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December 21 2013


Managing a Mind

Christopher Murphy pauses to reflect on his personal experience of mental distress and enjoins us to understand the powerful psychological forces that motivate us and can lead us astray.

Tags: Process craft

December 16 2013


Credits and Recognition

Geri Coady lavishes us with her generous spirit of appreciation and approbation for co-workers, webfellows and colleagues. By crediting everyone involved, you can be a not-so-secret Santa.

Tags: Process craft
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December 15 2013


In Their Own Write: Web Books and their Authors

Owen Gregory winkles answers out of authors of web books, the whys and wherefores of writing and publishing them. Everyone loves a book for Christmas, so spare a thought for the misguided soulsbrave folk who write them.

Tags: Content craft

December 03 2012


Being Prepared To Contribute

Trent Walton celebrates the collaborative DNA of the web community. We make the web better when we work together, and we should seek out ways of contributing for the greater good. A little bit like Christmas, really.

Tags: craft

December 20 2011


Crafting the Front-end

Much has been spoken and written recently about the virtues of craftsmanship in the context of web design and development. It seems that we as fabricators of the web are finally tiring of seeking out parallels between ourselves and architects, and are turning instead to the fabled specialist artisans.

Identifying oneself as a craftsman or craftswoman (let’s just say craftsperson from here onward) will likely be a trend of early 2012. In this pre-emptive strike, I’d like to expound on this movement as I feel it pertains to front-end development, and encourage care and understanding of the true qualities of craftsmanship (craftspersonship).

The core values

I’ll begin by defining craftspersonship. What distinguishes a craftsperson from a technician? Dictionaries tend to define a craftsperson as one who possesses great skill in a chosen field. The badge of a craftsperson for me, though, is a very special label that should be revered and used sparingly, only where it is truly deserved. A genuine craftsperson encompasses a few other key traits, far beyond raw skill, each of which must be learned and mastered.

A craftsperson has:

  • An appreciation of good work, in both the work of others and their own. And not just good as in ‘hey, that’s pretty neat’, I mean a goodness like a shining purity – the kind of good that feels right when you see it.
  • A belief in quality at every level: every facet of the craftsperson’s product is as crucial as any other, without exception, even those normally hidden from view.
  • Vision: an ability to visualize their path ahead, pre-empting the obstacles that may be encountered to plan a route around them.
  • A preference for simplicity: an almost Bauhausesque devotion to undecorated functionality, with no unjustifiable parts included.
  • Sincerity: producing work that speaks directly to its purpose with flawless clarity.

Only when you become a custodian of such values in your work can you consider calling yourself a craftsperson. Now let’s take a look at some steps we front-end developers can take on our journey of enlightenment toward craftspersonhood.

Speaking of the craftsman’s journey, be sure to watch out for the video of The Standardistas’ stellar talk at the Build 2011 conference titled The Journey, which should be online sometime soon.

Building your own toolbox

My grandfather was a carpenter and trained as a young apprentice under a master. After observing and practising the many foundation theories, principles and techniques of carpentry, he was tasked with creating his own set of woodworking tools, which he would use and maintain throughout his career. By going through the process of having to create his own tools, he would be connected at the most direct level with every piece of wood he touched, his tools being his own creations and extensions of his own skilled hands. The depth of his knowledge of these tools must have surpassed the intricate as he fathered, used, cleaned and repaired them, day in and day out over many years.

And so it should be, ideally, with all crafts. We must understand our tools right down to the most fundamental level. I firmly believe that a level of true craftsmanship cannot be reached while there exists a layer that remains not wholly understood between a creator and his canvas. Of course, our tools as front-end developers are somewhat more complex than those of other crafts – it may seem reasonable to require that a carpenter create his or her own set of chisels, but somewhat less so to ask a front-end developer to code their own CSS preprocessor, or design their own computer.

However, it is still vitally important that you understand how your tools work. This is particularly critical when it comes to things like preprocessors, libraries and frameworks which aim to save you time by automating common processes and functions. For the most part, anything that saves you time is a Good Thing™ but it cannot be stressed enough that using tools like these in earnest should be avoided until you understand exactly what they are doing for you (and, to an extent, how they are doing it).

In particular, you must understand any drawbacks to using your tools, and any shortcuts they may be taking on your behalf. I’m not suggesting that you steer clear of paid work until you’ve studied each of jQuery’s 9,266 lines of JavaScript source code but, all levity aside, it will further you on your journey to look at interesting or relevant bits of jQuery, and any other libraries you might want to use. Such libraries often directly link to corresponding sections of their source code on sites like GitHub from their official documentation. Better yet, they’re almost always written in high level languages (easy to read), so there’s no excuse not to don your pith helmet and go on something of an exploration. Any kind of tangential learning like this will drive you further toward becoming a true craftsperson, so keep an open mind and always be ready to step out of your comfort zone.

Downtime and tool honing

With any craft, it is essential to keep your tools in good condition, and a good idea to stay up-to-date with the latest equipment. This is especially true on the web, which, as we like to tell anyone who is still awake more than a minute after asking what it is that we do, advances at a phenomenal pace. A tool or technique that could be considered best practice this week might be the subject of haughty derision in a comment thread within six months.

I have little doubt that you already spend a chunk of time each day keeping up with the latest material from our industry’s finest Interblogs and Twittertubes, but do you honestly put aside time to collect bookmarks and code snippets from things you read into a slowly evolving toolbox? At @media in 2009, Simon Collison delivered a candid talk on his ‘Ultimate Package’. Those of us who didn’t flee the room anticipating a newfound and unwelcome intimacy with the contents of his trousers were shown how he maintained his own toolkit – a collection of files and folders all set up and ready to go for a new project. By maintaining a toolkit in this way, he has consistency across projects and a dependable base upon which to learn and improve.

