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Weblog of Freelance Designer Steven Clark

6/4/2005

Should You Be Podcasting?

Filed under: — 12:40 pm

What is podcasting and why have we been hearing so much about podcasting in the recent past? What can podcasting do? Why have I used podcasting in several sentences and not just used the ‘it’ word? Is podcasting something you even need to know about? Well yes to the last one and I’ll explain something about the rest in turn.

First, I mentioned podcasting over and over because I want you to remember it and not think of it as just another technical catch phrase. I don’t want you to dismiss it as superfluous trivia either because its a technology that’s going to change a lot of how we do things. Podcasting isn’t just about getting mp3s for your music collection.

Put simply when RSS became RSS 2 it provided the ability to include audio and video files into RSS feeds. Podcasting is the creation of an mp3 file that’s then made available with RSS 2. Its really as simple as that and some lateral thinking will no doubt come up with a gamut of applications you can put it to. With podcasts you can deliver you own radio show, its deliverable like all RSS at the users convenience and isn’t subject to the same laws that apply to real-time radio stations. The key is its easy to produce podcasts and they are available when users want to experience them - you just have to figure out how to make commercial profit from them with new business models.

In the bigger picture RSS and podcasting are changing the way we do business and how information and products are, or can be, delivered to our clients. Its a ‘user request’ and not a ‘company sent’ line of communication too which means you won’t be sending those unwanted emails out to people. Provide the RSS Reader and instructions how to install it and then point users to your RSS page. From then on the client has real time access to all of your product information via RSS and podcasts. Podcasting is just another dimension to the RSS experience.

4/4/2005

Understanding White Space

Filed under: — 1:24 pm

The visual layout of a web page (or anything for that matter) can be dramatically altered for better or worse by the use of simple white space. Feared by many this misunderstood design element has suffered at the hands of village witch hunts for too long! OK that’s melodramatic, but you should maybe start looking at white space in a more educated and appreciative way as a visual tool. I’m not talking minimalism but rather appreciation of the effect on balance and how the eye is drawn to portions of a design simply by shifting the spaces between elements.

There are two kinds of white space I’d particularly like to point out - passive and active. While passive white space involves areas such as the outside of the page or empty areas that aren’t aiding in the design there’s also active white space which are those areas without content that actually aid in the design. Active white space can be used to structure the page, make it more readable and place emphasis on some areas over others in the design. Its a powerful and sometimes underappreciated tool.

Its also an interesting perspective shift when you’re designing something just to stand back and look at what isn’t there. While too little active whitespace will create a claustrophobic effect and drive visitors away so will too much or disproportionate amounts of emptiness. So, just as ships are said to have good lines I think so do good designs of any variety including the web. Aesthetically pleasing and balanced pages are going to be far more successful than those that pay no heed to white space at all.

2/4/2005

Designers and Coders

Filed under: — 4:28 pm

Reading the Web Standards Group daily email digest the other day I was knocked over by a couple of simple questions from someone I consider far more knowledgable than myself at the whole web standards thing, whether that was just a biased impression I’d grown for no reason isn’t really clear. But this guy does know his stuff. The questions were - what are use cases?, and what is information architecture?

This is important because it defines where I see coders and designers parting ways. In fact web development covers a wide range of actual jobs and these are just 2 blurry lines that often shift back and forth. Its important because here is someone who is a great coder, he knows the specs backwards, is a great troubleshooter and problem solver and would be a fantastic team asset. But what does the designer do? Well maybe I should call him an information architect or at least say that information architect is a subset of the designer role. The designer is less interested in the nuances of actual code and doesn’t design within his capabilities. They will take all of the information and research and design the most effective user interface for the situation, and they are also problem solvers but of a different type.

I could ramble on about this no end and probably not everyone will agree with how I draw my blurry lines here. In Japan the web development project is clearly defined into a great many actual jobs. Myself, like a lot of people who do this, I’m a fence sitter in that I can code a bit but I’m primarily interested in design. I’d like to be the one doing the report, the investigation, the research into effectively achieving the organisational goals and objectives. I enjoy investigating the underlying information architecture to reveal a user centric view of the information and how it should relate.

So although they’re different they’re closely related by necessity in small business at least. And I only mention it as I was totally shocked someone I see as very adept in his field had not even heard of some very basic software engineering principles. It made me feel a little bit good to know that some of the things I say do actually make sense. My job after all is to make a successful site that gets used and makes money. Just a tad more to it than perfect code…

29/3/2005

Good Design is Usable

Filed under: — 12:35 pm

Something comes to mind right now about an article I read via my RSS addiction (I mean feed) a few weeks ago. It was talking about graphic artists not being taught design basics and that good design was in itself usable by being well designed in the first place. For example a beatifully carved 3 legged chair you can’t sit on isn’t exactly designed well regardless of its prettiness. So that’s my thought for the day.

Good design is of its own intrinsic nature usable. Something so obvious that it needed to be repeated here…

28/3/2005

How To Convince the Unconvincable?

Filed under: — 8:29 pm

How do you convince a business that doesn’t want to listen when it comes to paying for market research into who exactly their site will be used by, what that user will want to do, how that user will interact with the interface and how to design that interface to best commercial (and therefore usable) effect? Well you don’t.

