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January 27 2014

17:18

Getting The Most Out Of Your Web Conference Experience


  

To be a Web professional is to be a lifelong learner. The ever-changing landscape of our industry requires us to continually update and expand our knowledge so that our skills do not become outdated. One of the ways we can continue learning is by attending professional Web conferences. But with so many seemingly excellent events to choose from, how do you decide which is right for you?

During the course of my career, I have had the good fortune to attend a number of conferences, workshops and professional events. I am often asked by Web professionals who are preparing to attend their first conference how they can select the right one for their needs.

In this article, I will share the methods that I have found helpful in choosing high-quality conferences, as well as some tips to help you get the most out of the events you decide to attend.

What Are You Looking For?

The first step to finding a high-quality conference is to decide what you are looking for. Every conference is different. Some focus more on the technical aspects of our profession, while others offer a diverse set of presentations, some that are inspirational or even business-focused that complement ones about code and other technical topics.

Check out a list of Web design events taking place from January to June 2014.
Check out a list of Web design events taking place from January to June 2014. (Image credit: opensource.com)

Personally, I have always enjoyed conferences that feature a varied set of topics and speakers, but your needs may be different than mine. Furthermore, your needs may change throughout your career. If you have to learn a new technology, perhaps for a project you are working on, then an event focused on that particular topic might be exactly what you need at that point.

Once you have a general sense of what you are looking for in subject matter, the next step is to do some research.

Research The Sessions And Speakers

Start your research by visiting a conference’s website and reading about the sessions. I typically look for topics that I am already knowledgeable about, as well as areas that I know little to nothing about but would like to be introduced to.

In my experience, finding a conference that reinforces and expands skills that you already have while exposing you to aspects of the industry that you are not as familiar with will give you a more well-rounded experience than simply revisiting topics that you already count among your strengths.

If session titles and descriptions have yet to be posted, then you can get a feel for the topics to be covered by looking at the speakers listed for the event. Most speakers specialize in a particular area, such as CSS, usability or content strategy. A recognized expert in content strategy will likely speak about content strategy in some form, so by reviewing their individual website and learning more about their work and expertise, you will generally get a sense of what their session will be about.

This is important for small events, whose available spots are limited. These events often sell out quickly, before the exact nature of the sessions is even announced, so getting a feel for the content by researching the speakers might be the best way to come to a decision before tickets are all gone.

Conference notes
In addition to sessions, many conferences offer optional full- or half-day workshops, which typically focus on particular topics in much more detail than normal sessions. So, if you are looking to learn more about a topic, consider adding a workshop to your plans.

Cost

The sessions are an important factor in choosing the right conference, but they are not all you must consider. Cost is another critical aspect.

The cost of attending a professional conference can be significant. I have seen tickets range anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a one-day event to a few thousand for a week-long conference. Before you look for an event, determine a budget. Whether you are paying or your company is picking up the bill, knowing what you can afford will help to immediately narrow your options.

If your company is paying, you will likely need to explain the event’s value and justify the expense. Resources such as Smashing Magazine’s “8 Reasons Why You Should Send Your Incredibly Hard-Working, Deserving Employee to the Smashing Conference” can help you make your case. Other conferences offer similar resources to provide to the decision-makers in your organization from whom you will be seeking approval.

Timing

Timing is also important. Finding a conference that works with your schedule, including the timelines of your clients, projects and other obligations, is sometimes tricky. I typically try to book a conference well in advance, when my schedule for that period has yet to be filled. I then work my future appointments and project work around it. I find this easier than booking an event late and then squeezing it into what little free time I have left. Booking in advance also allows you to take advantage of early-bird pricing, as well as to avoid being disappointed by sold-out tickets.

Get Away If You Can

The last consideration is location. Ticket prices can be high, and travel expenses (including transportation, accommodation and meals), if the conference is outside of your area, adds significantly to the cost. Still, getting away can really improve the experience.

Traveling makes a conference more of a special occasion. It’s not a vacation, but it is a break from your normal routine. If you commute from home, then you’re more likely to treat the end of the day as the end of any other work day, skipping after-conference gatherings and activities (more on these shortly) which are the most valuable asset of every conference experience. Being away from home helps you to avoid falling into your normal routine and immerses you more fully in the event.

When figuring out your budget, factor in travel costs so that you can consider events away from home. This is not always practical, and you might be restricted to conferences in your city or nearby (if you are lucky enough to live next to a city that hosts professional Web conferences). But if you can find the budget to travel, seize the opportunity!

Prepare To Be Social

Web conferences open you to fresh ideas and approaches, while energizing and exciting you for work. Education and inspiration are not the only benefits, though. Socializing with your colleagues in the industry is an important part of the experience, too. And to truly realize this benefit, you must put yourself out there and be social.

Most events that I have attended over the years included meals for attendees — typically, breakfast and lunch. I always get to the venue early on the first day to grab some breakfast. As I enter the eating room, I look for people to join and introduce myself to. After introductions and some conversation, I’ll know a bit about them and have begun to make connections.

I repeat this process at lunch and every day of the event, finding new people to meet each time. Over the years, I have met some incredibly cool people, and I maintain contact with many of them — typically, through email and Twitter. These relationships have become extremely valuable to me, giving me peers to bounce ideas off, share new work with and turn to for help.

I remember a project from a few years ago in which a tricky bit of CSS was giving me problems. I tweeted the issue, asking for help. Within minutes, two fellow front-end developers whom I had met at separate conferences each replied to me with workable solutions. That is powerful, and it was the result of putting myself out there and being willing to meet new people.

In addition to meals, some conferences hold “jam sessions,” which encourage attendees to interact and present their findings to each other. This is another opportunity to be social, so don’t be shy! Get out there, meet new people, ask questions, share your experiences, and begin forming lasting, worthwhile relationships with others in the industry.

Party Time

Every conference I have been to included some kind of after-party. Absolutely take advantage of these opportunities. Sadly, many attendees decide to skip them.

As mentioned, if you are close to home, you’ll be tempted to blow off the after-parties and get back to your normal routine. Doing so, however, will rob you of another chance to meet interesting people and form worthwhile relationships. While I have certainly met great people at mealtime, upbeat after-parties have an even better atmosphere in which to connect with other professionals.

Some people I have met at parties have become not just professional contacts, but friends. I would not have made those connections had I decided to go back home or to my hotel room.

When going to a conference, be ready to socialize.
When going to a conference, be ready to socialize. (Image credit: Kris Krug)

Adjust your schedule to arrive early enough to enjoy breakfast and late enough to attend the after-parties. Have business cards on hand, and do not be afraid to ask others for their card or contact information.

This doesn’t mean turning the event into a pure networking session, where all you do is gather cards and email addresses. But if you meet someone whom you enjoy speaking with, ask for their card and reach out to them after the event. Remember, socializing and networking are as important as learning and being inspired, so put yourself out there and make some connections!

Leave Work At Work

To get the most out of a conference, focus on the event itself and put work aside for a bit. This can be challenging, especially if you are a freelancer with no one back at the office to cover for you. But focusing on a presentation or conversation is hard when your attention is on the current work project open on your laptop.

For years, I would bring projects with me to conferences to stay on top of the workload. Even if I wasn’t working on a project, I would have my laptop or tablet ready to reply to all emails and would remain constantly available to clients and colleagues. After a while, I realized that I often focused more on my device than on the presenters. That is a problem, and I realized that I needed to make a change.

For the last few conferences I have attended, I have left my computer in my bag during sessions. No working on projects. No checking email. I just focus on the presentation. I instead use breaks between sessions or time after lunch to quickly respond to any critical emails, leaving less important communication for when I return to the office.

Even doing so, I am careful not to cut into the conference’s social time, and I restrict myself to a few minutes to handle issues that simply cannot wait. In fact, very few emails I get fall into this category, so there really is no need to rush to reply at the expense of the conference experience.

Actually some of the best conferences my colleagues have attended are the ones that have no Wi-Fi at all, using it as a feature rather than a shortcoming. This way attendees are encouraged to be more active at the event and engage into conversations happening during the conference days. The only issue is that if you travel from abroad, you can’t follow conversations on Twitter. But quite often you’ll find out that you’ll need a SIM-card with some data anyway (for the party or finding directions), and that’s perfectly enough for minor tasks anyway.

You decided to attend the conference for a reason, and it was not to catch up on work. Break away from that job for a while, as hard as it is. Even if you think you can juggle work and the conference, put away the computer and concentrate on the presenters. You will find, as I did, that you get so much more out of the presentations and conversations between presentations (which are at least as important).

Take Notes

Taking notes seems obvious, but how you take notes makes a big difference. I used to use my tablet, but now that it’s tucked away during presentations, I can no longer use it to take notes. Instead, I’ve gone low tech and started using good old fashioned paper and pen.

Once I began using a notepad, I found that my notes make more sense to me and that I retain much more. The combination of focusing on the session and writing down notes and my thoughts really help the content sink in. I also find myself taking more notes than before (likely because I’m paying closer attention) and getting more out of each presentation as a whole.

The notes will help you absorb the content and regroup once the conference is finished.
The notes will help you absorb the content and regroup once the conference is finished. (Image credit: chungholeung)

Similarly, I have spoken with a number of fellow designers who enjoy “sketchnoting” at events and who report similar results. By taking down notes on paper — in their case, very creatively — they absorb and retain more from the sessions. So, pack a notepad and pen, and prepare to go old school with your note-taking!

Regroup, Reflect And Share

Feeling overwhelmed by work when you return to the office is normal, especially if you have taken my advice and left work at work during the conference. Getting back in the swing of things can quickly push the conference to the back of your mind, so you need a process to bring it to the forefront.

As soon as I get back to the office, before even checking my backlog of email, I download any session materials that conference presenters have made available. I also schedule a few hours, no later than a week after having returned, to sit down with other members of my team to discuss what I took away from the event.

With the slides and my notes on hand, I teach others in my organization what I learned. Explaining the content to others reinforces what I have learned and ensures that it sticks with me long after.

Be sure to schedule some time to review what you have learned. Even if you do not have colleagues to share with, download the session material and review your notes to make sure that the lessons are not soon forgotten. You could also organize or attend a local meeting with other Web professionals in your area to share what you’ve learned. You can use tools like Meetup to find or initiate meetings in your area.

Take A Break

Look at a handful of Web conferences and you will likely see the same presenters at many of them. Some might even give the same presentation at multiple events. This makes sense. Different events have different audiences, so to reach the most people and get the most mileage from their heavy preparation, speakers will often take their presentation on the road to multiple events.

The problem is that if you attend several events in a short span of time, you will begin to see talks repeated or, at least, sessions that are very similar to ones you have attended. I went through a period of attending four or five conferences a year for about three years. Towards the end of that time, I found that the sessions were getting repetitive. I was seeing the same speakers year after year, and their presentations felt like little more than updates to what I had heard the year prior.

I spoke with other attendees at these conferences and noticed how excited they were by the material, as excited as I was when first introduced to it. The problem was that it was not new to me any longer. I was not getting much out of the conferences because there was too little new information to justify the expense, of both time and money. It was time for a break.

Bringing this back to where we began, first determine what you want to learn at an event. If the sessions offer mere updates to content you already know well, then skip the event, even if you have the time and budget.

Also, consider events that are very different from what you normally look for. Instead of a Web conference, look for something totally different, something that will expand your skill set or knowledge. That really is what it’s all about after all.

In Summary

Attending a professional Web conference can be a wonderful experience. To get the most out of it, remember these points:

  • Determine what you want to learn and your budget. This will narrow your options.
  • Research sessions and speakers to get a feel for what will be covered.
  • If you have the budget, consider traveling to get the most out of the event.
  • Prepare to be social and to meet others in your industry. Attend all meetups and after-parties and exchange contact information to form lasting relationships.
  • Concentrate on the presenters, not your computer. Leave work at work, and focus on what you came for.
  • By taking notes with pen and paper, you will absorb and retain more and get more from your notes.
  • Afterwards, schedule time to review what you have learned, and, if possible, share it with others in your organization or area.
  • Take a break from conferences if you find them becoming too repetitive. There is no point in attending a conference that you will get little out of.
  • Have fun. Conferences are a good time! Get ready to be educated and inspired, but also enjoy yourself!

(al, ea, vf, il)


© Jeremy Girard for Smashing Magazine, 2014.

January 24 2014

16:03

Freebie: Roundicons Icon Set (60 Icons, PNG, SVG, EPS, AI)


  

Everyone loves a good, clean and simple icon set. Today, we’re honored to present to you a set of 60 vector round icons which was cleverly designed by the creative trio at Roundicons and released exclusively for Smashing Magazine and its readers. Crafted with great attention to detail, this icon set is extremely easy to use and will most probably be the next ultimate resource for any one of your design projects.

This freebie contains 60 icons that can be used for free without any restrictions and serve various design purposes. You can use the icons in your commercial as well as your personal works. Feel free to modify the size, color or shape of the icons. No attribution is required. However, reselling of bundles or individual pictograms is not allowed.

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Description And Features

  • Designed to convert
    The icons are designed in round and flat style. The circle has been and will always be the most complete and eye attracting shape. Coupled with simple and clear design, the message is (hopefully) conveyed instantly. Each icon is a flat illustration that can either be used in its circular container or as a standalone illustration.
  • Easy to customize
    The icons come in various file formats, which makes them very easy to use: PNG, SVG, EPS and Ai. The PNG files come in five dimensions (48 × 48, 64 × 64 pixels, 128 × 128 pixels, 256 × 256 pixels, 512 × 512 pixels). All icons are Retina Display ready and can be used in your mobile applications as well as in templates and themes.
  • Color Palettes
    The colors have been chosen with care to ensure maximum harmony when multiple icons are used on the same page. You can always change the color of the background circle in any icon to fit your design and product identity or just use the illustration alone and draw the circle with your own codes.

Smashing-no-circle-opt
A couple of examples of icons without the rounded containers.

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Smashing-files-and-sizes-opt
Various file sizes and formats make the round icons very easy to use.

Smashing-free-icon-set-opt
A preview of each icon included in the Roundicons set (click here to see a larger preview).

Download The Icon Set For Free

Insights From One OF The Designers:

Here are some insights from the designer Ramy Wafaa Wadieh himself:

“Everyone’s heard of the phrase “A picture says more than a thousand words”, and while I’m not a fan of clichés, that one’s got a point. Images have got to be the most universal language there is. A single illustration is able to get the message across, regardless of the recipient’s background or language skills. Every designer must be conscious of this fascinating phenomenon in order to create attractive and comprehensive designs. For my part, I’m very keen on using icons in my work.

Every icon is first sketched on paper before it is drawn in detail using Adobe Illustrator and carefully reviewed by the team when completed. We aim to provide all possible formats — from vector source files to raster PNGs in different sizes. Additionally, we’re currently working on creating the Photoshop version of each icon, giving each designer the utmost flexibility to enjoy and the ability to use them, regardless of their skill level.

The idea behind the circle surrounding each illustration is that, in our opinion, it is the most complete shape that draws attention to its center and thus the image contained within. Choosing a well-balanced color palette for the circles (which can be changed or removed entirely) the icons look attractive without distracting from the message they send.”

Thank you, dear Ramy, Suzanne and Natalie, for this fantastic icon set! We sincerely appreciate your time and effort!

(ea, il, vf)


© The Smashing Editorial for Smashing Magazine, 2014.

January 14 2014

09:57

Editing Tips For Business Web Content


  

The Web is awash in content. A recent Moz article reports that 92,000 new articles are posted online every day. Companies are spending billions on content marketing to enhance credibility, build brand awareness and, especially of late, improve SEO.

Here is what Google has to say about content in its quality guidelines:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

Google has always tried to reward great content with high rankings, but today, thanks to vast improvements in its algorithm, Google is better able to actually do it. Its content quality guidelines are perfectly aligned with what every writer and marketer should aspire to.

As A Designer, Why Should You Care About Content Quality?

  • Your brilliant designs will be wasted if they are filled with inferior content.
  • By developing the ability to evaluate content quality, you are able to provide constructive, difference-making input to other members of the creative team, increasing your value as a designer.
  • If you are in a project management role, you must know what needs to be fixed, improved and enhanced in the deliverable’s content.
  • Unless the content meets a high standard of quality, the finished product will undermine rather than enhance credibility, diminish rather than build brand awareness, and damage rather than improve search engine visibility.

Defining “quality content” is difficult. A useful approach is to look at the editing process, because editing is where content theory is translated into cold hard facts. You could argue forever with clients about what constitutes quality content on a theoretical level. But when you break down quality into its specific editorial components, theoretical arguments evaporate.

A sound editing process forces quality into content, no matter how ill-conceived or weakly written the content was in the beginning, assuming it was properly conceived and at least decently written to begin with.


The editing process is more important than most think. (Image credit: opensourceway)

This article examines several aspects of content editing. By reading it, you will learn:

  • how the editing process works for most forms of online business content, including website pages, infographics, landing pages, brochures, white papers and slide presentations;
  • what “big picture” issues and technical editing details to get right before publishing;
  • the different types of editing help you need, and where to find authoritative online resources for DIY editing.

Five Types Of Content Editing

There are various formulas for breaking down editing tasks. For business content, it helps to think about editing as having five specialties.

1. Substantive Editing

Substantive editors are mainly concerned with overall cohesion, clarity, accuracy and effectiveness. They look for incomplete or faulty arguments, unsupported assertions, inconsistencies or gaps in the logical flow of the content, and faithfulness to the assignment’s strategic goals.

2. Copyediting

Copyeditors are mainly concerned with style. Are sentences clear and concise? Is the tone consistent? Are the right words being used? Is the text free of jargon and obscure references? Does the copy adhere to rules of grammar, punctuation and style?

3. Fact-Checking

Fact-checkers are mainly concerned with informational accuracy. They make sure statistics and other quantitative information are stated fully and correctly. Fact-checking is often a research task, but in business writing, it also comes into play at the editing stage — with vitally important impact, as we will see in a moment.

4. SEO

SEO editing ensures that on-page content conforms to SEO best practices and follows the campaign’s on-page guidelines. SEO editing is typically done by a client’s internal or external SEO resource. The more the SEO resource is plugged into the creative process, the less artificial and stilted the optimized content will be.

5. Proofreading

Proofreaders are mainly concerned with technical precision. Different standards apply to different types of content; a list of authoritative editing resources appears at the end of this article.


Editing done here by Johanna Shapiro (View larger version)

If all of these editing tasks are done well, the final product will have the level of quality that readers and search engines desire. In terms of workflow, the editing process follows the order noted above, starting with substantive editing and ending with proofreading. However, as you might imagine, editing is not always linear; documents usually go back and forth between editors and writers as issues are fixed.

Editing Process FAQs

Effective editing is not only a matter of knowing what to do; it also requires an understanding of how to manage workflow and communication. Addressing these FAQs at the outset of your next project will help lay the groundwork for not only a better editing process, but a more enjoyable one.

Do I Need to Hire Five Editors?

No. A talented editor can cover a lot of the work at an acceptable level for most business content. That being said, the substantive editor must be familiar with the product, industry and audience in question, since the effectiveness of the content hinges on understanding the audience’s mindset and needs. The SEO editor must, of course, know SEO inside and out.

How Can I Get Copy Approved More Quickly?

Too much editing can be just as bad as not enough — some firms review and tweak for so long that the content is outdated by the time they approve it. The substantive editor or project manager is the best defence against perfectionism. They are best equipped to recognize when content should be deemed finished and to explain why to clients and team members.

How Much Editing Should the Writer Do?

I would love to hear from the Smashing Magazine community on this one, because it’s a thorny issue. Even writers with a firm grasp of grammar, style and technique submit substandard drafts due to time constraints or lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Competent writers learn as they go, reducing the editorial burden. For example, if a website project requires 60 pages of new content, have the writer start with 10 pages and then give them a careful copyedit and substantive edit. The edits may be numerous at this point, especially if the writer is new to the subject matter. If the next 10 pages come back vastly improved, then you’ll know the writer is catching on.

What If My Client Doesn’t Care About Editing?

Clients might not care about content editing as such, but they certainly care about public image, leads and orders. High-quality content impresses Google, which leads to more search engine visibility, which leads to more traffic and more business. High-quality content also reassures prospects, customers and stakeholders that the company is reliable and competent.

What’s the Best Way to Manage the Editing Process?

One person, generally the project manager or substantive editor, should coordinate all editorial functions and communication and make final decisions. Creative teams have many editing tools at their disposal, but using good old Track Changes and Comments in Word documents is perhaps the easiest way to start. A big challenge is preventing multiple versions of an in-process document from floating around; implement a clear procedure to avoid this. In my experience, the competence of the manager, rather than the tools, will determine the efficiency of the process.

Common Editing Issues

Let’s look at a few specific real-world issues that crop up in business Web copy for each type of editing. These particulars will give you an idea of what to look for if you are doing the editing or looking for an editor or managing the project.

Substantive Editing Issues

  • Here is an instructive, real-life example of how substantive editing produces clarity. In a recent article about writing for slide presentations, I wrote, “Slide presentations are great for a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative approach.” My editor commented, “What does that mean?” I pondered the issue and realized that I didn’t really know what I meant! After further reflection, I changed it to, “Slide presentations are ideal for storytelling.” Moral of the story: Substantive editors don’t always need to make sweeping changes. Often, just knowing what to look for helps to get it right.
  • Keeping content on point prevents content creep. Substantive editors remind clients that a landing page need not be a thousand words long to prompt a conversion, nor a website a thousand pages deep to convey the firm’s value proposition.
  • Substantive editors police all content to maintain consistency of brand messaging.
  • The company’s branding and positioning strategy, the value proposition of the product and service being marketed and the nature of the target audience will determine the content’s style and tone. The substantive editor must be crystal clear on all of them.
  • Building on the last point, a substantive editor — if time, budget and skill allow — injects personality into flat business content by adding storytelling narratives and stylistic flair that speak powerfully to the target audience.


When it comes to substantive editing, Duluth Trading Company’s website does this extraordinarily well.

Copyediting Issues

  • Headlines and headings should be descriptive and, in many cases, persuasive. Additionally, proper keyword placement in headlines and headings is important for SEO, so copyeditors and SEO editors must collaborate closely to balance these requirements.
  • Active voice usually beats passive voice: “John saved $100” has more impact than “$100 was saved by John.” There are cases where the passive voice is preferred; a competent copyeditor makes the proper adjustments.
  • Pronoun sensitivity leads writers to employ tortuous sentence construction to avoid “he” or “she” usage. Also, writers often shift from “it” to “they” when referring to a company. The copyeditor keeps pronoun use smooth and consistent.
  • The wrong word or phrase can do worse than make a company look stupid; it can convey a message contrary to the one intended. My list of commonly confused business words and phrases is a handy reference.
  • Overuse of exclamation points and all-caps conveys HYSTERIA!!!!
  • Copyeditors convert long unformatted paragraphs into Web-optimized formats that employ bullet points, three- to five-line paragraphs, judicious use of bold text, etc. This is an area where designers provide valuable input.

Fact-Checking Issues

  • Sadly, the Web is a stewpot of misinformation, cooked up by marketers who feel pressured to publish. For example, a reader might come across a flashy infographic stating, “70% of Executives Use Tablets!” but, after checking the source, discovers that this “fact” is based on a survey of 25 anonymous respondents conducted by an obscure agency. Fact-checkers protect you and your client from losing credibility as a result of shaky statistics.
  • Fact-checkers make sure that basic corporate information is correct. The company’s name, job titles and the spelling of employees’ names should always be accurate — yet often are not.
  • Fact-checkers review product specifications to make sure they are up to date. The value of this thankless task is appreciated only after, say, a customer orders a $1.5 million printing press that turns out to be 10 feet too long for its production line when it arrives at the plant.

SEO Issues

  • Overusing keyword phrases on a page of content is counterproductive.
  • Varying keyword phrases generally helps search engine visibility and makes content more readable and less “spammy” for humans.
  • An SEO editor might opt to add links to the client’s other relevant content on a given page of Web content or a blog post. If done correctly, these related links build the authority of the client’s website.

Proofreading Issues

  • One space after a period is standard.
  • Capitalization in headlines and headings should consistently follow a predetermined style.
  • Font size and style should be consistent for text and headers from page to page.

In Conclusion, How Much Editing Is Enough?

Practical considerations such as deadlines and bandwidth, along with a clear understanding of the audience, will influence how thoroughly a piece of online content should be edited.

Proofreading

Generally speaking, readers do not hold blog posts to the same stylistic standard as, say, white papers. However, a blog post directed at an audience of scholars, physicians or attorneys will be held to a higher standard.

Fact-Checking

Visual content such as infographics and slide presentations, perhaps because of their formality, seem to carry more weight with readers than blog posts and website pages. For this reason, producers of visual content have a greater obligation to be sure of their facts, all else being equal. Firms undermine their credibility when they publish graphical material loaded with unsupported or misleading facts, whether intentionally or not.

SEO

If a firm has an organized SEO marketing program, then on-page SEO is crucial. If not, on-page optimization alone would probably not be enough to have any substantive impact on search visibility.

Copyediting and Substantive Editing

As for these, there is never any advantage to publishing vague, incoherent and uninspiring material. Some level of review is really a must. If resources are limited, and often they are, use this editing tactic: When in doubt, leave it out.

Resources

  • AP Stylebook
    The AP (Associated Press) style is the standard for newspapers and journalists and is commonly used for marketing and PR content. An online subscription gives you instance access to authoritative information on editorial issues relating to general business content.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
    The CMS, published by The University of Chicago, is widely used in the humanities for formatting and citation, and it contains a wealth of information, analysis and insight on issues of grammar and usage. Whereas AP primarily tells you what to do, the CMS also explains why.
  • MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
    This style guide of the MLA (Modern Language Association) is widely used for academic writing.
  • Purdue OWL
    The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is a convenient online resource for grabbing up-to-date answers to CMS- and MLA-related questions.
  • New Oxford Style Manual
    This book contains detailed information on UK style. Oxford Dictionaries has helpful tables on British and American spelling and terms for online reference.
  • AMA Manual of Style
    The AMA (American Medical Association) guide is widely used for medical and scientific publishing.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
    This manual is widely used for academic and professional writing in the social and behavioral sciences.

(al, il, ea)


© Brad Shorr for Smashing Magazine, 2014.

December 18 2013

14:59

A Little Journey Through (Small And Big) E-Commerce Websites


  

People don’t spend their money online easily. Think about it: If you had to answer a long list of questions or struggle to navigate a website, how much money would you be willing to part with? Online shopping is about convenience and comfort, and those of us who have at least once ventured into the realm of online shopping know how time-consuming and unpleasant it can be.

The online stores that stand out from the rest are those that go the extra mile for their users. We’ll look here at some small and big e-commerce websites that create pleasant online shopping experiences. We’ll consider the experience from the very start to the very end, right through to the checkout process.

Interesting E-Commerce Websites

Bonobos
Bonobos’ shopping experience is smooth. Good typography and subtle colors help focus on the products and features, with all distractions fading away as you interact with the site. When a new item is added to the cart, it appears in a sliding sidebar on the right, prompting customers to either keep shopping or check out. The design of the checkout form is elegant and clean. The amount of data required is never overwhelming since it’s clearly separated in manageable chunks. And the most important bit: the favicon is a bananas icon! Now that is pretty cool.

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Martina Sperl
Martina Sperl’s website is a lovely website. The shop features polished photography of her products, with a simple navigation panel fixed on the right side of the page. The hover effect is simple yet bold, showing the item number and price boldly in a large sans-serif typeface. You can, of course, click an image to view details about the product and get a 3-D view of the furniture (just a series of images). Buying a piece of furniture requires you to order by email. Again, bold full-width product images are used on product pages, and you can click on the “heart” icon to express your love for a product. Powered by WordPress.

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Evyi
Putting the shopping cart on the left, with the navigation, is a great idea. Because the eye starts from the top left of the page, the shopping cart takes precedence, making it more natural for users to keep track of the items in their cart and the running total.

