Recently in Design Category

MasterCard? More like MasterFail.
January 27, 2014 8:45 PM | Posted in: ,

I defy you to find a more infuriatingly incompetent credit card website than the one Citi provides for those unfortunate souls who have a MasterCard issued by Sears. And by "unfortunate souls," I mean me, of course.

Here's what I get when I try to log in to our online account:

Screenshot of horribly uninformative error screen

You'd have to work pretty hard to come up with an error page that's less useful than this one. It doesn't explain the error. It doesn't suggest a solution. It doesn't provide a means to contact the company to get help. If I didn't know better, I'd think the federal government was involved with the design of this website, but that would be an insult to the federal government.

One might logically assume that getting this message after attempting to logon MIGHT mean that perhaps a new password is needed (yes, it's an assumption borne of desperation, but alternatives are limited). Guess what you get when you try to change your password?

Screenshot of horribly uninformative error screen

Oscar Wilde said that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, but if you substitute "pathetically incapable" for "unimaginative," the sentiment still works just fine.

If I can ever figure out how to get past this screen, I'm going to close the account and switch to Visa. At least they have better TV ads.

UPDATE (same night, one hour later): I took to Twitter to vent my frustration, and once again was gratified by the power of social media to get the attention of even large companies.
And while their suggestion wasn't all that helpful, I did appreciate their quick response (they followed with another tweet asking me to message my phone number to them if I continued to have a problem so we could work through it). But it did cause me to try a third browser - Firefox; I have already tried Google Chrome and Safari - and I was able to connect to the account and take care of business. So, perhaps I'll grant a reprieve...at least until I see how the site behaves in the future.
My father-in-law maintains an active online presence, checking his Facebook account daily, along with a handful of other websites. That's not particularly notable in and of itself, but the fact that he's 93 years old makes it special. It also means that he has a few challenges that most of us don't face, including some eyesight issues that make using some websites problematic.

We've done our best to adjust some global settings on his monitor, trying to optimize brightness and contrast, but the fact of the matter is that some websites are just not designed for use by those with failing eyesight (but who are not at the point where they need a screen reader). Any site that routinely uses small fonts and/or light gray text color for important information falls into this category (I'm looking at you, Facebook). There's just not much we can do to address those things via hardware settings.

However, most browsers offer a little-known option that allows users to override the styling of the websites they visit, and it occurred to me that this might be the answer to Debbie's dad's challenges.

His computer is a Mac, and we've installed Google Chrome in addition to the default Safari browser. I did some investigation into Chrome's style override options and discovered that it's actually pretty easy to fix the text size and color issues I mentioned above. I'm going to tell you how to do this, in case you have a similar need, but I'm also going to give you some caveats about implementing this "solution."

Every time you open a web page in Google Chrome, it accesses a file on your hard drive named Custom.css. Anything you put in this file will potentially be applied to whatever website you're viewing. I say "potentially," because that depends on how you go about specifying the new style parameters. But a primer on style sheets is well beyond the scope of this article, so I'll stick to some basics.

First, you need to find the aforementioned Custom.css. In the Mac OS it can be found by typing the following path into the Go => Go To Folder menu selection:

~/Library/Application Support/Google/Chrome/Default/User Stylesheets

If your computer is running Windows, you'll need to look elsewhere for this file. Try googling "path to default.css in google chrome for windows."

Once you've found Custom.css, open it in a text editor and copy and paste the following into it:

* {
font-weight: bold !important;
font-size: 16px !important;
color: black !important;
background-color: white !important;
line-height: 110% !important;
}

Now, assuming you have a website open in Chrome, as soon as you save the changes to Custom.css, you'll see a transformation of the page similar to that shown below.

Default web page, prior to editing Custom.css

Screenshot of browser window

Same web page with the edited Custom.css

Screenshot of browser window

So, here's what we changed. All text is now black and in bold. The standard font-size have been increased, and all colored backgrounds have been changed to white. The space between lines of text has been increased slightly to improve readability.

What we're doing is overriding the styling specified by the website's designer, and while doing so may improve the site's legibility for those with impaired vision, there are certain drawbacks to this approach. For one thing, the edits to Custom.css will apply to every website you visit.

In addition, there may be design details that are actually made worse by these changes. In the example shown above, the some of the text has expanded so that it no longer fits within its bounding boxes; some sentences or phrases are cut off. On some sites, a white background may make some graphics difficult to see. 

And, of course, these changes will invariably make for an uglier website. But an ugly usable website is almost always preferable to a pretty one that you can't see well enough to use.

Keep in mind that you don't have to make all the adjustments shown above. Perhaps you just want to change all the text to black, but you want to leave the weight and size the same. Just delete the lines in Custom.css you don't need. (Warning: If you try that approach, keep in mind that websites that use light colored text on a dark background might actually become less readable. You're probably always better off specifying both text color and background color.)

In the case of the father-in-law, we'll likely make these changes so he'll have an easier time using Facebook, but he'll use a different browser to visit the other websites he likes to use...and we'll leave them as they are.
The proposed 58-story building in downtown Midland has been a topic of active discussion, as you might imagine. It will be more than twice as tall as the next tallest structure in Midland, and much of the discussion centers around the feeling that it will simply look out of place (although I'm expressing that sentiment in much more diplomatic terms than most of the commenters on Facebook). The next most frequent argument against it is that it's basically just another "Tower of Babel" being built to show off how hoity-toity Midland has become. Some people have too much time on their hands, in my opinion.

For the record, while I remain skeptical that it will actually get built, I'm all for it, especially once I learned it will feature a ballroom.

Anyway, disregarding any arguments about the aesthetics of the project or how it fits in with its surroundings or whether God feels threatened by our architectural plans, I wonder if the decision-makers have completely thought through the implications of allowing this thing to go forward. And, of course, I'm referring to the impact on the city's logo (you anticipated this, right?).

We're already proud enough of our skyline to feature it on the city's logo:

City of Midland logo

It's a nice enough logo, as municipal designs go. And it's been recently updated to include wind turbines, a nice nod toward its contribution of .00032% of the overall economic activity of our town. At least it's not green. It got a pleasant proportionality to it. But that's gotta change once the new tower is in place:

City of Midland logo - Revised

Now, I'm not a logo designer, but this just doesn't look right to me. But how can you neglect what will surely become the defining characteristic of our skyline?

The thing is, whether you like the new design or not, it's going to be a huge undertaking to update logos throughout the city, because they appear on pretty much everything of a muni-persuasion...for example, trucks:

Logo on truck

Well, frankly, while I envisioned something really goofy, in actuality I don't think that looks too bad, so apart from the time and trouble to update it, maybe we're OK there (although if we put it on any sedans, it might creep up onto the car windows and that will look a little funky).

But I'll bet no one has studied the impact on the city's website. Here's what the home page looks like today:

Home page screenshot

And here's what it might have to look like post-TowerOfBabel:

Modified Home page screenshot

Yes. I'm sure you're just as appalled as I am.

Here's the thing. Everyone gets giddy over the prospect of a couple hundred million dollars being spent to double the downtown office space (and tax base), but they rarely temper their enthusiasm with the reality of the details. I think that before anyone signs on the dotted line, they need to ask themselves if they're truly ready to step up and do what it takes to address the burning logo question. I am, of course, available for consultation, and at a rate that I think will be highly competitive with any city sporting its own Tower of Babel.
We've got a lot of ground to cover today, kiddies, so try to keep up.



Spraffl Logo
What the internet needs is way more anonymity...said no one, ever. OK, that's not entirely true, as the creators of Spraffl obviously feel that personalization in social media is overrated, and have created an iPhone app (Android coming soon) that will allow the posting of anonymous observations anywhere, anytime, and about any subject. Think of it as the ultimate playground for trolls.

Or maybe not. Even the Spraffl guys are apparently a little gunshy about all this freedom, and have built in a process whereby the community can get you kicked off the service for posting stuff that offends or just annoys someone else. Yeah, what could possibly go wrong with that?

