red cape stands upright.
A devoted Lego fan’s DIY project translating instructions into braille paved the way for a new Lego accessibility program. (Source: Lego for the Blind)

Making Legos accessible for the visually impaired

Designing for accessibility has finally become more commonplace in 2019, and it’s something we keep advocating for on all of our projects. But since we’re stuck in front of computers most of the day, it’s easy to miss the everyday work being done to make physical experiences more accessible. One of our favorite examples of this in action comes from Massachusetts, where a lifelong Lego enthusiast began making homemade instructional kits for visually impaired Lego enthusiasts.

Matthew Shifrin, who is blind, has been building Lego sets with the help of friends and family since the age of five. But because he couldn’t read the printed instructions, Matthew couldn’t assemble Lego sets on his own. That changed at age 13, when a friend showed up one day with an 843-piece Lego palace and a binder. Find the rest of the story, including how Matthew’s work paved the way for a new accessibility program at Lego this year, on NPR.

The Defender of the Favicon logo, stylized like a retro arcade game.
The Defender of the Favicon logo, stylized like a retro arcade game.
Defender of the Favicon takes spiritual and aesthetic cues from retro arcade games. (Source: PixFans)

Turning favicons into a video game

Considering they’re only 16 pixels by 16 pixels, favicons might seem like an unlikely candidate for gamification. But internet surfers who want a little more from these small, navigational browser elements, never fear — we’ve got the game for you. Or rather, YouTuber and developer Mashpoe does.

Mashpoe’s game is a miniaturized version of Chrome’s dinosaur game, which you can play when you try to open a new tab without being connected to the web. Watch Mashpoe talk about how he built the game using an HTML5 canvas and the challenges he encountered in his YouTube video. Find the code and the game on Github.

A female prisoner looks at a photo printout she’s received through a new service that replicates Instagram for prisoners.
A female prisoner looks at a photo printout she’s received through a new service that replicates Instagram for prisoners.
For prisoners who aren’t allowed to have smartphones, letters and printed photos are a key way to stay connected. (Source: Bloomberg)

Ex-cons create Instagram for prisons

Although more Americans than ever have access to smartphones and similar devices, the US is still home to many tech “dead zones,” places with extremely limited access to technology. Prisons, for example, usually offer barebones computers with little software installed besides a simple email app. Three new apps, all created by ex-cons, are setting out to change that.

Pigeonly, one of the apps, combines modern day smartphone technology and good old-fashioned snail mail. Using the app, families and friends of inmates can snap a picture with their phone and have the photo printed and delivered to him or her. Read more about how these apps are helping inmates stay connected to life outside prison, and about the ex-con innovators creating them, on Bloomberg.

A diagram of Alias on top of a Google Home with the components labeled including microphone array, Raspberry Pi, and speaker.
A diagram of Alias on top of a Google Home with the components labeled including microphone array, Raspberry Pi, and speaker.
Alias is designed to fit directly on top of your smart speaker. Two speakers create white noise that keeps your speaker from listening in. (Source: Bjørn Karmann)

A fungus-inspired Alexa and Google Home hack

In nature, when a species becomes too dominant, it also becomes a bigger target for viruses, which act as a sort of check against unsustainable growth and as a safeguard for biodiversity. Two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen, set out to create a similar check against the growth of big tech companies. They called the result Project Alias.

Alias is an open-source, Raspberry Pi-based device that sits on top of your smart speaker and lets people block Amazon, Google, and others from listening in on your private conversations. Once installed, a speaker will cover up any sounds you make with a blanket of white noise, which you can deactivate with a customizable voice command. Perhaps best of all — the device’s bulbous shape makes it look like a fungus growing out of your speaker. FastCompany has the rest of the story.

A black and white photo of the Bauhaus with stylized red, blue, and yellow overlays.
A black and white photo of the Bauhaus with stylized red, blue, and yellow overlays.
Visitors to Germany can visit the Bauhaus’ home in Dessau or see the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin. (Source: Curbed)

Bauhaus turned 100

For avid fans of the Bauhaus school — and what Bauhaus fan isn’t avid — 2019 offered a year’s worth of great #throwbackthursday inspiration as the school and movement turned 100.

Bauhaus style started partially as a response to the rise of large scale, industrial production at the dawn of the electrical age. At the time, designers and artists worried this new production model wouldn’t leave room for creativity — a fear Bauhaus quickly put to rest. Fast forward a hundred years, and you can still see Bauhaus’ influence in design, furniture, textiles, architecture, and more.

2019 saw designers, artists, architects, and other creatives finding their own way of celebrating the milestone. The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation worked with Google to launch Bauhaus Everywhere, an interactive online museum. 99designs held a contest in which designers reimagined modern logos in the Bauhaus style. And if you’re planning a trip to Germany, don’t miss the new Bauhaus museum in Dessau or an old favorite, the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin.

A young girl looks through a telescope pointed off-screen
A young girl looks through a telescope pointed off-screen
(Source: Unsplash)

What we’re looking forward to

It’s too soon to tell what the decade has in store, but we’re excited to see what changes 2020 will bring about for AR and VR, voice user interfaces, and design for IoT devices.

One place we’ll be looking to for inspiration is CES, which kicked off this week. If you’re following or attending the conference, keep an eye out for two thirteen23 clients, Bose and Kohler. They’ll be showcasing their latest work on in-car audio and smart-home tech, respectively. We’re also looking forward to SXSW in a couple of months, where we’ll be hosting a workshop on building voice applications for Alexa.

What are you looking forward to?

Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or get in touch at thirteen23.com.

Thanks to Morgan Gerber and Lani DeGuire

Kipaya Kapiga

Written by

Product designer and writer. Board gamer. Retired movie snob. Amateur chef. Professional lout. Occasional raffle contest winner.

The Garage

Thoughts and experiments from the team at thirteen23, a digital product studio in Austin, Texas.

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