The assembly and maintenance of such a personalized and familiar toolkit is probably as close as we will get to emulating the tool making stage of more traditional craft trades. Keep a master copy of your toolkit somewhere safe, making copies of it for new projects. When you learn of a way in which part of it can be improved, make changes to the master copy.

Simplicity through modularity

I believe that the user interfaces of all web applications should be thought of as being made up primarily of modular components. Modules in this context are patterns in design that appear repeatedly throughout the app. These can be small collections of elements, like a user profile summary box (profile picture, username, meta data), as well as atomic elements such as headings and list items.

Well-crafted front-end architectures have the ability to support this kind of repeating pattern as modules, with as close to no repetition of CSS (or JavaScript) as possible, and as close to no variations in HTML between instances as possible.

One of the most fundamental and well known tenets of software engineering is the DRY rule – don’t repeat yourself. It requires that “every piece of knowledge must have a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system.”

As craftspeople, we must hold this rule dear and apply it to the modules we have identified in our site designs. The moment you commit a second style definition for a module, the quality of your output (the front-end code) takes a huge hit. There should only ever be one base style definition for each distinct module or component. Keep these in a separate, sacred place in your CSS. I use a _modules.scss Sass include file, imported near the top of my main CSS files.

Be sure, of course, to avoid making changes to this file lightly, as the smallest adjustment can affect multiple pages (hint: keep a structure list of which modules are used on which pages). Avoid the inevitable temptation to duplicate code late in the project. Sticking to this rule becomes more important the more complex the codebase becomes.

If you can stick to this rule, using sensible class names and consistent HTML, you can reach a joyous, self-fulfilling plateau stage in each project where you are assembling each interface from your own set of carefully crafted building blocks.

Old school markup

Let’s take a step back. Before we fret about creating a divinely pure modular CSS framework, we need to know the site’s design and what it is made of. The best way to gain this knowledge is to go old school. Print out every comp, mockup, wireframe, sketch or whatever you have. If there are sections of pages that are hidden until some user action takes place, or if the page has multiple states, be sure that you have everything that could become visible to the user on paper.

Once you have your wedge of paper designs, lay out all the pages on the floor, or stick them to the wall if you can, arranging them logically according to the site hierarchy, by user journey, or whatever guidelines make most sense to you. Once you have the site laid out before you, study it for a while, familiarizing yourself with every part of every interface. This will eliminate nasty surprises late in the project when you realize you’ve duplicated something, or left an interface on the drawing board altogether.

Now that you know the site like it’s your best friend, get out your pens or pencils of choice and attack it. Mark it up like there’s no tomorrow. Pretend you’re a spy trying to identify communications from an enemy network hiding their messages in newspapers. Look for patterns and similarities, drawing circles around them. These are your modules. Start also highlighting the differences between each instance of these modules, working out which is the most basic or common type that will become the base definition from which all other representations are extended.

This simple but empowering exercise will equip you for your task of actually crafting, instead of just building, the front-end. Without the knowledge gained from this kind of research phase, you will be blundering forward, improvising as best you can, but ultimately making quality-compromising mistakes that could have been avoided.

For more on this theme, read Anna Debenham’s Front-end Style Guides which recommends a similar process, and the sublime idea of extending this into a guide to refer to during development and beyond.

Design homogeneity

Moving forward again, you now have your modules defined and things are looking good. I mentioned that many instances of these modules will carry minor differences. These differences must be given significant thinking time, and discussion time with your designer(s).

It should be common knowledge by now that successful software projects are not the product of distinct design and build phases with little or no bidirectional feedback. The crucial nature of the designer-developer relationship has been covered in depth this year by Paul Robert Lloyd, and a joint effort from both teams throughout the project lifecycle is pivotal to your ability to craft and ship successful products.

This relationship comes into play when you’re well into the development of the site, and you start noticing these differences between instances of modules (they’ll start to stand out very clearly to you and your carefully regimented modular CSS system). Before you start overriding your base styles, question the differences with the designer to work out why they exist. Perhaps they are required and are important to their context, but perhaps they were oversights from earlier design revisions, or simple mistakes.

The craftsperson’s gland

As you grow towards the levels of expertise and experience where you can proudly and honestly consider yourself a craftsperson, you will find that you steadily develop what initially feels like a kind of sixth sense. I think of it more as a new hormonal gland, secreting into your bloodstream a powerful messenger chemical that can either reward or punish your brain. This gland is connected directly to your core understanding of what good quality work looks and feels like, an understanding that itself improves with experience.

This gland will make itself known to you in two ways. First, when you solve a problem in a beautifully elegant way with clean and unobtrusive code that looks good and just feels right, your craftsperson’s gland will ooze something delicious that makes your brain and soul glow from the inside out. You will beam triumphantly at the succinct lines of code on your computer display before bounding outside with a spring in your step to swim up glittering rainbows and kiss soft fluffy puppies.

The second way that you may become aware of your craftsperson’s gland, though, is somewhat less pleasurable. In an alternate reality, your parallel self is faced with the same problem, but decides to take a shortcut and get around it by some dubious means – the kind of technical method that the words hack, kludge and bodge are reserved for. As soon as you have done this, or even as you are doing it, your craftsperson’s gland will damn well let you know that you took the wrong fork in the road. As your craftsperson’s gland begins to secrete a toxic pus, you will at first become entranced into a vacant stare at the monstrous mess you are considering unleashing upon your site’s visitors, before writhing in the horrible agony of an itch that can never be scratched, and a feeling of being coated with the devil’s own deep and penetrating filth that no shower will ever cleanse.

Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but it is no overstatement to suggest that you will find yourself being guided by proverbial angels and demons perched on opposite shoulders, or a whispering voice inside your head. If you harness this sense, sharpening it as if it were another tool in your kit and letting it guide or at least advise your decision making, you will transcend the rocky realm of random trial and error when faced with problems, and tend toward the right answers instinctively.

This gland can also empower your ability to assess your own work, becoming a judge before whom all your work is cross-examined. A good craftsperson regularly takes a step back from their work, and questions every facet of their product for its precise alignment with their core values of quality and sincerity, and even the very necessity of each component.

The wrapping

By now, you may be thinking that I take this kind of thing far too seriously, but to terrify you further, I haven’t even shared the half of it. Hopefully, though, this gives you an idea of the kind of levels of professionalism and dedication that it should take to get you on your way to becoming a craftsperson. It’s a level of accomplishment and ability toward which we all should strive, both for our personal fulfilment and the betterment of the products we use daily. I look forward to seeing your finely crafted work throughout 2012.

Tags: craft

December 16 2011


Designing for Perfection

Hello, 24 ways readers. I hope you’re having a nice run up to Christmas. This holiday season I thought I’d share a few things with you that have been particularly meaningful in my work over the last year or so. They may not make you wet your santa pants with new-idea-excitement, but in the context of 24 ways I think they may serve as a nice lesson and a useful seasonal reminder going into the New Year. Enjoy!


Despite being a largely scruffy individual for most of my life, I had some interesting experiences regarding kitchen tidiness during my third year at university.

As a kid, my room had always been pretty tidy, and as a teenager I used to enjoy reordering my CDs regularly (by artist, label, colour of spine – you get the picture); but by the time I was twenty I’d left most of these traits behind me, mainly due to a fear that I was turning into my mother. The one remaining anally retentive part of me that remained however, lived in the kitchen. For some reason, I couldn’t let all the pots and crockery be strewn across the surfaces after cooking. I didn’t care if they were washed up or not, I just needed them tidied. The surfaces needed to be continually free of grated cheese, breadcrumbs and ketchup spills. Also, the sink always needed to be clear. Always. Even a lone teabag, discarded casually into the sink hours previously, would give me what I used to refer to as “kitchen rage”.

Whilst this behaviour didn’t cause any direct conflicts, it did often create weirdness. We would be happily enjoying a few pre-night out beverages (Jack Daniels and Red Bull – nice) when I’d notice the state of the kitchen following our round of customized 49p Tesco pizzas. Kitchen rage would ensue, and I’d have to blitz the kitchen, which usually resulted in me having to catch everyone up at the bar afterwards.

One evening as we were just about to go out, I was stood there, in front of the shithole that was our kitchen with the intention of cleaning it all up, when a realization popped into my head. In hindsight, it was a pretty obvious one, but it went along the lines of “What the fuck are you doing? Sort your life out”. I sodded the washing up, rolled out with my friends, and had a badass evening of partying.

After this point, whenever I got the urge to clean the kitchen, I repeated that same realization in my head. My tidy kitchen obsession strived for a level of perfection that my housemates just didn’t share, so it was ultimately pointless. It didn’t make me feel that good, either; it was like having a cigarette after months of restraint – initially joyous but soon slightly shameful.


Now, around seven years later, I’m a designer on the web and my life is chaotic. It features no planning for significant events, no day-to-day routine or structure, no thought about anything remotely long-term, and I like to think I do precisely what I want. It seems my days at striving for something ordered and tidy, in most parts of my life, are long gone.

For much of my time as a designer, though, it’s been a different story. I relished industry-standard terms such as ‘pixel perfection’ and ‘polished PSDs’, taking them into my stride as I strove to design everything that was put on my plate perfectly. Even down to grids and guidelines, all design elements would be painstakingly aligned to a five-pixel grid. There were no seven-pixel margins or gutters to be found in my design work, that’s for sure. I put too much pride and, inadvertently, too much ego into my work. Things took too long to create, and because of the amount of effort put into the work, significant changes, based on client feedback for example, were more difficult to stomach.

Over the last eighteen months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I approach designing for the web. Working on applications has probably helped with this; they seem to have a more organic development than rigid content-based websites. Mostly though, a realization similar to my kitchen rage one came about when I had to make significant changes to a painstakingly crafted Photoshop document I had created. The changes shouldn’t have been difficult or time-consuming to implement, but they were turning out to be. One day, frustrated with how long it was taking, the refrain “What the fuck are you doing? Sort your life out” again entered my head. I blazed the rest of the work, not rushing or doing scruffy work, but just not adhering to the insane levels of perfection I had previously set for myself. When the changes were presented, everything went down swimmingly. The client in this case (and I’d argue most cases) cared more about the ideas than the perfect way in which they had been implemented. I had taken myself and my ego out of the creative side of the work, and it had been easier to succeed.


I know many other designers who work on the web share such aspirations to perfection. I think it’s a common part of the designer DNA, but I’m not sure it really has a place when designing for the web.

First, there’s the environment. The landscape in which we work is continually shifting and evolving. The inherent imperfection of the medium itself makes attempts to create perfect work for it redundant. Whether you consider it a positive or negative point, the products we make are never complete. They’re always scaling and changing.

Like many aspects of web design, this striving for perfection in our design work is a way of thinking borrowed from other design industries where it’s more suited. A physical product cannot be as easily altered or developed after it has been manufactured, so the need to achieve perfection when designing is more apt.