Evyi

Banana Cafe
Banana Cafe is crazy. The 3-D hover effects of the site are consistent across the entire shopping experience. The blocks rotate in different directions, creating interesting movement throughout the website. It isn’t your ordinary online shop, but rather a collection of suggestions for your closet. The hover effects reveal a reference number that you would use in the contact form at the bottom of the page. Well, the audio and video in the background aren’t really necessary, but they do complement the unique experience on the site quite well.

Banana Cafe

MadeForFun
Well, this online shop could be made for fun, but fun was probably not the only reason to set it up. The experience on the site is, however, quite snappy indeed. You can quickly customize each product with features displayed using an accordion pattern. The shopping cart preview is visual, almost infographic-alike, rather than filled with quick-paced text. In fact, the shop even has rainbow-alike horizontal lines which still fit quite well into the design.

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Indigo
Indigo’s shopping experience isn’t particularly extraordinary, but it’s a great example of how shops with a relatively large inventory can have a quite nice user experience. The number of navigation options on Indigo is quite overwhelming, especially the navigation in the sidebar looks a bit too complex, yet what’s interesting is the bar at the bottom of each product page. As you add an item to cart, the item is visually added to the shopping cart in the bar. Quite interesting is the fact that Indigo provides a discount for customers who are willing to invest some time into creating an account on the page. Clever.

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Walmart
Walmart’s recent responsive redesign must have been quite an undertaking. The main navigation has been hidden behind the “Shop All Departments” button that triggers the off-canvas navigation on the side. The items are well-organized, the interface elements and the typography provide a clutter-free overview. The reviews of each item can be rated as being helpful or not quite helpful. As an item is added to the cart, a lightbox appears prompting customers to proceed to the check out or continue shopping. The checkout is well-designed across resolutions, and you see only what is actually helpful for finishing the checkout. Good information architecture, good layout, good redesign.

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Appliances Online
Although the overview of items per category is quite overwhelming on ao.com, the shopping and checkout experience is very pleasant indeed. On product pages, customers can compare the feature of recently viewed items next to each other in a table while many products have an embedded video review. The checkout provides a variety of options but it’s easy to follow the steps to end up with just what you need when you need it.

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Moomin
Sometimes you really don’t need to reinvent the shopping experience: it’s perfectly enough to provide a consistent visual style that guides the customers through the checkout. The typography, the shopping back icon, the way price tags are presented and the checkout itself fit well within the branding of the Moomin brand. Since there aren’t many products in the shop, each items is prominently highlighted; the breadcrumbs help the customer see where they are on the page at any given moment. Nice personal design that conveys an intimate atmosphere.

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GoMacro
If you are looking for a… different online shopping experience, GoMacro is an option worth checking out. Instead of having a simple grid overview of items, all items are grouped into colored item circles. The experience of adding items to the cart is very unique as you literally place bars into a cart. The checkout is also well-designed and quite simple to follow through although main navigation (“Back” and “Next Step”) are somehow hidden beyond the actual checkout lightbox. A unique design can work well as well, and GoMacro shows how it can be done.

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Lost My Name
Alright, this isn’t really an online shop, but the checkout design is quite lovely. The design applies a soft touch of the visual design of the brand to the Web forms creating a pleasant overall experience. Probably the best adjective to describe the design is “friendly”. So is the experience of the checkout.

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Indochino
Indochino’s shopping experience is the king of customization. Basically you can customize everything. However, this requires quite some interaction from customers’ side. Product images are prominently highlighted as background images. In suits, everything from jacket lapels to vents, buttons, pockets, lining and pleats can be customized. Before you check out, you are asked to provide detailed measurement data which takes just 18 steps. Well, if you’d like to provide many customized options in your shop, Indochino is a great example to learn from. The responsive design doesn’t quite work in some scenarios though, especially when it comes to pages with lots of available options.

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Ableton
Ableton’s website is just another example of how a vivid color scheme doesn’t necessarily interfere with a good shopping experience. The site uses many colors, yet they fit well together, creating a comfortable atmosphere on the page. Good typography, appropriate colors, with everything position just right. It was probably a nice idea not to use the “navicon” icon for navigation in the header of the page.

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Swissted
The design of this website is so exquisitely Swiss! The functional five-column grid displays the posters for sale, with no superfluous extras. You can also view enlarged versions of the prints and click through them like a slideshow. The Web form is short, simple and straight to the point, only a two-step process, with all distractions removed. It really doesn’t have to be more difficult than this. The shop is powered by Shopify.

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Cocones
This shop has a quite remarkable user interaction. The snazzy hover effect swivels the iPad sleeve around for you to see what it looks like from the back. The large full-width photographs on product pages are a pretty nice idea to show the products “in action”. Another welcome feature is the little button in the header that tells you if an item has been added to your cart. The Web form for the billing details is short and simple, completing the pleasant shopping experience. The only drawback is the country selector that could be replaced with something a bit more elegant.

Cocones

Benj & Soto
Ben & Soto is a strictly functional website with a clean design. It has a quite unique interaction; you can decorate your own cube and then view all six sides by, well, actually rotating it. I really like the annotated elements, which add a kind of work-in-progress feel to it. Understandably, you have to create an account or sign in with Twitter or Facebook to create and save a design. A nice way of visualizing a product.

Benj & Soto

Motorola
Motorola’s responsive online shop is beautifully designed, displaying large photographs of products that dominate the screen. The flat design creates the impression that the products are a hassle-free experience. Motorola encourages its users to design their own look, and the website has a lovely UX, with large clear buttons. In a narrow view, filter and search are implemented using a fixed filter/search menu — it might be a good idea to consider using the “view mode” overlay instead.

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Ditto
One thing about online shopping is that you can’t try it on until you get it in the mail. Until now, that is! Ditto’s virtual try-on feature takes user interaction to a new level, as you can see what a set of eyeglass frames will look like on your face from the computer screen. The shipping information is fairly quick and easy to fill out, and the whole process is only two steps long. And the nice interaction on the front page with “opening” books is quite remarkable.

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Tsovet
Sophistication and elegance are words that come to mind when visiting this page. Tsovet has an interesting design, accompanied by beautiful black and white photography that sets the tone for the brand. The checkout process is relatively painless: All you need to do is fill out a straightforward single-page checkout form. The images scroll over one another, adding another interesting effect. It’s great to see how product pages manage to contain so much detail using a simple accordion pattern.

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Canopy (currently down?)
Canopy is all the best stuff on Amazon, curated by those who know you best. You can see products recommended by your friends or make your own recommendations. Each link takes you straight to the Amazon store, where you can follow the familiar process. I like the minimalistic design of the website, and the layout has an open feel to it. The prices are clearly visible on each product, helping you to browse the website with ease. A very uncommon shopping interface that is used reasonably and properly on the site.

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Orlando
Orlando’s page has quite interesting transitions. As you click through the different categories, the preceding image fades away leaving enough space for the new image and the product details. However, you can’t actually purchase goods from the website itself; rather, you have to order by email which is quite surprising. The navigation is provided on the left side as an overlay. Also quite unusual for an online shop.

Orlando

Minimals
Minimals has a beautifully soft, minimal aesthetic. The website, which sells invitations for baby showers, is cute and friendly. It’s amazing how simple rounded corners within blocks can put you at ease. The hover effect is a bit inconvenient — the name and price fade away when you take the mouse away. In the cart, customers can select the country to which the item should be shipped and update the total price right away. A shop without bells and whistles, but with a unique, personal design. Powered by Bigcartel.

Minimals

Noodoll
Now that’s something a little different! Noodoll has a fun scrapbook feeling; cute page-loading animation are lovely as they create a bit of intrigue with the cut-out characters in the top-right corner. In fact, little animations are sprinkled all around the website, creating a playful and engaging experience. As you add more items to the cart, they appear in the left sidebar rather than in the upper right corner which is a bit unusual. Powered by Shopify.

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Le Col De Claudine
Le Col De Claudine’s website has an elegant design that showcases the fashion brand. Visitors are greeted with beautiful, soft photographs that act as a large header. The checkout is a five-step process, with no guest checkout option. There are not tricks or effects to detract from the subject matter. And the hover effect over the fashion pieces is bold without being too loud, although it doesn’t work on mobile phones of course. Interesting to see prices not being displayed by default, but only on hover.

Twelve South

Mujjo
The focus of the website is, well, the gloves. The ultra-minimal design is the perfect backdrop for them, and since the target market is smartphone users, all product images have an image of the touchscreen gloves with an actual device rather than the gloves alone. The search tool is hidden in the top-right corner which is not necessarily very convenient. On product pages, the product image can be zoomed in, but displayed on the right, next to the main image which is a bit unusual. The footer has quite some text which is not necessary and could be reduced, but the overall aesthetics is very pleasant.

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Greats
The responsive Greats’ online store is very well designed, with a lot of polish and attention to products. The online-only men’s footwear brand uses consistent typography and photography to present their products well. All items appear to be floating in the air, being shot from the same angle. The features of each shoe are thoroughly described and presented. Once items are added to the cart, you can preview the cart in a nice overlay. The checkout design is perhaps a bit too oversimplified, but it works well within the branding of the site. An online shop with products well-presented and the layout well-designed.

Greats Brand

Big Cartel
The photography on Big Cartel is strong and bold, with rich, earthy colors that grab the user’s attention. There are also no lengthy descriptions, but rather concise bits of explanation. This website has no guest checkout option (which is quite uncommon), but the entire purchasing process is only four steps long and all on one page, which keeps the process from feeling tedious and relieves the user from having to constantly click to the next step. The Web forms are also easy to use and beautifully designed. A nice example of a shopping experience that focuses on one major product item per page, and nothing else.

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Obey Clothing
Obey provides a smooth shopping experience, using consistent typography. Product pages provide fit and styling guides as well as a number of view for every item. The checkout link reveals a quick preview — an overlay with item,s, prices and the ability to remove or edit items from the shopping bag which is quite comfortable. The checkout is quite ordinary, yet what is missing is a progress bar that communicate in which part of the checkout process the user currently is. A nice touch is the red plus sign that means “add to shopping cart,” which is accompanied by the “Added one item to your basket” header that appears. In this case, the straightforward, no-nonsense design reinforces the brand’s image well.

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Früute
Früute’s website has a design that is consistent all the way through to the Web forms. The contrast could be improved a bit, but the flat aesthetic creates a soft yet down-to-earth feel that matches the brand. It’s interesting to see a mix of a common grid and large, prominent product images throughout the site. There is no guest checkout option, but you can log in using your Facebook account. It’s also quite unusual to see the “philosophy” section in an online shop which explain the passion of the company and the rationale behind its products. As an item is added to the cart, it appears as the lightbox in the right upper corner.

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Sew Sew
The simple grid layout and smooth transitions, along with the prices clearly displayed under each item, make for a user-friendly website. The shop is run by Claire Walls who designs everything on her own, and her personality shines through the website quite vividly. From the subtle color scheme to product photos to product descriptions, everything speaks one consistent voice. For independent online shops that’s probably the most significant quality to look after.

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Fiorly
The whimsical look of Fiorly is established by all of the different elements on the page: the typeface, the filter on the photographs, the color scheme and the expansive use of space. What makes this shop unique is that each product item has a dedicated story attached to it. On the product pages, you’ll find quick essays and videos about real people sharing their stories connected to the items (in that case, jewellery). A nice example of how storytelling can be embedded into the online shopping experience.

Fiorly

Conclusion

There you have it, some of the interesting online stores out there. Spending hard-earned cash is tough, so of course as a designer of an online shop, you want your users to feel as comfortable as possible. Whether you’re selling your own design services or a pair of designer jeans, it’s about a nice overall shopping experience and a quick checkout. Now if that’s not a reason to remove a couple of unnecessary checkboxes, add better typography and remove the unnecessary in the checkout, what is?

What interesting design/UX techniques for better shopping experience have you found recently? Or how have you optimized the checkout process of an online shop recently? Let us know in the comments!

We kindly thank everybody who submitted their links via Twitter and Facebook over the last couple of days. You are smashing, you know that, right?

(al, ea, vf)


© Shavaughn Haack for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

December 10 2013

16:23

Freebie: Exo 2.0, A Contemporary Geometric Sans Serif Font


  

Back in the days when he was a student, Portuguese graphic and type designer Natanael Gama started to play with glyphs — as a way to discover typography. Doodling around, he created Exo, a font which he released for free in a Kickstarter project. The project turned out to be quite successful. Exo became so popular that Natanael did a complete redesign.

It was two years ago. Today, Natanael is no longer a student and Exo has evolved into what we are happy to present to you today: Exo 2.0, an elegant, contemporary geometric sans serif typeface.

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For Exo 2.0, every single glyph has been redesigned from scratch to achieve maximum legibility without compromising on the aesthetics.

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Exo 2.0 has a more organic look and increased contrast, so it performs much better at small font sizes and on long passages of text. The fatigue of the reader is reduced by increasing the white space around the glyphs. Exo 2.0 has been released under the SIL Open Font License 1.1.

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Exo 2.0 now has a bigger language coverage specially due to the integration of cyrillic characters in all the glyphs on all of the 9 weights both in upright and italic. All glyphs were hinted. Hinting adjusts the design of the glyphs to the pixel grid, creating a better flow of text specially on small font sizes.

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Exo 2.0 is a very versatile font. It has 9 weights (the maximum on the web) and each with a true italic version.

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Download The Freebie

Behind The Design

Here are some insights from Natanael himself:

Along with the redesign of the glyphs, I also redesigned the space around the glyphs. Typography is designing the form as much as designing the counter form. Spacing and kerning was a problematic issue in the older Exo, but now it looks beautiful (however, don’t buy it from me, test it for yourself).

This new design is very versatile and I hope to see it used in very different contexts, as the first version has been used. Exo 2.0 has a very contemporary look, so if you want your design to look fresh and stand out, I encourage you to use it.

Even though this font was primarily designed with screens in mind, I also thought about print, so don’t be admired if you see subtle ink traps and find some ligatures for you to have some fun.

(ea)


© The Smashing Editorial for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

October 18 2013

09:19

Lessons Learned From Leading New Web Professionals


  

Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to lead various Web design and development teams, including a number of professionals fresh out of school. Along the way, I’ve made my share of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons.

Some new team members have jumped right in and begun contributing in a meaningful way almost immediately, and others have struggled to adjust to their new role because I failed as a leader and didn’t give them the tools they needed to succeed. One thing I’ve definitely learned is that the success of a new team member is determined not only by their own abilities and drive, but by the leadership on the team they are joining.

Recently, I was preparing to welcome a young new designer to our company. This position would be his first real experience working in our industry; so, prior to his start date, I decided to make a list of some of those lessons I’ve learned over the years as a way to remind myself of what I needed to do to make sure he had the resources needed to succeed here. As I wrote my list, I realized that many of these lessons were actually common sense — and yet, if my past experiences are any indication, these common-sense lessons are exactly the ones that are easy to neglect and that we often need to be reminded of.

Make Them Feel Welcome.

Joining a company can be an intimidating experience, especially if the company has a close-knit culture or the team has been together for some time — two factors that contribute to new employees feeling like outsiders. As a leader, you can make your new team member feel welcome by showing them, both in actions and in words, that they are absolutely now a member of the team.

If your website lists biographies and pictures of employees, make it a point to add the new team member’s information quickly. Even in organizations that have a “probationary period” to evaluate new hires, those employees should still be added to the website sooner than later. Having a presence on the website, alongside their colleagues, demonstrates to those new team members that they are a part of the group.


Adding a biography, as FreshTilledSoil does, shows a new employee that they are part of the group.

You can also use social media to welcome new employees to the organization. Welcoming them on Twitter (or in whatever social media you use) shows the new member that you are excited to have them on board. Your Twitter followers will sometimes chime in as well, echoing your welcome and adding to the warmth and positivity.

Finally, you can make new employees feel welcome by involving them in events and activities with other members of the company. This doesn’t have to be elaborate — a simple lunch is a great way to get out of the office for a bit and to interact as more than coworkers. By including new hires in the lunch party, you give them a chance to socialize with others and to feel like more than the “new person.”

Make Time For Regular Meetings.

This lesson is certainly “common sense,” but also one that I, admittedly, find myself failing to follow most frequently.

It is easy to get caught up in projects and other responsibilities and overlook that new employees, especially those new to the industry, need a lot of guidance early on. I try to meet daily with new team members for at least their first few weeks at the company. These meetings do not need to be lengthy — in fact, most are 10 minutes or less — but they provide an outlet for the employee to ask questions without feeling like they are interrupting an activity. Because these meetings are scheduled in advance, the person knows that time has been allotted to their questions; this is important because, even if you have an open-door policy and encourage new team members to come to you with questions, they will be reluctant to “bother” you. You can alleviate this concern with regular meetings.

Without fail, whenever my schedule gets crazy and I start skipping these regular meetings, I notice that the stress level of my team rises accordingly. These meetings not only give new employees an outlet to ask questions, but give me an opportunity to let them know what is expected of them and how they are doing. This open dialogue is essential as the person adjusts to their role in the company.

Of all the lessons on this list, this one is undoubtedly the easiest to let slip — but also the one with the worst consequences if allowed to go too far.

Meetings are essentials for new employees who will need lots of guidance early on. Image courtesy of flickr/dennis crowley
Meetings are essential for new employees, who will need a lot of guidance early on. (Image: Dennis Crowley)

Assure Them That Failure Is An Option.

No one wants to fail at a task, least of all a new employee who is trying to make a good impression. But, as Seth Godin so perfectly stated in a recent interview with Kara Miller on NPR’s Innovation Hub:

“If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”

New employees need to know that making mistakes is OK. If failure is not an option, then you will become crippled from trying to get everything right the first time. Anyone who has worked on the Web knows that trial and error is essential to the job. New employees need to be assured that failure will not be held against them.

Of course, a balance must be struck here. While failure is acceptable, it must yield a better understanding of the problem and an eventual solution. Failure is a means to finding a solution. So, while new team members should know that failure is an option, they should also know to use each failure to propel themselves to an eventual success.

Mistakes are a part of the job - as long as you learn from those mistakes. Image courtesy of flickr/ktpupp
Mistakes are a part of the job – as long as you learn from those mistakes. (Image: ktpupp)

Encourage Them To Contribute.

I once had a manager who felt that if you attended a meeting, you had to contribute to the meeting. He would often call randomly on attendees who had yet to contribute to a meeting and ask, “What do you think of this?” as a way to involve them in the conversation.

While I understood his reasoning, his execution left a lot to be desired. Too often, individuals would be called upon and would struggle to come up with an answer to a question that they really weren’t prepared to speak about. It put people on edge as they waited their turn. Sometimes, attendees would even rush to contribute early in a meeting so that they wouldn’t be called out later. This rush to participate usually added a lot of extra words but very little value to the conversation.

Instead of putting new employees in the hot seat, I try to find other ways to make them comfortable with speaking in front of our group. One way, when conducting design reviews, is to ask a new designer to present their work to the team, alerting them well before the meeting so that they can prepare a short presentation. Furthermore, because everyone is commenting on each other’s designs and offering constructive feedback, new employees feel comfortable speaking up and offering their own comments. This is an excellent way to help them speak more frequently in front of other team members and clients and to engage in other types of meetings.

Keep Them Busy.

You’ve probably hired the new person because your company is busy and there is work to be done. That’s great, because keeping new team members busy is critical.

Long-time employees will undoubtedly have built relationships with certain clients over time. Many of those clients will prefer to communicate with these employees than with a manager or salesperson. This is perfectly fine, as long as your company has a system in place to properly estimate, carry out and invoice this work. These client relationships can keep employees busy with new work.

Additionally, some long-time employees work on internal projects, as time permits. When they hit a lull between projects or wait for feedback from clients, they fall back on these projects to keep busy.

New employees have neither of these sources of work. Instead, they look to you to assign them tasks and keep them busy — and they will likely complete those tasks as quickly as possible to make a good impression. This is great, but also a challenge for you as the team’s leader. If you do not have a bank of work to keep the new team member busy, they will drift and grow bored, unsure of what to do with their time. Aside from your short daily meetings with them, digging up meaningful work for them will require a time commitment from you.

Before bringing a designer on board, review what projects you would expect them to work on for their first 30 to 60 days — both client projects and internal initiatives. Identify accounts into which you can integrate them so that they can begin building their own relationships, and let them know what the process is if they run short on work and you are not around to assign something else. This could be assisting other team members, furthering their training and education, or experimenting with new technologies or techniques for evaluation.

Prepare To Educate.

Part of your job as a manager is to continue a new employee’s education and fill in gaps in their knowledge. While this certainly involves mentoring and directing them to relevant resources, one of my favorite ways is to take them to a Web conference.

Many students graduate from school not having had the chance to attend a professional conference. Industry events such as the Smashing Conference and An Event Apart offer new Web designers and developers a chance to meet and learn from their peers in an energizing environment. Taking a new team member to a good conference opens their eyes to just how awesome and welcoming this industry can be. It also shows them that the company has invested in their success and is willing to spend money to help them grow in their knowledge and their career.

Every time I have taken a new employee to a Web conference, the experience has been fantastic. Such events show the team member that they are a part of something much bigger than our company — they now belong to the Web community as a whole.

Inspire new employees by taking them to a quality conference. Image courtesy of flickr/Kris Krug
Inspire new employees by taking them to a quality conference. (Image: Kris Krug)

Great Employees Need Great Leaders.

Being a leader is an awesome responsibility, especially if you are leading people who are just entering our industry. Whether you follow the lessons covered here or have more profound ways of leading new team members, the challenge you face is that, to have a great team, you must be a great leader. You must take a consistent approach to welcoming new employees to your organization, helping them to build on their strengths and acquire new ones and supporting them in their career growth.

If you do your job right, then one day, the new hire you are leading will pick up the torch and lead the next generation of designers and developers.

For more thoughts on leadership techniques in a creative agency, see “On Creative Leadership” and “Assuming Leadership in Your Design Agency.”

Summary: Do’s And Don’ts

  • Do make new team members feel welcome and part of the team by including them in company activities — both in and outside the office.
  • Do schedule regular meetings to allow new team members to ask questions and get feedback on their performance.
  • Do not allow your busy schedule to constantly override those regularly scheduled meetings, leaving the new employee with no way to get the guidance they need early on.
  • Do assure new employee that failure is a part of the job — so long as it propels them to the solution.
  • Do not put new team members on the spot by calling on them unannounced in meetings.
  • Do encourage participation by giving employees time to prepare before presenting to the group.
  • Do keep new employees busy with meaningful work.
  • Do not assume that new employees will know how to fill their time if they run out of assigned work.
  • Do educate and inspire new team members by introducing them to the Web community a whole, including at conferences and other industry events.
  • Do recognize that the team members you lead today will become our industry’s leaders tomorrow.

(Front page credits: David Joyce)

(al, il, ea)


© Jeremy Girard for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

October 15 2013

12:28

Type Makes A Difference: An Exploration Of Type-Focused Websites


  

In this article, we’ll take you on a thought-provoking journey through a couple of carefully selected Web designs. Certainly, these websites have some captivating interactivity; however, the selection of type and the typographic styling and spacing are the reasons why we chose them for this piece. In the context of typography, considering composition and grid structure is also important.

Why Grid Structure And Composition Are Crucial To Typography

Composition and grid structure are vital factors in effective communication with type. In Thinking with Type, Ellen Lupton comprehensively explains the benefits of working with a grid. She addresses the flexibility of grids, what grids offer in integrating type and image, and how they can organize a complex hierarchy.

There is an inextricable link between typeface, type size and measure (i.e. line length). While a design’s appearance can vary from screen to screen, good designers are experts at creating enticing, digestable amounts of information, carefully composed to hold our interest. However, losing the connection with the audience is all too easy. For example, text set small on long lines can make for daunting reading, and text set large on short lines is equally problematic, though for different reasons.

In the latter case, the line breaks could overwhelm the punctuation, demanding the reader to refocus their attention every few words. In both situations, the extra long or extra short lines could lose the reader’s interest all on their own.

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These two examples demonstrate well the challenges of fitting relatively small text into either a very wide or very narrow measure. Neither is easy to read and both are unappealing. (Design by Bright Pink) (Larger views: Image 1, Image 2)

Sections with different levels of importance require different levels of prominence to guide the user through the website and hold their attention. A consistent measure in sections of relatively equal importance is a helpful and reassuring guide. Inconsistency is confusing.

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When text of the same priority extends across multiple columns, a sudden change in measure for no apparent reason would be confusing. (Design by Bright Pink) (Larger view)

Grid Structure

In this section, the websites we’ve highlighted show how a grid can affect typography, creating appeal, accessibility and structure and supporting the hierarchy.

SilkTricky

The grid structure of SilkTricky has six columns to break down information into enticing segments. The consistent typographic system for headings contrasts the lighter tones of Bookman Light Italic (for category descriptions) with the very different visual rhythm of Futura Condensed Bold.

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These typefaces complement each other well, creating a dramatic change in scale, case, texture and weight. The contrast tempts you to look further, drawing you to each segment’s few lines of descriptive sans-serif text.

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At the click of a button, the copy smoothly expands to a few paragraphs and across two columns, just enough to get you hooked while still adhering to the grid. This longer descriptive copy creates another level of typographic texture and tone that contrasts effectively with the headings, providing a welcome change of pace and visual rhythm.

Percussion Lab

Percussion Lab also makes effective use of the grid, flexibly using four columns to feature a detailed mix of sets from contributing artists. Each featured item fits into the column structure and overall hierarchy, including details on the date, artist, set name and genre. The highlights expand to fill two columns and feature a track listing and helpful details.

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The fonts, a blend of serif and sans serif, feature changes in weight, case, orientation and spacing to reinforce the hierarchy. Typographic detail and the grid structure also establish and maintain interest and trust.

The New Art Gallery Walsall

The website for The New Art Gallery Walsall in the UK uses sans-serif letterforms clearly and appealingly, but the changes in scale and the pleasing grid are what make this website truly memorable. The main body of text extends down the left side, with other aspects, such as links and highlighted details taking up columns to the right.

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The open uncluttered typography and generous space reflect the gallery’s own architecture, its important collections and its commitment to making art both accessible and enjoyable.

Type That Attracts Users

Is the substance of the text what matters most? Undoubtedly, this can be true, especially if the language is stimulating or addresses the user’s personal interest. Text that makes us laugh or that is risqué or controversial can be a great draw, too.

However, there is more to drawing interest: the type’s style, texture and tone, general appearance and layout play a great part in whether users take an interest. Type can also enhance the subject matter of an article, reinforcing the emotional weight, the aesthetic, or the exclusivity of the product.

Crockett & Jones

The website of Crockett and Jones is one such example. The English company has been handcrafting fine shoes since 1876, and its website undoubtedly reflects this wonderful heritage through both its imagery and type. The name style appears on each page, and the individual letterforms echo the decorative style of Victorian design. Microsoft Georgia is used sensitively for body text to complement the name style and to reinforce the sense of heritage, quality, style and attention to detail.

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In writing this piece, I found myself thinking of Beatrice Warde’s well-known article from 1932 on printing and type, “The Crystal Goblet,” in which she argues that “printing should be invisible.” She specifically addresses type, using the metaphor of wine in a glass to explain that the printed word shouldn’t in any way hinder the meaning of text. Warde reasons that type should complement and enhance meaning and increase our understanding and appreciation.

This connects well with what Marko Dugonjic says in “Designing for the Reading Experience”: “Seamlessly digesting written matter is possible only when the typography is well thought out and legibility is facilitated by a considered reading experience.” Obviously Warde’s article predates the Web, but the principles it espouses are relevant today.

Combinations Of Typefaces

Selecting and combining typefaces to reinforce a theme is always a challenge. It demands patience to try out alternatives and visual acuity to assess effectiveness. The websites in this section mix pleasing and well-chosen faces and type styles to emphasize subject matter, to boost appeal and sometimes to surprise.

Four Seasons

Dramatic contrast in texture and tone is achieved with type on Four Seasons’ website, which brings together different styles and weights of Garamond with some of the many variations of Helvetica. The visual rhythms of uppercase and lowercase Garamond Italic sit side by side with the strong vertical strokes and very different pace and texture of uppercase Helvetica Condensed.