So, when I first heard about Spraff, I'm like, well, what's the point...who wants to get involved with something like that? Turns out that I sort of do. I downloaded the app as an experiment and - whaddayaknow? - it's a little addictive (albeit more than a little weird). Here's my first Spraff (side note: is there an unwritten rule that social media posts must have silly names?):

My first spraff

Because Spraffl shows a map of the locations of all spraffs, I could tell that my post was the first one in Midland (albeit not the first one in West Texas; there's apparently at least one spraffer in Lamesa, of all places). I could also ascertain that it was one of the first ten in the entire state of Texas, so I've go that going for me...you know, in case the service ever gains Twitter-like stature.

But, you see the problem with being an early adopter, don't you? I just blew my anonymity, or at least my assumption of invisibility, because now any posting from Midland will be attributed to me, at least until some critical mass of users is reached. The app attaches a location to each post, so your anonymity doesn't extend to geography unless you disable Location Services, which in turns cripples the app.

So, what's my prediction for the success of Spraffl? I give it about a 1% chance of success, as it seems designed to fill a hole that few fear falling into. But don't tell anyone I said that; I value my anonymity.



I posted the following photo on Facebook but have been asked to blog it as well. We've had several sightings of foxes in our neighborhood recently, and last week our next door neighbor glanced out her window and saw this little guy napping in the back yard. She said there was a second one who may have either been a lookout or responsible for finding dinner, because he didn't hang around much. 

Photo - Sleeping fox

Foxes have always been a fixture around Midland, and not just on the outskirts of town, where we live. Some people fear them, but they don't pose any danger, other than minor rabies outbreaks, and those are no worse than your run-of-the-mill zombie attacks. We do have friends who claim that foxes were responsible for the hollowed out shells where their back yard turtles once lived, so there is that.



During the winter months (both of them), we move some of our more delicate plants into the garage for safekeeping. Each year, our garage gets a bit more crowded, and this winter's addition is the Mexican Lime Tree that normally resides on our back porch. I worried a little how it might react to the relative darkness and much cooler weather, even though it was protected from freezing. Well, my worries were apparently groundless:

Photo - Mexican Lime Tree

Can you spot the two limes in the middle? They weren't there when we moved the tree into the garage. (Ignore what looks like a lemon; that's what happens when you let your lime linger too long and fail to harvest it.) If you give the tree a weekly drink and roll it into the sunshine every now and then, it's perfectly content to be a garage-dweller.



I got into a spring cleaning mode last weekend and tidied up the attic and one of our closets. I made some tough decision about getting rid of some old friends, and this was simultaneously one of the easiest and toughest.

Photo - Hypertech Pro 9A housing

This is an underwater housing for a video camera. I purchased it in 1990 or thereabouts for a cool $1,000, back when we were doing a fair amount of scuba diving. It was a 19-pound one trick pony...the only camera it fit was Sony's CCD-V9 8-mm video camera (which was a real workhorse of a camera, but laughably huge and low-quality compared to today's units). It was a chore to lug around, especially through third world airports, and the controls were temperamental. I never really knew whether I'd managed to turn the camera on or not before getting back to the surface, and the battery life was such that you didn't dare turn it on before getting geared up and in the water.

Anyway, our video camera is long gone (I can't even recall what happened to it), and Sony stopped supporting the 8-mm tape format years ago. I racked my brain trying to think of some way to repurpose the housing; I even experimented with taping my iPhone just inside the lens, figuring that was a possible hipsterish steampunkish approach that might just be crazy enough to work. I'll try to post something separately about that experiment; the short story is that it didn't. I finally reached the sad conclusion that technology had rendered this apparatus obsolete, and into the dumpster it went. (If you have a brilliant idea on what I should have done with it instead, please keep it to yourself. Thanks.)



A Houston-based architectural designer (don't ask me how that's different than a plain old architect) has put her creative touches on an old adobe dance hall in Marfa, Texas, and turned it into an unusual home. If you know anything at all about Marfa, you'll know that "unusual" isn't that unusual, but this raises the bar for out-of-the-ordinariness, from a housing perspective.

The interior design is ultra-stark and ultra-hip (pardon the redundancy). While I wouldn't want it as a primary residence, it does scratch a creative urge in a pleasing manner. It has lots of open space - well, there are actually NO interior walls, just movable partitions to create an illusion of privacy - and some pretty funky accessories. But this scene from the "bedroom" really caught my eye.

Photo - Marfa house bedroom

Yes, the bathtub just sits in the middle of the room (I didn't see a photo showing the location of the toilet; I assume we're not talking outhouse here), and those closets act as the rolling partitions I mentioned above. This house is obviously designed for someone who lives alone, or for a childless couple, or for anyone who grew up in a commune in the 60s.

Take a look at this slideshow for additional photos of this rather fascinating design.

"That thang got a hemi?" - Pt. 2
January 24, 2013 5:33 PM | Posted in: ,

So, I was grinding through my usual brutal commute home from work yesterday evening - the longest ten minutes of my life, you know - when I laid eyes on this odd sight:

Photo - Bentley Continental GT

For those who don't keep up with such things, join the club; I had to google it, too. It's a Continental GT. Bentley's aren't exactly commonplace in West Texas, although this was the second one I've spotted in Midland in the past seven days.

Anyway, I confess that my second thought after spotting the car was "why would you feel the need to have a vanity plate to tell people what kind of car you're driving?" I mean, isn't the car itself sort of, you know, self-explanatory?

Well, no, actually. Because my first thought was, "oh, there's a nice-looking Chrysler 300." And then it struck me: if you'd paid 200 large for a car, you surely wouldn't want people to mistake it for a car costing 1/10th as much.

Photo - Chrysler 300

I think it's the badge that threw me, although both have rather boxy rear ends (no offense to any boxy-rear-ended Gazette readers). And I'm sure that Chrysler would be simply appalled to think that people are mistaking one of its cars for a Bentley.

Of course, it does occur to me that the owner's name is Bently, in which case it all makes a lot more sense, plus I don't have to express umbrage over the sorry state of spelling on vanity plates nowadays. I blame the interent. [See what I did there?]

This encounter did give me an idea for a plate for my next car:


Why are scammers such bad designers?
December 1, 2012 1:45 PM | Posted in: ,

Many of you probably received the following letter, or one very similar to it:

Scan of letter

Yours probably had a more legible address; I've blurred mine to foil people who don't have access to phone books or the Internet. Clever, huh?

Now, this is obviously a scam, which you can confirm for yourself simply by Googling "US Airlines scam" and visiting any of the more than 30,000 results. There are various explanations for what the scammers are trying to accomplish; the most credible one seems to be that they're harvesting phone numbers for re-sale, and by calling in and giving them the number at the bottom of the page, they can correlate your name to your phone number and that makes the data more valuable. (Never mind that earlier thing about phone books and/or the Internet.)

These things are somewhat annoying, although unless I'm missing something, this ranks about a 2 on the Scam Scale©, where a 10 is the loss of your life savings and the involuntary donation of several key body organs, and 1 is the equivalent of listening to a Nancy Pelosi speech. But the truly horrid thing about this particular approach is just how awful their design skills are.

I mean, just look at that letterhead! A three-year-old could design a more attractive logo, not to mention the poor judgment of an airline using a symbol that evokes a crashing jet. And the fact that the logotype is slightly off center on the page is worse than fingernails on a blackboard (or, for those born after the year 1995, a Nancy Pelosi speech). It hurts my head just to look at the letter.

So, here's my message to future would-be scammers: at least take the time to steal some good design ideas from the legitimate enterprises whose domains you're attempting to master. Some of us will thank you for it.