The bottom line is that for a business to put up a half arsed solution to skimp a grand or two then its their call. What can you do? Hold them down? Get out the big fat semantic feather?

I suppose its true that Norty Pig doesn’t court the bottom dollar and it could be interpreted that we only want the larger customers but that isn’t exactly true. While we’d like to be paid more for our time its actually not an argument about money as such, more about methodology. Say if you knew a 21 year old engineer had $4000 of disposable dollars to spend this year on your merchandise, say if you’re only one of many options for him to spend that money on, say even that he has a lot of close friends with the same demographic,

(snap goes the camera and you’ve got the picture by now)

wouldn’t you try to make your site a streamlined experience to get into his pants (well wallet)? So I don’t feel really bad missing the boat on jobs where they only want a cloned page with their face on it. Norty Pig makes pretty good pages that would’ve made them more money than otherwise. After all software engineering is about the process not just the coding stage. We aren’t ‘too good’ for anything; we just don’t make rubbish pages.

By the way we’re always in the market to strike up business relationships with exceptional quality graphic artists and designers who might be interested in freelance work down the track, not necessarily web designers as such. One of the things we’re currently lacking in-house is the graphic element even though we’re working hard to get it under our roof. So drop a line and we’ll chat maybe.

26/3/2005

Shopping Cart Tardus

Filed under: — 3:20 pm

This week I did a rough assessment of an acquaintance’s website and was left with the question - when does a shopping cart become a Tardus (as in Dr Who’s preferred mode of transport)?. This was one of the most ingloriously confusing mazes of unusable nonsense.

Every page on this site had a clickable shopping cart icon that lead on a dead trail requiring either full and detailed registration or login and password and which culminated in the affirmation that my shopping cart was empty. Umm yeh I kind of knew that so why put the icon everywhere if its always going to be bloody empty? A stream that’s a blind alley wastes my valuable time and nobody wins. The cart required JavaScript to be enabled so 10% or users weren’t able to access this right off the bat.

My next bet was a link on the homepage called ’shop’ which I thought might have something to buy. Unfortunately it was just a plain old disclaimer page that explained transport and return policies for the site. I noted this was the third navigation structure I’d found so far which was another major usability issue, consistency of navigation being an important aspect for designing user interfaces.

Third choice was to enter the galleries directly. Clicking a large slow loading thumbnail brought up a larger image (using JavaScript again) which contained the link to the real e-commerce stream that I’d assumed to exist on the site. On one occasion I couldn’t work out why the images wouldn’t work because just as pop-ups steal focus and confuse they can also be stuck behind the current browser window.

The gallery stream in fact led me to the same login and registration stream as the earlier unsuccessful shopping cart icon. My back was really up at this point and it had become really unpleasant as I went further in the cart process line. For one there were no indicators that said I was at step 2 of 6, for example. In fact in the end I was dumped at a screen that simply said your order has been made and you should post a cheque or money order to the named person’s home address??? Ummm why my detailed registration? Why don’t you want my money? Why stuff me around when you could have just given me your address on the contact page without the bloody shopping cart? Why why why?

The simple truth about this site is that questions weren’t asked about what would a user do and the architecture hadn’t been considered worthy of attention. By creating simple personas and doing use-case studies its possible to identify every single one of these problems including the one about no reason to be having a shopping cart in the first place. OK I’m probably overly critical but it was a long and frustrating journey to reach a pot of tar.

The case study in question is exactly the best example I’ve seen in a long time as to why businesses shouldn’t go for the cheapest solution in town, why documentation, testing, research and sound science should go into building a website. How valuable is an unusable shopping cart? How much is it worth to not only not get business but deter customers from giving you money? From a business perspective it was just a waste of time and resources to irritate the general public (pulls out hair in ranting gagging moment of angst).

Yet if the underlying information architecture had been assessed and proper investigative background study undertaken with user and technical testing this same site owner may well be some thousands of dollars richer already and the extra work would have probably paid for itself. Money saved not installing a cart (let alone an inferior one) and thinking about the sensible naming of links may have eased my experience entirely. From home page to checkout in the shortest route was about 8 or 9 clicks with a few extra and a form to fill in if you needed to register an account (an account for what by the way? and why did they want my address, phone number and email?).

OK that’s my rant and it also relates to the expectations of businesses to get the most for the least out of web developers. Basically you get what you pay for and $500 gets you about how many hours work, thought and meetings? The whole idea is we’re supposed to make you money goosey so invest in us, trust us to do the hard yards and pay us our dues. OK here’s a challenge - if I make you money then pay me more and if I don’t make you money then pay me less. Write it into the contract. Cos that’s my job - to make us both richer.

25/3/2005

Its the Trickle that Fills the Trough

Filed under: — 12:45 pm

Much is often blogged about the larger and more influential companies choosing a standards compliant solution and what it means to them and the web standards movement in general. I think when larger profile companies go down this road there’s a lot of hoo-ha and rightly so, it’s a big move. Its also a major job on a huge site to do an entire rebuild / redesign and often the team aren’t exactly the gurus of this methodology that live on places like css-discuss. Naturally a lot of these larger sites have trouble getting across the line of validation due to unencoded ampersands and sometimes other trivial hiccups. But all in all its a tough job and these companies hit the news for making their sites (or attempting to make them) standards compliant. Of course there’s the partially standards compliant claim that kind of baffles me but we won’t go into that one - how do you have half a cow in your dairy?