Delve into the website to experience this dramatic contrast reinforcing the hierarchy and the style, quality and reputation of the Four Seasons brand. Both Garamond and Helvetica are available in numerous weights and styles, making them both very useful for complex hierarchies.

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Nowness

With the headings on Nowness, CreateThe Group has elegantly mixed uppercase and lowercase Garamond Italic with uppercase P22 Underground Titling. This combination exudes class; the graceful strokes of Garamond Italic have a pleasing textural contrast with the sophisticated lines of P22.

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CreateThe Group has paid careful attention to intercharacter spacing and changes in scale, carefully controlling the tone and hierarchy and reinforcing the stylish subject matter of the website.

Barcamp Omaha

Barcamp Omaha’s website, designed by Grain and Mortar, promotes what is described as an “unconference,” an informal occasion to listen to and meet others and network. With a considerable amount of illustration, the website brings together three well-chosen, contrasting fonts, two of which have obviously been selected for their potential as heading fonts.

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These two — one a bold, slightly condensed uppercase sans serif, and the other a companion all-cap slab serif — have a slightly retro feel that is often associated with an American college aesthetic. The text is enclosed within multiple small panels; however, the change in font and the variation in weight and color are the things here that prioritize detail and reinforce hierarchy.

Warhol Initiative

The website for the Warhol Initiative, by Toky, shows typographic audacity. Condensed typefaces can be a challenge to read; strong vertical strokes of letterforms combined with compact characters can, on occasion, hinder legibility. Here, Toky brings together a serif font with a dramatically contrasting condensed face, showing great skill and bravery.

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The careful intercharacter spacing and measured type sizing help to ensure ease of reading. The pace and texture of type are well supported by the condensed font, speeding the user through the condensed headings to the details that follow. This condensed typeface has been well selected to complement Warhol’s style and era.

Combadi

Combadi, designed by Radial, could easily appear in a number of the sections in this article. Its grid structure is based on 12 columns and can be seen in various configurations as you progress through the pages. However, the combination of typefaces is the really arresting aspect of this design. Brandon Grotesque and Museo Slab combine with great sensitivity and finesse to reinforce the hierarchy.

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Museo Slab is used for the body text, and the generous x-height, short ascenders and descenders and wide letter spacing make for easy reading. Changes in color are also applied to instances of Museo Slab, adding emphasis and reinforcing Combadi’s brand and color palette. Brandon Grotesque is complementary and contrasting, mostly restricted here to secondary headings, navigation and Combadi’s name style.

Aria

Designed by Un.titled, Aria’s online shop has elegant high-contrast serif letterforms. Headings in italic feature particularly unusual forms of lowercase v’s and w’s, reinforcing the exclusivity of Aria’s designs. Contributing to the distinctive typographic character are the limited tonal changes within the text. To adequately capture hierarchical differences with considerable subtlety, Aria has varied the scale and adopted italic type.

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Spacing, Leading And Intercharacter Spacing

Spacing within and around type is crucial to making the text appealing and legible. Even if you’ve selected the ideal typefaces, the design’s ultimate success could fall by the wayside if spacing is not satisfactorily addressed. On the websites in this section, spacing around and between letterforms has been carefully considered, not only making the designs more appealing, but helping the user to read the copy comfortably.

STL DesignWeek

The design for STL DesignWeek is unusually angled and highlights what can be achieved by subtle line and letter spacing. The sans-serif face has been selected for its proportionally large, open, rounded x-height and slightly wide letter spacing. Line spacing is broad, too, reinforcing the airy feel and guiding the reader from line to line, making for a pleasant experience.

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The Beetle

DDB Tribal designed The Beetle’s website, which focuses on the spirit and heritage of the Volkswagen Beetle. The character of the car — a reliable, hardworking vehicle for all — is admirably captured in the type. Typographically, the website is simple, with letterforms limited to two weights of Futura.

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The clarity of the type is evident, with careful letter and line spacing that reinforce the simplicity of the Beetle’s story. Headings are given extra letter spacing, as if to slightly enhance its tonal difference from the rest of the copy and to reinforce the character of this iconic brand. Generous, broad leading draws the user comfortably along each line of text, making the Beetle’s story an enjoyable read.

I Love Typography

If you are not familiar with I Love Typography, do take a look; anyone with a passion for type will find so much of interest. Some beautiful selections of typefaces appear throughout the website, and as you progress from article to article, you are helpfully told the names of the fonts used, which include FF Basic Gothic Web Pro, Le Monde Journal STD and Le Monde Sans STD.

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The typefaces and combinations are elegant, but the leading and intercharacter spacing also reinforce the sophisticated and refined feel. The title for each article is set in a lightweight, relatively large-scale uppercase and lowercase sans serif, with intercharacter and word spacing that also show a delicate touch. The link between the space within the counterforms of the letters and the letterforms themselves is pleasing. This delicate touch complements well the type that follows.

I Love Typography takes a careful approach to the spacing in the opening text for articles. It strikes the right balance between just enough space to draw the eye along each line, guiding it to the next, and leaving just enough space for links, with their generously spaced, dotted underlines. The underlines are frequent and are centered below the base line and above the x-height; they have been positioned to avoid any clash with ascenders or descenders. The space throughout all levels of text creates a contrast that reinforces hierarchy, aids reading and helps to captivate.

Changes In Scale

Changes in the scale of type are frequently done to indicate prioritization and hierarchy. One of the most common approaches is to set headings in large bold type and body text in smaller, lighter type. The examples in this section show much more ambition.

Design Waller Creek: The Final Four

Changes in scale are an excellent way to create structure and assign priority, and they can be one of the few solutions available if the selected font has few weights and styles. The “Final Four” section of Design Waller Creek’s competition page changes scale to reinforce hierarchy. Four lines of the largest type form an introductory statement, followed by a section of considerably smaller copy set in the same face. For the heading that follows, the text returns to the size of the introductory copy, possibly in a slightly lighter weight, before reverting to the smaller size for the bullet points.

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The tone here is noteworthy, too; copy is predominantly set in gray, but the much larger, lightweight slab-serif headings that serve as section indicators are tonally very similar to the smaller text on the website. This comes down to the hairline weight of the slab-serif font, which echoes the weight of the smaller letterforms.

Caravus

There are many pleasing aspects to the typography in Caravus, by Toky, but the changes in scale merit particular attention here. The text has a varied hierarchy, setting the stage for changes in weight and dramatic changes in scale. Large lightweight slab-serif letterforms are used for headings, contrasting with the much smaller, darker body copy.

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This is a departure from a typical hierarchy, with large bold type for headings and smaller lighter type for the body. Throughout the website, quotes, statistics and other high-impact information are accentuated by changes in scale, often in combination with bright color. You could describe this as “type as image,” playfully attracting attention, while reinforcing the hierarchy in a memorable way.

As in most cases, visual judgement is key, and the hierarchy here is well supported by the textural and tonal contrast arising from the changes in scale and color.

Conclusion

All of the designers we’ve showcased use type sensitively, making careful typographic choices that reinforce their message and brand values. The design decisions establish hierarchy and stimulate appeal, and the combination of images, color and typography make for highly memorable visuals.

We’ve focused on typography and on how engaging it can be; hopefully, it has broadened your view and drawn your attention to some of the minutiae involved in effective typography. Perhaps this piece will move you to continue on your own thought-provoking journey through the typographic details of other websites. Since the time of Beatrice Warde, new technologies have enabled us to more easily experiment with typographic alternatives and new letterforms to speedily communicate content while maintaining appeal.

Useful Links

Articles

Website Designs

(al ea)


© Jessica Glaser for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

October 10 2013

10:15

Hand-Sketching: Things You Didn’t Know Your Doodles Could Accomplish


  

Is sketching by hand more than a nostalgic activity? How is paper any different from a screen, especially when hardware is becoming more and more sophisticated? Is improving your hand-sketching skills really worthwhile when high-tech software is advancing every day? What difference can a pencil possibly make?

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about hand-sketching these days. Some absolutely hate the thought of putting their ideas to paper because they can’t draw to save their lives. Others couldn’t imagine their creativity surviving without it. Love it or hate it, there’s much more to a sketchbook than old-school charm.

Final Sketch

Here’s the thing. From personal experience, I know that sketching on paper has something powerful about it that takes my designs to the next level. I’ve spent hours in front of both computer screens and sketchpads, and something about the latter always keeps me going longer, thinking more clearly, progressing further and designing better.

To understand why hand-sketching makes such a difference for me and many designers I know, I did some research. Here’s what I found.

External Memory: Take A Load Off Your Mind, Literally

Cognitive psychologists have been studying the impact of sketching on brain functioning for years, and with good reason: Putting ideas to paper is a powerful way to extend one’s memory. Back in 1972, Allen Newell and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon studied long-term memory, short-term memory and — here’s where it gets interesting — “external” memory. They argued that representations such as diagrams and sketches serve our external memory and reduce the burden that we experience when recalling ideas and problem-solving.

Flexibility: Hand-Sketching Improves Your Ability To Restructure Ideas

Consider your initial idea for a project. At this point, it exists only in your mind. All of a sudden, you start giving it (physical) shape in what Jill Larkin and Herbert Simon call “external representations.” You’re basically pulling the idea from your mind and recording it somehow. As long as the idea is in your mind, the number of changes and improvements you can mentally process is limited. Your idea won’t get anywhere unless you manipulate and enhance it.


External memory aids, such as sketches and diagrams, can help us overcome the limited capacity of our short- and long-term memories.

Here’s where hand-sketching saves the day: It enables us to externalize our mental images and achieve something that Ilse Verstijnen calls “restructuring.” Verstijnen works in the Psychological Laboratory at the University of Utrecht and has coauthored several articles about the relationship between imagery, perception and sketching.

Restructuring transforms one configuration into another, and in scientific studies, advanced hand-sketchers score highest at restructuring when they are allowed to sketch. In an experiment by Verstijnen, sketchers were shown to be better than non-sketchers at modifying their initial ideas and coming up with novel changes.


Because of our brain’s limited processing capacity, externalizing our ideas on paper makes it easier to restructure them, transforming the initial structure into a new one.

Another study by researcher Zafer Bilda and his group at Bilkent University in Turkey compared designers’ cognitive processes when sketching on paper versus using software. The study identifies several significant differences: Designers who used paper changed their goals and intentions more frequently and engaged in a higher number of cognitive actions. Changing goals and intentions while sketching is vital because it enables you to pivot your initial idea and to be versatile in your approach.

Interestingly, these results may have less to do with the way we are wired than with the way we have been educated. Can you remember how you first learned to draw, how all of your design courses required physical sketchbooks? That’s right, most of us learned to sketch on paper — and this might actually have affected the way our brain deals with it.

Here comes another buzzword, from our friends in behavioral psychology: conditioning. If paper was one of the first creative stimuli in your life (to the point that, as soon as you saw a blank sheet, you felt the urge to scribble), then it should come as no surprise that your sketching behavior is different on paper than on screen. Regardless of your philosophy of human behavior, we can all agree on one thing: paper has been around far longer than the digital screen.

Don’t get me wrong: Developers of digital sketching devices out there are definitely raising their game and making the lives of many designers easier in exciting, innovative ways. Manufacturers are making the lighting, size and weight of tablets feel unbelievably similar to paper. They’ve come up with ways to make graphic tablets sensitive to stylus pressure and be capable of digitizing paper sketches instantly. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, we can expect better digital sketching experiences. WACOM, a graphic tablet manufacturer, invites sketchers to tag their creations on Twitter with the #madewithwacom hash tag.

Serendipity: Happy Accidents From Unfinished Strokes

When was the last time you sketched a perfect image? It’s safe to say that most of us do not aim for perfection with a pencil and sketchbook. And that is exactly what makes a pencil stroke different from a vector.

Jonathan Fish and Stephen Scrivener authored “Amplifying the Mind’s Eye: Sketching and Visual Cognition,” in which they introduce the idea that “indeterminacies in Leonardo’s sketches elicit mental imagery because automatic mental recognition mechanisms attempt to complete the missing parts and match precepts to memory images.”


Hand-sketching results in inconclusive strokes that open new doors to creativity.

Consider every time you’ve left unfinished strokes, gray ideas over top solid shapes, quick side queries, blank spaces, wobbly lines and figures. Happens all the time, right? These indeterminacies, or “flaws,” which reflect our indecision, are great pointers to new design directions. We lose these when we opt for pixel perfection.

Group Thinking: Connecting Brains Via Sketches

A group of scientists in the Netherlands, led by Remko van der Lugt, observed four idea-generation meetings in which participants used one technique that involved writing and another one that involved sketching. They concluded that sketching stimulates group creativity by enabling individuals to reinterpret their own ideas further and to facilitate other people’s access to those ideas once they are brought to the table.


Collaborating with others in generating concepts is easier when we share sketches that are flexible, unsettled and, thus, full of possibilities.

Not only does hand-sketching improve the idea-generation process, but it provides an effective, visual language that makes it easier for others to understand, comment on and integrate your ideas. This might be even more important in cross-cultural groups, for whom visual sketches can bridge gaps of understanding.

Effectiveness: Better Design Outcomes

Does sketching like a maniac guarantee a better design? The easy answer is no. The subtler answer is that, in certain circumstances, sketching like a mad person could result in a better design. Yes, you read that right.


A useful design mantra is, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found a thousand sketches that don’t work.”

I ran into this idea while reading one of Maria C. Yang’s studies. She tracked the sketches of a group of engineering students in the idea-generation phase and measured the results according to their final grades and their performance in a contest. She found that the number of concepts that students generated, as evidenced by their sketches, correlated to better design outcomes as long as two things held true: first, the sketches included dimensions and, secondly, the sketches that were significantly tied to the outcome were generated in the first quarter of the cycle (i.e. they were early sketches).

Concentration: Ready, Set, Sketch!

Were you ever in the middle of a major design breakthrough and then were suddenly interrupted? Concentration is key for designers because the creative process is anything but straightforward. The process requires a strong and rare connection between our thoughts, hands and source of inspiration. Its rarity is, indeed, the reason why some of us don’t sleep.

Well, that and deadlines.

There is evidence that sketching aids concentration. Jackie Andrade, of the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology, tested whether doodling correlated to higher levels of concentration among 40 participants, who tested while taking a telephone call. While we can define doodling as aimlessly sketching patterns and figures unrelated to the primary task, her discovery that it can reduce daydreaming, increase concentration and curb boredom is fascinating.

This helps to explain why some of us find value in carrying our sketchbooks everywhere, pulling them out in the least expected places and in the middle of completely unrelated events.

To recap, sketching stimulates us to a comfortable level — enough to keep us awake, concentrated and engaged. As if this weren’t enough, other studies have found that subjects who consume information on paper were significantly less stressed and tired than those who use screens. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg argued that those who were looking at screens may have been more exhausted because of the “dual-task effect.”

It makes sense. When using a computer, you have to not only complete the task itself, but also figure out your way around the hardware and software. For those of us who learned to sketch on paper, this learning curve feels a lot like stress. For those who are comfortable with graphic tablets and other sophisticated input devices, stress is probably not an issue.


Montessori education encourages children to learn concepts with all five senses.

Some believe that we reach deeper levels of concentration and develop richer concepts when our own hands are the hardware. Regina Rowland, who teaches the “Idea Visualization” course at the Savannah College of Art and Design, has a unique perspective on the matter:

What I noticed when we moved into the digital world was that exercises all started to look the same. All of a sudden, everybody was designing in Photoshop and the quality of the work started changing dramatically. Before, exercises had a character that was unique in each person. I don’t want to ditch digital; there’s stuff in digital that we could never do by hand. But I do think that when you learn how to experience the world in its visual form, you realize that it is important to have a real, multi-sensorial experience and not an abstracted version of the experience.

With digital, you are looking at a screen with 2-D shapes and no interaction. I’ve realized that students who go into a sensorial experience with letters and shapes learn better than those who abstract them.

Now, there are nerves in the tips of your fingers, and I believe that when people draw with their hands it makes a different impression in the brain. There are references to this idea in Montessori education: It is through sensorial experiences that you form structures in your brain, and therefore all their activities and teaching tools are things that children have to do with their fingers.

Talent: Enhancing The Graphic Library In Your Mind

What happens when you continually draw and connect symbols as you sketch? What happens when your brain tries to recall shapes that are appropriate to the idea you are trying to externalize? It isn’t hard to see that the better you become at translating imagery from your mind to paper, the more visual resources you will have to draw on and the easier it will be to retrieve them in the future.

Ian Storer, who lectures in the Department of Design and Technology at Loughborough University, came up with this idea of a “graphical library” that designers can combine and restructure to generate concepts. He states in his paper that “creative sketching and designing requires a body of knowledge to base new ideas upon.”


Would I like to nurture a powerful mind for design? Yes, please.

Hand-sketching forces you to access and cultivate a unique visual library in your mind. As much as I love computers, the Internet and the almighty search engine, would I like to nurture a more powerful mind for design? Yes, please.

Problem-Solving: Unlock Solutions With Visual Synthesis

It is fair to say that most of the problems we face as designers are confounding, fuzzy, indeterminate — the types of problems that common logic stumbles on.

I dare anyone to try to solve these types of problems using only simple paragraphs of text. Writing falls short for most design problems. Jonathan Fish explains this brilliantly in his article “Cognitive Catalysis: Sketches for a Time-Lagged Brain.” He compares our design problems to trees whose trunk and branches are vague or abstract descriptions and whose leaves are images that represent “depictive concrete thought.”


Jonathan Fish explains that our design problems are like trees whose trunk and branches are abstract (usually textual) descriptions and whose leaves are concrete depictions (i.e. images). Most design solutions aim to reconcile these.

He goes on to explain that when you try to solve a design problem that is full of uncertainties, “both description and depiction are interdependent.”

Niall Seery and his colleagues at the University of Limerick propose the best definition of sketching that I’ve ever read:

“Sketching is a sense-making tool which supports the synthesis of visual imagery.”

Ready to improve your flexibility, serendipity, group thinking, effectiveness, concentration, talent and problem-solving? The eight benefits we’ve covered here may be just a few sketches away!

(al ea il)


© Laura Busche for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

October 02 2013

14:58

Powerful Workflow Tips, Tools And Tricks For Web Designers


  

Designing and developing can be time-consuming, especially when the project involves a new challenge, putting the team or freelancer into unknown territory. Moreover, time is a key factor in productivity. Working efficiently enables us to deliver better value at a competitive price.

However, some steps can be repeated for every project. These are steps we know and should make as quick as possible in order to have more freedom to experiment with new solutions.

This article presents a collection of tools, tips and tricks that will make your standard workflow as fast and practical as possible, so that you have more time for the exciting parts of the project.

Ready? Here we go!

Tips And Tricks

Design Workflow

My Secret for Color Schemes
Erica Schoonmaker shares her trick for matching up colors and creating a nice color scheme. Read more…

colors

Useful Aligning and Spacing
Kris Jolls creates squares for the various spaces he has between elements. This cuts down time and makes sure everything is aligned and spaced properly. Read more…

Creating squares for various spacings between elements

The Ultimate Photoshop Web Design Workspace
Jacob Cass shares his set-up for the ultimate Web design workspace in Photoshop. Read more…

The Ultimate Photoshop Web Design Workspace

Coding Workflow

Perfect Workflow in Sublime Text 2
This is a must for all Sublime users. Ilya Grigorik has put together a two-hour tour de force to make you a Sublime ninja! Read more…

Perfect workflow in Sublime Text 2

Development Workflow for 2013
Learn what a modern development workflow looks like, from editors and plugins to authoring abstractions, testing and DVCS integration. Read more…

Development workflow for 2013

Vertical Editing” (with TextMate)
Learn how to vertically edit in general and with TextMate in particular. It pairs best practices with vendor-specific redundant properties. Read more…

Vertical editing (with textmate)

Prevent background-color Bleed on Touch Screens
Add outline: 1px solid #fff to your code to stop background-color bleeding on touchscreens. Read more…

Prevent background-color bleed on touch screens

Quick Tip: Rounded Corners Done Right
Improperly nested corners are a detail that can ruin a brilliant design. Learn how to do it the right way. Read more…

Quick Tip: Rounded Corners Done Right | Webdesigntuts

The //* /*/ //*/ Comment Toggle Trick
This is a little trick to make development faster. Not suitable for production code. Read more…

The //* /*/ //*/ comment toggle trick

Outdenting Properties for Debugging CSS
Martin Sutherland usually ends up adding a ton of properties to figure out how things fit together. Here is a little trick to remove the properties before a project goes live. Read more…

Outdenting properties for debug CSS

Favicons Next to External Links
A little trick to display an external favicon and next to the corresponding link, using simple lightweight jQuery. Read more…

Favicons Next To External Links

DevTools Tips and Tricks
These slides include tips and tricks for performance. You will be surprised what Chrome DevTools can do. (Use the arrow keys to navigate the slides.) Read more…

DevTools Tips and Tricks

Sublime Text Workflow That Beats Coda and Espresso
Andrey Tarantsov talks about jumping into Sublime Text 2 and and setting up a workflow that beats traditional tools such as Coda and Espresso. Watch the video or read more…

Sublime Text Workflow That Beats Coda and Espresso

Speed Up CSS Prototyping
This is a simple trick to overlay a grid or a mock-up over a page that you’re styling. It also allows you to edit content directly in the browser to see how the layout responds to various lines of text. Read more…

Speed Up CSS Prototyping

Git: Twelve Curated Tips and Workflows From the Trenches
12 simple tips for using Git, including: make “git diff” wrap long lines, set a global proxy, and clone a specific branch. Read more…

Git: Twelve Curated Tips And Workflows From the Trenches

The JavaScript “Ah ha!” Moment
This article collects comments of people having their “Ah ha!” moment with JavaScript — that is, the moment they learned something that made JavaScript click for them. Read more…

The JavaScript Ah-ha! Moment

Here are more articles and thoughts to help you improve your coding workflow:

OS Productivity

Alfred workflow tips and tricks
David Ferguson shares tips and tricks for working with Alfred. Read more…

Alfred Workflow Tips & Tricks

SSH: More Than Secure Shell
This article covers less common SSH use cases, such as using password-less, key-based login, setting up local per-host configurations, exporting a local service through a firewall, accessing a remote service through a firewall and more. Read more…

SSH: More Than Secure Shell

  • Share Your Hidden OS X Features or Tips and Tricks
    This is a thread with a whole range of OS X tips and tricks. So far, there are 126 comments, and you can add your own. Read more…
  • Alfred Workflows
    You find various workflows, provided by Isometry, including UNIX man page search and filtering text through arbitrary shell one-liners. Read more…
  • Tricks
    This is a collection of tricks for various areas, collected by Carles Fenollosa. Areas include bash, pseudo-aliases for commonly used long commands, VIM, tools and networking. Read more…

Lifehacks

Tools

Collaboration

TimeZoneSlider
Time-syncing around the globe can be tricky. This tool lets you add the names and locations of people involved to find the best meeting time. Send the synced time to others and don’t risk hard feelings about time-conversion mistakes. Read more…

Timezoneslider: time syncing app

World Time Buddy
World Time Buddy is a cross between a time-zone converter, a world clock converter and an online meeting scheduler. It an online productivity tools for those who often finding themselves traveling, in flight, in online meetings or just calling friends and family abroad. Read more…

WorldTimeBuddy: A sync tool for scheduling meetings

Doodle
Doodle can’t be recommended enough. It is a easy and uncomplicated tool for finding and scheduling a date that suits everyone — with only one email. Read more…

Doodle: easy scheduling

How to Solve the ‘Sharing Huge Design Files Amongst Teams’ Problem
This article is about how BitTorrent can be used to sync large files between team members. Key problems to overcome were how to share files between designers and between designers and developers and how to resolve points of failure. Read more…

How to solve the ‘sharing huge design files amongst teams’ problem

Screenhero
Screenhero is another tool for collaborative screen-sharing. The great things is that each user gets their own mouse, and both users are always in control. Read more…

Screenhero

Productivity

SoFresh: Automatically Refreshing Your Browser
SoFresh is a CSS refresh bookmarklet. It allows you to select which files to refresh. The files are refreshed every time you save them, so that you don’t need to refresh your browser. Read more…

SoFresh!: Automatically refreshing your browser

Divvy
Divvy is a new way to manage your workspace. It enables you to quickly and efficiently “divvy up” your screen into precise portions. Read more…

Divvy

Shortcat: Keyboard Productivity App for Mac OS X
It takes an average of three seconds to move your hand from the keyboard to mouse, click once, and then return to the keyboard. Shortcat is a keyboard tool for Mac OS X that allows you to keep your hands on the keyboard, saving time and energy. Read more…

Shortcat: Keyboard productivity app for Mac OS X

The Thinkerbot
Logic is the enemy of creativity. By grabbing a steady stream of pure Internet randomness, this app injects non-linear inspiration into any brainstorming session. Read more…

The Thinkerbot: a brainstorming app

SizeUp
SizeUp allows you to quickly resize and position windows with keyboard shortcuts or a handy menu-bar icon. Read more…

SizeUp

DragonDrop
DragonDrop lets you set down what you’re dragging, leaving you free to find the destination without having to worry about holding down the mouse button. Read more…

DragonDrop

  • Slate
    Slate is a window-management application similar to Divvy and SizeUp (covered below), but free and less limited. It attempts to overcome their limitations by simply being extremely configurable. Read more…

Making Use of the Cloud

SortMyBox
SortMyBox works like email filters, but for your Dropbox files. It magically moves files to folders based on your rules. Read more…

Organize your Dropbox with SortMyBox

Servus: For Mac and Dropbox
Give your files some meaning and a nice layout when your share them with others. Servus for Mac easily turns any file on your computer into a branded download page, hosted on Dropbox. Read more…

Create a branded download page with Dropbox

Send to Dropbox
Ever wish you could email files to your Dropbox? With this tool, you can. All you have to do is log into Dropbox, get your unique email address, and start sending files. Read more…

Send to Dropbox

Versioning Your Graphics Files With Dropbox
This quick tutorial explains how you can version graphic files via Dropbox. Read more…

Versioning Your Graphics Files With Dropbox

DropTunes
Create your own music-streaming service with this little app. DropTunes lets you stream music from Dropbox. Add tracks to your playlist, and browse while song is playing. Read more…

DropTunes: Stream music from the Dropbox

sideCLOUDload
This tool lets you send files from a URL directly to the cloud (currently, Dropbox and email) without the need to download them. This is perfect to save on bandwidth when you discover great stuff with your phone on the go. Read more…

sideCLOUDload: Send files from an url to the cloud

  • Post Via Dropbox
    This WordPress plugin allows you to post and edit on your blog with text files uploaded via Dropbox. Read more…
  • Site44
    Site44 turns Dropbox folders into websites. You can edit the HTML locally; this way, your website will always be up to date. Read more…

Design, Color and Image Tools

Hex Color Tool
Hex is a color tool that automatically displays any hex color in darker and lighter shades. Read more…

Hex Color Tool

GuideGuide
GuideGuide make dealing with grids in Photoshop easy. Pixel-accurate columns, rows, midpoints and baselines can be created based on a document or selection with the click of a button. Guide sets can be saved for repeated use. Read more…

GuideGuide

ColorBlendy
Ever fire up Photoshop just to multiply a couple of colors? ColorBlendy can do this easily in your browser. Read more…

ColorBlendy - Blend colors with different modes like multiply, overlay, dodge.