And for an excruciatingly detailed analysis of all the other faux pas in this letter, jump over to this page. The author makes me look as focused as The Dude

Fun with Office Supplies
October 21, 2012 8:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Perhaps I'm easily impressed and/or amused, but I had no idea until I went back into the world of corporate dronage that the Liquid Paper I grew up with had been replaced by cool correcting tape that's applied with a dispenser filled with all kinds of rollers and gears and semi-circuitous pathways.

Photo - Tombow Correction Tape

Anything worth engineering is worth over-engineering, or at least providing the appearance of excessive complexity, and the good folks at Tombow apparently take this philosophy seriously. It's an elegant design for a mundane product, but after using it a while, I got this nagging feeling of - I don't know - familiarity...like I'd seen it somewhere before. 

Now, I'm not accusing anyone of product plagiarism, but there really is nothing new under the sun.

Photo - Tombow Correction Tape reimagined as a Star Wars AT-AT Walker

For the less geeky readers, here's the reference.

Hot Trike
June 27, 2012 10:07 PM | Posted in: ,

Why didn't we have these when I was a mere yute?

Photo of souped-up tricycle

The Slab Mystery Revealed
May 31, 2012 9:58 PM | Posted in: ,

Remember this? And this? A perceptive Gazette reader with an annoyingly sharp memory nagged reminded me that I had promised to disclose the true purpose of this enigmatic indentation, and so I shall.

The sunken area is going to be part of a media room in the new house, which isn't so mysterious after all, but I'm still stumped about the purpose of the design. It's just not a very big room, as the photo below shows, and so I see no obvious advantage to having a bi-level layout. 

If I can convince the owners that I'm not really a stalker (don't hold your breath), I'll try to post another update when the room is finished. Well, if Les will nag remind me.

Photo

Mystery Slab - Follow-up #1
May 2, 2012 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember the Mystery Slab? I've had quite a few people ask me if we've learned what its purpose, and the answer is "no." It's still a mystery, perhaps even more so now that framing of the house has begun.

Here are a couple of photos showing how the sunken portion of the house foundation is roughed in. The photo on the right shows the only entry* into the "room," via a narrow door from what we think is the laundry room. Perhaps when the house is wired, we'll be able to better discern the nature of this construction, but for now it continues to remain a mystery.

PhotoPhoto

*It's worth noting that just because there's no other doorway at this point doesn't mean there won't eventually be one. Framers have been known to make mistakes, as we learned when our guest powder room had no doorway at all for quite some time until we pointed it out to the builder.

Back Yard as a Terrarium
April 29, 2012 7:20 AM | Posted in:

Last Wednesday, the high temperature in Midland was 104°, which was not only a record for April 25th, but the highest temperature ever recorded in the city in April. Couple that kind of heat with our outdoor watering restrictions, and our back yard is toast - literally. (OK, not literally literally, but blogger hyperbole literally, so work with me here.)

We have an ongoing discussion about the kind of makeover that will bring some semblance of livability to that space, but thus far we've reached no consensus. (Translation: I'm waiting on Debbie to tell me what to do.) In the meantime, we've decided to fill the yard with large, rusty, redneck sculpture, like so:

Photo of our metal horny toad

Every back yard should have a metal horny toad covered in deadly spikes. I won't be surprised if some covert federal agency shows up on our doorstep demanding to see our registration for this device as a WMD. In fact, it's difficult to imagine a work of art that's more dangerous in one's backyard. Well, unless you're a collector of Shi Jin Song's sculptures:

Photo of a deadly rocking horse
 
Makes our horny toad look like a cuddly Beanie Baby, huh?

My Excellent Podiatric Adventure
April 27, 2012 6:56 AM | Posted in: ,

On Wednesday, for the first time in my life, I consulted with a podiatrist. I've had pain in my right foot for several weeks, and it's not getting better on its own, despite my dancing three times a week and continuing to wear bad shoes. Go figure. I decided to consult an expert so that I could stop ignoring my own amateurish advice and ignore that of a highly educated professional instead. 

I had this conception of what a podiatrist's office would look like. I envisioned something out of a Dick Van Dyke Show episode, essentially frozen in the early 60s, except with arcane equipment scattered around. I was spot on. 

Photo of waiting room

Yes, those are my actual unretouched feet, patiently (ha!) awaiting the results of x-rays. But that's not the focus, because they obviously pre-date the early 60s. Look instead at the décor! 

To be honest, the surroundings weren't off-putting at all. Quite the opposite; they engendered in me a calm and comfortable feeling, sort of like settling into the parlor of a favorite aunt, not that I recall having any aunts who had actual parlors. The artwork was classic Starving Artist Nature Scenes With Ducks motif, and it blended perfectly with the peeling green plaid wallpaper and verdant armchairs. This waiting room was anti-hipsterish to the point of being absolutely cool. I'd go back in a heartbeat just to enjoy the ambiance. 

I think all doctors' offices should be similarly decorated, because I can remember when they made house calls, and I'm all about nostalgia nowadays.

Pebble: The future of watches?
April 26, 2012 6:36 AM | Posted in: ,

Meet the next millionaire-making personal-electronics phenomenon: the Pebble smartwatch.



This unassuming wristwatch is designed to interact with - control and/or be controlled by - your iPhone, iPod touch or Android smartphone, via Bluetooth. The face is so-called ePaper, a display that's visible in bright sunlight, like a Kindle, and is also backlit for viewing in the dark. The watch can access a wide variety of apps, and more intrepid owners can write their own apps to add capabilities to the device. Instead of building in all sorts of capabilities that would increase the size and complexity of the watch, it piggybacks onto your smartphone and appropriates its features. You can download any number of "faces" to customize the look of the phone - it always displays the time when it's not engaged in more exotic tasks, like measuring the distance to the pin on the 8th hole of your favorite golf course, or displaying caller ID for incoming phone calls, or keeping track of your bicycle route.

If you're an Android owner, you will even be able to view incoming text messages on the watch. Apple doesn't allow external access to such messages so this won't work for your iPhone; you can argue whether that's a good thing or not. 

I've mentioned Kickstarter a few times in the past, and have "invested" in several projects via this group-source financing tool. But the Pebble is far and away the most successful project I've run across. According to its Kickstarter page, more than 40,000 pledges now total more than 60 times the original $100,000 goal.

You can still get in on the funding for this project, which is accepting pledges for another three weeks. Depending on your level of backing, you can get your own Pebble before it becomes available to the general public.

Mystery Slab
April 24, 2012 6:34 AM | Posted in: ,

A new house is going up a block from us, and we're really puzzled about something. Below is a photo of the concrete slab that was poured last week, showing a sunken...something. There are no plumbing or electrical connections, and the space isn't big enough to be a living area (it's about 8' x 10'). Any ideas?

Photo of a concrete home foundation

Flights of Fancy
January 31, 2012 8:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I created this from an actual photograph. Any idea what it is?

Aerial photo

You know what? The un-retouched image is actually quite a bit more impressive:

Aerial photo

I know that some of you have seen this scene from ground-level. It's an aerial look at the Forest Creek Capricorn Ridge (thanks, Gregg!) wind farm just north of Sterling City, Texas. The white lines and dots are the turbine locations and service roads, but what really caught my eye when I saw them on Google Earth are the fractal patterns of the terrain, showing how it's been etched over the eons by natural forces. Simply breathtaking, it is.

Speaking of wind, I ran across the following video on a blog called Brand 66, and I was immediately captured by the sheer whimsical genius. 



How cool would it be to set an army of these inventions loose on the West Texas plains, to "graze" and wander at will?

Cleaning up iTunes Album Art
November 19, 2011 2:58 PM | Posted in: ,

We went to a dance a few weeks ago and the band performed a song that we weren't familiar with, but it was catchy enough that I looked it up when I got home. It turned out to be Forget You by a pudgy hip hop musician named Thomas Calloway; the cognoscenti will know him as Cee Lo Green. Apparently Mr. Green is a rapper of international import (and I have to wonder how he might feel about old white people doing the cha cha to his music). He's also got a dirty mouth. I'm sure you're shocked to find that out about a rapper.