Designers who can relate to anything I’ve talked about can easily let go of that anal retentiveness if given the right reasons to do so. Striving for perfection isn’t a bad thing, but I simply don’t think it can be achieved in such a fast-moving, unique industry. I think design for the web works better when it begins with quick and simple, followed by iteration and polish over time.

To let go of ego and to publish something that you’re not completely happy with is perhaps the most difficult part of the job for designers like us, but it’s followed by a satisfaction of knowing your product is alive and breathing, whereas others (possibly even competitors) may still be sitting in Photoshop, agonizing over whether a margin should be twenty or forty pixels.

I keep telling myself to stop sitting on those two hundred ideas that are all half-finished. Publish them, clean them up and iterate over time. I’ve been telling myself this for months and, hopefully, writing this article will give me the kick in the arse I need. Hopefully, it will also give someone else the same kick.

Tags: craft

December 10 2011


Nine Things I've Learned

I’ve been a professional graphic designer for fourteen years and for just under four of those a professional web designer. Like most designers I’ve learned a lot in my time, both from a design point of view and in business as freelance designer. A few of the things I’ve learned stick out in my mind, so I thought I’d share them with you. They’re pretty random and in no particular order.

1. Becoming the designer you want to be

When I started out as a young graphic designer, I wanted to design posters and record sleeves, pretty much like every other young graphic designer. The problem is that the reality of the world means that when you get your first job you’re designing the back of a paracetamol packet or something equally weird. I recently saw a tweet that went something like this: “You’ll never become the designer you always dreamt of being by doing the work you never wanted to do”. This is so true; to become the designer you want to be, you need to be designing the things you’re passionate about designing. This probably this means working in the evenings and weekends for little or no money, but it’s time well spent. Doing this will build up your portfolio with the work that really shows what you can do! Soon, someone will ask you to design something based on having seen this work. From this point, you’re carving your own path in the direction of becoming the designer you always wanted to be.

2. Compete on your own terms

As well as all being friends, we are also competitors. In order to win new work we need a selling point, preferably a unique selling point. Web design is a combination of design disciplines – user experience design, user interface Design, visual design, development, and so on. Some companies will sell themselves as UX specialists, which is fine, but everyone who designs a website from scratch does some sort of UX, so it’s not really a unique selling point. Of course, some people do it better than others.

One area of web design that clients have a strong opinion on, and will judge you by, is visual design. It’s an area in which it’s definitely possible to have a unique selling point. Designing the visual aesthetic for a website is a combination of logical decision making and a certain amount of personal style. If you can create a unique visual style to your work, it can become a selling point that’s unique to you.

3. How much to charge and staying motivated

When you’re a freelance designer one of the hardest things to do is put a price on your work and skills. Finding the right amount to charge is a fine balance between supplying value to your customer and also charging enough to stay motivated to do a great job. It’s always tempting to offer a low price to win work, but it’s often not the best approach: not just for yourself but for the client as well.

A client once asked me if I could reduce my fee by £1,000 and still be motivated enough to do a good job. In this case the answer was yes, but it was the question that resonated with me. I realized I could use this as a gauge to help me price projects. Before I send out a quote I now always ask myself the question “Is the amount I’ve quoted enough to make me feel motivated to do my best on this project?” I never send out a quote unless the answer is yes. In my mind there’s no point in doing any project half-heartedly, as every project is an opportunity to build your reputation and expand your portfolio to show potential clients what you can do. Offering a client a good price but not being prepared to put everything you have into it, isn’t value for money.

4. Supplying the right design

When I started out as a graphic designer it seemed to be the done thing to supply clients with a ton of options for their logo or brochure designs. In a talk given by Dan Rubin, he mentioned that this was a legacy of agencies competing with each other in a bid to create the illusion of offering more value for money. Over the years, I’ve realized that offering more than one solution makes no sense. The reason a client comes to you as a designer is because you’re the person than can get it right. If I were to supply three options, I’d be knowingly offering my client at least two options that I didn’t think worked.

To this day I still get asked how many homepage design options I’ll supply for the quoted amount. The answer is one. Of course, I’m more than happy to iterate upon the design to fine-tune it and, on the odd occasion, I do revisit a design concept if I just didn’t nail the design first time around. Your time is much better spent refining the right design option than rushing out three substandard designs in the same amount of time.

5. Colour is key

There are many contributing factors that go into making a good visual design, but one of the simplest ways to do this is through the use of colour. The colour palette used in a design can have such a profound effect on a visual design that it almost feels like you’re cheating. It’s easy to add more and more subtle shades of colour to add a sense of sophistication and complexity to a design, but it dilutes the overall visual impact. When I design, I almost have a rule that only allows me to use a very limited colour palette. I don’t always stick to it, but it’s always in mind and something I’m constantly reviewing through my design process.

6. Creative thinking is central to good or boundary-pushing web design

When we think of creativity in web design we often link this to the visual design, as there is an obvious opportunity to be creative in this area if the brief allows it. Something that I’ve learnt in my time as a web designer is that there’s a massive need for creative thinking in the more technical aspects of web design. The tools we use for building websites are there to be manipulated and used in creative ways to design exciting and engaging user experiences. Great developers are constantly using their creativity to push the boundaries of what can be done with CSS, jQuery and JavaScript.

Being creative and creative thinking are things we should embrace as an industry and they are qualities that can be found in anyone, whether they be a visual designer or Rails developer.