CMYK to Pantone
Input a CMYK color code, and this tool will work out which Pantone colors are close. Read more…

CMYK to Pantone

ImageMagick
ImageMagick is a command-line program that can do many operations on images quickly and with high quality. It’s especially useful for resizing and sharpening images, generating thumbnails, etc. Read more…

ImageMagick

Development and Testing

Reconciling SVG and Icon Fonts
This is the first in a series of three articles on SVG. Romain over at Hull explains how to set up a powerful design workflow, going from Sketch all the way to icon fonts, all automated. Part two shows how to dissect the fonts and go crazy with their components. Part three shows how to do the same with sprites and Photoshop. Read more…

Reconciling SVG and Icon Fonts

Emmet Documentation
Emmet (previously known as Zen Coding) is a Web developer’s toolkit that could greatly improve your HTML and CSS workflow. Read more…

Emmet Documentation

Alias
Alias enables you to manage all of your aliases online and to browse a list of cool aliases submitted by others. From there, you can run a single command to copy your aliases back into your profile should you require them. Read more…

Alias: Manage your aliases in the cloud

Anvil
Anvil is a menu-bar application for managing local websites. It takes your website and serves it up locally with a .dev URL, without requiring you to change system-level configuration files or hack around in the Terminal. Read more…

Anvil for Mac - Run your sites locally

DOM Monster
DOM Monster is a cross-platform, cross-browser bookmarklet that will analyze the DOM and other features of the page you’re on, and give you its bill of health. Read more…

DOM Monster Bookmarklet

prettyPrint.js
prettyPrint.js is an in-browser JavaScript variable dumper, similar in functionality to ColdFusion’s cfdump tag. Read more…

padolsey/prettyPrint.js · GitHub

Resemble.js
Resemble.js analyzes and compares images with HTML5 canvas and JavaScript. It can be used for any image analysis and comparison need you might have in the browser. Read more…

Resemble.js : Image analysis

Review
Updating large and possibly responsively designed websites can be a hassle. You never know whether a change will break anything. This tool gets screenshots of all of your running websites in different resolutions, so that you can spot any issues. Read more…

Review: Screenshots in different resolutions

BrowserStack
BrowserStack gives you instant access to all desktop and mobile browsers, which is great for testing your designs, especially if you cannot afford to buy many devices. Read more…

BrowserStack: Live, Web-Based Brower Testing

Zippopotamus
Zippopotamus makes working with postal codes and ZIP codes easy. It delivers a free API in JSON response format, supports over 60 countries, is perfect for autocompletion and open for crowdsourcing and contribution. Read more…

Zippopotamus- Zip Code Galore

Here are more development and testing tools you can check out:

Little Helpers

Style Manual
Is English not really your thing, or not your first language? This reference document by Andy Taylor will help you find the right answer to style-related issues. Read more…

stylemanual

13 Bills
This is a great tool for complicated bill-splitting. It’s especially handy when you have to split a bill according to the amount of time people have been around. Read more…

The easy peasy bill splitter

The Universal Packing List
Feed in the details of your next trip (timeframe, climate, gender, accommodation, kids, type of trip, activities, transportation and bag size), and this dynamic tool will work out what you should pack. Read more…

The Universal Packing List

Long Press
This tool simulates the alternate character choice that you have on Android and iOS keyboards. Read more…

Long Press

Sejda
Sejda is a great online tool for manipulating PDF files when your preferred software is not at hand. It has many advanced features, including merging, splitting and combining. Read more…

Sejda: Edit PDF files online (for free)

CreateMyInvoice
If you need a quick and simple invoice, this tool turns your raw data into a presentable invoice. The tool offers five free invoices per month, which is great if you only need to use it every now and then. Read more…

CreateMyInvoice - invoice from your inbox

StatusPage.io
StatusPage.io is tool that becomes active when your service experiences downtime of any kind. Activity incidents are prominently displayed at the top of your page for visitors to see right when they arrive.Read more…

StatusPage.io: Hosted Status Pages for Your Company

Beathound
Something for music lovers. Feed your iTunes library XML file and get a weekly update of new releases from your favorite artists. Read more…

Beathound: iTunes new releases for your library

Syncios
This tools converts your favorite music or ringtones to MP3, M4A, M4R or CAF format, and converts video to MP4, M4V or MOV format for enjoyment on your iPhone, iPod or iPad. It works both ways. It also includes other handy features that are worth checking out. Read more…

Syncios: Free iPod Transfer, Free iPod to PC Transfer, Transfer App Music Video Photo Ebook from iPod/iPhone/iPad to PC

Skrivr
This is for minimalists who don’t want to deal with cluttered admin interface that makes publishing complicated. Skrivr lets you write, save and publish your writing. Read more…

Skrivr: writing and publishing process made simpler

List of All Countries in All Languages and All Data Formats
This is a great resource that lists all countries in all languages and in all data formats. Read more…

List of All Countries in All Languages and All Data Formats

  • TokenPhrase
    TokenPhrase is a simple gem that generates unique phrases to use in your app as tokens. Read more…
  • Linkrr
    Linkrr is a small tool that transforms multiple unclickable links into clickable ones. Once you’ve gathered all of your links, Linkrr can open them with only one click. In some cases, you’ll have to disable your popup blocker. Read more…
  • LinkChecker
    This highly rated and popular Firefox add-on tests the validity of links on any Web page. Read more…

Useful Chrome Extensions

  • Tab Wrangler
    Tab Wrangler automatically closes inactive tabs but makes it easy to get them back, too. It works similar to AutoClose Tabs for Firefox. Read more…
  • Responsive Inspector
    Responsive Inspector is a simple Chrome extension that allows you to view the media queries of websites you visit. It is very useful when developing responsive layouts because it visually shows what resolutions are defined in style sheets. Read more…
  • Shortcut Manager
    With this extension, change the browser’s default shortcut keys, and assign any bookmarklets or JavaScript actions to your hotkeys. It works like Keyconfig on Firefox. Read more…
  • Auto Login
    Your browser already fills in your user name and password, so why not have it click “Submit,” too? This tool automatically logs you into websites that Chrome has saved a password for. Read more…
  • Tincr
    Tincr lets you edit and save files from Chrome Developer tools. It supports live reloading and saves changes to the right file automatically. Works for Mac, Windows and Linux. Read more…
  • OneTab
    OneTab is perfect for anyone who tends to open too many tabs in Chrome. It saves up to 95% of memory and minimizes clutter by reducing all tabs into one. Read more…

Last Clicks…

Browser Pong
Here is an attempt to expand how you think of the browser. Browser Pong lives between multiple open windows. During play, the space between windows is transformed into a playing field — the abstracted tennis court of Pong. Browser Pong really is thinking outside the box. Read more…

Browser Pong

Talks to Help You Become a Better Front-End Engineer in 2013
Addy Osmani has curated talks that he has found helpful this year. The advice shared in them will equip you with the knowledge to become a better front-end engineer. Read more…

Talks To Help You Become A Better Front-End Engineer In 2013 | Smashing Magazine

The Setup
This collection of interviews asks people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done. Read more…

The Setup

Learn Something Every Day
UK-based design studio Young has published a book of 265 facts to help you learn something new every day. Additionally, you can purchase some great fact shirts. There is also a free iPhone app. Read more…

Learn Something Every Day

  • eBooks Compiled From Stack Overflow
    These books contain the top questions from a selection of the top tags on Stack Overflow. The top questions include those with a score of 10 or greater. Read more…
  • Jourrrnal
    Jourrrnal is a blog that publishes interviews about the workflows of some of the most active and talented Dribbble members. Read more…
  • How I Work
    This page collects little tips on how other people work. Rather than reading blog posts on why one way is better than another, read why one person loves a certain way of working, and judge for yourself whether it’s worth adopting. Read more…
  • My Radical Productivity Experiment
    Michael Schechter has experimented with different approaches to find what works for his own productivity. If you haven’t found a decent workflow for yourself, figure one out. Read more…

Further Reading


There you have it! A collection of great tools, tips and tricks that members of our community have found very useful. Hopefully, some of them will speed up your workflow or solve one of your confounding issues. Maybe they will even inspire you to share some of your hidden secrets of productivity.

If your favorite tool, tip or trick is not in this list, make sure you share it with us in the comments section below. Have any of the above changed you life? If so, let us know more!

(al, il, ea)


© Melanie Lang for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

September 27 2013

09:35

Dear Web Font Providers


  

When you buy something, I bet you want it to work. Heck, even if you use something for free — maybe borrowed from a friend — I bet you want it to work. No one prefers hiking boots that are too tight (or too loose), a car that shimmies when you drive faster than 40 miles an hour, or a kitchen knife that can’t cut a tomato. And Web designers don’t prefer fonts that don’t fit a project, fall apart in different browsers or can’t be used in a mock-up.

We also don’t like wading through all of the fonts that won’t work for us in order to find the ones that will. It takes precious time away from other tasks and responsibilities.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

Six years ago, A List Apart published “CSS @ Ten: The Next Big Thing,” in which Håkon Wium Lie describes the @font-face declaration and announces:

“Two things must happen before Web fonts can take web design to the next level… First, we must ensure the validity of the approach.…  Second, we must convince browser makers to add support for web fonts.”

You Helped Make It Happen: Validity and Browser Support

Today, browsers support Web fonts, and we’ve got the valid CSS to make the fonts work. Of course, as old browsers changed and new browsers (and extended font families) emerged, valid CSS became an ever-moving target.

On the DIY side, a big “Thank you!” to Paul Irish, who gave us the “Bulletproof Syntax” to fool Internet Explorer (IE) into loading the correct font file (remember using a smiley face for the local font name?); to Richard Fink, who gave us “Mo’ Bulletproofer Syntax” to fix a font-loading problem in Android; and to Ethan Dunham, who gave us the “Fontspring @font-face Syntax,” which even works in IE 9. You all thoroughly explained why your syntax works, which enabled each to pick up where the other left off. On top of that, Dunham, your @font-face generator brought valid syntax to those of us who (please, I beg of you) just want our fonts to work.

Web font hosts such as Typekit and Fontdeck deserve a shout out, too. You worked to support multiple weights and styles of a font family cross-browser. Your variation-specific font-family names (which is a shorter and sweeter way of saying, “Hey everyone, you need to use a unique font-family name for each weight and style of a family”) require longer CSS, but they are valid and allow more than four weights and styles to load in IE 7 and 8. Those of us who can’t live without light, regular, bold, extra bold, and black weights are in Web font heaven!

You Went Above and Beyond: Responding to the Needs of Type Designers

One aspect that Lie missed in his article was the need for more Web fonts — how could we take Web design to the next level if we didn’t have a lot of fonts to use? This, of course, meant that you had to gain the trust of the type design community.

You had to protect the fonts.

Remember when type designers wouldn’t design or provide Web fonts without the guarantee that their files were secure? Typekit, your article “Serving and Protecting Fonts on the Web” (2009) laid out how you set up hurdles to “discourage casual misuse” and created a reasonably secure system for serving fonts.

Thanks to everyone’s tenacity, at some point in the last four years, “reasonably secure” was enough for type designers to take a chance. And now they’re hooked. In a recent interview, Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones of H&FJ said: “We’re requiring that every new project have a way to thrive not only on paper, but on desktop and mobile screens.” How freaking awesome is that?

So, in the span of only six years, you’ve come a long way, baby. Web font syntax is valid and supported by most browsers (our fonts load!); we have thousands of Web fonts to work with; we have multiple options to deliver Web fonts (DIY or through a service provider; and free, monthly, yearly or a one-time purchase); and you are constantly improving your services, so Web fonts are easier to implement and they (usually) load seamlessly!

What else could a Web designer need from you?

I am so glad you asked.

“What About Us?”: What Web Designers Need

Web designers — especially those of us who care about type and are trying to be thoughtful about the fonts we use — need more than access to thousands of Web fonts. Frankly, we need access to high-quality, appropriate Web fonts. And we need to be able to find them.

We’ve visited your websites. Some of you have thousands of fonts for us to use. But you know what? More isn’t always better. Sometimes more becomes more-stuff-to-wade-through-to-find-what-I-want. In 2010, a New York Times article, “Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze,” reported on the debilitating effect of too many choices. Too many choices make it harder to choose. How do we know our choice is the best one? How do we know it’ll fit when we go for a hike? And if it does fit, how do we know another one won’t fit better?

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a research scientist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, suggests in the article that debilitation comes not only from too many choices, but also from a “lack of information or any prior understanding about the options.” Hmm. While we’re at it, how do we know it won’t shimmy on the highway?

You’ve given us thousands of Web fonts. Now give us useful information about the options. Help us understand them. Help us ascertain which ones will work best for us. Which ones will work for a particular project. Which ones hold up cross-browser. Which ones will integrate seamlessly in our workflow.

Show Us Your Web Fonts in Context

Most of you show us how your fonts will sort of look in context. You give us just enough to see whether a font might be appropriate to use (“Hmm, this one is a slab serif, so it might work.”), and you help us to eliminate those that definitely won’t work (“Nope, I don’t want such a round-looking font.”). OK, that’s a start. But that’s not enough.

Take a page from history. Before type went digital, printers and type designers sold their typefaces to clients by showing how they looked in context. They’d provide broadsides or books, often setting each typeface in paragraphs at various sizes. They’d show available weights and styles of each family. And because the specimen sheets and books were printed, publishers and designers could see how the typefaces held up when the ink hit the paper.

Caslon font specimen sheet
A specimen sheet by William Caslon, 1728. The typeface is shown in paragraphs of various sizes in both roman and italic. A larger digital image shows other fonts available in the family. If I were in the market for a typeface back in 1728, I’d know exactly what to expect from Caslon.

Not to name names, but Fontdeck, Fontspring, Font Squirrel and MyFonts, you guys only offer the opportunity to test-drive Web fonts in a sentence. The problem with a sentence is that it doesn’t show how the font looks in body copy. Body copy has visual texture, and texture can be pleasing (lively but not intrusive, promoting horizontal movement of the eye) or jarring (with uneven spaces or a strong vertical pull, hindering horizontal movement of the eye). Texture affects readability.

Texture also affects the look of a Web page, and Web designers need to know whether they are picking a font with the texture they need. A sentence doesn’t help us to make a good choice. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the images below. Two fonts that look really similar when set in a sentence look different when set in paragraphs of text.

Two fonts as cascading sentences
Cascading sentences from Typekit. Top: Kepler Standard by Adobe. Bottom: Utopia Standard by Adobe. Both are serif fonts with a slightly oval bowl (look at the shape of the “o”) and a high contrast between thick and thin strokes. They look pretty similar to the casual eye. Heck, they even look pretty similar to the trained eye!

Same two fonts as paragraphs
The same fonts set as text in paragraphs from Typekit. When shown in paragraph format, we can see the difference. Top: Kepler Standard by Adobe. Kepler has a rounder, “bubblier” feel and looks slightly smaller when set at body-copy sizes. Bottom: Utopia Standard by Adobe. Utopia feels more structured, less round. And, of course, it looks bigger when set at body-copy sizes. Neither of these fonts is “wrong” when set in text. But they look different in paragraphs, and each might be appropriate for different projects.

Now, for the rest of you, Google Fonts, Fonts.comWebtype and Hoefler & Frere-Jones, you show your fonts in paragraphs. Thank you. But just so you know, not all of the paragraphs are as helpful as they could be.

Google Fonts, your text has too tight a line height, so your fonts all look clunky (see the image below). Fonts.com, you don’t offer enough text sizes; if a font looks too small at 14 pixels and too big at 18 pixels, we can’t tell what it would look like at 16 pixels (just so you know, 16 pixels is a really popular type size for Web text). Webtype, you use a string of capitalized words, so there are too many capital letters, and your fonts look clunky; if you want to show us what your fonts really look like, just use plain text. Hoefler & Frere-Jones, your paragraphs are limited to three lines, with a super-long 725-pixel line length; these paragraphs aren’t delightful to read, and they undermine the quality of your fonts.

Same font, same size, two line heights
Which font would you choose? How paragraphs are set makes a difference. Top: Google Fonts paragraphs have a tight line height. Open Sans looks clunky and hard to read, making it hard to tell whether the font would look good in body copy. Bottom: Open Sans on Typekit. A looser line height helps us to see that the same font is actually a pleasure to read.

Typekit and Typotheque, of all the Web font services I’ve visited or used, you provide the best on-site examples of how your fonts look in body copy. You both provide multiple paragraphs at various sizes, with a good line length and a good line height. WebINK, your off-site solution is also pretty good. Using the FontDropper 1000 bookmarklet, I can drop any of your fonts onto an existing Web page and see how it looks in context. One problem I noticed, though: Your bookmarklet doesn’t drop in an entire font family, so we can’t see a font’s true bold and italic.

Which brings us to font families. I’m sure you’ve noticed that bold and italic versions of a font are sometimes too similar to the regular font, which undermines hierarchy. Other times, the bold is too heavy or the italic too squished, and one or both are hard to read. These are all reasons why we might not want to use a particular font. Plus, sometimes a bold or italic has letterforms that a client simply doesn’t like.

So, to really see how a font works in context, we would need to see how the entire family of weights and styles works together. Unfortunately, none of you do this yet.

Show Us What Your Fonts Look Like on Other Systems and Browsers

I’ve been talking a lot about context. Context is not just a font’s texture in a paragraph or how the font family works together. Context is also where a font “lives.”

As Web designers, we know that our designs are ephemeral, constantly changing based on operating system, browser and screen size. For example, we know that fonts behave differently cross-browser — if they aren’t hinted correctly, then letter shapes, strokes and letter spacing will change in unexpected ways.

Problems arise cross-browser
If fonts aren’t hinted well, their strokes can change significantly from browser to browser. This font looked great on my Mac (top). When I tested it cross-browser, I ran into problems (bottom). The font is too light to read easily.

More problems arise cross-browser
If fonts aren’t hinted well, then spacing (both inside and between letters) can change significantly from browser to browser. This font looked great on my Mac (top). When I tested it cross-browser, I ran into problems (bottom). The font gets narrower, and the spacing between letters is erratic.

The only way to know whether a font will work cross-browser is to test it. And let me tell you, testing Web fonts is mind-numbing and time-consuming. (I once cleaned out my garage to avoid testing fonts for a project.)

Thank you Fonts.com, MyFonts and Typekit for providing screenshots of your fonts in different browsers. You present only cascading sentences, but even that helps. Much like Caslon’s printed specimen sheet showed what his typeface looked like in print, you three give Web designers a glimpse of what your fonts look like in use. You show us which fonts to reject and which to consider for further testing.

Hoefler & Frere-Jones, you claim that your new Cloud.typography service creates multiple font files (each hinted and built for a specific browser and platform) and supplies each browser with its unique font file. If this is true, then your fonts should look great across all browsers. If this is true, I might just have to bake you some cookies. But I sure wish you’d provide screenshots to back up your claims. Some things I need to see for myself.

Let Us Use Your Fonts in Mock-Ups

Some Web designers comfortably go from a pencil-and-paper wireframe to building a partial-website-as-mock-up. Others prefer (or are required) to include an intermediate step and mock up pages with a tool such as Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign.

I know — now it’s your turn to tell me to take a page from history.

Before type went digital, designers didn’t mock up projects using real fonts. Clients certainly couldn’t expect to see such a thing — comps were fine. But since the late 1980s, mock-ups have been expected to “look like the real thing.” And if we want (or need) to show a realistic mock-up to a client, we need access to the Web fonts.

Fonts.com, Font Squirrel, Google Fonts and WebINK, you all supplement Web fonts with free access to desktop (or “mock-up”) fonts for subscribers. Thank you.

Again, unfortunately, none of your solutions are perfect. Fonts.com, you allow access to mock-up fonts for only one day, to “kick off the design process.” I don’t know how it works in your office, but I can’t get anything done in one day. Font Squirrel and Google Fonts, you specialize in free fonts. While I (and my students) love having free fonts to use, access to good-quality body fonts is sort of limited. WebINK, your plugin for Photoshop is a great solution — unless a Web designer prefers to use Illustrator, InDesign or another tool.

Fontspring, MyFonts, Typotheque and Hoefler & Frere-Jones, I know you all offer bundles or discounts for purchasing both Web and desktop fonts, and bundling does take some of the pressure off a Web designer’s wallet. But if you’re a small company or an independent designer, like me, shelling out the extra money just to mock up an idea is hard.

The most promising approach for mock-up fonts might be just around the corner. Typekit, I know you’re working with Adobe Creative Cloud to bring us desktop font sync. I’ve tested it out, and I’m happy to report that it works like a charm. (OK, my old Mac laptop runs more like a tortoise than a hare when I’m running Creative Cloud — but, hey, I can turn it off when I’m not using it.)

I was cynical (who me?) about font synching actually working. I use CS6 out of the box and the free Creative Cloud membership level. But you promised me that it would work with a paid Typekit membership (which I have), and it did! The fonts even stay synced when I’m working offline. This has exciting possibilities.

In Conclusion

I know you guys are busy, so I’ll wrap this up.

One more thing needs to happen before Web fonts can truly take Web design to the next level, and only you can do it. You need to meet the needs of the people who actually choose and use the Web fonts (ahem, Web designers).

Sure, we can all work around these issues. Personally, I’ve got a font specimen page that I use to test the fonts I’m interested in. After I narrow down the options, I can test fonts cross-browser myself. Hours later, if one of the fonts I like actually works, I can go straight to HTML and CSS from my pencil sketch and avoid the need for mock-up fonts.

But here’s the question:

“Why should we have to work around these issues?”

(All Web designers who love to use new fonts, repeat after me, “Why should we have to work around these issues?”)

If it’s important that fonts load in every browser, why isn’t it important to identify which fonts actually look good in every browser?

If it’s important to woo font designers so that you have a lot of fonts to offer, why not show us how those fonts actually work in copy?

Look, Web fonts aren’t just font files that need to be secure and easy to implement. They affect the overall look and usability of a website. They need to be chosen with care. And thanks for the thousands of fonts, but quantity is not as important as quality. A hundred knives that can’t cut a tomato won’t meet my needs when I’m making my kid a BLT.

So, make our lives a little easier. Make our work a little better. Help us find the Web fonts we want to use.

I dare say, you’ll win some affection from every Web designer who has ever looked at the thousands of Web font options and said, “Oh shit. Which one should I use?”

Sincerely yours,

A Type-Loving Web Designer


P.S. In case you’re interested, I’ve summarized how you’re all doing so far. Web designers who love to use new fonts, I hope you find it useful.

P.P.S. Below you’ll find the official bibliography of the articles quoted above. Otherwise, my students would be very disappointed by my lack of scholarly detail.

(Credits of image on front page: Michael Bundscherer)

(al, ea, il)


© Laura Franz for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

September 12 2013

13:00

Designing The Words: Why Copy Is A Design Issue


  

The relationship between copy and design has been covered many times on Smashing Magazine. Working in a content-focused industry, we need to keep this issue pretty close to heart; creating great copy is pointless if it is visually uninspiring or unreadable. Likewise, if the content doesn’t deliver, then even the most attractive page won’t hold the reader’s attention.

Yet much of the discussion so far has concentrated on issues such as microcopy — the small bits of text that instruct the reader on how to interact with the website — and the minutiae of user experience. This stuff is essential, of course, but in this article we’d like to broaden our focus to look at some of the fundamental mistakes behind bad copy.

We’ve chosen to do this for two reasons. First, we hope it will help budding writers out there avoid the most common pitfalls of the job. Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — we want to stress the importance of content as part of the user experience mix.

A while back, Elliot Nash discussed the responsibility of the designer. Designers “want control of the entire user experience,” he said. “We want to ensure repeat use, and high engagement — and to do so, we want to design every little piece of whatever it is we’re working on. After all, we are largely responsible for the performance of the result.” However, he argued, “most of us don’t want to own the work it takes to execute this full scale implementation.” For us, leaving the copy out of the equation is a fundamental error.

In practice, design is a process that should happen with content, not just for it, and the practice of creating a page full of lorem ipsum and getting the copywriter to fill in the blanks just doesn’t cut it anymore. The cross-discipline approach of using design as a way to clearly communicate information, known as communication design, is growing. However, no matter how clearly laid out a design is or how elegant the infographics are, our number one visual tool for relaying information to the audience is well-written text.

The Importance Of Editing

Bill Beard has written about the importance of using techniques such as multivariant testing to optimize microcopy. With large bodies of text, this becomes more of a challenge. Fortunately, authors, journalists and copywriters have been wrestling with this challenge for years, which is how we came up with the concept of editing. The main difference between editing and testing is that, rather than observing an average member of the public navigate your copy, you enlist someone who has a wealth of experience in working with the written word.

A lot of editing is nuts and bolts stuff: fixing the grammar and punctuation, removing repetition, and making text easier to scan. However, like many user-centered design practices, it also means delving into the fundamental assumptions behind your writing, addressing how you think about the words, your audience and yourself. It is this process that will turn a precocious but essentially terrible teenage poet into a good writer. Yet, looking at so much of the copy online, in magazines and on billboards, we can see that plenty of professionals out there haven’t yet mastered it.

Below are the three things that every writer and copywriter must learn to avoid:

1. Self-Importance

Of all the mistakes new writers make, this is probably the most understandable. When you begin writing, you want, first and foremost, to make your mark. Your writing isn’t just another entry in the world’s growing collection of largely unread manuscripts; it’s a definitive text that future scholars will paw over for hidden meaning for years to come. You’re the voice of a generation, damn it!

Copywriters face the same problem. By now, probably about half the words ever written were penned for marketing purposes, and you don’t want your work to be another drop in that increasingly deep ocean of marketing blah. You want to stand out, to be something special. That’s why you end up writing copy like this:

“It’s not a journey. Every journey ends, but we go on. The world turns and we turn with it. Plans disappear. Dreams take over. But wherever I go, there you are. My luck, my fate, my fortune.”

Believe it or not, this wasn’t written in the Moleskin of a sensitive teenager. It was written by professionals, advertising a globally recognized brand with a budget big enough to hire Brad Pitt to read it like so:

Both the poor souls behind this crime of an advert and the 15-year-old who writes poetry about how everyone is superficial except himself have the same problem. They both want to stand out, to draw prestige, to be memorable; however, whether due to youth or the fact that they sell scented liquid, they don’t actually have much to say.

So, how do you avoid doing this yourself?

One of the most common pieces of writing advice in the world is “Write what you know.” Conversely, it’s a good idea to know what you’re writing about. You will often save yourself a lot of trouble simply by asking, “Why would anyone want to read this?” The answer could be “because it’s useful” or “because it’s funny” or any number of other reasons, but you should be able to answer that question before putting words to paper. I’m sure no one asked why anyone would want to hear “The world turns and we turn with it.”

It’s a line that doesn’t actually tell the audience anything. It’s the sort of vacuous line that sounds meaningful but contains no information. You can argue that it’s making the case for Chanel No. 5 as a constant in an ever-changing world, but the portentous tone and the layering on of hilarious faux-meaningful truisms, such as “Every journey ends, but we go on,” drown out any point the text could have conceivably made.

The teenaged poet is likely to get better as they get older because they will learn more and will have more to write about. By the same token, if your copy is to carry weight, whether for an advert, marketing copy or a company website, then you’ll need to know what you’re trying to communicate and why anybody would want to hear it.

2. The Wrong Tone

Young writers are a lot like magpies, happy to steal anything that looks shiny and put it to use in their own creation. Studying Shakespeare in school? In it goes. Read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and thought it sounded cool? You’re having that. Enjoy the teenaged banter in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That goes in, too.

The result is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a writing style. And you know what? That’s fine. As with most things, imitation is a great way to learn how to write, and, with time, copying the good bits of others will mutate into something that conceivably sounds like your own voice.

The same is true of professionally written copy. When Barclay’s heard of cash machines being described as “holes in the wall,” it liked it and took it. World of Warcraft liked the Chuck Norris jokes (or facts) that were getting passed around a few years ago and so got Chuck Norris to appear in an advert based on them.

But if you don’t take tone into account when writing copy professionally, the results can come out a little on the weird side.

For example, check out Kingpin Social. This company offers courses in social interaction. Fair enough — plenty of people out there find it difficult to talk to others, and a company that offers techniques and training to help you overcome that difficulty would be welcome. The problem is that the website uses phrases like, “We will teach you to utilize proven social methodologies that will provide you with success in your personal, career or corporate relationships,” and “Every person deserves the confidence to achieve the optimal result in every social situation.” Imagine somebody using phrases like these in conversation; what opinion would you form of them?

A course like this needs to appear inviting to people who are worried about coming out of their shell, while also demonstrating that this company is made up of people who are good at speaking with others. Using words like “utilize” and “optimal” achieves the exact opposite effect.

The only reason anyone uses those words in marketing copy is to appear clever, and using words to appear clever is what bad teenage poets do. Never say “utilize” or “optimal” when you can say “use” and “best” instead.