As it turns out, Forget You is the sanitized version of the original title, which is very similar in that it begins with an "F" and ends with a "You." *wink, wink* Cee Lo apparently doesn't mind compromising his artistic vision in order to make some more money selling his music to people who still find the so-called F-word offensive - mostly old white cha-cha'ers. I'm sure you're shocked to find that out about a rapper.

Anyway, the album from which the song comes is titled using the non-sanitized name of the song, and it's prominently displayed on the over. OK...it could be worse; a couple of strategically placed asterisks keep us from figuring out what the song really says. Fine, I say; he can title his album and song whatever he wants, as long as I have a clean alternative. Only, the album art in iTunes doesn't meet that criterion, and I didn't like the original album cover being displayed on my phone or iPad (or 46" TV when streaming via Apple TV). What to do?

Fortunately, iTunes gives you some control over these situations. First, you can name the song and album whatever you want. Just highlight those fields in iTunes and type in the new names.

Second, you can replace the album art with whatever you want. (This feature was initially intended to let people scan in their old LPs or 45 record jackets to use for obscure music without artwork in iTunes. I'm not sure they envisioned it would also be used to alter offensive artwork.) Simply highlight the song in your iTunes music catalog (I think you'll have to do this for every song on an album, but I haven't tested that; I have only the one song by Mr. Green) then select "Get Info" under the "File" menu. In the resulting window, there's a tab entitled "Artwork," and this allows you to add and delete artwork. If you click "Add," you can browse to the file you want to upload in place of the current artwork. That's all there is to it. 

Well, other than creating the replacement artwork. I'll leave you to your own devices in that regard. In my case, since the album cover is just black text set against a yellow background (very creative, Mr. Green!) - the better to shock you, my dear - I simply created replacement text to overlay the original.

Following is the after-and-before artwork (I didn't show the "before" by default out of consideration for your delicate sensibilities). Drag that vertical bar to the left to reveal the original cover, if your curiosity gets the best of you.
Yeah, I know the fonts don't match. That really wasn't the goal, you know?

My Apologies to Internet Explorer Users
May 31, 2011 5:14 PM | Posted in: ,

I rarely pass up a chance to either make fun of or otherwise denigrate Microsoft's browser, especially the older versions (I'm looking at you, IE6...and also you, IE7, and to a somewhat lesser extent you, IE8. IE9, you seem to be an OK dude.). The strange behaviors and outright bugs in those browsers create a kind of special hell for web developers, and it's an ongoing struggle to decide whether to go to the extra, often significant trouble to make a website look and work the same in those old browsers as it will in modern browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari, or to just let the IE users see a funky, stripped-down version of the site. More and more, I lean toward the latter approach.

It's never my intent (or a good idea) to cause a site to be completely unusable or inaccessible to an IE user. That's just spiteful if done intentionally, and no good purpose is served. But, sometimes things happen inadvertently, and, embarrassingly enough, that has been the case with this here blog-like thing for a number of months.

I found out today (via my wife, whose employer uses IE7 as its standard browser) that the main page of the Gazette suffered from a syndrome that I've coined "The Incredible Shrinking Text." It seems that as you scroll down the last eight or ten entries on the home page, the font size decreases until it's all but illegible by the time you get to the last entry.

This issue doesn't appear in the "modern" browsers I mentioned above, and I was unaware that IE was having a problem, since Microsoft stopped building a Mac version of IE years ago. I immediately knew what was causing it - in theory anyway; it had to be caused by a relative font-size declaration in the style sheet for the blog's main template that wasn't being cleared, and thus continued to iterate into smaller and smaller text as each subsequent post inherited the proportionately smaller font styling. (Don't worry if that doesn't make any sense.) However, it took me a while to track it down and fix it. Believe it or not, I have better things to do than troubleshoot my own blog.

Interestingly, from one perspective IE was actually handling the coding error properly by recognizing it and trying to apply it. The other browsers were assuming that it was a mistake and ignoring it. While the ends justified the means for them in this case, you could make a solid argument that we really don't want software second-guessing us. (I hold up auto-complete on smartphones as Exhibit A for this argument.)

Regardless, I apologize to any of you who suffered eyestrain from trying to read the increasingly small text on the Gazette. I suppose the fact that this has been going on for months and I just now learned of it could be due to the fact that not that many people are still using old versions of IE, or that those who do were keeping current with the blog and thus not discovering the problems with the older entries. Or, no one is reading.

Currency Devaluation
May 25, 2011 6:34 AM | Posted in: ,

Make Your Franklin is a "community art project" that lets folks redesign the US one hundred dollar bill and upload the results to an online gallery. The site even provides a high resolution scan (7300x3000 pixel) of a Benjamin in case you don't have one handy (and I never do).

A lot of the entries show careful and sophisticated design considerations; just as many are pretty crappy (a technical art term). And while I think there are few suggested designs that may be an improvement on the original, I feel obligated to submit my own design in the hope of introducing some badly-needed comic relief sanity to the country's currency:

$100 Reimagined
Before there was Flash, the primary means of displaying movement on a web page was via animated GIFs, low resolution graphics with mostly clumsy transitions. Animated GIFs have mostly been relegated to retro-cult status, with very few serious uses for the format (although done properly, with the right graphics, they provide a quite passable substitute for a Flash banner ad). But that's changing, at least artistically, with the increasing popularity of a technique called "cinemagraphy" (not to be confused with the film-making term, cinematography). 

Cinemagraphs are animated GIFs in which only part of the scene moves. The effect can be quite subtle, and also quite striking and unexpected. Someone has referred to them as "Harry Potter style moving photos," and if you've seen any of those movies, you can probably relate to that description. Of course, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a semi-animated one is surely worth even more.

Cinemagraph by Jamie Beck
Photo by Jamie Beck; animation by Kevin Burg; posted on model Coco Rocha's blog

This is a great example of how a photo can be made even more striking with the addition of subtle movement, and the repurposing of the GIF format is brilliant: old and busted is made into new and hotness.

This example was created via a collaboration between photographer Jamie Beck and web designer Kevin Burg. This interview doesn't provide any insight into what techniques they used to create this specific image, but tutorials for making cinemagraphs are starting to pop up here and there

I'd love to try my hand at this, now that I have an HD camcorder. It appears that all you need is a suitable short bit of video and Photoshop (to be honest, while I think I knew that you could edit video in Photoshop, I've never tried it and had completely forgotten that fact). Sounds simple, right?

Actually, making an animated GIF in Photoshop is quite simple, almost point-and-click simple. The above example is a series of 35 layers, each displayed with an interval of .07 seconds, and set to loop endlessly. The key is to choose the right source image.

The downside to cinemagraphs is that they yield very large files. The one shown above is almost 400kb and I've seen some that are multi-megabyte in size. That makes them somewhat impractical for inclusion in the typical website design, although the size and composition of the image can be managed to yield smaller sizes.

Stretching
March 25, 2011 10:49 AM | Posted in: ,

Sorry, this is not a post about personal fitness or adjusting your gullibility while watching The View

I don't know about you, but I haven't come close to mastering my profession. I suspect that's the case for most people who work in technology-related fields, as well as those whose focus is on creative endeavors (after all, who can assess when creativity has been mastered?). And when you combine the creative with the technical, the idea of learning and knowing everything about everything is simply ludicrous.

One of the decisions I make daily is which technologies I'm not going to even attempt to learn or use. Being a one-man website design/development business means that I can't do everything that every possible project might require. I've written about this before, but it's should be of paramount importance for anyone considering becoming a freelance consultant in a technical field.

Having said that, there are still times when the temptation to dip my toes into a new (to me) technology or technique is too strong to resist. Yesterday, a client asked me if I could create some animations for his client. The specifications were for either an animated GIF or a Flash movie, and a maximum file size was also specified. The artwork would be provided.