7. Creative block: don’t be afraid to get things wrong

Creative block can be a killer when designing. It’s often applied to visual design, which is more subjective. I suffer from creative block on a regular basis. It’s hugely frustrating and can screw up your schedule. Having thought about what creative block actually is, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually more of a lack of direction than a lack of ideas. You have ideas and solutions in mind but don’t feel committed to any of them. You’re scared that whatever direction you take, it’ll turn out to be wrong. I’ve found that the best remedy for this is to work through this barrier. It’s a bit like designing with a blindfold on – you don’t really know where you’re going. If you stick to your guns and keep pressing forward I find that, nine times out of ten, this process leads to a solution. As the page begins to fill, the direction you’re looking for slowly begins to take shape.

8. You get better at designing by designing

I often get emails asking me what books someone can read to help them become a better designer. There are a lot of good books on subjects like HTML5, CSS, responsive web design and the like, that will really help improve anyone’s web design skills. But, when it comes to visual design, the best way to get better is to design as much as possible. You can’t follow instructions for these things because design isn’t following instructions. A large part of web design is definitely applying a set of widely held conventions, but there’s another part to it that is invention and the only way to get better at this is to do it as much as possible.

9. Self-belief is overrated

Throughout our lives we’re told to have self-belief. Self-belief and confidence in what we do, whatever that may be. The problem is that some people find it easier than others to believe in themselves. I’ve spent years trying to convince myself to believe in what I do but have always found it difficult to have complete confidence in my design skills. Self-doubt always creeps in.

I’ve realized that it’s ok to doubt myself and I think it might even be a good thing! I’ve realized that it’s my self-doubt that propels me forward and makes me work harder to achieve the best results. The reason I’m sharing this is because I know I’m not the only designer that feels this way. You can spend a lot of time fighting self-doubt only to discover that it’s your body’s natural mechanism to help you do the best job possible.

Tags: craft

December 23 2010


Circles of Confusion

Long before I worked on the web, I specialised in training photographers how to use large format, 5×4″ and 10×8″ view cameras – film cameras with swing and tilt movements, bellows and upside down, back to front images viewed on dim, ground glass screens. It’s been fifteen years since I clicked a shutter on a view camera, but some things have stayed with me from those years.

In photography, even the best lenses don’t focus light onto a point (infinitely small in size) but onto ‘spots’ or circles in the ‘film/image plane’. These circles of light have dimensions, despite being microscopically small. They’re known as ‘circles of confusion’.

As circles of light become larger, the more unsharp parts of a photograph appear. On the flip side, when circles are smaller, an image looks sharper and more in focus. This is the basis for photographic depth of field and with that comes the knowledge that no photograph can be perfectly focused, never truly sharp. Instead, photographs can only be ‘acceptably unsharp’.

Acceptable unsharpness is now a concept that’s relevant to the work we make for the web, because often – unless we compromise – websites cannot look or be experienced exactly the same across browsers, devices or platforms. Accepting that fact, and learning to look upon these natural differences as creative opportunities instead of imperfections, can be tough. Deciding which aspects of a design must remain consistent and, therefore, possibly require more time, effort or compromises can be tougher. Circles of confusion can help us, our bosses and our customers make better, more informed decisions.

Acceptable unsharpness

Many clients still demand that every aspect of a design should be ‘sharp’ – that every user must see rounded boxes, gradients and shadows – without regard for the implications. I believe that this stems largely from the fact that they have previously been shown designs – and asked for sign-off – using static images.

It’s also true that in the past, organisations have invested heavily in style guides which, while maybe still useful in offline media, have a strictness that often fails to allow for the flexibility that we need to create experiences that are appropriate to a user’s browser or device capabilities.

We live in an era where web browsers and devices have wide-ranging capabilities, and websites can rarely look or be experienced exactly the same across them. Is a particular typeface vital to a user’s experience of a brand? How important are gradients or shadows? Are rounded corners really that necessary? These decisions determine how ‘sharp’ an element should be across browsers with different capabilities and, therefore, how much time, effort or extra code and images we devote to achieving consistency between them. To help our clients make those decisions, we can use circles of confusion.

Circles of confusion

Using circles of confusion involves plotting aspects of a visual design into a series of concentric circles, starting at the centre with elements that demand the most consistency. Then, work outwards, placing elements in order of their priority so that they become progressively ‘softer’, more defocused as they’re plotted into outer rings.

If layout and typography must remain consistent, place them in the centre circle as they’re aspects of a design that must remain ‘sharp’.

When gradients are important – but not vital – to a user’s experience of a brand, plot them close to, but not in the centre. This makes everyone aware that to achieve consistency, you’ll need to carve out extra images for browsers that don’t support CSS gradients.

If achieving rounded corners or shadows in all browsers isn’t important, place them into outer circles, allowing you to save time by not creating images or employing JavaScript workarounds.

I’ve found plotting aspects of a visual design into circles of confusion is a useful technique when explaining the natural differences between browsers to clients. It sets more realistic expectations and creates an environment for more meaningful discussions about progressive and emerging technologies. Best of all, it enables everyone to make better and more informed decisions about design implementation priorities.

Involving clients allows the implications of the decisions they make more transparent. For me, this has sometimes meant shifting deadlines or it has allowed me to more easily justify an increase in fees. Most important of all, circles of confusion have helped the people that I work with move beyond yesterday’s one-size-fits-all thinking about visual design, towards accepting the rich diversity of today’s web.

Tags: craft

December 13 2010


Good Ideas Grow on Paper

Great designers have one thing in common: their design process is centred on ideas; ideas that are more often than not developed on paper. Though it’s often tempting to take the path of least resistance, turning to the computer in the headlong rush to complete a project (often in the face of formidable client pressure), resist the urge and – for a truly great idea – start first on paper.

The path of least resistance is often characterised by cliché and overused techniques – one per cent noise, border-radius, text-shadow – the usual suspects – techniques that are ten-a-penny at the gallery sites. Whilst all are useful, and technique and craft are important, great design isn’t about technique alone – it’s about technique in the service of good ideas.