Sometimes you end up with a patchwork effect — for example, using a simple, effective phrase like “What We Do,” and then following it up by telling readers that you are “a performance-based retail marketing technology and analytics company focused on helping retailers deliver relevant advertising that converts.”

In user-centered design, one often speaks of “personas.” A persona is a fictional character who represents the typical person you are designing for. You would think about their needs, their wants, the knowledge they will bring to your design, all of which will help you to construct a design around them.

A good way to avoid this pitfall in your own copy is to try the reverse. Think of your client’s business as a character you’re writing dialogue for. What sort of person is this business? What are their likes and dislikes? What sorts of things are they likely to say? Read the copy out loud. Does it sound like the sort of thing your imaginary person would say? If not, why not?

A particularly good example of this is the Scottish craft brewery Brewdog. Everything, from its website to its packaging, is written to sound like somebody you wouldn’t mind going for a beer with — passionate, funny and just a little surreal.

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Brewdog — passionate, funny and just a little surreal…

The Dead Pony Club drink is introduced thus: “Being shot from a Hoppy Howitzer beats the hell out of trotting round a submissive paddock. That’s why the internal combustion engine got mounted onto two wheels.” But it avoids the territory of “The world turns” by adding, “This pale ale is chopped, tuned and ready to roll. Fuel up and hold tight, this little thoroughbred kicks like a mule.” However unpoetic the language, there’s never any doubt that the copy is talking about beer.

3. Self-Awareness

This is perhaps the hardest and most important thing for any writer to learn. It’s why many of us just don’t bother. We all dive in at the start without hesitation, enjoying the sheer joy of creation for its own sake and assuming that we’re producing pure written gold merely because we’re the ones doing it — until one day, it suddenly occurs to us, “What if I’m not any good?” Yes, I know, it was a surprise to me, too.

Some writers simply shake this thought loose and carry on as before. Many others stop right then and there, too paralyzed to ever dare setting down another word. However, every writer has to go through this step before they actually start being good. It’s when they start asking the question mentioned at the beginning, “Why would anyone want to read this?” and they start working to come up with a good answer. It’s when they start trying to read their work with eyes other than their own; and if you can’t do that, then copywriting really isn’t where you want to be.

Writers who struggle to overcome this obstacle are often so focused on selling their product that they forget the advert will appear in a wider context — with disastrous results. This is probably why Sony produced a series of incredibly racist billboard ads for its Playstation Portable. It’s also likely why American Apparel thought Hurricane Sandy was in any way an opportunity for social media marketing. At the time of writing, the Royal Bank of Scotland has just hit a marketing disaster because its campaign, which tells people to “Search RBYes,” doesn’t take into account that Google autocorrects “RBYes” to “Rabies.”

Sadly, teaching someone to “be more self-aware” is not really possible. Most of us learn to do it by making a lot of mistakes. But, more than anything, it takes a bit of imagination, the stuff that both copywriters and designers are supposed to have in droves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that designers now have to be fully proficient copywriters who can proofread and redraft words while setting layouts. Nor does it mean that copywriters need to be wizards with design software (although a little knowledge of the basic tools and concepts wouldn’t hurt). However, it certainly means that copywriters and designers need to work more closely together than ever before.

Conclusion

If you would like to learn more, we strongly recommend reading The Craft of Words, Part One: Macrocopy by the Standardistas, a great exploration of how design and copywriting intersect. All too often, design and copywriting take place in their own little bubbles, with each practitioner unaware of what the other is doing. But for the copy to be of any use, the writer needs to be aware of the context in which it will appear.

Front page image credits: Sean MacEntee.

(al, ea, il)


© Sam Wright for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

September 03 2013

14:03

Flat And Thin Are In


  

In the last several years, we’ve seen a rapid shift in software and app interface design, from 3-D and skeuomorphic to flat and minimal. Although this trend has become nearly ubiquitous, let’s take a moment to consider how we got here and what influence it’s having on interface design as a whole. Additionally, I’ll share some tips and considerations on designing flat interfaces.

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Interfaces on a Windows Phone 8 and Apple’s iOS 7.

What Happened?

So, how did the collective consciousness swing from a love of all things textured, beveled and drop-shadowed to a desire for flat colors and simple typography? Many factors have fuelled this transition, but here are a few that stand out.

Information Overload

As a constantly connected culture, we deal with a nonstop flow of information, some of it important and relevant, most of it not. We are constantly evaluating, filtering and, of course, creating content, and it all gets pretty exhausting. In addition, much of our content consumption has moved to devices with small screens, thus exacerbating that feeling of overload. Becoming overwhelmed is all too easy, and a reduction of clutter in a user interface (UI) can create a little visual zen.

Geckoboard
Free of clutter: Geckoboard‘s visualisations are designed to make key data easy to interpret at a glance.

Simplicity Is Golden

In a similar trend, a lot of disruptive Web apps and services are offering highly focused tools with extremely limited feature sets. Whereas traditional software developers tend to load their products with a glut of features to justify the high price tags, this shift towards focused micro-apps favors simplicity over feature set. Simpler apps mean simpler interfaces.

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Beautiful and minimal: The Blue weather app by Oak.

Content Is King, Again

As so often happens when new devices and technologies enter the market, we become fascinated by what they can do and how we can advance interactivity. This interface frenzy is usually followed by a return to a focus on content. Media consumption, whether of text, audio or video, is probably the activity we engage in most on our devices, and for that use case, we just want the interface to get out of the way.

Technological Literacy

As smartphone and tablet adoption has rapidly penetrated all user demographics, concern about the obviousness of controls has reduced. Whereas we once feared that users might miss a button if it didn’t pop off the screen, we are now willing to explore subtler interactions. Windows 8 and Chrome for Android even support touch commands that start off screen, without any visual indicator.

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Fitbit’s dashboard is a bright, bold, and easy approachable visual identity.

Technology’s Influence

Most software will be limited by the platform on which it runs. Screen dimensions and pixel density are the confining factors of hardware. A minimal interface demands a very limited design palette, which means that every element needs to sing. Typographic scale and font weight will largely determine both the aesthetics and usability of a flat design.

If your target devices can’t handle that level of nuance, you’re out of luck. As screen size and pixel density continue to increase on mobile devices, thinner and smaller type can be presented with better clarity. Of course, support for @font-face has also boosted the appeal of minimal typographic-focused designs.

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Live sales monitoring with Wallmob: keeping track of the figures from any device that has a browser.

Responsive Design

With the proliferation of connected devices of various dimensions, UIs have had to become more fluid, and the responsive design movement has responded. While responsive design does not call for a particular aesthetic, one could certainly argue that flat UIs lend themselves to it more easily than many other styles. The other advantage of minimal design is the reduction in page weight and loading time.

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To the point and weightless: OnSite. (Larger view)

Best Practices

OK, enough with the theory. Let’s get down to some practical considerations. Creating an effective minimal design is surprisingly challenging. As you strip away common UI tricks (drop shadows, bevels, textures and the like), you quickly realize how important the few remaining elements become. While the following tips are mostly universally applicable, they are especially relevant to flat UIs.

Before You Begin

As with any project, the first step is to ensure that your chosen style makes sense. Before diving into a flat design, make sure it aligns with your target users’ sensibilities and your target platform, devices and application type. Following a trend is pointless if it’s the wrong solution for your project.

Process

The process you follow is pretty important, no matter what style you are adopting. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when aiming for simplicity.

  • When designing a minimal interface, I often seek inspiration from the pre-PC era, when designers and artists did more with less. This is a perfect opportunity to revisit some of the design greats, such as Josef Müller-Brockmann and Wim Crouwel. I also look to minimal painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, architects such as Mies van der Rohe and industrial designers such as Dieter Rams.
  • Walking away from the work is also helpful. Flat and minimal design is all about nuance. So, taking a break and coming back later with fresh eyes is often more effective than hammering away.
  • Comparing versions side by side is also helpful. After moving a line of type up and down by 5 pixels for 20 minutes, I’ll save two versions and compare them; the better option is quickly revealed.
  • Because the relative scale of objects plays such a critical role, check your design concepts on a variety of target devices early on to confirm that they work.
  • As you work, keep asking yourself, “Do I really need that?” Getting attached to an item that you find clever is so easy, but we must always look for elements to cut or simplify. Ditching something that you’ve put so much work into is always hard, but editing is critical.

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Global Closet: an interactive game designed for National Geographic Education by The Workshop.

Grid

The grid plays a crucial role in so much of interface design, and no exception here. As you attempt to establish order and make usability intuitive across a project with a restricted set of visual elements, the grid is there to help.

  • The grid establishes more than visual order. Use it to define content and functional groups. You don’t always need a line or box to group a set of objects. Simple alignment and spacing can help the user understand an interface’s structure.
  • Try breaking the grid with elements of particular importance to really draw the user’s attention. Without fake 3-D trickery, basic layout principles such as scale and placement become the best elements by which to establish visual hierarchy.
  • Experiment with a denser grid than you are accustomed to working with. When you dramatically reduce the visual palette, you may find that the design supports a more complex structure without feeling messy. See what additional information you can convey through placement alone.

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Live School iPad app by Rossul Design.

Color

Obviously, color is always a key component of visual design. With minimal interfaces, it is even more critical.

  • Consider a broader palette. If you’re like me, then you feel that a narrower palette usually leads to a more functional interface. Ending up with an overwhelming rainbow is all too easy. Here’s your chance to really stretch; and with so few elements to work with, you can feel good about expanding the palette.
  • When setting the palette, test your selected hues across a wide value spectrum to make sure they behave in lighter and darker versions.
  • You’ll probably want to experiment with tone on tone and stark type. Experiment with your palette early on to ensure that you have enough range for both subtle and high-contrast elements.

trippleagent
TriplAgent‘s visual design makes use of a stunning color palette.

Typography

When it comes to flat content-driven websites, typography is the hero.

  • While serifs are certainly an option, san serifs almost always feel cleaner.
  • Look for a font family with a wide variety of weights and styles. You certainly don’t need to use them all, but a broad selection will help you define the hierarchy more sharply, and you might also find that certain weights render better in certain environments.
  • Don’t be afraid to pair fonts with extreme differences in size and weight to create visual order. Try pairing an oversized ultra-thin font for headlines with a small medium-weight font for the body.
  • Watch out for legibility in fonts. It sounds silly, I know, but you will be asking a lot from your chosen fonts, so make sure they have great legibility at any scale.

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Clean and legible typography on Siteleaf.

Interaction

In a flat UI, indicating that an element is interactive can be tricky. Here are a few methods I rely on.

  • Contrast is key. If the majority of the layout is white, then you could give interactive elements some color. If the design is primarily text-driven, then you could use simple iconography. If the headlines are large and all lowercase, you could make links small and all uppercase. You get the idea.
  • Conventional placement helps as well. If you use a slim chevron for a back arrow, place it in the upper-left corner, where users would expect to find the back button.
  • As you layer more features on the page, making every interactive element look like a button wouldn’t make sense. The interface should be as intuitive as possible. But in cases where interaction is particularly complex or unexpected, make it easy to recover from mistakes.
  • Drop-downs, modal windows, fly-outs and other layered elements can be troublesome to implement in a flat design. Leverage sharp contrast, borders or tinting to visually separate the levels of interaction.

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Design elements presented in a simple layout and with optimal contrasts: Taasky.

Wrapping Up

I don’t believe in hard and fast rules in design. Seeing designers so heavily invested in creating extremely clean and simple user interfaces is pretty awesome. Does exploring flat design mean using absolutely no gradients or shadows? Of course not. In fact, some of the most intriguing work I’ve seen recently balances flatness and dimension by presenting content intelligently while keeping the interaction intuitive.

In this highly connected, information-rich and feature-packed digital world we live in, minimal design’s widespread resurgence is refreshing to witness. It is by no means the right solution for everything (no style is), but when applied thoughtfully and appropriately, it makes for a highly usable and enjoyable digital experience.

(al) (ea)


© Adrian Taylor for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

August 28 2013

11:10

On Creative Leadership


  

I have spent nearly a decade experimenting with a single goal in mind: to create scalable, predictably insightful, inspirational environments. I have led creative teams in these environments, and I’m currently doing it as the Director of Web Interface and Development at Astonish (a digital marketing company in Rhode Island, US).

It hasn’t been easy, because forcing inspiration is impossible. You have to use finesse and let it come to you. What follows is what I’ve found to help my team and me harness inspiration effectively.

Accessing Your Creativity …In The Shower

It’s 4:30 in the morning. The sun is starting to smear pink across the sky, and I’m in bed, working. Laying in bed in the dark is comfortable, but it’s hardly a working environment. Yet, I am solving problems. At this moment, I am more connected with my subconscious (the most creative part of my brain) than I will be at any other time today.

I have been practicing this combined meditation and creative thinking for several months now. It has been a hugely beneficial experiment, which started early one morning in the shower. Ever have a great idea in the shower? I have had hundreds, and I now know why.

Your morning shower is a breeding ground for ideas and sparks of inspiration. When you stumble into the shower shortly after you wake, you’re able to relax and, because you’re still tired, you’re able to reconnect with your subconscious. I’ve found this state to be so helpful in solving problems that I’ve had to devise ways to take notes on the shower wall.

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The relaxed state of your morning shower helps you to reconnect with your subconscious. (Image source: Simon Law)

My wife is constantly surprised to find product diagrams, flow charts, code and wireframes written in soap, kids shower crayons and anything else I can find. I’ve even considered painting the walls with idea paint, to have a bit more creativity.

I’m sure you’ve had a spark of inspiration or maybe just a moment of clear insight in the shower. I’ve asked many people about their creative abilities during their morning routine, and the answers always support my assumption. The reason? It’s because your insight, inspiration and creative abilities were always there; they’re just more accessible in that relaxed state because you are not grasping for them.

Science

You see, the harder you grasp to be creative, the more easily it slips through your fingers. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to sit down at work and just flip on the creative switch? Do you find yourself intentionally distracting yourself? Browsing Amazon, reading your news feed and skimming Facebook are all ways to indirectly access your creative abilities. Sometimes it’s important to turn off your desire to be creative and just let it come to you.

Artists depiction of the right and left brain.
Distraction-free environments help our brains to “take our minds off the problem” just long enough to get the answer we’re looking for. (Image source: TZA)

John Kounios of Drexel University studies the brain and looks for scientific explanations for the delivery of insight. In one study, Kounios asked subjects to solve puzzles while undergoing a brain scan. He found that insight, or the inspiration needed to solve a problem, comes from the visual cortex. However, in the time leading up to a puzzle being displayed on the screen, the subjects’ brain activity was around the temporal lobe. As Kounios explains in his TED talk:

“This is the mind turning in on itself. This is the mind disengaging from the world. This empowers a person to imagine new and different ways to transfer reality, creatively, into something better.”

Our brain looks for a distraction-free environment to get inspired. This might seem a bit contradictory to what I just said. Believe it or not, your intentional distraction (Amazon and Facebook) can help to relax your brain and “take your mind off the problem” just long enough to get the answer you’re looking for.

Managing A Team

This creates an interesting situation for individuals in a corporate environment. Small studios and agencies usually respect and understand the creative process a bit more. I’ve known a lot of directors who understand the need for a little distraction at work, even if they don’t really know why it works.

When it comes to managing a team of creatives, you have to balance finesse and creative leadership. In fact, I like to eliminate the word “manage” altogether. Take a Web designer. A Web designer already needs to manage their time, creative process, projects, clients and more. Isn’t that enough management already?

If you have the right people on your team, they shouldn’t need to be managed — they need leadership. They need someone to pull them to an answer, not push them. If you trust your team, they’ll come through for you. However, they’ll do a much better job of it if they enjoy their work and are trusted to work openly when they want to. Why restrict your team? Why force them to work the way you want them to or even when you want them to?

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Trust and good leadership can steer your team to enjoy their work and do a much better job. (Image source: opensource.com)

This notion that a creative team should have working hours, such as 9:00 to 5:00, baffles me. Sure, I get it: Your accounts team answers the phone during that time. Well, the fact is that they don’t need to be inspired to answer the phone. And yes, motivation and inspiration are very different.

Work With The Grain, Not Against It

An extremely talented designer and front-end developer named Jeff is on my Web development team. Jeff commutes 30 miles to and from work every day. Having a set schedule from 9:00 to 5:00 would require Jeff to get up earlier every morning to fight traffic for over an hour. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic and getting frustrated by the people around him doesn’t exactly scream “distraction-free moments of inspiration.”

Having the freedom to arrive at work around 9:30 or 10:00 cuts Jeff’s commute by over 25 minutes. Does this mean that Jeff works less? Absolutely not! Not only does Jeff make up his time, but he also works smarter. And because his day starts off with way less stress, he’s even more likely to enjoy his work and stick around to get the job done.

This is just one example; there are hundreds. Some people like to listen to music while they work; others play Netflix in the background. Sometimes a good meeting can get a team in the right mindset; other times, they just want to be left alone. Lead people with respect and trust and you’ll get so much more out of them. Not to mention that you’ll learn whether they are the right fit for your team.

There is no better way to make the cream rise to the top than by letting it sit for a while. If you keep stirring it, you’ll never get it to settle.

“Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light”

As a leader of creatives, your job is to provide an insight-sparking, inspirational environment, while guarding against distraction.

The creatives on my team work smart and fast. They do this because they are in touch with their brains’ ability to perform different tasks. At 4:30 in the morning, I might be working on a problem that I went to bed with. You might work on a coding problem at 11:00 pm until about the time I wake up. We are all different; the important thing is to know why and how we are different.

I get to know my team and work closely with everyone on it. They all have different needs and like to be communicated with differently. At the same time, they all enjoy working on different types of projects at different times.

Each member of my team has an inspiration schedule, a time when they know they are more likely to be creative. During those times, there are no meetings, distractions or interruptions. This is their time to increase their working memory, to build, to design and to solve problems.

Being a leader, my job is to help them understand what this time means for them and to fight anyone who jeopardizes it. Don’t dismiss this point. It is vital to the clients, products and team that your creatives have the time to do their job right. Remember that they will get the job done either way, because you trust them to come through. Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that they have time during the day to do it, when they have allocated time to do it, rather than bombard them with meetings and problems?

Finding And Feeding Inspiration

It’s as if the sky parts and a divine entity comes down and delivers the answer directly into your brain. Understanding where inspiration comes from or how you’ve solved the problem isn’t easy, but at that point you don’t care because you’re off and running.

In 2013, learning code, understanding design patterns and analyzing data are extremely easy. Our tools, documentation and frameworks are accessible and ubiquitous. What’s both rare and stubborn is a great imagination. The concept of “thinking outside the box” is based on the idea of being creative with knowledge.

Imagination is vital, but without inspiration, it can lie dormant. If imagination is the playground, then inspiration is the gravity that pulls you down the slide, bounces you on the seesaw or propels you on the swing. Without inspiration, imagination is as pointless as a slide in outer space. It’s the powerful force behind creation.

Harnessing inspiration is almost impossible. Yet, we can cultivate ideas by finding patterns in our moments of inspiration. We’ve already talked about relaxation, daily schedules and the link to your subconscious. What about your mood and other factors that play into it?

Music

I love music. In fact, music is the only thing I love more than food. Music comes in so many different forms, is readily available and is creative in itself. I bet you already know that different types of music have different effects on people. Some types help you to concentrate, while others make you want to get up and dance; some types help you to relax, while others keep you up all night.

I remember my science teacher in school telling me that listening to classical music helps mice navigate a maze faster than listening to heavy metal. Is this really true?

Remember when we talked about John Kounios and brain activity around the temporal lobe? Well, that temporal lobe is in charge of receiving auditory signals, such as from music. When your brain activity is focused on this area, it’s redirecting energy from other areas, helping you to concentrate. This, and the fact that music has a direct correlation to increased amounts of dopamine and adrenaline, means you can have a direct and significant emotional response to the right type of music.

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When your brain activity is focused on this area, it’s redirecting energy from other areas, helping you to concentrate. (Image source: opensource.com)

Classical music is very rhythmic and, oddly enough, predictable. Classical also usually has a slower tempo, less than 60 beats per minute, whereas pop and jazz have unpredictable variances in tone and rhythm and often a much faster tempo.

Why is this important? Remember that the more opportunities your brain has to turn in on itself, away from distraction, the greater the chance of finding insight. Classical music lends itself to a distraction-free environment and provides relaxation, which the brain enjoys. You’re favorite Coldplay song might trigger a powerful emotional response, but that type of music is actually better saved for menial tasks. Upbeat pop music can help you stay on track by distracting you from what you are doing, which is helpful when you’re inputting data and answering emails.

Vinod Menon, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, has written an interesting article on the subject. In the paper, Menon writes about music’s effect on the brain during an MRI. To simplify, the brain performs better when predictable patterns are in the music. During sudden breaks in the sound, the brain reacts to check on what’s happening. Your brain turns its attention back to the music, rather than stays on what you were concentrating on.

Experiment with this theory on your own. I have found Italian opera to be particularly conducive to creative thinking. Take some time today to create a short playlist on Spotify. Add five to eight of the top-ranked classical pieces, then drop in an AC/DC song. Shuffle the playlist, and then try to focus on a task. I bet you won’t even consciously hear the classical music (once you get into the groove), but when “Highway to Hell” comes on, you’ll be pulled away from what you’re working on, as if waking from a great dream.

Weather

Controlling a playlist is easy, but one thing science may never solve is how to control the weather. And what has the human race done for thousands of years when it can’t control something? We try to understand it, which helps us control our response to it.

The things in this world that affect our brain are absolutely amazing. For example, even subconsciously, wet and rainy weather will depress us, while beautiful sunny days will make us happy. So, if we have a big creative deadline and the forecast calls for rain, we must be screwed, right? Wrong.

As Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales puts it:

“It seems counter-intuitive but a little bit of sadness turns out to be a good thing.”

You see, memory is actually more active and accessible during periods of sadness. Forgas studies the brain and the weather’s effect on it. He found, surprisingly, that subjects retain more information on rainy gloomy days than subjects who are asked the same things on beautiful sunny days. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer attributes this as the reason why some tortured artists are so amazing at what they do.

Memory, especially our working memory, is vital to the creative process.

Human RAM

Random access memory (RAM) is a computer’s ability to access data without (for lack of a better explanation) having to dig for it. The human brain works like this, too. Our RAM is called working memory. This working memory directly correlates to our ability to be creative and unique.

If you want to redesign the interface of a Web form, what’s the first thing you do? You go onto the Web, trying to find something. Can you guess what you’re not finding? Inspiration. You’re building a working memory. Whether you know it or not, your brain is retaining everything you see. And your ability to access it randomly later is the working memory in action. The more you see, the more your brain can hold.

I am not a scientist, but I suspect that this is one of the reasons why you have that moment of insight during your morning shower. You try so hard during the day to solve a problem; you’re trying to force the answer by researching and scouring the Internet. During that time, your brain is retaining all that information. Later that night, during REM sleep, your brain catalogs everything it’s seen.

I propose that your mind, tapped into the subconscious during deep sleep while recounting the day’s working memory, is able to solve the problem for you. It’s only after you wake — during that morning routine — that you’re able to access it. This is why forcing inspiration, while impossible, does reap positive results.

Finely Tuned Problem-Solving Sessions

We’ve learned that you can’t force inspiration, and, although we try to control our environment, doing so is hard as well because so much plays into it. The problem is that sometimes you have to be inspirational on the fly. Well, practice makes perfect.

Last summer, I read an article by Seth Godin titled “Impresarios.” In the article, Godin talks about how impresarios “weave together resources and opportunities and put on a show.” This gave me an idea, and I will forever be in Godin’s debt because I am now my own version of an impresario. An impresario is someone who organizes and often finances concerts, plays and theatrical productions. In my case, I organize brainstorming events.

Every month, my team and I enter our planning room for at least three hours. We lock the doors, opening it only for pizza and beer deliveries. Our mission is to solve one problem. In past sessions, we have redesigned the user interface that powers our systems, solved marketing problems by “remarketing,” and found new and creative ways to present information. The role of an impresario has had such a direct and positive impact on the way we do business that I am now introducing the role to every team in our 100+ person company.

Why does having an impresario work? Well, certain rules guide the team to moments of insight:

  1. Identify a very specific problem to solve, and stay focused.
  2. Provide the necessary tools to spark inspiration (white boards, markers, paper, etc.).
  3. Be technology-agnostic! Don’t worry about how you will solve the problem; focus only on the why.
  4. There are no wrong answers; some are just better than others.
  5. Celebrate failures.

My team looks forward to their time spent locked up together because it gives us an opportunity to be creative in front of each other. Support their ideas, and help them grow. Don’t force your opinions and thoughts. If the group is moving in the wrong direction, ask them questions until they find the right path.

Celebrating Failures

Admitting defeat is one thing; celebrating it an entirely other. Only good can come from openness and honesty. We all learn from our own mistakes, but if you don’t share yours, how can I learn from it? Celebrating failures and realizing that “missing the target” isn’t a bad thing will help your team to grow, recover and build things faster.

At the end of the process, my team always has something to show for it. On occasion, we have realized that the problem we set out to solve was the wrong problem to focus on. We failed to find a solution because there was no reason to find one. That in itself was the solution, and presenting the outcome of the session to our company helped us to refocus.

The only failure I’m not comfortable with is the failure to try.

In Retrospect

I’ve found a groove. I go to bed, thinking hard about a problem, and fall asleep trying to solve it. Waking early in the morning and refocusing my efforts brings the solution closer to my consciousness. I’ll often get to work quite early, continually working on the problem. Then, when I feel my creativity beginning to slip, I’ll hit the gym.

Getting my energy level up, increasing my adrenaline and getting my mind off the topic help to realign my thoughts. Then, I hit the sauna for a good 20 minutes. Nothing like 80 °C heat in a quiet room and with eyes closed to restart that relaxed, creative meditation. Then, I head back to work.

make_things_better_mini
Keep in mind that we all have our own ways of getting our minds off topic, and later realigning our thoughts — and making things better. (Image source: opensource.com)

I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue this schedule over time, nor do I expect you to follow it. Right now, I’m treating this as an experiment, and it’s proving to be highly fruitful.

Here are the big take-aways from my experience:

  • Respect your teammates and their periods of inspiration.
  • Protect your team from the day’s distractions and interruptions.
  • Deliver freedom as a gift. You’ll see boundless gains in creativity from the team.
  • Try to more deeply understand your brain and its ability to be affected by its environment.
  • And, of course, celebrate your failures!

Thoughts?

Please feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.

(al) (il) (ea)


© Jesse Friedman for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

August 22 2013

14:58

Designing For Digital Products


  

In digital culture, we are beginning to think of our output as products and of our clients as users. “Products” might be websites, apps or communities, and they might be created by startups, agencies or a couple of people at a hackathon. This shift mainly means that we have gotten serious about asking how to better serve users, which reflects a significant change in the designer’s skill set.

Designers will use the same tools they have always used, but they are now responsible for more than just the interface. Conducting usability studies, planning design strategically over the course of a product’s lifespan, facilitating communication and — above all — “shipping” are frequent requests. Whether or not a designer calls him or herself a product designer is beside the point; to remain relevant, they need to master these new user-centered values and processes.

Forget The Job Title

Designers have in the past distinguished themselves by job title, but existing titles have become inaccurate. Job expectations are no longer confined to singular tasks. Labels like user experience designer, user interface designer, interaction designer, product designer and so on may describe a person’s interests better than another, but most designers do a little of all of this, as “hybrids” (be it designer and coder, user experience and user interface designer, or designer and entrepreneur).

This trend is clearly reflected in the variety of open jobs posted. No one knows exactly who they’re looking for, so they pick the label that sounds best. Here are a few examples from the Smashing Job Board and Dribbble:

Cat Lover Job Posting on Dribbble
Wordpress Happiness Engineer Job Posting
SupercalifragilisticIxDadocious Interaction Designer Job Posting
Hiring companies are choosing creative descriptions to draw attention to their posts.

On the flip side, people who do the hiring understand that anyone can choose a title they like the sound of and slap that on their portfolio or business card, and that doesn’t change a designer’s level of experience or resourcefulness. The new product design world, on the other hand, is about being effective as a designer, a task rooted in real products and real people (think living portfolios and networks of people). Authenticity is getting harder to manufacture.