This sort of thing is not my forté. I build websites; I'm not an animator or a graphic artist. Animated GIFs are growing increasingly uncommon - the equivalent of buggy whips in the automotive age - and I have little use for Flash. And yet...

The challenge was irresistible. I had a vague idea how to create both alternatives, and I had just completed a couple of major projects and needed a break from the wonderful world of coding, so I figured, what the heck...I'll give it a shot.

Long story made short: I created a sample in each format and sent them along, and they were well received. It probably took me three times as long to do the work as it would have taken an experienced animator, but my client was happy (he's waiting on feedback from his client). Even better, I honed some skills (OK, that's an exaggeration; I began to develop some rudimentary skills) that might come in handy in the future. Or not. And that's fine, too. One thing I've learned is that learning should never stop. The stretching should never end, lest the creative muscles become frozen and inflexible.

I'll go so far as to say that learning simply for the sake of learning is worthwhile. There's a cost in terms of time and, sometimes, mental or emotional pain, but as long as the cost is manageable, I hope to keep paying it.

Before/After Image Viewer
March 16, 2011 1:12 PM | Posted in: ,

The New York Times website has an incredible series of satellite photos showing the effects of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. They use a slider effect to allow you to instantly compare "before and after" images of the same scene, and it's a very effective technique.

I was curious about how they accomplished this. I assumed it was done in jQuery, and I was right. A quick search uncovered this tutorial and I couldn't wait to try it out.

I grabbed a photo from our recent visit to Hoover Dam and did some quick-and-dirty Photoshopping. I uploaded both versions, and then applied the script and CSS (which I modified slightly) from the tutorial. The result is shown below. Click on the vertical line in the photo and drag it to the left or right to uncover or cover the modified photo. You can also click anywhere on either side of the line to move it to that point. [Note: While this should work in most browsers, you must have Javascript enabled.]

I don't know whether I'll ever have a practical use for this technique in my work, but it's a cool effect.

Drillcycle
March 10, 2011 6:26 AM | Posted in: ,

OK, this is just awesome. This guy Nils Ferber built a...a...well, I'm not sure what to call it, but it's a vehicle that's powered by a couple of 18-volt cordless drills. (If your first question is "why," then, sadly, this blog isn't for you.) The Drillcycle reportedly has a top speed of almost 20 mph. Click on each photo to see a larger version:



More details on this project are found here, and a description of the design and fabrication process is here.

Given the rider's position, a full-face helmet is certainly justified; one can generate a serious case of road rash even at 15 mph. 

I wonder what Nils could do with a chainsaw?

Link via Dudecraft

Dr. Frankenstein Attempts to Kill His Monster
March 7, 2011 7:47 PM | Posted in: ,

The fact that Microsoft has built a website designed to convince people to stop using Internet Explorer 6 is prima facie evidence that the post title is not hyperbole.

IE6 (aka The Browser from Hell, Satan's Browser Spawn, and the Browser That Sucked The Life Out of The Universe) was created in 2001, and brought a world of hurt down on website developers due to its lack of support for commonly accepted design standards, scary lack of security features, and psychotic behavior when confronted with code that other browsers handled with aplomb. Such, um, eccentricities would have been merely amusing had not the browser enjoyed an almost 90% market share thanks to its inextricable bundling with Windows XP and other flavors of that operating system.

An entire cottage industry of coding hacks sprang up in an attempt to make websites look and work the same in IE6 as in more "modern" (read: competent, or unsucky). Making advanced designs work in IE6 could significantly increase the cost of a website, while making it much harder to maintain.

It's hard to understand why people (and even entire companies) still use IE6, other than They Just Don't Know Any Better. You could argue that they're too cheap to switch, except that the last popular browser you had to pay for pre-dates IE. In any event, Microsoft has finally stepped up to the plate - probably in reaction to its own development staff - and is attempting to entice the genie back into the bottle, which we can only hope will remain sealed for times, a time, and half a time, and then some.

Think Microsoft is just giving lip service to IE6's demise? They're going so far as to provide website owners with a widget that displays a "countdown" (it's actually just a plain, static JPG) banner showing the browser's diminishing worldwide usage...and it can only be seen by IE6 users. I was going to show it below, with the coding disabled that hides it from modern browsers, but as with so much that Microsoft produces - bless its heart - it's utt-bugly, so you'll have to go to Microsoft's download page to see it. (Of course, this could be the one time that uglier is better...the better to get the attention of the Unconvinced.)

My next trike
January 29, 2011 9:15 AM | Posted in: ,

With a price starting at almost $4,000 (before shipping from the UK), it's not likely that I'll ever own an ICE Vortex, but that doesn't prevent me from drooling over it.


Photo - ICE Vortex Trike
This is one good looking, beautifully constructed trike. Carbon fiber seat, folding frame, dual disc brakes. 33 pounds is feather weight for a trike.

But I must confess that another attraction is the excellent design of ICE's website. If you take a minute to visit the above link, and click on the various controls to rotate the photos and view details, you'll quickly see what I mean. And the cool thing is that the site uses no Flash. The scripts that pop up the additional teasers, do the image rotations, and display the detailed photos and descriptions are all jQuery, meaning that it all works just as well on an iPhone as on a desktop with 27" monitor. And every photo can be viewed at full resolution; some of the detailed images are >12 megapixels.

It's a self-serving statement, perhaps, but companies should never underestimate the value of a well-designed website, especially one that works - and works well - on all devices.

Dragged Down by Clutter
December 8, 2010 8:05 AM | Posted in:

No, this isn't a post about hoarders, although that's certainly an interesting, if often gross, subject of inquiry. But I point you to this short article by Seth Godin wherein he observes that digital marketers (i.e. anyone with a website) seem to [eventually] make a universal mistake: because web space is essentially unlimited, they seek to fill it, as Nature rushes to fill a vacuum. And because the addition of such content is rarely thought out or justified by actual business considerations, it becomes clutter - useless distraction, and perhaps even worse than useless if it keeps clients and customers from getting what they want.

I especially like this observation: In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit. A cluttered website, Godin claims, doesn't simply minimize the value of the added "information," it reduces the usefulness of all the surrounding content.

One of my goals as a designer of websites is to keep things simple and uncluttered. It's harder than you might think. Just as people tend to be uncomfortable around pauses in conversation, website clients are often uncomfortable with so-called white space (although clutter comes in different forms, not just in the cramming of additional design elements into the canvas). My challenge is often in convincing them to look at their sites through their audience's eyes.

Making iPad Work
November 18, 2010 9:24 AM | Posted in: ,

I continue to cope without internet access for my desktop computer - for just another few hours, I hope - relying instead on my iPad's 3G connection. As I posted previously, I'm finding the iPad to be a poor replacement for a notebook computer for anything beyond the simplest of tasks (email and web browsing), and its limitations are glaring in some areas.

But I'm also finding that not all the problems are the fault of the device. Some of them are due to poor website design/development decisions. I've found a workaround to most of these situations (more about that in a moment), but it's annoying that I had to go to those lengths.

If you have a smartphone, you're probably accustomed to seeing so-called mobile versions of the websites you visit. This is generally a good practice, as those sites load more quickly, optimize the use of the limited screen space, and eliminate features that don't work in mobile browsers (e.g. Flash in mobile Safari). Unfortunately, this has created a new set of problems for a device like the iPad which falls into the gap between a smartphone and a full-featured/full-sized notebook or desktop computer.

This is partially Apple's fault, because its iPad version of Safari delivers a user-agent string that identifies the browser as "mobile." When a website that offers a mobile version queries that user-agent string, it will usually send the iPad to that stripped-down version, even though the device can easily handle the full version (or most of it, anyway). This behavior is often frustrating for the iPad user, especially if he or she needs the full functionality of the website for business purposes.

I have two examples. First is my webmail. When I access it via the iPad, I get the mobile version of the webmail program (in my case, it's an application called Horde). The mobile version lacks many of the mail management features of the full version. For example, I can't delete messages from the server using the mobile version.