But how do we generate those ideas?

Inspiration can certainly come to you out of the blue. When working as a designer in a role which often consists of incubating good ideas, however, idly waiting for the time-honoured lightbulb to appear above your head just isn’t good enough. We need to establish an environment where we tip the odds of getting good ideas in our favour.

So, when faced with the blank canvas, what do we do to unlock the proverbial tidal wave of creativity? Fear not. We’re about to share with you a couple of stalwart techniques that will stand you in good stead when you need that good idea, in the face of the pressure of yet another looming deadline.

Get the process right

Where do ideas come from? In many cases they come from anywhere but the screen. Hence, our first commandment is to close the lid of your computer and, for a change, work on paper. It might seem strange, it might also seem like a distraction, but – trust us – the time invested here will more than pay off.

Idea generation should be a process of rapid iteration, sketching and thinking aloud, all processes best undertaken in more fast paced, analogue media. Our tool of choice is the Sharpie and Flip Chart Combo©, intentionally low resolution to encourage lo-fi idea generation. In short, your tools should be designed not to be precious, but to quickly process your thoughts. Ideas can be expressed with a thick line marker or by drawing with a stick in the sand; it’s the ideas that matter, not the medium.

Input > Synthesise > Output

Ideas don’t materialise in a vacuum. Without constant input, the outputs will inevitably remain the same. As such, it’s essential to maintain an inquisitive mind, ensuring a steady flow of new triggers and stimuli that enable your thinking to evolve.

What every designer brings to the table is their prior experience and unique knowledge. It should come as no surprise to discover that a tried and tested method of increasing that knowledge is, believe it or not, to read – often and widely. The best and most nuanced ideas come after many years of priming the brain with an array of diverse material, a point made recently in Jessica Hische’s aptly named Why You Should Know Your Shit.

One of the best ways of synthesising the knowledge you accumulate is to write. The act of writing facilitates your thinking and stores the pieces of the jigsaw you’ll one day return to. You don’t have to write a book or a well-articulated article; a scribbled note in the margin will suffice in facilitating the process of digestion.

As with writing, we implore you to make sketching an essential part of your digestion process. More immediate than writing, sketching has the power to put yet unformed ideas down on paper, giving you an insight into the fantastic conceptions you’re more often than not still incubating.

Our second commandment is a practical one: always carry a sketchbook and a pen. Although it seems that the very best ideas are scribbled on the back of a beer mat or a wine-stained napkin, always carrying your ‘thinking utensils’ should be as natural as not leaving the house without your phone, wallet, keys or pants.

Further, the more you use your sketchbook, the less precious you’ll find yourself becoming. Sketching isn’t about being an excellent draughtsman, it’s about synthesising and processing your thoughts and ideas, as Jason Santa Maria summarises nicely in his article Pretty Sketchy:

Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist, they’re about being a good thinker.

Jason Santa Maria

The sketchbook and pen should become your trusted tools in your task to constantly survey the world around you. As Paul Smith says, You Can Find Inspiration in Anything close the lid, look beyond the computer; there’s a whole world of inspiration out there.

Learn to love old dusty buildings

So, how do you learn? How do you push beyond the predictable world pre-filtered by Mr Google? The answer lies in establishing a habit of exploring the wonderful worlds of museums and libraries, dusty old buildings that repay repeated visits.

Once the primary repositories of thought and endless sources of inspiration, these institutions are now often passed over for the quick fix of a Google search or Wikipedia by you, the designer, chained to a desk and manacled to a MacBook. Whilst others might frown, we urge you to get away from your desk and take an eye-opening stroll through the knowledge-filled corridors of yore (and don’t forget to bring your sketchbook).

Here you’ll find ideas aplenty, ideas that will set you apart from your peers, who remain ever-reliant on the same old digital sources.

The idea generation toolbox

Now that we’ve established the importance of getting the process and the context right, it’s time to meet the idea generation toolbox: a series of tools and techniques that can be applied singularly or in combination to solve the perennial problem of the blank canvas.

The clean sheet of paper, numbing in its emptiness, can prove an insurmountable barrier to many a project, but the route beyond it involves just a few, well-considered steps. The route to a good idea lies in widening your pool of inspiration at the project outset. Let go and generate ideas quickly; it’s critical to diverge before you converge – but how do we do this and what exactly do we mean by this?

The temptation is to pull something out of your well-worn box of tricks, something that you know from experience will do the job. We urge you, however, not to fall prey to this desire. You can do better; better still, a few of you putting your minds together can do a lot better. By avoiding the path of least resistance, you can create something extraordinary.

Culturally, we value logical, linear thinking. Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, critical thinking, deduction and the pursuit of truth have been rewarded. To generate creative ideas, however, we need to start thinking sideways, making connections that don’t necessarily follow logically. Lateral thinking, a phrase coined by Edward de Bono in 1967, aptly describes this very process:

With logic you start out with certain ingredients, just as in playing chess you start out with given pieces – lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces.

Edward de Bono

One of the easiest ways to start thinking laterally is to start with a mind map, a perfect tool for widening the scope of a project beyond the predictable and an ideal one for getting the context right for discovery.

Making connections

Mind maps can be used to generate, visualise and structure ideas. Arranged intuitively and classified around groupings, mind maps allow chance connections to be drawn across related groups of information, and are perfect for exposing alogical associations and unexpected relationships.

Get a number of people together in a room, equipped with the Sharpie and Flip Chart Combo©. Give yourself a limited amount of time – half an hour should prove more than enough – and you’ll be surprised at the results a few well-chosen people can generate in a very short space of time. The key is to work fast, diverge and not inhibit thinking.