But today I really want to salute the small businesses that make the decision to have faith in another way of making sites, businesses who would probably not be able to absorb any loss if they’d made a bad decision. One such site launched locally today called Golden Moments Massage was created by Linden Langdon and shows that even on the more basic end of the local web community there’s a growing number of newer designers not settling for the WYSIWYG magic box approach to making pages. So although this one is probably small cookies in a lot of eyes out there its one of those little steps that make a journey. Its the trickle that fills the trough, after all.

Sites with valid DOCTYPES that validate in both XHTML and CSS (yes delivered as text / html) are still pretty rare commodities on the whole. So congrats to Linden and her new client on getting it off the ground.

22/3/2005

The Monitor Variable

Filed under: — 1:20 pm

On a general note my office computer monitor has had far better days. It was cheap, generic and needs to go to heaven. Or does it?

When I design I find walking over to my partner’s higher priced new monitor shows a different user experience (sometimes entirely). Not only do colours not always display the same there’s the differences in legibility of text and clarity of images. Occasionally I’ll go back to my work and revisit the pallette because something I perceived as subtle on mine has become overtly blatant on the better (and calibrated) monitor.

I guess the instinct here is to run off and say ditch the old one and get a newer and better model. But what about the number of users on the net with older monitors just like mine? I’m sure its not that unusual. While I’m definately getting another in the near future I think from a usability testing point of view (and accessibility in general) this old and dying gem is a useful tool as a minimum bar to get over. Develop on the newer screen and test on the old for legibility of text.

I remember reading a blog on these lines some time back but thought I’d bring it up again as its a given that not everyone has a sub-one year old monitor that isn’t budget that they use for the web.

20/3/2005

WordPress 1.5 and Customisation

Filed under: — 3:40 pm

Initially frustration slapped me on the head with this one until I realised how simple the WordPress crew had made it (and how extendable). I’d originally customised WordPress 1.2.2 a few times (including both my blogs as well as a friend’s). So all I’d do was basically meld my already created page straight into full morph with the WordPress template and it was up and away. Then to change different PHP functionality I’d just jump into the other folders and have a bit of a play until whatever I’d envisioned came to pass.

So I installed WordPress 1.5 for a client and initially I wasn’t very impressed. I didn’t like that on the default installation the RSS links at the bottom of the page returned 404 errors. It also took me a little bit to get used to calling the new file structure. So here’s a bit of an explanation of where I went yesterday.

First I went to the forums and found that if I commented out 4 lines in the wp-blogheader.php that seemed to call the 404 by default and then changed the links on my page to normal relative URLs the RSS worked fine. The big problem here was realising that while index.php sits in the main directory the theme, and therefore its resources, sit in a folder about 5 levels down the heirarchy. So its not good enough to reference ’style.css’ but instead you need to write ‘wp-content/themes/default/style.css’ for example.

That said, I’d been looking at doing this the same way as I’d looked at version 1.2.2 which was to just take over the default page and make it my one and only prison bitch. But WordPress 1.5 has these themes you can either make, install or choose from. Its a very powerful option once you look into it. So I guess that’s the way I’ll be going on this operation…

Well I’ve only briefly covered the top ether of what customising WordPress is about but hopefully it’s enough to get someone else up and running. To create a theme by the way just copy the default folder, change its name to your theme name and edit the top of the CSS file’s comments to reflect your theme name and description.

I’ll be the first to admit it made me squirm for the first hour but when I read the documentation and visited the forum I was up to speed fast enough. Its just a new file structure and a different (better) way of looking at things.

17/3/2005

Never Did Hear from ALA

Filed under: — 12:29 pm

Admittedly I’m just a poor bugger from the penguin infested legume growing from Australia’s buttock but I’d kind of hoped a trickle of my question regarding A List Apart’s article on Dynamic Text Replacement with PHP written by Stewart Rosenberger would make it back to them and they’d eventually know - problemo - there is an issue for quite a few people with getting it to work.

So I’m kind of yell-beg-hairpulling it into the blogosphere as an open question still?

Why does IE show the alts but only red X’s and why does FF display the words in the original font and bunched together without spaces between them? I figure there has to be a logical technical fixable answer to that one that maybe someone’s discovered since it was posted.

My frustration comes from having read the entire 28 pages of comments a number of times and having no way to contribute to that closed thread. So if you know Stewart’s number or have your best mate at ALA you can tell them I think they’re legends but I’m absolutely out of my depth here. Is it my server, as I’d suspect? If so, what needs to be done to fix this one identifiable problem…

Ball of knowledge thrown into the blogosphere to be caught (hopefully) by someone who knows how to fill it and send it back to me. If you do you’re a legend because it’d be sooo bloody handy.

16/3/2005

May 1st Reboot

Filed under: — 10:28 am

Here’s an interesting concept that I’d never known about until this month - the May 1st Reboot.