The second example is the website I'm using to create this post. In mobile Safari, Movable Type (my blog platform) automatically delivers a barebones post creation page that basically allows me to type in text and that's about it. I have no formatting options, no control over publishing (e.g. time and date), etc. Movable Type apparently decided that those options were not important to smartphone users, but the iPad could easily take advantage of all of them. Unfortunately, we don't get to choose the version, because there's no option to force delivery of the full version of the website.

I mentioned above that I've found a workaround, and it's a pretty good one (so far, anyway). I download the Atomic Web Browser from Apple's App Store (a $.99 purchase) and this browser allows you to change the user-agent string to, in effect, impersonate the desktop version of Safari. This means that I'm being served the full version of a website, rather than the stripped-down mobile version. This has its own set of problems (if a site is built in Flash, then I'm out of luck) but it does solve the above-mentioned problems. Plus, it's a pretty good browser in its own right, incorporating tabs, View Source, multiple search engine options, ad blocker, and much more. Some have reported that it's buggy, but I haven't yet encountered any problems.

But web designers and developers need to deal with the real issue of figuring out how to serve up non-crippled versions of their websites to iPad users (and, really, even to legitimate mobile browsers). Mobile versions shouldn't lack important functionality in order to achieve simplicity. That borders on laziness. At the very least, the mobile version should provide the option of navigating back to the full version (Sports Illustrated is a good example of a website doing just that).

Unflattered by Imitation
September 29, 2010 6:40 AM | Posted in: ,

After more than ten years of doing freelance web design/development, I keep thinking I've seen everything...and then I encounter something new. I received an email yesterday from a client who had been contacted by another organization, the latter asking permission to use unspecified aspects of the former's website in the design of a new site for the latter. (I tried to figure out a way to make that sentence even more complicated but couldn't do it.)

This is unusual for two reasons. First of all, there's this "asking permission" thing: who does that in the Wild, Wild Web? Sadly, all too few. Source code is too easy to "borrow" and embedded graphics too easy to download. So, props to the organization that approached my client.

But I'm afraid they lose all that goodwill based on the second reason that the request is unusual. You see, the organization had approached me a couple of months ago about redesigning their website, and they had specifically mentioned my client's site as one they'd like to emulate. I worked up and sent a quote for the project, and never heard from them again.

Until yesterday, that is, when my client emailed me to see if I had a concern about granting approval for the aforementioned request.

I'm kind of on the fence about the ethics of this situation. On one hand, I don't retain any intellectual property rights in the work I do under contract for a client. So, if the client wants to give away his design, that's entirely his call. And while there may be some implied copyright issues in play, we couldn't actually prevent another organization from "borrowing" the source code and adapting it for their own purposes.

But as I told my client, as a designer I find this situation akin to going into Dillard's and trying on a pair of shoes to make sure they fit and look good, and then ordering them online from Zappo's. If the second organization wants to hire another designer to do their website, fine...but I'd really prefer that they actually require that designer to do something other than adapt my work.

Perhaps I should feel flattered that someone wants to copy the design (although it's really nothing special). What do you think...am I being too sensitive?

Redesigned US Currency
August 25, 2010 3:59 PM | Posted in: ,

There have been a number of attempts to redesign US currency, which I'll readily admit looks old and drab next to that of many other countries (but which also demonstrates that beauty does not always equate to utility or value, but that's a completely different issue).

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project brings many of those attempts into a central location, and it's interesting to scroll through the wide range of variations put forth by designers.

The design firm of Dowling Duncan provides one of the more innovative approaches, with a vertical layout (based, the company says, on research into how we actually use currency) and different lengths for different denominations. The latter would solve one of the great pressing problems of currency, and that's how to make it easier for sight-impaired people to distinguish among the different denominations of bills. But, of course, putting a living president on a bill is simply not going to fly, for any number of reasons. Nevertheless, their attempt at tying each bill's amount to a symbolic historic reference (e.g. $50 = the 50 states of the Union) is laudable.

Then, there are the designs put forth by Mark Scott, a Brit (many of the designs are submitted by non-US residents apparently eager to help drag our currency into the 21st century). Sensing the inevitability of ubiquitous corporate sponsorship, he's replaced the usual political and historical references with symbols representing iconic American brands, such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and the NFL. I'm especially fond of the $50 Apple bill, although I'm sure Steve Jobs would prefer that it appear on a $100,000 note.

There are scores of designs on this site, some of them quite whimsical (including a 10 cent note with the inscription "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?").

Hat tip: Subtraction

Testing a jQuery lightbox script
August 19, 2010 3:57 PM | Posted in: ,

I've installed the PrettyPhoto jQuery lightbox script and I'm testing things to make sure they work properly. Click on a thumbnail and then browse the other images using the controls in the pop-up image.

This is a pretty cool application; expect to see it more often around here.

Allthorn BushAngry CloudsBetween StormsBirds

DVD Annoyance
July 28, 2010 1:53 PM | Posted in:

Once upon a time, when I was a real blogger, I had a category called "Usability Hall of Shame," wherein was found posts about poorly designed products and websites. Sometimes I think about reinstating that category because no matter how hard I try, the world inexplicably refuses to come around to my way of thinking about how things should work.

Take commercial movie DVDs, for example. When they first appeared on the scene, it seemed that the studios were in a heated competition to see who could create the most convoluted, hard-to-read implementation of a menu. One often had to sit through an interminable animated sequence of sight and sound before finally being presented with the buttons to play the dang movie already.

I'm pleased to say that this is much better, for the most part, undoubtedly thanks to my writing about it lo these many years ago. But one area remains neglected. It's not a huge thing, but when you think about it, it's really illogical and annoying.

Almost every movie DVD has the option of activating subtitles/captions, right? And I suspect I'm not the only person with good hearing who still activates them because I watch movies while on a noisy treadmill or exercise bike.

So, here's the illogical annoyance. When one clicks the "Subtitles" menu item, why is the default always "Off"? I mean, isn't it logical to assume that one doesn't click on that menu item unless one wants subtitles or captions (since by default they're always off)?

Countless remote control clicks could be saved each and every day if DVD designers simply made the default for the Subtitles menu "English." If you're not an English speaker and want another language, you haven't lost anything, and you're still probably a click or two closer to your selection than you are with the default "Off.")

OK, I've done my part. I'll be watching for improvement, Hollywood, and not patiently, either. Don't make me come out there.

Design vs. Development: Real Life Example
May 28, 2010 6:32 AM | Posted in:

Remember this post from a week ago, in which I discussed the difference between designing a website and developing it? I can now provide a practical example.

We just went live with a new website for Stacy Peterson, a local illustrator and graphic designer. Stacy is a design pro (she did the illustrations for one of Madonna's children's books, The English Roses: To Good To Be True) and as such certainly didn't need my limited skills in that area. So she brought me a fully realized design and it was my job to translate the printed layouts into something that rendered accurately in web browsers. I worked with Stacy's artwork which was in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator formats, and tried to replicate as closely as possible the vision she laid out for her site.

As gifted as Stacy is in the area of graphic design and illustration, she would be the first to admit that she's not an expert in website design and the mechanics that make a site functional. Her design presented some challenges from a development perspective - things that are quite simple to do in print media, like the nice drop shadow surrounding the main content window, or the seamless tiling of the flowery page background - are harder to replicate in a website. Finding solutions that work across a wide range of browsers and platforms is an ongoing challenge for everyone who builds websites, but especially when the design is conceived with no forethought about how those issues might come into play.

The new website includes some tasty jQuery scripts (for the illustration popups and the book cover slideshow) and some semi-complex CSS (I finally had to resort to a separate style sheet for Internet Explorer 6 and earlier to work around some conflicts between the aforementioned scripts and certain parts of the design; if you're still using IE6, you have my deepest sympathies, although only if someone is forcing you to do so).