In high-profile opportunities, designers are expected to know UX, UI, front-end code, even how to write strategic business plans. Let’s look at a few of the requirements from a product designer job listing on Evernote (emphasis mine):

Responsibilities:

  • Be a thoughtful voice for our users. You are constantly thinking about new and improved use cases and features that will appeal to our users.
  • Work in small multidisciplinary product teams to help build products that are beneficial to our company and our users.
  • Develop high level user stories, prototypes, design mockups, specs, and production assets.
  • Define innovative user experiences that result in improved user productivity.
  • Be equally comfortable working the details of your designs at a pixel level.
  • Maintain a high level of visual fidelity across products.
  • Be nimble. You will be working to define requirements while simultaneously designing for those requirements.

Requirements and Skills:

  • Experience designing engaging user experiences for desktop, web, or mobile apps.
  • Proficiency with the common suite of desktop applications used to create the wide variety of materials required to take a solution from concept through code.
  • Ability to think about a problem from multiple angles to come up with the best design.
  • Unique drive to continue pushing products forward and innovating.
  • Proven track-record for shipping high quality experiences.
  • Excellent presentation skills and attention to detail.
  • Articulate and passionate verbal communicator.
  • A strong sense of design theory and typography are critical.
  • Ability to prototype designs in lo-fidelity and hi-fidelity as required.
  • At least 3-5 years of relevant product design experience working on major product releases.
  • A complete portfolio that shows breadth and depth of work.
  • Experience working closely with other designers, product managers and developers.
  • B.S./B.A. in related field or equivalent experience.

Please include your online portfolio on your resume or cover letter for consideration.

Individually, the requirements appear vague, but as a sum total, the message is clear: Design is no longer a “service” so much as it is a core offering in the “idea economy”:

“The service economy is going… going… soon to be gone like its predecessors in the manufacturing/industrial economy and the agricultural economy. […] The primary product of the Idea Economy is ideas. You and I can and must produce ideas just as those who prospered in previous economies had to produce crops, manufactured goods, and most recently, services.”

– Rob Brazell, founder of Overstock.com and author of The Idea Economy

These changes in culture represent a shift in the way we value design. Designers are expected to use whatever resources they have available to build upon and sell good ideas.

It’s never been easier to “sell” design ideas to non-designers. The growing support infrastructure for designers as entrepreneurs over the last few years has had a huge impact on the culture of design, particularly with the creation of The Designer Fund, a key investor in designer-led startups, and the abundance of role models of successful designer-entrepreneurs.

Designer Founders
A plethora of designer-founders are changing the way designers are being perceived.

Having been on the hiring end of product teams, I can confidently say, yes, the portfolio is important. Yes, experience is important. Yes, an intricate mastery of our craft (typography, grids, layout, etc.) will get a designer noticed. But in addition to these skills, you can be sure that employers are looking for big-picture thinking that will directly add value to their team and their product.

Usability Testing

“The real audience were the people out there in the real world who were going to be stuck with whatever it was I was designing. […] The more you can be their advocate, the better the design will be. That’s not just the goal of identity design, but design period.”

– Michael Bierut, in an interview with designboom

Everyone has intuition or experiences that shape their judgment in interaction design, including developers, product managers and other members of the team. And why shouldn’t they? We are all users, after all. The designer no longer lays claim to be the sole advocate of a user’s experience, and their opinion has become less relevant without evidence to back it up.

I think this has happened for a few good reasons:

  1. User testing has never been more accessible.
  2. Perfectionism is less valued than it used to be.
  3. More people recognize good design as more than a veneer.

Regarding the first point, a plethora of articles (such as those on Design Staff) have made it impossibly easy to do what used to be the siloed and specialized skills of human factors and user-centered design. It’s often as simple as following a set of instructions. The up-front cost, given tools like Silverback ($70) and options like UserTesting.com (from $100 for three participants), can be as minimal as paying a staff member — such as a designer — to write the testing criteria. Moreover, businesses understand that the payoff for conducting a simple study, with even just five participants, is huge compared to the risk of not talking directly to users early on.

Nielsen's Why You Only Need to Test With Five Users
Nielsen’s diagram depicts a diminishing amount of useful feedback after testing with just five users. (Image: Jakob Nielsen)

Paul Graham of Y Combinator talks about early testing in his essay “Do Things That Don’t Scale”:

“In software, especially, it usually works best to get something in front of users as soon as it has a quantum of utility, and then see what they do with it. Perfectionism is often an excuse for procrastination, and in any case your initial model of users is always inaccurate, even if you’re one of them. The feedback you get from engaging directly with your earliest users will be the best you ever get.”

For designers, a bit of time spent writing surveys and scenarios, creating a testing environment (however simple), making prototypes, interviewing users, gathering data and then analyzing that data are all experiences that will feed directly back into the designs. This is not about being a perfectionist, but rather about nimbly applying appropriate tools to inform good work. Design, as a utilitarian vocation, will thrive on this, and the wider acceptance of user testing in the product world will mark the transition of good design from being a veneer or ethos to being a very real part of the product.

Design For The Minimum Viable Product

Founders often believe that getting users and investments means being in the right place at the right time, which nearly always means now. Designers and developers are expected to keep up with this pace. If a good idea is on the table, they’d better build and release, or else someone else will beat them to the punch.

Minimum Viable Product User Experience Design
Sketch notes for minimum viable product UX (Image: Dean Meyers | Large view).

This manic environment can pose a particular kind of hardship for designers; we care about the utility of our designs, and we may even see the larger business case for launching early, but we also carry an inherent respect for the subtleties of our craft that create the larger experience and that take time (often a lot of time) to develop.

Timelines, however, rarely shift for perfection, especially in product design (and, really, they don’t need to). Does this mean that designers — if they really care — should work all hours to perfect the interface and experience before the big launch? No.

Designing for the minimum viable product (MVP) means designing with a strategy. It means knowing up front that the website will not be built responsively, but that it should be designed as if it were. It means accepting that the user experience can’t live up to MailChimp’s at first launch, but still designing with that ideal in mind. It means realizing the difference between a minimum viable product and a minimum delightful product, as well as which works for your target audience.

“You’d never find the magnetic click [from an Apple power cable] on an engineer’s list of MVP features or user stories. It’s really easy in minimal viable products to actually design the delight out of them.”

– Andy Budd, in an interview with Inside Intercom

A big challenge of MVP design lies in sacrificing your darlings for the benefit of an early release. A bigger challenge lies in knowing where to follow up and prioritize design improvements for the next release. Luckily, user testing should help with this, but a level of intuition — or awareness — is still needed to determine which piece of the puzzle should fall into place next in order to gain a clearer picture.

I like to think of good MVP design as holding on to your dreams and showing up to work every day; having a vision, but also having the practicality to break your vision into small goals.

Lastly, MVP design doesn’t mean releasing work early to be done with it. It means returning to good but difficult-to-execute ideas that arose in early planning, learning from users, and having the discipline to keep iterating. It means seeing a project through from its messy beginnings to its final finesse.

Communication And Facilitation

Building fast, smart and targeted necessitates a good understanding of different facets of production. Knowing what makes a product tick, the implications of how and why something is being developed in a certain way, and how best to communicate the user’s needs will put the designer in a position to design well. There is no end to the questions designers can ask; any question is relevant.

Now more than ever, design means taking off the headphones and coming out from behind the computer screen in order to talk to people, expose problems and offer solutions. As a team member who tends to see a project holistically, the designer has more opportunities to make connections between people and establish decision points to keep a project on track.

This role shouldn’t be confused with a project or product manager, because design is still a designer’s main deliverable. However, it is worth noting that the designer who communicates well will take a more central role on the team, and more often than not this is the expectation rather than the exception.

“Design is all about relationships. Unfortunately, many designers don’t fully appreciate this. Some of the best design work I’ve ever done was drinking coffee or beers with engineers, marketing people, and business development hustlers. And I wholeheartedly mean design work.”

– Daniel Burka, in The Pastry Box Project

Surviving in a digital industry means learning hard skills all the time, but communication will be a valuable soft skill for the entirety of a designer’s career. It’s worth working on.

Getting It Done

Adam Davidson of NPR recently published an article titled “What’s an Idea Worth?” in the New York Times, writing:

“During the past few decades […] global trade and technology have made it all but impossible for any industry to make much profit in mass production of any sort. (Companies like G.E., Nike and Apple learned early on that the real money was in the creative ideas that can transform simple physical products far beyond their generic or commodity value.)”

The emphasis on “transform” is mine, because transformation is a lot like good design: It is active. Good design actively contributes to the execution of an idea.

Davidson goes on to present a compelling argument for nixing the billable hour, explaining that such a payment structure incentivizes long, boring or redundant tasks and reduces professionals to “interchangeable containers of finite, measurable units that could be traded for money.” Granted, he is talking about accountants, but this easily applies to design as well. Are we not more than the time we spend doing something? Is time-spent how we value the success of good design?

busy-building-things-real-artists-ship
The culture of “shipping” is becoming increasingly important to designers. (Image: Busy Building Things)

In product design, the answer, of course, is no. However, it is not just the idea that matters either. A product begins with an idea, but it is ultimately evaluated by what is released into the world.

If you are a designer who has ever had to mock up every page of a website just because a client insists, then the reason for this shift becomes clear: It is much better to test work in a living prototype, so that it can be played with, iterated on and further developed.

“At the end of the day, is an iPhone and an Android not the same idea, just executed differently? Execution is what really differentiates products or companies, not ideas.”

– Ross Popoff-Walker, in Ideas Do Not Matter: Here’s Why

The penultimate value of a product is in the creative execution of the idea. In other words, what have you released lately?

The Real Value Of Design

“The war is over. Design has won a place on the team. We can lay down arms, fuck around in text editors, and stop fighting the battles of yesteryear. If you’re still fighting it at your company, quit and move to SF or NYC. The future is here, and it’s hiring.”

– Joshua Seiden, in “Designers Shouldn’t Code” Is the Wrong Answer to the Right Question

An army of designers, especially recent graduates, will still work in client services (and will gain valuable experience there), but this shift towards product design has far-reaching implications for all designers and the skills they are expected to contribute when they are hired.

The users, the product and the team are now integral parts of the design brief. Fortunately, it is no longer the value of design that we are fighting to get recognized, but the value of the product, and this means we have more resources at our disposal. Design doesn’t have to do it alone, but designers do need to recognize and learn the processes necessary for success in this new environment.

(al) (il)


© Cassie McDaniel for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

August 07 2013

09:21

Type & Grids: Free Responsive HTML5 Template


  

Today, we are pleased to introduce Type & Grids, a free responsive HTML5 template by Jeremiah Shoaf. It looks great on all devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets and phones. All of the content resides in a single HTML file, so setting it up is super-simple.

Its extensive customization options set Type & Grids apart from other templates out there. The template has 21 type themes and 29 color themes built in, giving you over 500 unique design combinations. Type theme number 21 is a bonus theme that Jeremiah has created exclusively for Smashing Magazine’s readers — it features the beautiful font Alegreya.

Each type theme is meticulously handcrafted, with attention paid to the smallest typographic details. The 16 thumbnail shape variations and 58 background textures that are included allow for a nearly endless combination of design styles — no two Type & Grids websites will look the same.

typeandgrids_500x450

Type & Grids

Instructions

  1. Download and open the ZIP file.
  2. Edit the only HTML file, index.html, to add your own content.
  3. Mix and match the included type and color CSS files to customize the design. All fonts shown in the demo are included.
  4. Upload your new website to your Web host. Done!

Demo And Downloads

Features

  • The code is clean, semantic and SEO-friendly.
  • It’s coded using the latest HTML5 and CSS3 standards, and all code is W3C-valid and cross-browser compatible.
  • Video is supported. Easily embed your videos from Vimeo or YouTube.
  • Works great for non-portfolio websites as well.
  • Support and documentation are available. (But everything is so simple to set up that you probably won’t need it.)
  • Type & Grids

    Type & Grids

    Type & Grids

    Behind The Design

    Here’s what Jeremiah Shoaf has to say about his thinking behind the design:

    “I created Type & Grids to use for my own design portfolio website. I’m the type of designer who is never happy with the final design, and I will just keep tweaking things forever. I’ll create one color scheme for a website and then get sick of it and create a new variation.

    So, I decided to create “theme” CSS files for each color variation and for each typographic variation. This makes it easy to satisfy my need to constantly change things up. I ended up with 20 type themes and 29 color themes. When I turned Type & Grids into a template, my goal was to make it as simple to set up as possible. Other templates and themes out there seem to pack in so many features that the website ends up feeling bloated and difficult to use.

    I tried to limit the features of Type & Grids to just the bare basics. So, I feel it’s a great solution for someone who wants to set up a simple website quickly. And the design customization options make it easy to make your website look unique and not at all like a template.”

    Thanks for your fantastic work, Jeremiah!

    (al) (ea)


    © The Smashing Editorial for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

August 06 2013

08:54

A Journey Through Beautiful Typography In Web Design


  

First impressions are lasting impressions. Whether you realize it or not, your typography helps to create an experience for users before they’ve even read a word or clicked a button. Typography has the potential to go beyond merely telling a story — it shows the user who is behind the website and what you’re about. The treatment of type creates an atmosphere and elicits a response much the same way as tone of voice does.

You need to ask yourself, what do you want to say and how do you want to say it? Consider the user: What do you want them to feel and experience when the page loads? Typography establishes a mode of communication and, in turn, the personality of the website. The choice of typeface will determine how people respond to your website.

The following websites have very distinct personalities, largely established by the typography. Granted, sometimes they aren’t perfect (unfortunately, performance is often an issue), but they use type to engage the user and generate interest. Good Web typography isn’t just about a beautiful visual treatment, but about speed as well; many designers neglect performance entirely. Please keep in mind that these websites haven’t been tested in old browsers or on mobile devices — that wasn’t the point of this article. Instead, we’ll look closely at interesting treatments and innovative uses of type.

Exquisite Uses Of Type

Matt Luckhurst
This page is colorful and fun. You are greeted with lovely serif letters — and after a bit, you realize that the seemingly randomly scattered letters spell Matt’s name. It’s quite effective how hovering reveals a sample image of each project; it almost jumps out of the letter. The website shows how type can be used as graphic elements and incorporated into a design. The multicolored serif typeface breaks away from the classic, maybe even sober, idea we may have of serifs.

Matt Luckhurst

Playful
Well, this is definitely playful! The tone of the website is set not just by the look of the typeface, but by the way it’s displayed. It breaks the mold of communication. You would usually see axial typography on printed posters, which can be effective. On this website, the font choice isn’t particularly decorative or playful; it’s a rather simple sans serif. A nice touch is the background pattern, which mimics the reading direction and the movement of the user’s head from side to side as they read the text.

This is Playful

Atelier
This website is altogether remarkable. The page has such a dynamic feel, created by the different elements on it. The nameplate is in a bold yet elegant typeface, setting the tone for the design. A sense of movement is established by the diagonal lines, which follow the slant of the “A” in the nameplate, setting the rhythm for the website. The movement of the slideshow of teasers grabs your attention, and the images are large without feeling cramped. However, the main background image of the website is 2560 × 5350 pixels and 2.4 MB — ouch!

Atelier

Cirq
Designed to look like an old poster, this website for a vineyard is quite unique and innovative. The design successfully achieves a vintage feel and translates beautifully as a website. I love how the shadow behind “Russian River” moves with your mouse and creates movement on the otherwise static page. The main drawback here is that, for some reason, the text is embedded as images on the website, preventing it from being copied and pasted. Also, surely a similar design could be created at less than 3.4 MB and 43 HTTP requests.

Cirq

Max Di Capua
The layout and typography here work together in a modular system, often overlapping one another. This approach to layout is refreshing because it isn’t rigid and has a fluidity to it. The typography has the same feel because it is widely spaced, despite being heavy and dense. Captions and descriptions, in an easy-to-read serif typeface, appear alongside the work.

Max Di Capua

Rijksmuseum
The large letters in a custom typeface span the screen and continue off page, making the Rijksmuseum seem larger than life. The home page then rotates through beautiful photographs of the museum’s contents. The main navigation is also rather interesting; when clicked, it slides down for users to select a subcategory. The total size of the home page is 955 KB with 31 HTTP requests — well optimized.

Rijks Museum

I Shot Him
This Web design studio greets you with a photographed welcome message, which is refreshing. The user immediately gets a sense of the physical space that these designers work in. There is a rawness to it, an authenticity. The type is the focal point without being loud or overwhelming. I really like how they have moved away from the perfection of the computer and show themselves as being unique. Although the home page isn’t as interactive as you’d expect, the personality of the design studio is established by the photograph, which has depth and texture.

I Shot Him

The hand-rendered type personalizes the website and sets up an expectation of the kind of work the studio produces. The type treatment throughout the rest of the website reinforces a relaxed yet creative energy, as the wording is short and to the point. Another interesting aspect is the navigation; it’s hidden on the landing page, but hovering over an icon provides access to it. As you scroll down, the navigation is revealed and remains fixed at the top.

Banger’s
This website has a lot of character. Banger’s is a down-to-earth eatery specializing in beer and sausage. Its story looks like it’s drawn on the brown cardboard box that its food is delivered in. The logo looks like a hand-painted sign, unique and imperfect but all the more beautiful for it. The fixed navigation works well as you scroll down, and the hover effect (turning the words red) is simple yet effective. The type contributes a lot to the visual identity, and the graphics are great — but the performance, not so much. A huge downside is that the home page is 7.2 MB, with 254 HTTP requests. Frankly, that’s unacceptable.

Bangers

Caava Design
Caava Design has sans-serif typefaces, which maintains a neat, clean aesthetic. The typeface used for “Good design is good business” is large, easy to read and obvious, and the italicized introduction stands out. The typography throughout is used purposefully and is not necessarily loud, and the written content doesn’t detract from the portfolio.

Caava Design

However, the small text is perhaps too small to be read comfortably, and the spacing in the justified columns is untidy. The contrast in size also discourages the user from reading the entire website. Again, the visuals don’t justify the size: 5.7 MB and 90 HTTP requests.

The Black Sparrow
The Black Sparrow has a vintage look. The wide variety of typefaces all help to establish an eclectic, rustic feel. The theme for this drinkery and lounge is based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, reflected in the literary elements and old typewriter-style logo. I love the navigation bar and how the icons roll over when you hover them. The website has a definite 1930s feel, and the sparrow illustrations support it. However, with the space available, the font size does seem a bit small to be read easily.

The Black Sparrow

Nocturnal
The beautiful slab serif used here is simple, clean, large and easy to read. It is round and widely set, giving the website plenty of breathing room. The simple, neat layout together with the type treatment give a good overall snapshot of the designer’s work. This website works effectively as a design portfolio; while it doesn’t do anything unusual, it focuses heavily on the artist’s work, and sometimes that’s all that is necessary.

Nocturnal

Marie Guillaumet
The handwritten typeface works beautifully by personalizing this portfolio and giving a sense that the designer is physically involved in the production process. A sense of individuality and uniqueness is connected to the designer and, in turn, her work. The handwritten type also works well with the hand-drawn icons, adding character to the website. It’s almost as though we are peering into her visual diary, getting a piece of the designer herself, which will appeal to prospective clients.

Marie Guillaumet

Vintage Hope
The website’s heading looks like it was painted with a thick paintbrush in big heavy strokes. The typeface is so wonderfully bold and expressive. Together with the beautiful photography that fills the background, it gives the user a sense of the openness and freedom that characterize the organization. Vintage Hope raises money for the less fortunate in Malawi by loaning out vintage china, and the visual identity has an excited, happy and positive look to it. And that’s at 1 MB in size and 40 HTTP requests — impressive.

Vintage Hope

Browser Awareness Day
As this page loads, the user is called upon to help make the Web “fun,” “fast” and “safe.” The keyword in each slide is set in decorative type. Creativity is evident in the lettering, which grabs attention, enticing the user to scroll down and learn more. The note on the right has a comic book-style typeface, adding to the playfulness of the website. When you scroll down, the same comic-book typeface is used, along with other playful typefaces.

Browser Awareness Day

Rob Edwards
The typography here is just beautiful. It’s a design piece in itself and sets up an expectation of the designer’s work. The “Hi there” is large and grabs the user’s attention, and the rest of the decorative circus-style typefaces are engaging and fun. You don’t see this every day, and it works effectively as an introduction. The rest of the website feels a bit out of place, though, especially in its spacing and contrast.

Rob Edwards

82nd & Fifth
This website is all about visuals, and the typeface supports that. The sans serif is beautifully simple and light, and the tinted block backgrounds for the captions are sophisticated. With this website, the typeface isn’t the focal point, but rather supports the strong photographs. The website as a whole is quite dynamic; as you scroll down, more thumbnails are loaded. The website also has a seemingly transparent navigation bar; when it’s hovered over, a black bar folds out to reveal the menu. The whole website is thoughtfully constructed to showcase the art pieces. The downside is its 6.4 MB and 120 HTTP requests.

82nd & Fifth

ECC Lighting & Furniture
Love it or hate it, Helvetica takes center stage on this website. The category buttons are big and bold and grab the user’s attention. The graphic design here is classic, clean and minimalist. The type in the navigation is vertically oriented in the top-right, creating an interesting effect, while still allowing the user’s focus to remain on the main category navigation. The way the images are not shown until the area is hovered over is intriguing.

ECC Lighting & Furniture

Marianne Brandt
What do you expect when you hear the name Marianne Brandt, and how would you translate that into a website? Naturally, a Bauhaus-level focus on functionality is key. This website has a definite Bauhaus feel to it, with its flat colors and Futura font. The overall aesthetic is minimalist and clean but definitely not boring or dull.

Marianne Brandt

What grabbed my attention was the “Thanks / Danke” piece, in which the language you’ve set (English or German) determines which word stands out in bold red. It’s such a great idea for websites that support more than one language. The different sections remind me of colored plastic file dividers, a great way to sort through information on a website. The colors, geometry and overall character are consistent with Bauhaus principles.

Nate Navasca
The style and type treatment on this website are perhaps a little more traditional, with a bold sans-serif headline and a serif typeface for the body text. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The designer focuses on functionality and simplicity, and it works well.

Nate Navasca

Ewket
The design here is flat and simple. Created with basic shapes, it looks like the first layer of a painting. Ewket deals with basic education matters in Ethiopia, and the use of Andale Mono for the body text is not exactly what you’d expect, but it works for the purpose. The font is a sharp sans serif that has a bare and basic feel. Ewket is a grassroots program, so the very basic and simple design mirrors its function. However, it isn’t really reflected in performance: 4.6 MB and 58 HTTP requests are unnecessarily large.

Ewket

The Dissolve
I love the nameplate and how it creates an old cinema aesthetic. The typeface has that vintage feel and contrasts with the serifs used in the articles. The website has the simple, clean and sophisticated appeal of an old movie. The navigation makes great use of the space; once the identity of the website is established with the nameplate, the teasers for each category appear in its place as you hover over it.

The Dissolve

The Whig
This dive bar is a place to sit back, relax and have a drink with your buddies. The typeface chosen to illustrate this is Medula One. This sans serif isn’t overly decorative but has a medieval look to it, with its brushed strokes. It’s friendly and not pretentious, hinting at the ambience of the bar.

The Whig

Find & Form
With a clean, monochromatic aesthetic, this website keeps body text to a minimum. The typography is simple and low-key, allowing the images to speak for themselves. The monospaced font is a bit unusual here; still, it communicates the team’s slogan that “The digital world craves old-school craft.” The aesthetic is contemporary. Also interesting is how navigation moves horizontally as you scroll down the page, making room for the rest of the website.

Find&Form

Carrera
There is a timelessness to the design of Carrera’s website, just as there is an authenticity and timelessness to its products. Website design should be consistent with product design. This eyeglass company cites one of its objectives as being to strike a “perfect balance between heritage and fashion.” The simple, bold uppercase type achieves this, having a classic feel without being outdated or overused. The typography is bold and prominent, although different enough that it doesn’t compete with the logo. Also worth mentioning are the interesting hover effects throughout the different sections of the website.

Carrera

Myfelt
The typography used here is friendly and warm, congruent with the products, text and illustrations. All of the elements work together to communicate the same message. One of my favorite things about this website is that the dots in the rugs are incorporated into the logo and nameplate.

Myfelt

Vogue
The Playfair Display font, by designer Claus Eggers Sørensen, sets a bold yet not brash tone. The elegance of this serif is consistent with Vogue’s brand. According to the designer, the typeface is viewed best at larger sizes.

Vogue

All Saints Estate
There are a few ways to achieve class and elegance with type, and this website hits the nail on the head with its blend of serif and lightweight sans serif. Garamond Premier Pro Display has a contemporary yet sophisticated look that is delicate and perfect for body text and appropriate to vineyards and wine.

Vogue

Evening Edition
The blackletter typeface for this nameplate is consistent with the traditional nameplates of print newspapers. It carries authority and gravitas and separates this news source from tabloids.

Evening Edition

Served MCR
This fun doodle-inspired website is for a ping-pong competition. The typography is rough and looks hand-drawn; in some areas, the type is animated or set against an animated background. Animated type is unusual in Web design, but here it grabs the user’s attention. The “Register” banner is an instance of this; the text is legible and prominent. This typography is appropriate because there isn’t much text, which keeps the website easy to use. However, the performance of the page is devastating: 7.5 MB with 175 HTTP requests. The main background image is 2032 × 4761 pixels and 2.2 MB — on both desktop and mobile.

Served MC

Enso
Large, bold, full-caps sans-serif type can get in your face, as if it’s shouting. However, Enso uses muted tones to counter the bold typography — although, yellow is a little difficult to read. The layout is original and interesting; the designers want you to notice the type running down the page and to scroll down to read the entire message. This is a clever tactic because the navigation is scattered around the page in bright pink. The logo at the top acts as a home button, rolling out to reveal the whole word when hovered over.

Enso

Crafting Type
This website is all about type, so the typography has to sell itself. The contrast between the light uppercase type for “Crafting” and the heavy lowercase typeface for “type” creates visual balance in the logo. The body text is large and legible. The serif typeface and simple elegant layout also contribute to the legibility.

Crafting Type

Nautilus
This beautiful website is neat, clean and easy to navigate. The typography works well, with the three fonts coming from the same family. This is a nice way to differentiate your type while maintaining consistency and not disturbing the aesthetic. Unfortunately, Web typography has its cost: 12.6 MB and 73 HTTP requests, with two enormous images, at 3.5 and 2.4 MB, respectively.

Nautilus

Kick My Habits
The thick bold typeface of “Kick My Habits” is the first thing you see on the page. The skinny typeface (named KG How Many Times), with its charming handwritten feel, contrasts with the heaviness of the other type. The website, a beautifully designed and illustrated quiz that figures out how much money you waste on bad habits, has a relaxed, informal tone. And it doesn’t spend much of your bandwidth either. With all of the imagery on the page, it’s just 1.2 MB, although 161 HTTP requests are initialized upon the initial load; more content is loaded on demand.

Kick My Habits

Monocle
Monocle is a beautiful website with a classic quality. It uses serif and sans-serif typefaces in different weights, staying simple and elegant. Monocle is a global news website, with a focus on international affairs, business, culture and design. The layout is innovative, providing everything that the user could need right there. The categories are organized as tabs, with subcategories to further whittle down the information.

Monocle

Rezo Zero
The custom typeface here by Julien Blanchet is unique and grabs attention. It establishes the identity of the brand, setting a mint green against a monochromatic website. The typeface is neither overused nor underused, translating beautifully as a logo.

Rezo-Zero

More Sleep
Neat but friendly and inviting! Those were my first thoughts upon visiting this website. The large type with slightly rounded corners has a friendliness to it. The typewriter-style font used for the descriptions and explanations has a round, soft, welcoming appeal.

More Sleep

Lenta
Lenta is a Russian news website. It’s amazing how the graphic qualities of the type guide you and influence your perception of the website and its contents. The identity of any news website is established by its nameplate. A clean sans serif is used here, with a weight that conveys authority for the news source. The typeface remains effective when the text is translated into other languages. In keeping with a traditional news layout, articles and teasers throughout the website are in a serif typeface.