The idea is an international array of web designers register with Reboot and commit to creating a new design to be launched simultaneously on May 1st and its been happening since 2000. So on April 25 all the sites that are participating in this year’s Reboot will go down and just have a Reboot holding page. On the 1st they’ll all upload their index pages at exactly the same time and voila! Yep I’ll be checking out their work bigtime.

Uber-cool way to get yourself out there with something new, experimental or innovative.

11/3/2005

Communication Glitch

Filed under: — 2:15 pm

The best laid plans of mice and me (n) definately don’t forsee every contingency. I recently had a slowing of communication with the Harvest Supplies people in Queensland. At present I’ve uploaded a simple text page but I’m designing and will be building a decent site that caters for ordering and has a member login area and some other stuff . But why was it looking like it was out to sink?

The clues were my email client sent the Harvest emails - the emails never arrived at Harvest. So where did they go? Well a few months back the Harvest account was moved to another server and a not unusual thing to do in this evolution is to retain the original mail box until the new one was properly established. So what was happening was I would send my email, it’d look to see if the address was on the same server (which the old one surely was) and just place the email there. So nobody elses email disappeared just mine. Unfortunate to say the least.

So there goes a couple of months of sending user questionnaires and reports and trying to establish information to develop personas, a couple of proposed site maps of course. Its a good tap on the shoulder that all business correspondence really needs to use digital signatures or other means of verification of receipt. This small oversight just in hours worked that had no value, the slightly corroded but fixable business image it portrayed and the simplicity with which it could have been detected and solved in the shorter term are indicative of a need for better lines of communication with interstate clients. We’re meeting in Sydney for a face to face in late April and hope to hammer out the last of the design elements there.

10/3/2005

$500 Sites With Documentation?

Filed under: — 1:08 pm

I’ve asked this question a lot this year and how do people create AU$500 sites with documentation and research and testing and the gamut of pieces that make up the whole? Well they don’t, lets be honest. If your client asks for a AU$500 five page site then you have to gather the content from them, source graphics, answer emails and phone calls, most likely attend at least one meeting, provide a technical specification report as well as questionnaires and surveys, do an information architecture report of some sort investigating the information your client has and evaluating the competition and probably much more. Which to my estimate on AU$500 sites says to me you’re broke before a line of code is written.

So its OK to make a site 5 pages long for AU$500 but don’t make me believe you’re doing the whole shebang there. On those new terms yes I could produce for clients without too much stress a basic and static well laid out standards compliant website.

The difference between a AU$400 and AU$4000 site becomes apparent when you see the paperwork involved and look at the site map. The AU$4000 site will likely offer a level of programming, target your clients directly instead of merely displaying static information, it would include e-commerce and some database wizardry that makes users want to give you money - even helps them give you money. And that’s where the buzz is really, its in success. But now I think about it I see the other side of the coin too which is making a static site for $500 is quite practical if that’s what the client insists on to save money in the short term. I think I’ll have to do a couple, not put my name to them and see how the whiskey tastes when its payday. I also love Porche 911’s if you’ve got one for my wish list lol… never know your luck ay.

9/3/2005

RIP Out Those Mailto Links

Filed under: — 12:50 pm

When I look at a site nowdays one of the first things I seek out is their mail functionality - do they use the HTML mailto in a simple link to make a default popup email client do their hard work? If they do I tend to be a bit biased and unfairly think stuff like shoddy, ineffective and not enough money put into effectively creating the site functionality. In other words mailto is and always will be the easy way out particularly for those who aren’t confident programming.

Why is mailto a bad thing then when it’s legitimate HTML? For one I’d suggest there are better and more elegant ways to provide the same functionality without making something popup and steal focus from the user. But really my greatest concern is it doesn’t work effectively for a rather large number of users who haven’t configured their Outlook Express or whatever email client properly. So they fill in the popup form and press submit - then it says it couldn’t send the message! Now being that user would you go to your hotmail and zap up another email? I doubt it. Finally I’m not really too keen on sitting client email addresses all over the site for bots to pick up and create havoc with either.

So lets go server side for the answer. By using the PHP email functions you can process the contact in much broader ways and without the negatives involved with HTML mailto links. Do this simple tutorial and you won’t look back. Lets consign mailto to the grave of ‘no longer working as expected’. And if you decide to keep mailto’s on your site ask this - how many users can’t use your contact form and don’t know how to configure their email client? Its up to you as a developer to assess the level of accessibility you want to provide. And if you just must use mailto then think about keeping them as supplemental links and provide a PHP main contact as well.

7/3/2005

Taming Scope on Freebies

Filed under: — 8:30 pm

Where is a big job declared to be too big? Or a small job said to be large for that matter? Scope is the creeping enemy that can and will sink the smallest software projects right up to the multi-million dollar ones. So its important before ever a line of code, or agreement to sell your soul, that you and the client come to a signed agreement of what you are willing to do for the money that they’re willing to pay. Its as simple as that in its most basic form. Anything bigger than the original plan means scope creep and you’ll have it written into the contract this is work to be billed on top of your original quote.

I mention scope because I’m reading some documents sent to me by a client who I’m about to do some free work for. The usual situation would be to use the contract and monetary means to try to keep the project in scope, but what do you do for free? And a high end programmer I’m definately not so there are also limits to my ability to bring things in at all let alone on time.