We’ve been embracing Tony Buzan’s methods in our teaching for over a decade. His ideas on the power of radiant thinking and how this can be applied to mind maps, uncover the real power which lies in the human brain’s ability to spot connections across a mapped out body of diverse knowledge.

Frank Chimero wrote about this recently in How to Have an Idea, which beautifully illustrates Mr Buzan’s theories, articulating the importance of the brain’s ability to make abstract connections, finding unexpected pairings when a concept is mapped out on paper.

Once a topic is surveyed and a rich set of stimuli articulated, the next stage is to draw connections, pulling from opposite sides of the mind map. It’s at this point, when defining alogical connections, that the truly interesting and unexpected ideas are often uncovered.

The curve ball

If you’ve followed our instructions so far, all being well, you should have a number of ideas. Good news: we have one last technique to throw into the mix. We like to call it ‘the curve ball’, that last minute ‘something’ that forces you to rethink and encourages you to address a problem from a different direction.

There are a number of ways of throwing in a curve ball – a short, sharp, unexpected impetus – but we have a firm favourite we think you’ll appreciate. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies – subtitled ‘Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas’ – are the perfect creative tool for throwing in a spot of unpredictability. As Eno and Schmidt put it:

The Oblique Strategies can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt

Simply pick a card and apply the strategy to the problem at hand. The key here, as with de Bono’s techniques, is to embrace randomness and provocation to inspire lateral creative approaches.

To assist this process, you might wish to consult one of the many virtual decks of Oblique Strategies online.

Wrapping up

To summarise, it’s tempting to see the route to the fastest satisfactory conclusion in a computer when, in reality, that’s the last place you should start. The tools we’ve introduced, far from time-consuming, are hyper-efficient, always at hand and, if you factor them into your workflow, the key to unlocking the ideas that set the great designers apart.

We wish you well on your quest in search of the perfect idea, now armed with the knowledge that the quest begins on paper.

Tags: design craft

December 09 2010


Extreme Design

Alderney runway Alderney runway, photo by Chris Govias

Recently, I set out with twelve other designers and developers for a 19th century fortress on the Channel Island of Alderney. We were going to /dev/fort, a sort of band camp for geeks. Our cohort’s mission: to think up, build and finish something – without readily available internet access.

Wait, no internet?

Well, pretty much. As the creators of /dev/fort James Aylett and Mark Norman Francis put it: “Imagine a place with no distractions – no IM, no Twitter”. But also no way to quickly look up a design pattern, code sample or source material. Like packing for camping, /dev/fort means bringing everything you’ll need on your back or your hard drive: from long johns to your favourite icon set.

We got to work the first night discussing ideas for what we wanted to build. By the time breakfast was cleared up the next morning, we’d settled on Russ’s idea to make the Apollo 13 (PDF) transcript accessible. Days two and three were spent collaboratively planning (KJ style) what features we wanted to build, and unravelling the larger UX challenges of the project. The next five days were spent building it. Within 36 hours of touchdown at Southampton Airport, we launched our creation:

The weather was cold, the coal fire less than ideal, food and supplies a hike away, and the process lightning-fast. A week of designing under extreme circumstances called for an extreme process. Some of this was driven by James’s and Norm’s experience running these things, but a lot of it materialised while we were there – especially for our three-strong design team (myself, Gavin O’ Carroll and Chris Govias) who, though we knew each other, had never worked together as a group in this kind of scenario before.

The outcome was a pretty spectacular process, with a some key takeaways useful for any small group trying to build something quickly.

What it’s like inside the fort

/dev/fort has the pressure and pace of a hack day without being a hack day – primarily, no workshops or interruptions‚ but also a different mentality. While hack days are typically developer-driven with a ‘hack first, design later (if at all)’ attitude, James was quick to tell the team to hold off from writing any code until we had a plan. This put a healthy pressure on the design and product folks to slash through the UX problems before we started building.

While the fort had definitely more of a hack day feel, all of us were familiar with Agile methods, so we borrowed a few useful techniques such as morning stand-ups and an emphasis on teamwork. We cut some really good features to make our launch date, and chunked the work based on user goals, iterating as we went.

What made this design process work?

A golden ratio of teams

My personal experience both professionally and in free-form situations like this, is a tendency to get/hire a designer. Leaders of businesses, founders of start-ups, organisers of events: one designer is not enough! Finding one ace-blooded designer who can ‘do everything’ will always result in bottleneck and burnout. Like the nuances between different development languages, design is a multifaceted discipline, and very few can claim to be equally strong in every aspect. Overlap in skill set will result in a stronger, more robust interface.

More importantly, however, having lots of designers to go around meant that we all had the opportunity to pair with developers, polishing the details that don’t usually get polished. As soon as we launched, the public reception of the design and UX was overwhelmingly positive (proof!). But also, a lot of people asked us who the designer was, attributing it to one person.

While it’s important to note that everyone in our team was multitalented (and could easily shift between roles, helping us all stay unblocked), the golden ratio James and Norm devised was two product/developer folks, three interaction designers and eight developers.

Cohort 5 photo by Ben Firshman

Equality inside the fortress walls

Something magical about the fort is how everyone leaves the outside world on the drawbridge. Job titles, professional status, Twitter followers, and so on. Like scout camp, a mutual respect and trust is expected of all the participants. Like extreme programming, extreme design requires us all to be equal partners in a collaborative team. I think this is especially worth noting for designers; our past is filled with the clear hierarchy of the traditional studio system which, however important for taste and style, seems less compatible with modern web/software development methods.

