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Weblog of Freelance Designer Steven Clark



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.


CMS - Pushing Squares into Circles

Filed under: — 1:33 pm

I’m no particular fan of CMS solutions or making one size fits all sales pitches to a diverse range of businesses, in fact my few experiences of CMS have generally been that they take a bit of learning, are not very intuitive, don’t provide what I the user expect, blah blah. OK I ‘really’ don’t like CMS but its mostly founded on two peeves. The first is that a CMS should and really can if it wanted be a pleasant experience that doesn’t require me to read 80 pages of counter-intuitive mumbo jargon when I just want to know how to do something basic like add some content. The second is that CMS are very often offered as a one solution fits all bag of tricks. All businesses are different with their own culture, information architecture, and client base. And its a case of having 100 sites up (well way more) that all look like yours. Jeffrey Veen wrote in his aticle Making a Better CMS his similar experiences investigating the CMS path in that they aren’t made to be easy to use at all. Software made by geeks for geeks. Now as I read his words I just thought ‘oh yeh, yeh, oh’. That was an article at Adaptive Path by the way.


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.

Think Before You Sink

Filed under: — 9:58 am

Some general advice to developers, well people everywhere, about being abusive on forums. While I agree in the sanctity of one’s office, bedroom or garden shed it may appear that some high ground or victory has elevated one’s status to demi-god of geeky ‘I know the specs-ness’ those barbs and taunts are being indexed by Google and MSN and kept in other web site archives. Its sound advice to remember this before calling someone an idiot, for instance, or criticising your boss or calling your client any name other than the one they arrived in your office with - because they or the next customer may just Google your name and find out what is out there. For instance, you might apply for a good job oneday or want to create business partnerships.

Good PR and marketing is more than the face you put on for the office.


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…


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.


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’.


RSS 2.0 on Linden’s Blog

Filed under: — 8:10 pm

This article only applies to RSS .9x and RSS 2.0.

The RSS ‘thang’ is a must have on any site nowdays if you have any kind of dynamic content and don’t we all know it. Generally all I’ve done in the past is utilise the WordPress feeds though and never really looked into just ‘how’ simple Really Simple Syndication can be to implement by hand. OK there’s the manual update that takes a couple of minutes but hey this is a geeky blog right?! And its nearly always better to do something by hand at least once to understand what it’s really doing down there (excuse the pun).

On Linden Langdon’s blog, Translucent, this week we decided to implement just such a hand made RSS 2.0 feed and submit it to the feed eating world. Basically although I developed the site Linden is responsible for updating and manually validating the content and RSS feed by herself. While the rest of the world (now including me) hooks into automated blogging software some people like to have a nice home brewed personal blog experience including writing content into the page in straight XHTML and manipulating Cascading Style Sheets. Something I liken to the difference between buying a fibreglass dinghy and hand crafting one from good huon pine. The craft in the craft so to speak.

The best and really best way to start looking at making RSS of the .9x or 2.0 variety is the Harvard Law Blog, which might sound counter-intuitive at first. But try not to be disappointed when you see that all these gains are made with such little effort and skill. Really Simple Syndication is really simple.

Unless you want to chase up the RSS 1.0 spec which is based on RDF - but that’s another story.


Semantics vs Design

Filed under: — 12:57 pm

Its a constant in this business that if you say one thing or another either side of the argument will beat you senseless and take your dignity like its an Unreal Tournament game of Capture the Flag. One of those minefields is to mention the XHTML word in front of the wrong audience who’ll crunch your skull and flay your bacon just for the internal insanity of it all. So with some trepidation I embark on the line of the semantics vs design issue.

For the most part I like the idea of a semantic web and in all sincerity I do try to be as semantic in my approach to marking up pages as possible without becoming just that little bit too anal for my own good. Often in real life you come to a fork - semantics or kick arse design - although they are not always exclusive of course. Sometimes you just want it to work like you saw it in your head regardless of best practise. So what am I on about?

Ahhh of course this cool method of elegantly wrapping a space character in paragraph tags floated to the left and given differing widths. I guess you need to go to What Can I Do and look under the hood in view source. By floating the paragraphs (or divs for that matter) you can quite unsemantically create cool text effects like wrap content in a curve around an image, something particularly handy in some situations. So perhaps I’m a novice, naive or just dumb but for works in the trenches its really a handy little bit of extra markup whichever way you go. Please don’t hunt me down and beat me senseless though…. pleeeassssseeeeee..


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?


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.


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…


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.


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?



Filed under: — 2:30 pm

A particular headache of mine is the amount of neolithic JavaScript that still kicks around the web when modern browsers support the DOM. If you haven’t been out in public for a while thats where you use getElementById to reference instead of document.all and the like. Not only on the web, practically every JavaScript book on the shelves is just plain old fashioned bad coding, too. Reading 2005: The Year of the DOM gives me just enough hope to cross my fingers and hope not to die with document.bloody.all.

The Objectgraph Dictionary toward the end of the article was a pretty useful link, too.


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.


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…


Unobtrusive JavaScript

Filed under: — 2:39 pm

Just as CSS separates ‘how’ something should be displayed separately from ‘what’ should be displayed there is another necessary level of what ‘behaviour’ should be applied. This is where JavaScript comes in and its a major tool in any web designers arsenal, one I need to brush up on over the next few weeks myself as it so happens. Anyway the best place to start is Unobtrusive JavaScript for just such a mission.

Frankly the majority of tutorials at this point in time still seem to be the old document.all (IE5 and below) and document.layers (NN4) variety, rather than the DOM using getElementById, which doesn’t do me that much good. So this next few weeks I’ll be delving back into JavaScripting the right way cos I’m tired of relying on forums to fix the little things.


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 …