Well perhaps ‘keep it simple stupid’ (KISS) is the philosophy that comes to mind here. I can see that every extra bell and whistle could possibly become the solution. But does it have to? Wouldn’t a more usable and simple solution be more viable than making a complex one simply because you can? The right solution is the one that fits the problem like a glove not a giant Ugg boot (don’t sue me for using the Ugg word either).

So it makes me wonder what in the living life of Mulder (off the X-Files) can a guy do to pull this one into some kind of manageable scope?

In the meantime I’m having fun playing with Virtual Stan.

TheNews.com.au moves to Weblog.com.au

Filed under: — 2:05 pm

The recent article relating to TheNews.com.au has been kind of put out of date prematurely by its move and renaming back to Weblog.com.au, so many apologies to anyone looking under the hood and not seeing the product I’d advertised. These things happen in the wild world of website creation.

To make a positive of this move is probably to use both these sites as a comparison to some extent with perhaps the true path being one of design integration rather than exclusive islands of difference that now stand. Is one better than the other? Well no. Is one more usable, accessible, or visually attractive? Well they both have their high and low points of course. A site without content or visual design elements can be, well, yes a site with writing and not much else. While a site with an array of well crafted work may fail to offer the level of usability that’s probably expected in some quarters nowdays.

It’d be good to work with Jason sometime and make sites that are both visually dynamic as well as functionally and structurally more sound. The meeting of those two worlds is where the money sits. While I think a Jakob Nielsen design is like polishing the teeth of an elephant (both stupid and hilarious), so is the opposite pole of pure eye candy for the sake of it. Naturally its about bringing to market a product that makes money both for the developer and the client and creating good and interesting interfaces which have science behind them, which fulfil a users purpose on the site and makes them spend more time and money.

5/3/2005

When to Walk Away

Filed under: — 3:25 pm

There’s always going to be a tension or conflict between client and designer. The business might want specific things while the designer has other ideas. Is the client always right? Oh if it was only that easy I could sleep like a baby and drink whiskey every other night in front of the television.

Lets put it this way. Standing in the middle of a problem (as does the client) its not always that easy to see what the problem really amounts to. Its not to say they don’t know what their business is because they’re the most valuable resource of information about it that we’ll have at hand, but they don’t necessrily know how to identify the problem. I mean in the context of the creation of a web solution to solve their www problem. If they don’t have a problem they don’t need a designer to find a solution.

Its tiring wrestling with an organisation that just boldly insists they want what they want, too. Imagine they like animated gifs or have an extreme love of the brightest boldest cack fireman’s pencil red with green Times Roman because it’s on their company newsletter. What do you do? Well I guess my advice is as valid as anyone’s and its a judgement call, especially as a freelancer. Income vs grief and pain. Ideally the client should respect you know a bit of science about internet technologies and what works as well as the designer understanding the client has to go home with a product they’re happy to call their own. Unfortunately not all business relationships will be as amenable as the ideal and its necessary to cut them away and move on. Don’t let your job wreck your head, in other words, as its just not worth the bucks.

4/3/2005

TheNews Becomes Standard Compliant

Filed under: — 10:14 am

The recent dramatic rebuild of graphic designer Jason Carter’s TheNews launched today with a new minimilist look and with XHTML 1.0 Strict, CSS, and powered by WordPress. While its not the eye candy but the white space pushing this design it’s built with a definite eye on being more usable and accessible than the previous one.

It’s encouraging to see the local web development industry becoming more open to the ideal of a more accessible and universal web. So, no tooting because I did the coding, congratulations to TheNews for reaching a greater audience more effectively with this new facelift. I’ve already subscribed to the RSS feed too.

1/3/2005

Mockups and Prototypes

Filed under: — 8:45 am

Recently there was a conversation of sorts between two developers and something tweaked my ears. One developer suggested jumping directly to XHTML / CSS prototypes and skipping the mockup stages for the simple reason at the end of prototyping they would have the shell to build, it would all be sitting there. They asked the advantages of doing mockups in FireWorks or PhotoShop rather than in code. So I guess my comment would go something like this.

Firstly to each their own and I really don’t ever want to be a soapbox guy who thinks he’s got the only answer to every single issue. But I’d suggest that its in fact quicker to get signed off on graphic mockups simply from a logistical point of view - they are much easier and quicker to come up with, they can go in the bin and start again with very little time involved (personal heartbreak aside of course) and graphic mockups can just be emailed back and forth or printed out and handed around the table. Everything I’ve been taught has actually said this is the best process to get the best software out to market, too.

Wheras with an XHTML / CSS prototype to develop the actual design takes a lot of grunt if the client is on the other end of the phone working out the look and feel as you go. What if they decide the right navigation should be top navigation or that every second paragraph in a specific section needs some special case. By this I mean that you have to hunt through the CSS trying to work out sometimes complex inheritance issues or browser bugs on the fly. I’ve chewed a lot of days doing this very same thing just because I’m the kind of guy who gets a video game and reads the instructions like next week or later when I’m stuck. But process should be about discipline and the process should make for a better product one would expect.

So personally I won’t be throwing mockups away to jump straight to prototyping as it just seems bad sense. Of course, you just might find me breaking my own rules tomorrow but hey I’m also a human lol. I make my fair share of bad moves like everyone.