We did have to compromise on a couple of rather insignificant design details that didn't work as well on screen as they did on paper, but overall, I think I succeeded in creating code that accurately brings Stacy's design onto your computer monitor while keeping it compliant with current standards and as visible as possible to search engines.

And, if I've played my developer role correctly, the only thing you're aware of is Stacy's beautiful artwork.

Screen Door on a Submarine?
May 26, 2010 8:08 AM | Posted in:

Prepare to toss your preconceived notions about the compromises one has to make in order to live on the water. This is a fascinating look at a floating house in the Seattle area [link via Twisted Sifter]. The architectural creativity is inspiring, but I'm puzzled by one minor detail, which is best described by this floor plan drawing:

Drawing

Wouldn't the basement on a floating house be, like, underwater? What am I missing here? The article doesn't even touch on this aspect of the home.

I have to admit that the sub-sea basement idea is pretty cool, especially if the level contained lots of viewports (which seems not to be the case based on the drawing...just a couple in the "bunk room").

There's also no mention of the depth of the water where the home is placed, so I suppose that the basement could actually extend into the seabed.

I'd also like to know more details about how they've run the plumbing lines.

And, finally, I'm curious about how much this cost to build...and what the owners are paying for flood insurance.

Design vs. Development
May 21, 2010 8:05 AM | Posted in:

When people ask me what I do for a living, I generally tell them that I build websites, but if I want it to sound more impressive [than it really is] I say that I'm a website designer. That's not technically accurate though, and not just because I don't really make a living at it (but that's another issue).

Technically, I'm a website designer/developer, but the distinction between design and development may not be meaningful to many people. It's not complicated, though. Every website goes through a design phase where conscious (we hope) decisions are made about layout, color scheme, font selection, graphics, etc. and a development phase where the coding and scripting necessary to make the design accessible to web browsers is applied. This is analogous to building a house, where an architect comes up with the floor plan and a construction crew executes it.

The design stage is the glamorous part of the process - it's where the obvious creativity takes place - but the development stage is where equal parts of creativity and practicality are combined, and that combination can be as challenging as it is non-obvious.

There's an unending dialog (or debate) in my profession about those challenges. Designers claim that developers always monkey with the layout and compromise the vision the former have worked so hard to create. Developers accuse designers of being impractical, of coming up with design elements that can't be replicated in the real world. And, often, I think both have legitimate complaints.

Lately, I've had more pure development projects than ever before, where someone comes to me with a complete design (as opposed to an idea or a vision) and wants me to make it happen. I'm working with ad agencies on a couple of websites, and with an artist on another, and they don't really need my design skills (which is a good thing, because those skills are pretty rudimentary). And, frankly, I'm dealing with some of the frustrations of the design-vs-development debate.

For one thing, a lot of designers come from print backgrounds, and the rules for print are often vastly different than for web. In some cases, print provides more flexibility and freedom, and the design elements I'm asked to implement just don't translate well to screen display. In other cases, the web provides possibilities that the designers aren't taking advantage of - to their clients' detriment - and I have to try to figure out a way to diplomatically educate them as to how their designs might be improved. In addition, print designers aren't necessarily keeping up with the latest trends in web design, which can result in layouts that looked dated from the very beginning. I'm not suggesting that all such trends are positive and should be blindly followed, but there is value in incorporating elements of current trends into more traditional layouts.

When I both design and build a website, my design ideas are explicitly influenced or tempered by my understanding of how difficult it will be to bring those ideas into practice. This is good for my client, as it makes me more efficient in getting the job done and saves the client money. But it probably results in more pedantic design work as I rarely push the envelope to try things that I'm not sure will work.

The designers I'm working with now have no such limitations, unless they've consulted with me in advance and we've discussed the technical pros and cons of their ideas (and, ideally, that happens frequently). Still, more often than not, I'm asked to do some things that left to my own devices I wouldn't try because I know they're impractical.

Despite the challenges, I enjoy playing the role of developer, especially when the designer has considerably more talent than me (which is most of them). I enjoy taking someone's vision for a website and figuring out how to bring it to life in a website using the appropriate technologies while adhering to web standards to ensure that all visitors can access the site. I know the glory is in the design, but the satisfaction at the end of the day for me is in knowing that I made something work...something that someone else finds useful.

In other words, I build websites.
My new computer monitor arrived late yesterday via FedEx (and, by the way, I'd like to know why our neighborhood seems to be The. Very. Last. Destination. for FedEx deliveries) and I immediately neglected plans to do some much-needed housekeeping in order to get it connected and configured.

It's a 24" Dell* display, and it replaces a six year old 19" NEC that had developed a disturbing...well, I'm not sure what to call it. It's like someone dribbled liquid down the inside of the screen, right in the center of the display. It wasn't always obvious, but while my mind had learned to ignore it, it was always there. Plus, it was just 19", and while I'm old enough to remember 13" monitors (OK, I'm old enough to remember TI Silent 700 terminals; what's it to you?), nineteen inches no longer seem to go as far as they once did.

I love the new monitor, and that may be an understatement. But here's the thing: I didn't anticipate the extent to which I needed to adjust my work processes to accommodate the increased screen real estate. I mean, I knew that on the old monitor I was constantly resizing and moving windows in order to work with the dozen or so applications I need to have open at all times to do my job, but it's not as easy as I thought to adapt to the extra space.

On the old monitor, I could take in everything on the screen via direct or peripheral vision. On the new one, I have to either shift my eyes or turn my head to see stuff on the edges. And I can't put everything in the middle of the screen. That pretty much defeats the purpose of having a large display.

I had also grown accustomed to having both sides of the screen dedicated to menus in applications like Photoshop, with my work situated in the middle. But it's now a lot of mousing to move from one side to the other to change tools or settings. I need to come up with a new toolbar workspace to cut down on that.

Nevertheless, these are problems I'm happy to deal with. Being able to put two full-sized documents side-by-side is nothing short of a joy, and I can now actually identify the 60 icons that rest perpetually in the Dock at the bottom of the screen. But, for now anyway, I'm glad I didn't fork over the extra bucks for a 30" monitor. After all, sometimes more is too much, something I've learned well by observing Congress lately.

*Yes, I know...why is a Mac guy buying a Dell peripheral? For one thing, I haven't had an Apple monitor since the 80s. I had a 15" Sony CRT prior to getting the NEC. For the price, I'm not impressed with Apple's monitors. But, primarily, when I started looking for a new monitor I confess to being completely discombobulated by the plethora of choices, and the disparity of reviews for any given model. I was locked in analysis paralysis until I had a meeting with my pal Darrell, who's the head creative guy for a local ad agency. He's also a Mac user, and the last time I was in his office he had a big honkin' Cinema Display on his desk. But this time, he had a Dell, and I asked him why. He basically said the same thing: for the price, the Dell is a fabulous value, and it was perfectly calibrated right out of the box. I figured that a recommendation from a graphics pro whom I know and respect was better than a thousand anonymous website reviews, and I went home and ordered the same model he had on his desk. Great call, Darrell!

This one's for you, Bud (Pt. 2)
February 1, 2010 6:03 AM | Posted in: ,

Happy February! Here's another psychedelic interactive website primarily for my Uncle Bud, but I'm sure he'll share it with you, too: Into Time by Rafaël Rozendaal (link via Today & Tomorrow)

Addictive
December 19, 2009 7:07 PM | Posted in:

Some things are inexplicably compelling...Slinkys, Fergie, and bubble wrap come to mind.

I think we can now safely add this website to the list.

[Link via Web Designer Depot's Twitter feed]

Living Small
November 5, 2009 5:15 PM | Posted in: ,

There's a lot to be said for simplifying one's life, although it's usually much easier to talk about it than to actually do it. I often declare (to no one in particular) that every time we buy something new for the house, we should get rid of something old. Of course, that only allows us to break even, so to speak, and we hardly ever do it anyway, so it's just a lot of posturing on my part.