Lenta

Pixel Recess
Pixel Recess makes use of the sans-serif Adelle Sans, which is neat and legible and looks great on a screen. The more intriguing type, however, is the headline typeface, Zeitgeist, which has a distorted, pixelated, even blurry appearance, reflected in the playground slide in the top-left corner. Pixelation is traditionally regarded as a mistake, but because the rest of the website is sharp, here it draws attention to itself — a clever tactic indeed.

Pixel Recess

Conclusion

It’s not just about what you say, but how you say it, right? Depending on your purpose, try to experiment and get creative with your typography. Be bold and daring with strong, large letters, or get quirky and unique with handwritten type. Keep in mind that type should always be legible, because there’s no point in showing off type that no one can read. Use type wisely. It can do so much for a design if it sets rhythm and creates an atmosphere.

It’s easy to get distracted by beautiful type treatments and large Retina-ready background images. But don’t neglect performance. Custom Web fonts can slow down loading times, so find ways to counteract that.

If you want to explore more interesting websites with a heavy focus on typography, make sure to visit Typewolf and Font in Use.

(al) (ea)


© Shavaughn Haack for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

August 05 2013

10:43

Teaching Web Design To New Students In Higher Education


  

The Web is evolving rapidly. Front-end Web development has been majorly affected by recent changes in coding techniques and approaches. In 2003, a competent front-end Web developer would have known HTML and CSS, possibly with a bit of copy-and-pasted JavaScript, and they built websites that would be viewed on desktop computers.

Not so in 2013! Now, a competent front-end Web developer is well-versed in HTML and CSS, JavaScript and jQuery, CSS preprocessors, new techniques such as responsive design and mobile first, and a world of new devices for viewing websites.

Just as a front-end Web developer’s job has changed, so must the basic introductory Web design classes offered all over higher education. How should one teach students who know nothing about HTML or CSS, so that they think about designing and building websites in a device-independent manner, using modern techniques such as responsive design and mobile first?

I have been teaching introductory Web design for 13 years in a variety of academic and commercial settings, and I’ve given a lot of thought to how we should be teaching two of the earliest and most basic courses in a college Web design and development curriculum. This discussion is important, because only a few resources are available for teaching Web design and development. Due to a lack of time and the rapid evolution of the Web, it’s difficult to revisit courses and update them with the latest material every year.


Increasing collaboration between full-time professors and part-time adjuncts can help improve the student experience. Image source

Adjunct instructors, who frequently teach part-time and typically hold a “day job,” often build websites professionally and have resources to keep up with the latest trends and techniques in the field. However, without easy access to great teaching resources, they may find it difficult to present this cutting-edge material in a way that students can understand and appreciate. Full-time instructors and professors typically don’t build websites professionally (or they’ll build few of them), and with many other demands on their time, they may have a hard time keeping up with trends and techniques.

However, they often have deep experience in teaching methodologies, with a clear sense of what works and what doesn’t in Web design education. Because many adjunct instructors teach evenings and weekends, whereas full-time instructors usually teach day classes, these faculty rarely interact. Part of the key to improving the student experience, quality of teaching and curricula is to increase collaboration between full-time professors and part-time adjuncts. Both groups of instructors bring valuable and complementary skills to higher education. (Low salaries for adjunct instructors are also important to the discussion but, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this article.)

In this article, I’ll focus on just two courses: an introductory graphic design course and an introductory HTML and CSS course. Concepts such as website strategy and planning, mobile first, information architecture, usability, user-centered design, JavaScript and jQuery, content management systems and so forth are valuable and should be covered in the curriculum. However, these topics are typically (or at least should be) covered in separate courses in most college curricula and, so, are not addressed here.

Creating Designs

In most college Web design programs, students will take a course on creating website layouts as a single graphic in software such as Photoshop or Fireworks. Students might start with a screenshot of an existing website, layering on their own images and content to create a unique design, or they might create a design from scratch.

The idea behind this class is sound. Once students have mastered the basics of working with the software, the course generates discussion of usability, color, layout, fonts, negative space, image quality and placement and so much more, all without involving code. It enables students to picture a Web page in their minds without being too concerned about how the page would be coded. When the student does start coding the page, they will have the skills to clarify what they want to build before writing a line of code.


It is important to let students form an idea of a Web page before involving code. Image source

In this course, students frequently have trouble understanding what happens beyond the canvas. If the design is 960 pixels wide, what happens when the monitor is 1200 pixels wide? Usually that’s addressed by a background color or repeated graphic. Students are rarely asked what happens if the monitor is narrower than 960 pixels.

Most students, if asked about a narrower window, would point out the scroll bar across the bottom of the page, alerting the visitor to expand their browser to see the full design. They don’t consider whether buttons are too close together for touch-based navigation, for example, or how text size might vary at different screen dimensions. Students in this course can, however, be guided to think about these issues.

Many design studios that focus on responsive design do not use comps, like those generated in this class, as part of their development process anymore. Instead, they prefer to use HTML and CSS-based comps to demonstrate the look of a website to a client. So, why teach image-based comps to students?

The reason is that, at this point in their development, students don’t necessarily know HTML and CSS well, if at all. By removing code from the picture, students focus on design principles, including graphic design and user experience. Once they learn HTML and CSS, they might never create an image-based comp again. However, in this process, they have learned how to navigate Photoshop and/or Fireworks, and they’ve learned the positives and negatives of working in a comp environment — all of which are valuable experiences.

Here are some tasks you could assign to improve this class and to prepare students for device-independent design work:

  • Build a design in 12 evenly-sized columns.
    This is a great time to explain about grids and how they work. Have students build designs based on this grid to demonstrate their understanding.
  • Show versions of the design.
    If the design looks one way at 960 pixels, how does it look at 1200 pixels? 320? 767? Have students use the same content in their designs, rearranged for these different screen environments. Be sure to ask about transitions — what happens as the design moves from 767 to 320 pixels?
  • Ask questions about photos.
    What does that big photo banner stretching so beautifully across the top of the page at 960 pixels look like at 767 pixels? What happens between 960 and 767 pixels?
  • Encourage students to think about touch.
    This is particularly important at smaller screen dimensions, but desktops and laptops are trending towards touch as well. Encourage students to build navigation suitable for fat fingers, for example.
  • Deemphasize slicing.
    Rather than thinking about the comp as the source of imagery for a website, consider it its own prototype. Slicing may not be required at all, because images may need to be generated in several sizes for different screen dimensions. Even background graphics can be generated in their own independent documents. By deemphasizing slicing, you also deemphasize the centrality of this comp for the website’s design. With responsive design, the comp sets a goal or a direction, but tweaking is required to accomodate the space between 320, 767 and 960 pixels and beyond.

Note that some companies are working on the problem of designing in a flexible environment without using code. When these programs are more stable, they might be worth incorporating into the college curriculum.

Teaching HTML And CSS

In a typical HTML and CSS course, students learn the difference between markup and presentation. Over the course of the term, students learn to create a Web page from scratch, manipulating HTML, CSS and image files. Their layouts will usually be completely custom, and they will typically learn about floats and positioning as part of this process. Browser compatibility may be touched upon as it is encountered.


“Don’t Fear The Internet” is a fantastic learning resource that teaches some quite useful HTML and CSS basics.

Fundamentally, nothing is wrong with this class. Students will leave knowing how to hand-code standards-compliant HTML and CSS. However, it does need a few modifications to account for modern design techniques:

  • Standardize in one browser.
    I’d recommend working with Firefox or Chrome as the standard browser in class, because they’re available on Mac and PC and are the most standards-compliant. Tell students that this is the only browser that matters for the purpose of this class. Cross-browser issues should be dealt with later, once students understand how HTML and CSS work completely in this browser. When cross-browser problems are introduced too soon, students get confused, unclear whether a particular problem is due to the browser or just badly formed code.
  • Teach HTML5.
    Students should learn how to mark up documents with sections, asides, navigation, headers and footers from the start.
  • Teach CSS3 and all types of selectors.
    Make sure students understand media queries as soon as they are able to. Introduce adjacent sibling selectors, child selectors, universal selectors, various pseudo-classes and so forth. Again, worry less about browser support, because these students have years before graduation.
  • Incorporate grid-based thinking early on.
    Even if students can’t code their own grid yet, they could certainly build layouts while thinking about 12 columns, using em and/or percentage widths and sizes. Have students code standard shapes of pages, such as two- and three-column layouts, with or without headers, footers and horizontal navigation, rather than leaving students open to code any type of layout. Understanding the trade-offs between design and code is important, so always address those.
  • As soon as students grasp floats and positioning, teach how to code a grid.
    Because students have been thinking about Web design with grid-based principles, this transition should be fairly quick for them.
  • Responsive design is now a short lecture, not a long one.
    Students are now able to pull together grid-based layouts and media queries. They’ve likely encountered image-resizing issues along the way, but if not, this is the time to discuss them.
  • Now is the time to discuss browser compatibility.
    Now that students have mastered valid, standards-compliant, responsive code, it’s time to think about browser compatibility. One way to introduce this is to work with poorly supported HTML5 tags or CSS3 elements such as rounded corners.
  • CSS preprocessing is a hot topic.
    Centralizing CSS variables is a great idea and is bound to be a core CSS skill, required by employers, in the next year or two. (Some say it’s already here.) Some LESS and Sass concepts, such as centralized variables and logic, also offer a smooth transition to a course on JavaScript and jQuery, in which similar concepts would be important.
  • Covering responsive design frameworks is not a bad idea.
    If there’s time left in class, this is a great topic to explore. I’d recommend covering Bootstrap if you’ve taught LESS, or Foundation if you’ve taught Sass. Students will learn how to read someone else’s code (an important skill!) and how to read documentation; they will also learn new technology, as well as explore the positives and negatives of using a documented, open-source framework. Finally, they will learn to customize this code for their own purpose.

Indirect Skills

I’ve covered skills directly shaped by modern front-end Web development. I’d also suggest covering some indirect skills, as part of either these courses or other courses that the students take.

  • The Open-Source Philosophy
    Rather than teach students that open source is free (like beer), teach them that open-source projects survive based on contributions. Introduce GitHub, and explain how people can download, fork and post their own code online. Acquaint students with open-source communities, and have them investigate the types of contributions most valued by these communities.
  • Online Portfolios

    These have been integrated in curricula for several years now, but they tend to be used more by designers than by developers. With portfolios, audiences can focus on the visual design itself, rather than on the code or philosophy behind the work. Make sure students are accustomed to posting code for review (linking to their own GitHub page is a great touch).

    Have students explain the problems they have been trying to solve and why they took the approach they did to solve them. Blogging should be required, so that students can track interesting articles, new approaches to problems, code snippets of interest and so forth. Encourage students to develop a professional social-media presence, focusing on their code and work.

  • Understanding And Modifying Someone Else’s Code
    As open source continues to gain acceptance and respect in the corporate world, the ability to understand someone else’s code and to modify it will increase in importance.
  • Identifying Trends
    What are game-changers for how we approach Web development, and what are passing fads? What skills should we be learning now? (There’s always something new to learn.)
  • Learning How To Learn Technology
    Students can’t always expect a teacher to spoon-feed them what they need to know next. They need to figure out how to learn without courses or books in order to stay on the cutting edge. Help students curate interesting blogs and social-media resources for finding tips and techniques.

Guidelines For Teaching New Students

Many talented Web designers and developers find teaching beginners to be tedious and difficult. Part of the problem is that a high-level developer knows so much information without realizing it. When was the last time a professional seriously had to think about syntax, file management, the order of styles in a style sheet, the correct markup for a page and so forth? Professionals encounter these issues many times per day, but they are all new to the beginning student.

  • Provide an overview.
    Fit the topic of interest in the larger Web universe. For example, what is HTML? What does the acronym stand for? Where was it developed? Can HTML stand on its own as a Web page? Who needs to know HTML? How does CSS fit with HTML? Don’t spend long on this overview. The idea is to orient students, giving the big picture. The details will get filled in as they work with the language. This material can be presented via slides or a whiteboard. As always, involve students in the discussion, and watch out for confusion. Make sure they understand the overview before moving on to code, or else the code will make no sense.
  • Write code with the class.
    In an in-person teaching environment, I like to open a text editor and project my code overhead, with students following along with their computers. This keeps them engaged. Some students find that they don’t type along with me well, whether because they have a different learning style or poor typing skill. In these cases, I encourage them to pay close attention, while some others will write notes and code snippets with pen and paper. If you are teaching online, I’ll do the same type of presentation, using Camtasia to capture my code on screen with a voiceover. In both cases, provide your files to all students, so that they can see your work. Comment frequently in your own code so that they understand your notes and examples.
  • Write code a little at a time, slowly making the examples more complex.
    Don’t introduce too many items at once. For example, as you introduce CSS, start by writing styles for HTML tags. Show how styling the body tag can control the entire Web page, including background color, font, size, etc. Write one attribute at a time, saving the change and displaying it in the browser every time, so that students see exactly which line of CSS controls which element on the page.
  • Ask questions along the way.
    Ask students to come up with solutions to challenges one might encounter when building a page, before confirming how to do it. If they can explain the idea conceptually, then the code becomes easy. For example, if you’ve styled the body of a Web page with blue text, ask how you would make the main heading red. If the students can explain that you’d need to somehow change the text in the h1 tag to be red, then they are doing very well. Then, you’d simply need to show them how to write that as code.
  • It’s hard to keep things simple, and easy to make them complicated.
    Students will ask complex questions along the way. For example, they might notice along the way that red can be written as #ff0000, red or rgb(255,0,0) and will ask what the differences are between them! Try to avoid a scenario such as this early on. Present a single way to write colors (I suggest #ff0000), and don’t revisit the issue until students have mastered this method. Perhaps later in the course, the students will notice rgb(255,0,0) in someone’s sample code; at that point, explaining the differences will be fast and easy. But in the beginning, when little makes sense and there is much to remember, too much information can be overwhelming.
  • Syntax is challenging.
    Beginning students forget to close tags, forget semicolons, make up tags entirely and make many other mistakes. Finding those mistakes is sometimes easy and other times challenging. I like to introduce the topic of validation fairly early in the process, so that students have an easy way to check their work. In the beginning, you might need to point out missing, extra or unclosed syntax, but teaching them robust debugging techniques from the beginning will help them significantly.
  • Managing files is a challenge.

    For most students in introductory HTML and CSS courses, file management is a constant problem. Some will have trouble differentiating between saving information on a hard drive versus saving on a thumb drive, and some might not know the difference between a file and a folder. You might need to explain the fundamentals before teaching how to manage files on a website. I try to keep all of a project’s files in a single folder on the desktop to start, because students can generally find the desktop, and a single folder leaves little room for confusion. All HTML, images and CSS are then saved in that single folder. It’s manageable at first, because students will require only a handful of assets for their first few websites. By the time students feel like one folder is getting cluttered and they’d like some more organization, they will have mastered how to link two files, insert an image and so on. They will know how the code is supposed to look and work; so, if some code isn’t working, they will reasonably assume that the culprit is a malformed path.

  • Remember that you are not designing for a client.

    A common mistake among talented instructors is to make their in-class sample Web pages beautiful, tweaked to perfection and cross-browser compatible from the very beginning. Unfortunately, that’s not the point. Beginners can easily discover beautiful designs by surfing the Web. Also, you are the instructor — you don’t have to prove your competence in this way. Your job is to show them clearly what each line of code does and how it affects the Web page, both in appearance and functionality. When I’m writing code with students, I insert a lot of hideous background colors and borders in the CSS to demonstrate the concepts. I encourage students to use this same method to debug CSS. Don’t give away too much CSS too quickly. The students will push to make things prettier themselves, unsurprisingly — many of them will be graphic designers and will hate how ugly their early Web pages are. However, when students see progress in their designs, from the first HTML page with no styling to a few basic CSS styles and finally to a full layout, they will be patient with you if you explain that a particular question is complicated or premature at this point.

  • You are laying the foundation for their career.
    Graphic design, HTML and CSS are critical skills that professional designers work with every single day. Writing clean, efficient code, understanding how to debug problems, researching better ways to address problems, resolving cross-browser compatibility issues — these are foundational concepts in the life of a front-end developer. I’ve seen students suffer greatly from bad introductory instructors. Your job is incredibly important; so, go slowly with new material, and make sure students have a solid understanding of it before moving on to the next topic.

Moving Forward

If you’re a working professional who also serves as one of the many instructors of website design and development in higher education or if you’re a full-time instructor, how do you address these early Web design courses? How would you suggest that colleges and universities improve their curricula? Post your thoughts in the comments or via Twitter using the hashtag #webeducation.

(al) (ea) (il)


© Jen Kramer for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

July 29 2013

16:02

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: A Common Misconception About Designing With Data


  

Too often when working in information design, you’ll hear the request, “Can you make the data look cool?” “Cool” is a rather ambiguous term, and means different things to different people. Unfortunately, when working with data, the term “cool” is often directly juxtaposed with common charts like line, bar and pie, which are often relegated to the backbench, and written off as “boring.”

The emphasis on the instant visual appeal of an infographic over the clarity of the presentation of data is a troubling trend that plagues the modern incarnation of the infographic.

Data Visualization And The “Cool” Factor

“The important criterion for a graph is not simply how fast we can see a result; rather it is whether through the use of the graph we can see something that would have been harder to see otherwise or that could not have been seen at all.”

– William Cleveland, Web Application Design Handbook

When presenting data visually, our main aim should be to look for ways to effectively communicate the stories hidden in the depths of the spreadsheet. Data visualization grants a means for discovery. It frees the data from the confines of its tabulated raw format and provides a way for the viewer to see trends, gather insights and understand complex stories without the need for words.

However, the average infographic that you’ll likely come across online today focuses more on the overall aesthetic of the piece, the “cool” factor, than on the data itself. “Info-posters” that are heavily illustrated and have a low information-to-pixel density currently dominate the infographic landscape, many of which dumb down data and spoon-feed the audience a choice set of factoids for easy digestion of the chosen topic.

infographicx3
In an effort to make the data appear more interesting, some infographics use design elements to distract the viewer. Large view.

In striving to achieve coolness, the examples above forgo the integrity of the data and, hence, the main function of the infographic. The design, rather than clarifying the data, actually distracts the audience from the information presented, encouraging them to engage with the visual elements rather than with the data itself.

Data Vs. Design?

Now, that’s not to say that being informative and beautiful are mutually exclusive. There are many wonderful examples of data being presented in an efficient, effective and visually stunning way. But the beauty of most of them lies in their simplicity.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.15.56
US Gun Deaths” by Periscopic. Large view.

The most effective infographics and visualizations present data as clearly and concisely as possible, free from most distractions and embellishments — the emphasis being not on making the data look cool, but on ensuring that the data’s story is clearly communicated.

Decisions made during the design process will either help or hinder the viewer’s comprehension of the subject matter. So, although it is often said that the type of data will determine the type of visualization, design choices involving color, shape, layout and typography are also extremely important and will affect the ease with which the information can be understood. For example, color can highlight key insights, size can demonstrate change, and proximity can imply correlation.

A common misconception is that the audience will be interested in your data only if it looks exciting and is broken down into bite-sized chunks. In reality, you don’t need to dress up the data to make it more interesting. The information in the graphic, or the story you’re revealing, will ultimately determine the appeal of the piece, not the fancy illustrations. As Brian Suda puts it in his book Designing With Data, “Graphic design is not a panacea for bad copy, poor layout or misleading statistics”.

Bar Charts Are Your Friend, Not Your Enemy

When the focus is on communicating data effectively, common chart types should not be dismissed as boring alternatives, and you certainly shouldn’t be afraid to use them when telling stories with data.

News organizations such as The New York Times and The Guardian rely heavily on these common chart types, because simplicity and efficiency will often trump novelty in conveying complex information to a wide audience.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.23.00
Why Is Her Paycheck Smaller?” by The New York Times. Large view.

Charts such as line, bar and pie have been in constant use since the 18th century for good reason. How information is displayed and organized in these charts appeals directly to the intrinsic way in which humans perceive things. According to the Gestalt laws of perception, the human brain automatically organizes and groups the things it sees by proximity, similarity, continuity and symmetry.

Designing with data in a way that supports these relationships (for example, by using color to show similarity, or by using a connecting line to imply continuity) makes it easier for viewers to understand what the data is showing and to draw certain conclusions that would be a lot harder to come to had the data been merely displayed in tabular format.

According to Andy Kirk in his book Data Visualization: A Successful Design Process, by presenting data in a visually effective way, you “move from just looking at the data, to actually seeing it.”

In Practice

The following “infographic” was probably the unfortunate result of a designer being asked to make the data look cool — a predicament I can certainly sympathize with, having been given the exact same creative direction in a number of projects. On more than one occasion, I have been explicitly asked not to use bar or line charts and been told that I simply needed to “jazz up the data,” much to my concern.

The presentation of the information below certainly is unique, and effort has been exerted to make the information look interesting. The graphic fails, however, in actually conveying information.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.25.53
Top 10 Salaries at Google”: Making the data appear more interesting does not necessarily make it any easier to understand. Large view.

This graphic’s primary purpose should have been to present the data in a format that is easier to read than a table.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.29.58
Large view.

In this instance, however, the table functions more efficiently than the graphic as a way to explore the data. If the salary range for each job was not present in the graphic, it would be nigh impossible to read. The pie-chart format adopted here actually obscures the data, rather than makes it accessible. Additionally, the colors are somewhat confusing; the radius of the pie slices are meaningless; and the number and size of the people figures don’t seem to correspond to anything.

So, how could this be better visualized? Focusing first and foremost on the clarity of the data, I’ve explored just two possible ways in which this small data set could have been presented. I’m sure there are many, many more.

SmashingMag1_ChartRedesign-03
One possible alternative to the infographic above. Large view.

This first option gives the viewer a much clearer representation of the data. With the linear organization, the viewer can understand at a glance what the data is showing, without having to work too hard. In stark contrast to the original, this graph makes the data instantly accessible, allowing for easy comparison between the jobs.

The first complaint I would likely hear is that the graph has an abundance of empty space. This space, however, actually tells a big part of the story. On the one hand, we’re presenting a comparison of 10 jobs; on the other, we also want to highlight that these salaries are actually very high, and the white space reinforces that.

Alternatively, the data could be presented as a slope graph:

SmashingMag1_ChartRedesign-04
Any one data set can be presented in a number of ways. Large view.

Here, we’ve zoomed into a portion of the graph. On the left side, markers pinpoint the low end of the salary range; on the right, markers pinpoint the high end. This version more clearly highlights those jobs with the widest ranges in salary, and it shows us that different presentation methods can tell slightly different stories.

These two examples may not have the visual pizazz of the original, but unlike the original, the data and the story are easily accessible to the viewer and not hindered by the motivation to look cool.

The request to simply make data look interesting is all too common in information design, and it might seem innocent at first. But if you forgo the integrity of the data to achieve this goal, then you run the risk of turning your infographic into merely a graphic with information, and that’s a big difference.

All that glitters is not necessarily gold.

(al) (ea)


© Tiffany Farrant for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

July 26 2013

09:54

“This Is How We Built It” Case Studies


  

Unlike many other industries, the Web design community is all about sharing knowledge and experience. Each of us is very lucky to be part of such a great and useful learning environment, and it is up to us to embrace it — to embrace our learning experiences, and also to embrace our ability to share.

Not only are case studies a great way to explain the design process of an agency, but they also help designers and developers to learn from each other. Seeing how designers work, create, build and play is great, and furthermore, you can learn how to write a great case study yourself and how to use one to spice up your portfolio.

In today’s overview of useful case studies, we’ve featured studies that have recounted decisions made about particular design elements, as well as studies of full overhauls and their accompanying technical challenges. Most of them provide interesting insights into failures and successes, stories, workflows and design decisions made and rejected.

We must admit that this post is quite a long one, so we’ve decided to divide it into two parts to make it easier for you to navigate. Now you should be well prepared for a couple of late reading sessions over the next weekends!

Here is a quick list of the categories covered:

  1. Illustration, Graphics and Logo Design
  2. Typography
  3. Usability
  4. Advertising, Promotion and E-Commerce
  5. Redesigning Elements and Features
  6. Complete (Re)branding and (Re)design
  7. Content and Storytelling
  8. Technical Challenges and Solutions
  9. Workflow and Optimization
  10. Last Click

Illustration, Graphics And Logo Design

Illustrator Full Spectrum Spirograph,” Veerle Pieters
Pieters talks about her experimentation process with spirographs, inspired by the work of Andy Gilmore.

Illustrator full spectrum spirograph

The Design Process of my Infographic About Women Cycling for Grinta!,” Veerle Pieters
Pieters shares her experience of the design process behind the infographic on women’s cycling that she produced for Grinta magazine.

Grinta!: Design process of my infographic

A Systematic Approach to Logo Design,” Adham Dannaway
Icon design can be time-consuming. Dannaway shows how to systematically approach a new logo design.

Petra Capital: A systematic approach to logo design

(Re)building a Simplified Firefox Logo,” Sean Martell
Learn how Firefox’s logo was simplified to better fit its extended usage beyond a desktop Web browser.

Firefox: (Re)building a simplified logo

Five Details,” Jon Hicks
Jon Hicks shares the design process behind the Five Details Logo, including the design and choice of typography.

Five Details: Logo design study

Iconfinder Logo,” SoftFacade
SoftFacade completely reimagined Iconfinder’s existing identity and came up with a shiny and modern robot character. View the detailed design process.

Iconfinder: Logo Case Study

The Great Gatsby
Like Minded Studio collaborated on the branding of “The Great Gatsby“. The aim was to develop a bespoke Deco styled logo reflective of the roaring 20s and Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. They also created a display typeface to acompany the main branding. Additionally read more about it following this link.

gatsby

Whitney Graphic Identity,” Experimental Jetset
In this case study of the Whitney Museum of Art’s logo, Experimental Jetset discusses the impact that a responsive logo can have on branding.

Whitney Graphic Identity

My ‘Tour de France’ posters,” Veerle Pieters
Pieters created posters for the 100th edition of the Tour of France. She mainly used the French landscape which she had used for the ‘Tour de France Infographic’ as a starting point.

Tour de France posters

Typography

Type study: Sizing the legible letter

Designing Type Systems,” Peter Bil’ak
To create truly useful designs, typographers need to examine not only how characters relate to each other within a style, but also how different styles relate to each other within a family. Peter Bil’ak discusses how to achieve this.

Designing type systems

Novel Constructions: The Making of a Typeface,” Christopher Dunst
Dunst shares the process behind the creation of the “Novel” typeface.

Novel Constructions | I love typography, the typography and fonts blog

The Development of the Signage Typeface Wayfinding Sans Pro,” Ralf Herrmann
Herrmann describes the development of the Wayfinding Sans Pro, a signage typeface that can be read from a long distance.

The design of a signage typeface | I love typography, the typography and fonts blog

The Making of FF Tundra,” Ludwig Übele
Übele shares the process behing making the FF Tundra typeface, which was highly inspired by nature.

The making of FF Tundra

The Making of Magasin,” Laura Meseguer
Meseguer writes how she created Magasin, a typefaces inspired by fluid handwriting.

Magasin: The making of

Type Study” series, Adobe Typekit
Typekit features a whole series of case studies of typography:

Usability

Social Login Buttons Aren’t Worth It,” MailChimp
Social login buttons are used by many apps today. MailChimp shares its own experience and considerations in using social login buttons.

MailChimp: Social Login Buttons Aren’t Worth It

Usability in Icons,” Peter Steen Høgenhaug
Icons are used to illustrate a particular function, anything from information to actions. This article explains what needs to be considered when designing them.

Usability in Icons | Stiern

iOS Icon Design: A Designer’s Exploration,”
iOS icon design is not only difficult, but requires a lot of experimentation. David Killoy shares his experience of designing the icon for his note-taking app Notorious.

Notorious: iOS icon design - A designers exploration

The Making of Octicons,” GitHub
Octicons is a icon font made by GitHub. Five designers collaborated on the project, and they share how they built Octicons and what they learned along the way.