27/2/2005

PC4Peace.org

Filed under: — 1:52 pm

My call for an NPO which needed free services badly a few days ago resulted in a prompt email from a deserving group called PC4Peace.org in Japan. It always amazes me how the world is so big and small at the same time.

PC4Peace refurbish computers and send them to Cambodia as well as sending books to Laos. Small as they are they have global ideals and recycling useful stuff isn’t just uber-cool in a humanitarian sense but also kind of geeky-cool in the fact someone who’d never get access to some books or technologies can be checking out Pacman (or doing Math) on your old Pentium III in whole other country. So if anyone else has services they can help these guys out with (ie. experience helping us deliver a multilingual site) then drop an email or a comment to Norty Pig. Its important to us, at least, to be a responsible part of the global society which our Web encompasses.

While only a few years ago most users of the web were U.S. in origin this is steadily decreasing as more countries get online in a big way. As a small firm we definately want to go down the multilingual route with these guys because in the long term we’ll be a stronger competitor in the marketplace. So its win / win really. PC4Peace gets a facelift and boob job and we get to evolve toward an International capability.

25/2/2005

Non Profit? Need a Redesign?

Filed under: — 9:43 pm

After some consideration of the spare slice of time that sits on my desk between the other jobs, waiting for content, meetings and the like, I’ve decided to offer my services to another non-profit organisation gratis to either build their site or redesign the current one. I’m sure there must be some NPO either in Hobart or interstate looking for the free services of a savvy firm like us (tongue in cheek). From the one’s I’ve looked at most are badly done template sites so maybe its time one of them found a real designer.

So if you belong to, are associated with, or know of any deserving group or institution that has a doh site and needs a facelift and complete overhaul steer them to our contact page at Norty Pig.

24/2/2005

Jobs In the Mill

Filed under: — 11:20 pm

Recently I’ve agreed to do a free(ish) site for the Hunter Island Press Inc who are trying to get off the ground. Maybe there’ll be money in it but maybe not and its not about that. Its about giving back to the community and having a diverse society that isn’t as bland as the local poster-cum-print shop. So its definately a spot to look out for some development. When the first round of meetings give me more to put forward I’ll have more to say, obviously.

Another project I’m kind of working on behind the scenes is IMEMS Pty Ltd T/as Paul Anderson and Associates, from Palmwoods QLD, who are environmental advisers to businesses around the country. As well we’re developing for them their Harvest Supplies site which distributes Lallemands products in QLD and sells enzymes and so forth for brewing and wine making. Its a long haul job though and hopefully after a meeting in a month or so with them in Sydney we should have some decent direction and a bit of content to start pulling the designs together into a proper solution.

My friend Mike Marinos approached me with an interesting project too this week, an interactive wildlife site for people to report sightings of endangered species. Sounds cool if it comes off and by all reports the Parks and Wildlife are interested in the concept. Can’t say more as its not my idea and it’d be unfair to Mike in this early stage to paint any clearer picture.

Moreover there’s the recent death of Pig Folio so Muerto for that one. We had to kill it off in-house for its pig-ugliness and accept it was purely experimental and lacked any concept of real design. So Pig Folio is being redesigned into a simple but classy white portfolio and resume I can show clients independently instead of via the hard sell of the commercial website.

On top of that there’s the next evolution brewing of Translucent, but we won’t go into that. I’ve just put RSS on there and would like to create dynamic PNGs and a few other things. Nothing major, don’t worry Lindy I won’t trash your blog while you’re out of town.

So basically things are getting busier at Norty Pig but not busy enough. We’re welcoming new projects so get in contact with us. If its cool and especially if its different we’d love to give it a go. Oh and a sense of humour is a must in this business…

23/2/2005

WordPressing the Easy Way

Filed under: — 5:56 pm

The first time I looked at WordPress I thought ‘how can I change your stylesheets’ and it was an icky pain in the butt. I figure a few people have probably looked at these kinds of integrations and either found them difficult or even given in. Really its a piece of cake if you just do the following:

First develop a page layout with whatever you want it to look like, basically the whole kit and kaboodle.

Second download the index.php file and do some stuff. Cut and paste all of the head section and the confusing bunch of php function calls into your version of index.php. Its cool here to comment them out and make sure your page validates.

Then change the calls in the head to link to your own stylesheets and start uncommenting a few of those functions like search, calendar or the WordPress links. And that’s about it you’re done. Fully functional and your own design.

While its no major drama integrating like this its probably counter-intuitive in one aspect. Probably most people would originally start the other way around trying to mould WordPress to fit them. What can I say? Simple, effective and I’ve got the RSS, search and so forth with minimal effort. And I know what you’re thinking, hey you already know this. Its the others who can use the tip.

22/2/2005

We Don’t Do Budget Designs

Filed under: — 10:25 am

As an emerging small web design firm trying to get established its quite hard coming to terms with the budget market. All I can say is that I neither want Norty Pig to compete at budget rates or for us to produce shoddy undocumented and unsound web solutions. Whether its pride, personal ethics, or simply the ambition to take us to a more viable level of web development its a given that eventually we’ll either be submitting quotes for larger more lucrative work or simply sit in the background doing our own thing as freelancers. The third option is for some larger company to hire us directly and make us rich without the accounting paperwork.