Even on those occasions when I put my money where my mouth is, it's for stuff that I don't really care much about anyway. Debbie will bring home two or three new shirts for me, and it bothers me not a bit to toss an equal number of old ones (I have shirts that originate further back into the 20th century than is comfortable to admit). But if I get a new iPod, do you think I'm deleting an old one? Heck, no. One can never have too many iPods.

I'm sporadically successful in convincing my wife to discard old drinking glasses or mugs when she buys new ones, but even that's an uphill battle. Who knew one could develop a sentimental attachment to crockery?

What we do try to do is not acquire stuff that we won't use and enjoy, or to expend so much of our income on acquiring things that there's nothing left to give away to others. Frankly, I feel pretty good about the balance we've achieved in creating a comfortable lifestyle. And I'm dead certain that our sense of well-being would not be improved by shoehorning it into 96 square feet.

Link Love
August 28, 2009 8:24 AM | Posted in: ,

Ran across a few interesting links I think you might enjoy as you contemplate the wonder that is Friday.

  • Now, about that cover... is a post from the author of the book by the same name, and it deals with how the quite striking cover of his book came to be. The photo shown on the front cover depicts a book that has been soaked in water and the pages arranged into a striking organic shape. This technique is the brainchild of Houston-based photographer Cara Barer, who is quick to point out that no valuable books are harmed in the making of her pictures.

    I feel compelled to note that my wife has at times created this effect by nodding off in the bathtub with book in hand.

  • And speaking of bending paper to your will, check out these amazing origami creations by Won Park. Given the value of the dollar lately, this is as good a use as any for a bill.

  • I'm a sucker for panoramic photography, because I can't figure out how to do it myself. Here's a great example, taken at Shoshone Point in the Grand Canyon National Park. If you have a fast internet connection and faster computer, click the "full screen" link to get the full vertigo-inducing effect.

  • And, last but not least, I was happy to see that Texas Governor Rick Perry garnered Bicycling Magazine's "Wheelsucker of the Month" award for his veto of the Safe Passing bill at the end of the last legislative session. Perry claims to be a cyclist, and, indeed, recently injured himself during a ride, so you'd think he'd have more empathy. But he's a politician first and foremost, and thus can't be counted on to do the right thing. Anyway, BikeTexas, the state's cycling advocacy group, has an online petition urging passage of the bill (while simultaneously expressing displeasure at the veto). If you're a Texas cyclist, pedestrian, farm equipment operator, or "concerned motorist" (which should pretty much encompass all of us), please consider dropping by to sign the petition. It may not accomplish anything more than making me feel better, but this is, after all, all about me.

    The more perceptive among you may also notice a large button on the right side of this page that links to the petition, in case you weren't able to read this far.
Graphic designer David Airey's blog features a post by Aditya Mahesh in which the author describes a client's primary concerns when seeking out someone to design and build their website. I think it's a good list, and the issues are consistent with my perceptions from more than a decade in the business. It's recommended reading for anyone providing freelance services, and not just web designers, because the issues are universal.

I'd like to extend the discussion by adding my perceptions and opinions to the points raised by the author. The original articles points are shown in bold type.

  1. I don't know what I want. In my experience, that's not usually the case, but it's very likely that the client doesn't know if what he wants is (a) what he needs, or (b) realistic. Web designers with basic business and marketing skills and experience can provide helpful advice regarding the former, and their technical expertise will allow them to guide the client in the latter area. Listening carefully to the client and being willing to discuss rather than dictate are keys to getting this right.

  2. I need control. Again, my experience is that some clients are strangely willing to cede almost complete control to me, even going so far as to request my input on developing their fundamental business strategies and marketing tactics. I'm flattered when that happens, but that doesn't mean I'm always comfortable with it. The best situation is where the client wants to brainstorm those issues with me, or use me as a sounding board, because the better I understand her business goals and strategies, the more likely I can create a website that facilitates their execution.

  3. I'm unsure about pricing. This is probably the most uncomfortable area of discussion for client and consultant alike. It took me a while to understand that my fees are what they are; I don't have to justify them, and if the client's budget or preconceived notions get in the way, then we're both better off with other partners. That said, the client should understand that if I quote $xx per hour for website maintenance, his focus should probably be on what I can get done in an hour, not just the cost of that hour. As a professional, I will be significantly more efficient than his non-design staff in getting web-related tasks accomplished. Many small business owners say they want to take over website maintenance once the site is up and running, but very few will actually have the time and skills needed to do the job right. [One more thing about pricing: it helps if the designer can spell out her pricing on her website so that the client has no excuse for being "surprised" by the rate.]

  4. I appreciate honesty and quality. Website design as a profession is in danger of becoming this century's snake oil salesmen (no offense to any snake oil salesmen in the audience). A significant part of my business comes from fixing problems caused by other "designers" who failed to deliver. Sure, it's a hard thing to tell a client that you can't do what they're asking you to do, either because you don't have the time or [especially] because you don't have the skill, but there's almost nothing that the client will appreciate more than hearing that exact thing. For example, I don't do Flash-based websites, period, for a variety of reasons. I often hear from prospective clients who say they want a Flash website, and just as often, after I tell them that I don't do that kind of work and explain why, they decide that they don't really need Flash after all, and I end up doing the same project using different technology. [Now, there will be times where the client's requirements will legitimately require you to expand your technical skills, perhaps even moving outside your comfort zone and taking some risks to get the project completed. This is not a bad thing. As a designer, if you're not learning, you're losing.]

  5. I want you to stick around. Again, here's where the "snake oil salesman" comparison comes into play. Unreliable or disappearing designers are the bane of the profession, and they make us all look bad. I know why it happens, and, frankly, clients bear part of the blame. They think that if their nephew in junior high can design a site for them for $50, that's a better deal than paying a true professional. Then they panic when the junior high student discovers the opposite sex and decides there are more important things in life than working on uncle's goofy website. Just because someone has a copy of Front Page and Photoshop doesn't mean they can do the job, and the low barriers to entry into the profession also make for non-existent barriers to exit. There's just no substitute for availability and reliability on the part of the website designer. It will pay off in repeat business and referrals. In fact, my experience has been that reliability will even trump design skills, especially when dealing with small businesses and organizations.

Small {Apple} World
July 19, 2009 5:50 PM | Posted in: ,

I was visiting with a fellow in Bible Life Group* this morning, getting caught up with him and his family. They lived in Midland years ago, and moved to the Bay Area of California to be closer to family. He's back in Midland for a few months, working with his brother who owns a roofing company and thus is extremely busy following the terrible hailstorm earlier this year.

In the course of the conversation, I asked about his wife, specifically where she was working. His reply went something like this: She's a nanny, and works for a family that's pretty well off. Johnny Ive and his wife have twins and...

I interrupted him, making a huge leap of logic: Johnny Ive...as in Jonathan Ive? Apple's chief designer?!

Yes, that's the fellow.

Excuse me for being an Apple Fanboy, but I think it's pretty dang cool that I know someone who knows the guy who created the iPod, the iPhone, and the iMac, among many award-winning designs.

*Bible Life Group is our church's new-fangled name for Sunday School. I guess the latter term sounds too old-fashioned.

One Step Forward, A Half Step Back
June 30, 2009 9:10 AM | Posted in: ,

I really do dislike blogging about blogging, and I realize that you probably find it tedious and uninteresting, too. But, like death and government bailouts, it's inevitable when a website is going through such significant changes.

The revised layout that you're seeing now is an unstyled template provided by Movable Type, which is the blogging platform I'm once again using. It's ugly (in a way; but in another way, it's attractive in its simplicity) because it's being display on your monitor according to the default styling settings of your browser. Over the next xx days, I'll begin to override those defaults and [hopefully] return the Gazette to more or less the same layout I was using just before this latest change.

Please bear with me while I get this done. If things work out the way I fear, I'll be devoting more time to designing than to writing. I hope the end result will be worth your time and my effort.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Design category.

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