GitHub: The Making of Octicons

Designing Facebook Home,” Julie Zhuo
On May 8th, the designers behind Facebook Home (Justin Stahl, Francis Luu, Joey Flynn and Mac Tyler) presented a behind-the-scenes look at their work at the Bluxome Street Winery for a small crowd.

Designing Facebook Home

Advertising, Promotion And E-Commerce

How to Make Your Own App Promo Cards,” Mike Swanson
Swanson was inspired by Starbuck’s promo cards for giving away free apps and decided to make his own for an upcoming event. Learn how you can do one, too!

How to Make Your Own App Promo Cards

The Art of Launching an App,” John Casey
You’ve made your first app! Now what? This study covers some tactics and lessons learned during one process of launching an app.

The Art Of Launching An App: A Case Study | Smashing UX Design

How to Launch Anything,” Nathan Barry
Barry has launched five products in fewer than nine months. Read about the strategy that helped him generate over $200,000 in revenue from online products, starting from scratch.

launch-anything

Selling My E-Book on Amazon,” Jonathan Snook
Several people predicted that 2013 would be the year of self-publishing. Snook shares insight into his eBook sales on Amazon.

Increase Online Sales on Your Ecommerce Website,”
Headscape increased sales on Wiltshire Farmfoods’ e-commerce website by over 10,000% in only five years. What makes it even more special, the target audience is over 50 years old. Paul Boag shares his experience.

Twitter Promoted Tweets,” MailChimp
MailChimp has made use of Twitter’s promoted tweets and shares insight into this experience.

Redesigning Elements And Features

Visual Exploration Behind Signal vs. Noise,” Mig Reyes
37signals share the process behind making its blog special. This study is about how the company visualized noise and styled its blog categories in a unique way.

37signals: Visual Exploration behind Signal vs. Noise

Reinventing Our Default Profile Pictures ,” Jamie
Jamie talks about the process of finding the right default profile pictures for the 37signals website. It’s a great new approach to a very basic element.

37signals: Reinventing our Default Profile Pictures

Login Screen Design: Behind the Scenes,” Simon Tabor
Good UX is not just about the main content, but also about little details such as log-in (and error) pages. GoSquared shares how it made its log-in experience exceptional.

GoSquared Blog: Login Screen Design and UX

Save for Later,” Brian Groudan
All browsers support two functions: searching and revisiting. Groudan worked closely with Mozilla’s user experience researchers and designers to rethink how Firefox could better offer “saving for later” functionality in the browser.

Mozilla UX: Save For Later

A Closer Look at Zoom,” FiftyThree
FiftyThree shares the design process behind the new zoom feature in its Paper app.

Paper: A closer look at zoom

Reinventing the Investment Calculator,” Alex Bendiken
Drawing from the book Money for Something, Alex Bendiken built a tool that lets users experiment and create a unique investment plan. It’s a UX study in turning a boring financial calculator into something you’d actually want to use.

Reinventing the investment calculator

Getting Down to Business,” Teenhan+Lax
The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper of record. It serves millions of readers everyday with in-depth journalism and informed comment. Learn how Teenhan+Lax helped refresh and enrich the way users experience and engage with the news today.

The Globe And Mail

Olympics: User Experience and Design,” Nick Haley
Nick Haley shares the BBC’s design process of delivering the Olympics across desktop, tablet, mobile and connected TV.

BBC Olympics: User Experience and Design

How We Built the Responsive Olympics Site,” Matt Clark
Matt Clark writes about MSN UK’s approach to delivering the Olympics digitally, from the brief to the finished design.

How we built MSN UK's responsive Olympics site

The Anatomy Of A Successful Logo Redesign,” Belinda Lanks
Lanks summarizes how Jessica Hische had freshened up the new logo for MailChimp with a slight facelift. The new logo now looks new and fresh — more refined but just as playful.

The Anatomy Of A Successful Logo Redesign

What I Want Out of Facebook,” Keenan Cummings
Cummings explains why Facebook fails him and what he wants to get out of it that would make it useful for his personal life.

Field Study: What I Want Out of Facebook

In Praise of Lost Time,” Dan Hill
Dan Hill talks about Facebook’s Timeline as an exemplary bit of interaction design that does little to advance the timeline formally. Yet it might alter the nature of human memory itself.

Facebook Timeline: In praise of lost time

Complete (Re)branding And (Re)design

How to Approach a Responsive Design,” Tito Bottitta
This article shows the design process behind The Boston Globe’s website, one of the most famous examples of responsive designs. Read about how Upstatement approached its first responsive design.

How to Approach a Responsive Design

Responsive Design Case Study,” Matt Berridge
This case study outlines the entire process of constructing the South Tees Hospitals’ website, a large responsive design containing over a thousand pages.

South Tees Hospital:  Responsive Design case study

Rebuilding a University Homepage to Be Responsive. Twice. In Less Than a Year,” Erik Runyon
This slideshow discusses how and why Notre Dame University’s home page was rebuilt twice in less than a year. You will find a recording of the talk below the slides.

Rebuilding a university homepage to be

Yes, You Really Can Make Complex Web Apps Responsive,” Daniel Wearne
Wearne shares his experience in creating Adioso’s Web app, a complex yet accessible project. He covers the framework, responsive mixins, tables and future challenges.

Adioso: Yes, you really can make complex webapps responsive

Designing a New Playground Brand,” Ryan Bannon
This case study shows the design process of Playground’s new brand. It covers the logo, overall website and vector animation process, as well as the core values and personality of the company. The extensive study comes in three parts.

Playground: Designing a New Playground Brand

How House Parties Helped Us Design Potluck,” Cemre Güngör
The team at Potluck describes how it took inspiration from reality to design a “house party on the Internet.”

How house parties helped us design Potluck

Colorado Identity,” Berger & Föhr
Imagine someone hiring you to define your own identity. Berger & Föhr was hired to help create the new identity and visual brand of Colorado, the place they call home. Have a look at the work and logo they came up with.

Making Colorado

Building the New Financial Times Web App,” Wilson Page
Page talks about building the Financial Times’ new app, a challenge that many on his team believed to be impossible. He covers device support, fixed-height layouts, truncation, modularization, reusable components, Retina support, native-like scrolling, offline support and the topic of ever-evolving apps.

Building The New Financial Times Web App

Google Treasure Maps,” Alex Griendling
Griendling writes about the design process behind Google Maps’ treasure mode.

Google Treasure Maps: About the design process

Find Your Way to Oz,” HTML5 Rocks
This very detailed case study looks at the “Find Your Way to Oz” demo, a Google Chrome experiment by Disney. It covers sprite sheets, Retina support, 3-D content and more.

Case Study: Find Your Way to Oz - HTML5 Rocks

The Making of the Moscow Metro Map 2.0,” Art Lebedev Studio
This study is about the design process behind the Moscow Metro map, a complex project that needed to meet the requirements of both Web and print.

The making of the Moscow Metro Map 2.0

Skinny Ties and Responsive eCommerce,” Brendan Falkowski
Read and learn how GravDept redesigned Skinny Ties’ creative and technical direction to propel shopping on every device.

Skinny Ties: Responsive eCommerce

The Design Thinking Behind the New Disney.com,” Bobby Solomon
Solomon shares the process of creating a Disney website that is flexible enough to showcase the widest range of offerings imaginable — in other words, a website that can do everything.

Disney: The design thinking behind the new online presence

Say Hello to the New ISO,” Andy Clarke
Clarke and David Roessli redesigned the website of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and share their experience.

Say hello to the new ISO

A Responsive Design Case Study,” David Bushell
The redesign of Passenger Focus takes advantage of the Web as an unique medium.

PassengerfocusA Responsive Design Case Study – David Bushell

BBC News: Responsive Web Design and Mustard,” Kaelig Deloumeau-Prigent
These slides address the core principles and the “cutting the mustard” technique behind the BBC News’ responsive website.

BBC News: Responsive Web Design and Mustard

The Trello Tech Stack,” Brett Kiefer
Read the process behind the Trello app, from initial mockup to a solid server and maintainable client.

Trello: The Trello Tech Stack

Responsibly Responsive: Developing the Greenbelt Website,” Rachel Andrew
Andrew writes about her front-end design decisions in rebuilding the Greenbelt Festival’s website.

Greenbelt: Responsibly Responsive website development

The Digital-Physical: On Building Flipboard for iPhone and Finding the Edges of Our Digital Narratives,” Craig Mod
Mod walks through the process of building the Flipboard app for iPhone and of finding the edges of its digital narratives.

The Digital?Physical: On building Flipboard for iPhone and Finding Edges for Our Digital Narratives

Page-Flip Effect From 20 Things I Learned,” Hakim El Hattab
This study shows how this team found the best way to achieve the feeling of a real-world book, while leveraging the benefits of the digital realm in areas such as navigation.

20 thiCase Study: Page Flip Effect from 20thingsilearned.com

Six Key Lessons From a Design Legend,” Kapil Kale
The GiftRocket team eventually recruited Mike Kus as a designer. This article shows why that decision took their website to the next level.

Six Key Lessons from a Design Legend (a before-and-after) | GiftRocket Blog

Breaking The Rules: A UX Case Study,” Laura Klein
Klein shows how she broke all rules to create the great UX for Outright.

Outright: Breaking The Rules - A UX Case Study

7 UX Considerations When Designing Lens Hawk,” Christian Holst
Lens Hawk is a massive DSLR lens database. This article shares seven UX considerations that were made in its design process.

Lens Hawk: 7 UX Considerations

The Story of the New Microsoft.com,” Nishant Kothary
Kothary shares his insight into making Microsoft’s new website. Also, check out Trent Walton’s perspective on the redesign.

The Story of the New Microsoft.com

Behind the Scenes of the New Kippt,” Gannon Burgett
This interview about the work behind the new Kippt app covers the redesign process, the design principles and problems that the team faced, insights into the new era of Web app design, and where Kippt will head in the future.

New Kippt: Behind The Scenes

Crayola: Free the ‘What If’,” Daniel Mall
Dan Mall has put together a case study of the creation of the new Crayola application for kids.

Crayola: Free the

Campus Quad iPhone App,” Soft Facade
Soft Facade covers every aspects of the design process behind its Campus Quad app.

Campus Quad: iPhone App Case Study

How to Make a Vesper: Design,” Vesper
Learn how the Vesper app was designed and made.

Vesper: How to Make a Vesper: Design

Betting on a Fully Responsive Web Application,” 14islands
Read about how 14islands took the Web app for Kambi, a sports-betting service, to the next level.

Kambi: Betting on a fully responsive web application

AMMO Rack App Design Critique,” Alexander Komarov
An interesting study of the feedback process that improved the AMMO Rack app.

AMMO Rack:  App Design Critique

Walking Through the Design Process,” Ian Storm Taylor
Taylor walks you through the design process of Segment.io, including the progression of mockups in Photoshop.

Segment.io: Walking Through the Design Process

Music Video ‘Lights’: The Latest WebGL Sensation,” Carlos Ulloa
Interactive studio HelloEnjoy built a mind-blowing 3-D music video for Ellie Goulding’s song “Lights.” Creative director Carlos Ulloa explains why the team chose WebGL and how it created various immersive graphic effects.

Music video 'Lights': the latest WebGL sensation!

Designing for Designers,” Kyle Meyer
Designing for other designers is different than working for regular clients. Kyle Meyer shares his experience.

Adapting to a Responsive Design,” Matt Gibson
Cyber-Duck abandoned its separate mobile website and created a new responsive design.

Cyber-Duck: Adapting To A Responsive Design

Grids, Flexibility and Responsiveness,” Laura Kalbag
Kalbag shares her thoughts on the redesign of her own website, including her choice of typefaces.

Laura Kalbag: Grids, flexibility and responsiveness

Making of Typespiration,” Rafal Tomal
Rafal Tomal built Typespiration as a side project. Learn about the process from initial idea to finished WordPress website.

Typespiration: Making of

Case Studies,” Fi
Design firm Fi has integrated case studies into its portfolio. The studies are very interactive and beautifully designed. Here are four of them:

Fi Case studies

More Case Studies!

Perhaps you are more interested in case-studies on copywriting, content and storytelling, technical challenges, or just workflow and optimization tips? Well, off we go to the second part of the overview. Now you should be well prepared for a couple of late reading sessions over the next weekends!

(al) (il) (ea)


© Melanie Lang for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

July 16 2013

18:11

Authentic Design


  

The recently popularized “flat” interface style is not merely a trend. It is the manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb visual excess and eliminate the fake and the superfluous.

In creating new opportunities, technological progress sometimes leads to areas of excess. In the 19th century, mechanized mass production allowed for ornaments to be stamped out quickly and cheaply, leading to goods overdecorated with ornament. A similar thing occurred in recent years, when display and styling technologies enabled designers to create visually rich interfaces, leading to skeuomorphic and stylistic excesses.

In its desire for authenticity, the Modern design movement curbed the ornamental excess of the 19th century, making design fit the age of mass production. Today, we’re seeing the same desire for authenticity manifest itself in the “flat” trend, which rejects skeuomorphism and excessive visuals for simpler, cleaner, content-focused design.

The Birth Of Modern Design

In 1908, Adolf Loos, an influential Austrian architect, wrote an essay provocatively titled Ornament and Crime. The modern ornamentalist, he claimed, was either a “cultural laggard or a pathological case. He himself is forced to disown his work after three years. His productions are unbearable to cultured persons now, and will become so to others in a little while.” Even more boldly, Loos asserted, “The lower the standard of a people, the more lavish are its ornaments. To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal towards which humanity is aspiring.”

What triggered such an attack on ornament? To understand the mindset of this pioneer of modern design, we must first form some idea of the state of design in the late-19th century.

The advent of the steam engine ushered in an era of mechanized mass production. As the art critic Frank Whitford writes, “Steam-driven machines could stamp, cut and fashion almost any substance faster and more regularly than the human hand. Mechanized production meant lower prices and higher profits.”

But while the method of production shifted from hand to machine, the style of goods did not. Most every product, from building and furniture to fabric and cutlery, was adorned in an opulent coat of ornament, built upon the grand spirit of the Renaissance.

An inkstand The Great Exhibition
An inkstand showcased at The Great Exhibition of 1851, a celebration of the best manufacturing from around the world. The use of ornamentation here is extreme but not atypical.

Historically, handcrafted decoration has been expensive to produce, serving as a symbol of wealth and luxury. With the advent of mechanization, imitations of those same sought-after ornaments could be stamped out cheaply and quickly. Rather than stop and think about what sort of design would be best suited for mass production, manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to copy historicized styles at low cost. The result was the flood of garish, low-quality products that Adolf Loos, along with other pioneers of modern design, railed against.

In The Decorative Art of Today, famed architect Le Corbusier bluntly asserted that trash is abundantly decorated, and that, “The luxury object is well-made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture. It is to industry that we owe the reversal in this state of affairs: a cast-iron stove overflowing with decoration costs less than a plain one; amidst the surging leaf patterns flaws in the casting cannot be seen.”

Montgomery Schuyler, an influential critic and journalist, condemned the heavily ornamented 19th-century facades, saying, “If you were to scrape down to the face of the main wall of the buildings of these streets, you would find that you had simply removed all the architecture, and that you had left the buildings as good as ever.”

Harrods store building
Harrods’ current building in London was completed in 1905 to the design of architect Charles William Stephens. The facade is typical of Victorian architecture. (Image: Michael Greifeneder)

Louis Sullivan, the architect known as “the father of skyscrapers,” called for restraint by suggesting, “It would be greatly for our aesthetic good, if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude.” Below is an image of one of Sullivan’s buildings. The ground floor is decorated, but the upper floors are surprisingly modern for a 19th-century design, especially when contrasted with Harrods’.

Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store building
Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store was originally designed in 1899 for Schlesinger & Mayer. The simplicity of the upper floors here is striking for a 19th-century building.

During the 1920s, a new movement emerged in Germany known as the untranslatable word Sachlichkeit, which has a sense of “factual,” “matter of fact,” “practical,” “objective.” The Neue Sachlichkeit movement in the field of design sought pure utility. German architect Hermann Muthesius explained how this idea of utility could be applied to style, to produce something he called Maschinenstil, or “machine style.” In his own words, we find examples of this style in “railway stations, exhibition halls, bridges, steamships, etc. Here we are faced with a severe and almost scientific Sachlichkeit, with abstinence from all outward decoration, and with shapes completely dictated by the purposes which they are meant to serve.”

Instead of attacking ornament, other pioneers of modern design focused on elevating functional form on a pedestal. In 1934, an exhibition curated by modernist architect Philip Johnson was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled Machine Art. On display were various pieces of mechanical equipment, such as airplane propellers and industrial insulators. The idea was to highlight beauty of form in objects that were purely functional. For the modern design movement, decoration was not necessary. Beauty and elegance were to emerge from the design of the content itself, not from a superficial coat of decoration.

Slutzky teapot
This teapot was designed by Naum Slutzky, goldsmith, industrial designer and master craftsman of Weimarer Bauhaus. The clean, utilitarian design has not a trace of ornament — an almost mathematical solution to the given problem.

It took much of the first half of the 20th century for the Modernist movement to prevail, but eventually traditional styles and techniques were surpassed by newer approaches. In his book Twentieth-Century Design, Jonathan Woodham notes that the Modern aesthetic was characterized by “clean, geometric forms, the use of modern materials such as chromium-plated steel and glass, and plain surfaces articulated by the abstract manipulation of light and shade. The use of color was often restrained, with an emphasis on white, off-white, grey, and black.” Modern design had shed its opulent coat of ornament and instead sought beauty in a harmonious fusion of form and function.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Modern design movement on the whole can be characterized as anti-ornamental. New styles came and went, such as the popular movements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Some styles, such as Futurism, pushed for an exaggerated technological aesthetic, while others, such as De Stijl, sought harmony in a limited palette of colors and shapes. But underlying the outward shifts in style was the steady movement away from needless ornament, a movement towards a cleaner, more restrained form of design whose beauty lay in the style and shape of the content itself, rather than in external decoration.

Digital Ornament

If we compare the history of modern design with our short history of software and Web design, a parallel can be seen. In the same way that mechanized mass production resulted in an overuse of ornament, so did advances in display and styling technology result in the heavy use of decoration in software interfaces and websites. Designers in the early years of the Web were especially explorative on this front, using animation and sound together with images to produce excessively rich and often garish experiences.

Early operating systems with graphical user interfaces were still fairly basic in their look and feel. Granted, real-world metaphors were used where they could be, such as for images of folders to denote file directories and buttons with bevels to let the user know they could click on them. But the overall aesthetic was fairly flat and restrained. Regardless of whether the designer wanted to deliver a richer visual experience, the low resolution of the black and white displays limited them.

Mac OS 1
Using only two colors for the first Mac OS graphical interface, Apple managed to convey depth, textures, buttons and icons that mimicked real-life objects. The appearance of the interface was constrained by technology, rather than by the designer.

As technology evolved, designers were granted greater visual freedom with their interfaces. With Windows XP, Microsoft introduced a colorful style throughout, giving it a somewhat physical appearance, with plenty of highlights, shadows and gradients.

Apple went even further with the release of Mac OS X, styling the interface with shiny plastic bubbles, brushed aluminum and lifelike icons. As time went by, the visual styling of operating systems grew in intensity. Microsoft gave Windows a shiny, transparent glass-like theme, while Apple introduced even more materials and skeuomorphic cues into its desktop and mobile systems, such as leather textures in its calendar app and realistic page-turning effects in its book reader.

Windows Vista
The Windows Vista interface featured the Aero theme, with its shiny, glass-like window chrome.

Styles that imitate real-life objects and textures are said to be “skeuomorphs” — that is, design elements based on symbols borrowed from the real world, for the sole purpose of making an interface look familiar to the user. Recently, designers have started questioning the logic of styling a notes app as a paper pad, or of adding leather and page-turning effects to a calendar app. These effects provide visual interest, but they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces.

OS X calendar
The current version of OS X’s calendar features a stitched leather texture and torn paper edges to give the appearance of a physical calendar.

With the latest release of Windows 8, Microsoft took a brave step away from such superfluous visuals, attempting to give its operating system a wholly digital and, in its words, “authentic” look. The latest interface is built upon the principles that Microsoft developed for its earlier mobile release, presenting the user with an aesthetic that is almost wholly devoid of textures or imitations of real-life objects.

Instead, Windows 8 relies on typography, spacing and color to bring order and elegance to the digital canvas. Real-life effects and superfluous styles are discarded, and all that is left is simply the content itself. Much as Muthesius once submitted railway stations as examples of Maschinenstil, the designers at Microsoft point to examples of railway station signs as inspiration for the new Windows interface, previously known as “Metro.”

Windows 8 live tiles on the start screen
Windows 8’s start screen breaks away from the old desktop design, being composed of flat, colorful live tiles, instead of icons. The tiles are not merely a stylistic choice: They allow useful information to be displayed on the start screen in the manner of a dashboard.

The Web has seen a similar transformation over the years. Early table-based and Flash-based designs gave developers pixel-perfect control over their interfaces, and so designers did not hesitate to create visually rich containers for their content. As we began to grasp the fluidity of the new medium and to disconnect presentation from content using CSS, Web design became more restrained. Highly decorated containers could not change their width and positions easily, so designers used fewer images and relied more on simpler CSS styling to make their layouts more adaptive and easier to maintain.

The latest evolution of responsive design (which is to adapt a single page to suit various screen sizes and devices) as well as the move among designers to work directly in code from the start, skipping visual editors such as Photoshop, moves us even further towards a simpler, content-focused Web aesthetic, one that derives its beauty from typography, spacing and color rather than from a heavy use of textures and decorative images.

Most recently, Apple, the leader of skeuomorphism, has taken its first step towards digital authenticity with the latest release of its mobile operating system, iOS 7. Gone are the stitched leather textures and ripped paper edges, replaced by a minimalist, mostly flat interface, with colorful, simplified icons and semi-translucent surfaces.

Comparison between Apple's iOS 6 and iOS 7 interfaces
Apple’s iOS 7 is a radical turn away from skeuomorphism. The old design of iOS’ Calculator app is on the left, and the one for iOS 7 is on the right. The grainy texture, bevelled buttons and shiny glass are all gone, replaced by a mostly flat, functional interface.

Authentic Design

What ties the pioneering days of Modern design to the current shift in software and Web design is the desire for authenticity. This drive towards greater authenticity is what moved designers to scrape away ornament from their work over a hundred years ago, and this force is what is moving digital design today towards a cleaner, more functional aesthetic. But what exactly makes design “authentic”?

Authentic design aims to pierce through falsehood and do away with superfluousness. Authentic design is about using materials without masking them in fake textures, showcasing their strengths instead of trying to hide their weaknesses. Authentic design is about doing away with features that are included only to make a product appear familiar or desirable but that otherwise serve no purpose. Authentic design is about representing function in its most optimal form, about having a conviction in elegance through efficiency. Authentic design is about dropping the crutches of external ornament and finding beauty in pure content.

In authentic design, style is not unimportant, but it is not pursued through decoration. Rather, beauty of form depends on the content, with the style being a natural outcome of a creative solution. As Deyan Sudjic commented on the design of the iconic Anglepoise lamp, “How the lamp looks — in particular the form of its shade — was something of an afterthought. But that was part of its appeal. Its artless shape gave it a certain naive innocence that suggested authenticity, just as the early versions of the Land Rover had the kind of credibility that comes with a design based on a technically ingenious idea rather than the desire to create a seductive consumer product.”

The Anglepoise lamp
The design of the Anglepoise lamp is an ingenious solution to a real problem. But the resulting form, which is an effective solution, turns out to have its own aesthetic allure.

In digital design, authenticity means a few things, which can roughly be summarized as the following:

  • Embrace the digital look.
    We do not have to mimic textures such as metal, wood and leather on a computer display. They are not what a digital interface is made of, so pretending that it is makes no sense. This does not mean that a design should have only plain flat backgrounds colors — rather, it means we should not try to imitate or be restricted by textures from the real world.
  • Do away with skeuomorphism.
    A digital book need not imitate physical paper as one turns the page, nor does a note-taking app need to look like a physical paper pad, with a leather cover, torn edges and a handwriting-styled font. Skeuomorphism is not always bad, but it always introduces needless constraints on the interface. For example, while a paper pad is static and one dimensional, a digital interface need not be; but as long as the interface is made to imitate a paper pad, it has to bear the constraints of the physical metaphor.
  • Make the style content-centered.
    Focus on the content rather than on its styling and decoration. You might think this point is trite, but how many times have you seen an off-the-shelf theme on a website? A theme is always built on dummy content and so, by its very nature, could never be an optimal representation of the content it will eventually hold. Building themes with dummy text pushes the designer to focus on styling and decoration, rather than on content, because there is no content yet to work with. Only when you work with real content can you begin to truly transform function into form.

Not Minimalism

Design whose beauty lies in function is not the same thing as minimalism minimalist style. With the former, the designer seeks to remove the superfluous, to make the product easier to understand, to make it perform better and to make the most of its medium. The latter seeks to create a minimalist aesthetic, to give the object an aura of simplicity and cleanliness. One is a fundamental principle of design, the other a stylistic choice.

Flat UI
The Flat UI theme kit, by Designmodo, is an outward representation of the underlying shift towards authentic design. But as a style, “flat” is a choice, not a necessity.

It would be a mistake to rigidly apply a minimalist design aesthetic to an interface as a style in the hope of making the interface simpler and more digitally “authentic.” For example, ruthlessly eliminating visuals such as shadows, colors and varied background styles would not necessarily make an interface easier to use. In some cases, it would achieve the opposite by undermining hierarchy and focus, which were established by those very shadows and background colors.

Outlook 2013
Outlook 2013’s interface was updated to fit Windows 8’s modern theme. But with the interface being flattened, all of the content and menus were merged onto a single white plane, becoming more cluttered as a result.

In The Laws of Simplicity John Maeda posits, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.” The final warning is important. Removing things often leads to simplicity merely because the user has fewer items to process. But removing visual cues that help the user mentally process the interface — such as graphical elements that group items, that differentiate buttons and labels and that make things stand out — could do exactly the opposite by giving the user more work to do. So, rather than guide the design by style, guide it by principle.

Why Authentic Design Matters

The Rise app is a perfect example of digitally authentic design. The alarm clock is a problem that has already been solved, but Simplebots decided to tackle the concept from scratch, rethinking the interface in the context of a purely digital canvas.

Rise app
In the Rise app, the user sets the time with an innovative full-screen slider, with the background color changing to reflect the color of the sky.

Rise’s interface features a full-screen slider, with a background color that changes to reflect the color of the sky at the time you’ve set. It shows no attempt to mimic a physical clock or a physical slider or real-life textures. Instead, the designers have fully embraced the touch canvas of the mobile phone, creating an experience that is designed from the ground up to make the most of its medium. The innovative design not only makes for a great user experience, but elevates the app above others in the marketplace.

An interface like Rise’s is only possible when you tackle a design problem wholly within the context of the digital canvas, rather than by translating solutions from the real world. The digital screen allows for abstract forms, animation, bright colors and uniform shades. It need not be limited to a subdued palette or static representation, nor must it be bound to skeuomorphic forms. By figuring out how best to represent content using the pixel grid, we can arrive at better, simpler solutions, innovative interfaces that feel at home on the screen, designs that provide a better user experience and that stand out from the crowd.

The recently popularized “flat” design style may be a trend, but it is also the manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb superfluous decoration and to focus on the content itself. Technological progress sometimes leads to excess, as mechanized mass production did in the 19th century when ornament became overused, and as display and styling technologies did during the early years of Web and software design. But ornamental excess was curbed over time by the pioneers of Modernism, who sought beauty in function, and today’s excesses in software will in time be curbed by an underlying desire for authenticity in design.

References

  • Bauhaus, Frank Whitford (2010: Thames & Hudson)
  • Twentieth-Century Design, Jonathan M. Woodham (1997: Oxford University Press)
  • Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner (1991: Penguin Books)
  • The Language of Things, Deyan Sudjic (2009: Penguin Books)
  • The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda (2006: MIT Press)

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© Dmitry Fadeyev for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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