Budget designers on the other hand offer a service that doesn’t give documentation, ignores information architecture, omits persona and user profiles, and so many other essential pieces of the web designer’s arsenal. Of course the budget designer can have you up in a week and you have, to all intensive purposes, the navigation bar and the picture of your main office, but to what effect? I really do think you get what you pay for in this business. Unfortunately the budget market itself is so competitive they tend to push each other into starvation wages which creates a situation where quite a few potential clients expect to be quoted far less.

So I guess what I’m saying is there’s at least two and probably ten different levels of web design depending on the skills of the organisation, their experience and the extent they are willing to go to give you the site you really need. I can’t make sites for $500 but then I really don’t want to so I guess its fine if someone else does. But, of course, if you have a spare $3,000 and (way) up we can start talking about web ’solutions’.

16/2/2005

Norty Pig Version 6

Filed under: — 9:51 am

Well from my reckoning its version six - Norty Pig. Minimalist, slightly interactive, featuring my digital photography in a small random fade in banner, xhtml 1.0 with css, tableless layout as per usual. Keep an eye on the variation of images as I still have to increase the number of images in the array… less boxey perhaps or just a smaller box? Is my left brain slowly waking up?

15/2/2005

Project New

Filed under: — 8:08 pm

Kevin Leitch is offering up a great resource for the new web designer or designers new to the web standards approach in the form of a course called Project New. Issue One is out at the moment so its a good time to have a look if you’re one who’s never taken the big step out of tag soup. I really can’t encourage you enough.

That said I note the comments on several well known standards blogs recently about some of us bloggers not offering original content and simply referring to links - ie other peoople’s original content, so I’m tentatively putting up Project New in the hope I won’t be stoned or summarily castrated by my fellow designers here. By original content I must add that its nearly all been said before and if only one of us can say it once then its time we stopped blogging here and now. I guess its up to you, the blog reader, audience, purveyor of electronic comment. I hope the links I do suggest lead budding and intermediate web designers on a course to better information, simple word of mouth.

12/2/2005

fluxx, Brother Jones and Rammstein

Filed under: — 8:31 pm

On the front end of sites I like on this day is fluxx by BJ Cook, a subscriber to the Web Standards Group mailing list. It shows the direction I’d like to take Norty Pig if only a decent graphic artist with web experience were to happen along. Three ticks to BJ for keeping it cool under the hood too.

Another couple I think are interesting are Brother Jones Artworks and in a totally sick sort of way Rammstein, although for the latter I kind of liked the music which helped.

I’m just sure there’s more out there than single header picture with chunks of plain text…

11/2/2005

When Shite Be Big Brown Shite

Filed under: — 7:22 pm

Often when small businesses are confronted with the idea of whether or not to get a web solution they either don’t see the value in it (’Oh I was thinking under $500′) or they don’t know how to judge the actual value of the product. To many businesses it comes down to asking what will I get for $4,000 that I won’t get for $400? Or similarly, a family friend had been fielding quotes for a site to represent a national company and he emailed me that the quotes ranged from $8,000 to $80,000. Now thats a lot of pressure to be under when you don’t know whats going on under the hood or are not as web sophisticated as say another developer.

So here is what I really don’t like. I don’t like people who use FrontPage 5.0 like its Publisher, who don’t know about web technologies, who can’t be bothered learning about how to maximise the clients potential, who have bugger all time to think about information architecture and documentation, who have not improved or changed what they do or how they do it for the last x number of years, who misrepresent themselves and what they can and can’t provide clients, who don’t want to be better at what they do, and who charge a few hundred dollars for a four page site.

I can see the point for a mini league but I’ve never played in one and figure after about grade 6 I’d outgrown the opportunity. What do I have to offer? The fact I will always be better next year is a fair indication that I’m at least interested in my work.

10/2/2005

Preventing Image Theft

Filed under: — 12:25 pm

I’ve done work for artists in the past and the more astute do ask the age-old question about ‘how do I stop my images being pinched’? The best thing about the web is it lets people look at your images in the privacy of their own home - the bad thing about the web is exactly that! What stops them from using those same images for financial advantage?

Although I would have to attest there aren’t any methods to totally protect yourself from a determined thief, Tim Murtaugh’s article Protecting Your Assets pretty much covers available options. Remember a really determined thief will look in your source code or a number of devious tricks. Like I hear stated often, if you aren’t prepared to lose something then don’t put it on the web. One effective way that should be considered though, as it is already an offshoot of better web design, is the optimisation of images - create JPEGs that don’t save at the best quality but still look good.

I’m sure industrious server side programmers have effective methods as well but its really a compromise. What protects your image but doesn’t mess with user experience or accessibility?

6/2/2005

Links from Russ’ List

Filed under: — 5:20 pm

As a subscriber of the Web Standards Group mailing list the irregular page from Russ has often cost me half a day of reading. Like today for instance. Some of these I just have to pass on so excuse the nortiness of pinching yer links Russ but I honestly can’t help it today and I’m half way down the page.

First a subject close to home at the moment, Interview With a Link Spammer gives a good insight into who drives this end of the spam business.

Second How to Build a Successful Freelance Web Design Business was great. Even if you don’t read it all check out Kevin Airgid’s site. I know what some designers think about Flash but you can’t deny its Wow factor and after all its ‘mostly’ about money and ‘a bit’ about politics. A web designer I know says ‘all web designers are whores’ and we are, honestly, at least most of us, whores for the dollar. To those who can afford to retire I apologise no end and envy you no end.

Having read Kevin’s article I backtracked and read another one on Multidisciplinary Design which was food for thought, too.

Basic SEO Common Sense

Filed under: — 2:58 pm

Search engine optimisation has become a mixed bag of tricks in people’s minds where unscrupulous spammers stand next to more legitimate organisations and it becomes hard for the layman to see where they should put their money. The promises of number one results can even blind their eyes to the possibility they may do more harm than good by going to the wrong SEO company, in fact many tricks can lead to great initial results only to land them on Google’s banned list. Is it worth the risk?

A good primer for basic SEO is 456 Berea Street’s Basics of Search Engine Optimisation which simply explains good content that is well written with good links pointing to it and good page titles will put you in pretty good stead for Google and others to index your site.

Although I’ve never seen any solid proof that good semantic markup directly affects SEO personally it is widely accepted that if it doesn’t affect SEO directly then it definately does no harm. Why risk trying to fool a huge corporation like Google in the short term when they have the money and every reason to catch up with your latest tricks? CSS spamming seems to be a topic on unscrupulous lips today but what about its success tomorrow? And if you’re dishonest in your SEO why would we trust you in other business dealings? The moral of the story is do it right and you should be indexed for the right reasons.

4/2/2005

Phono Phunk and Airbag

Filed under: — 8:35 pm

Just to lighten the mood and if you’ve never been there before you should check out a site that’s really kind of cool. Phono Phunk is the work of a Melbourne guy called John Serris who has a lets just say it ‘uber’ sense of humour. My faves about his site are the menus, cool style switcher setup an idiot like me can play with for hours - um left, right, left, center left, right, left, center right, umm doing it again aren’t I? Sorry. Read the ‘about’ page for a pretty good laugh. Which led me to remember this site, I’d forgotten I used to read it for a while and lost it somehow. A great read, Airbag has a bit of everything. Pink is a stark reminder of the willingness of Iraqi militants to attack the core of American values - ok Barbie! Next it’ll be Genie or bloody Flipper, pulling a look-a-like Mousketeer or an old retired president in front of the cameras. Now why was America in Baghdad again. Oh yeh the oil…

2/2/2005

Finding a Designer

Filed under: — 2:55 pm

Not one to criticise but I read this article on How to hire a web designer and got to the lower part of the page. Pricing and Guarantees. I’m sorry but as a small business I couldn’t possibly offer unrealistic things like: “money back if you are not 100% satisfied” or “match any cheaper quote you find".

My argument: Many clients come in not knowing what they want even regarding color. They may or may not have unrealistic expectations about the technology, medium or bang for your buck. Not to say they are wrong, but the chances of someone coming in, tying my business up for a month or more, and deciding at six months they want to use this clause to get all the money they paid back is kind of silly. Further, there is a developer in the Hobart yellow pages offering a guaranteed $250 cap on any 5 page site for the next 12 months. Should I be forced to match unrealistic quotes from some guy who picked up a weekend course in FrontPage?

While the article itself was rather sound and from a reputable resource the writer may have just lost touch with what a small business is about. I’d like to think my clients are satisfied and I do compete competitively, of course. But would you go to an architect, ask him to design a house of indeterminate height and width and in which you are not sure yet how many bathrooms you’ll need (If Architects Had To Work Like Web Designers), work on the plans for a month and then give them their money back if they decided they really wanted a 12 square suburban brick house with a backyard? Norty Pig finks you’re gone in the merry head if you do …

30/1/2005

Importance of Aesthetics

Filed under: — 10:54 am

For some time now the idea of usability first and then design has been a sore point at the back of my head, even to the point of when designing sites I’ll not do aesthetically pleasing things to enhance the look and feel in fear of overt criticism from peers and strangers alike. Know the feeling? Is aesthetics really second place to usability? I mean should we really be making some of the ugliest sites in the world just because the idea gestapo feel that all elements need to conform to a rigid box? This article on Digital Web Magazine offers a designers perspective. While usability and accessibility have their place its a fact you have about 6 seconds to snag your potential client or they just leave and never return. Personally, if I go to a large text only minimal graphic site with third world ugliness as a keystone I tend to leave really fast. Why? Because apart from any other research I’m still a human and pretty and pleasing make me feel more comfortable and confident about their business.

23/1/2005

WAMP5

Filed under: — 6:39 am

I’ve blogged about this one before but with all of the issues that you go through just for a personal development machine the way to go is WAMP5. Double click and it installs PHP, MySQL, PHPMyAdmin, MySQLiteManager and the Apache Server. No trolling the directories for days trying to figure out what setting needs adjustment, its out of the box and away.

Why mention WAMP? There are others too of course. Its just so many times people are turned off installing a local development server cos its too esoteric. This makes it damn easier for sure.

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