Being equal doesn’t mean being the same, however. We established clear roles and teams for ourselves on the second day, deferring to that person when a decision needed to be made. As the interface coalesced, the designers and developers took ownership over certain parts to ensure the details got looked after, while staying open to ideas and revisions from the rest of the cohort.

Create a space where everyone who enters is equal, but be sure to establish clear roles. Even if it’s just for a short while, the environment will be beneficial.

Cohort 5 photo by Ben Firshman

Hang your heraldry from the rafters

Forts and castles are full of lore: coats of arms; paintings of battles; suits of armour. It’s impossible not to be surrounded by these stories, words and ways of thinking. Like the whiteboards on the walls, putting organisational lore in your physical surroundings makes it impossible not to see.

Ryan Alexander brought some of those static-cling whiteboard sheets which were quickly filled with use cases; IA; team roles; and, most importantly, a glossary. As soon as we started working on the project, we realised we needed to get clear on what certain words meant: what was a logline, a range, a phase, a key moment? Were the back-end people using these words in the same way design and product was? Quickly writing up a glossary of terms meant everyone was instantly speaking the same language. There was no “Ah, I misunderstood because in the data structure x means y” or, even worse, accidental seepage of technical language into the user interface copy.

Put a glossary of your internal terminology somewhere big and fat on the wall. Stand around it and argue until you agree on what it says. Leave it up; don’t underestimate the power of ambient communication and physical reference.

Plan more, download less

While internet is forbidden inside the fort, we did go on downloading expeditions: NASA photography; code documentation; and so on. The project wouldn’t have been possible without a few trips to the web. We had two lists on the wall: groceries and supplies; internets – “loo roll; Tom Stafford photo“.

This changed our usual design process, forcing us to plan carefully and think of what we needed ahead of time. Getting to the internet was a thirty-minute hike up a snow covered cliff to the town airport, so you really had to need it, too.

Cohort 5 The path to the internet

For the visual design, especially, this resulted in more focus up front, and communication between the designers on what assets we required. It made us make decisions earlier and stick with them, creating less distraction and churn later in the process.

Try it at home: unplug once you’ve got the things you need. As an artist, it’s easier to let your inner voice shine through if you’re not looking at other people’s work while creating.

Social design

Finally, our design team experimented with a collaborative approach to wireframing. Once we had collectively nailed down use cases, IA, user journeys and other critical artefacts, we tried a pairing approach. One person drew in Illustrator in real time as the other two articulated what to draw. (This would work equally well with two people, but with three it meant that one of us could jump up and consult the lore on the walls or clarify a technical detail.) The result: we ended up considering more alternatives and quickly rallying around one solution, and resolved difficult problems more quickly.

At a certain stage we discovered it was more efficient for one person to take over – this happened around the time when the basic wireframes existed in Illustrator and we’d collectively run through the use cases, making sure that everything was accounted for in a broad sense. At this point, take a break, go have a beer, and give yourself a pat on the back.

Put the files somewhere accessible so everyone can use them as their base, and divide up the more detailed UI problems, screens or journeys. At this level of detail it’s better to have your personal headspace.

Gavin called this ‘social design’. Chatting and drawing in real time turned what was normally a rather solitary act into a very social process, with some really promising results. I’d tried something like this before with product or developer folks, and it can work – but there’s something really beautiful about switching places and everyone involved being equally quick at drawing. That’s not something you get with non-designers, and frequent swapping of the ‘driver’ and ‘observer’ roles is a key aspect to pairing.

Tackle the forest collectively and the trees individually – it will make your framework more robust and your details more polished. Win/win.

The return home

Grateful to see a 3G signal on our phones again, our flight off the island was delayed, allowing for a flurry of domain name look-ups, Twitter catch-up, and e-mails to loved ones. A week in an isolated fort really made me appreciate continuous connectivity, but also just how unique some of these processes might be.

You just never know what crazy place you might be designing from next.

December 05 2010


Beyond Web Mechanics – Creating Meaningful Web Design

It was just over three years ago when I embarked on becoming a web designer, and the first opinion piece about the state of web design I came across was a conference talk by Elliot Jay Stocks called ‘Destroy the Web 2.0 Look’. Elliot’s presentation was a call to arms, a plea to web designers the world over to stop the endless reproductions of the so called ‘Web 2.0 look’.

Three and a half years on from Elliot’s talk, what has changed? Well, from an aesthetic standpoint, not a whole lot. The Web 2.0 look has evolved, but it’s still with us and much of the web remains filled with cookie cutter websites that bear a striking resemblance to one another. This wouldn’t matter so much if these websites were selling comparable services or products, but they’re not. They look similar, they follow the same web design trends; their aesthetic style sends out a very similar message, yet they’re selling completely different services or products. How can you be communicating effectively with your users when your online book store is visually indistinguishable from an online cosmetic store? This just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t want to belittle the current version of the Web 2.0 look for the sake of it. I want to talk about the opportunity we have as web designers to create more meaningful experiences for the people using our websites. Using design wisely gives us the ability to communicate messages, ideas and attitudes that our users will understand and connect with.

Being human

As human beings we respond emotionally to everything around us – people, objects, posters, packaging or websites. We also respond in different ways to different kinds of aesthetic design and style. We care about style and aesthetics deeply, whether we realise it or not. Aesthetic design has the power to attract or repel. We often make decisions based purely on aesthetics and style – and don’t retailers the world over know it! We connect attitudes and strongly held beliefs to style. Individuals will proudly associate themselves with a certain style or aesthetic because it’s an expression of who they are. You know that old phrase, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’? Well, the problem is that people do, so it’s important we get the cover right.

Much is made of how to structure web pages, how to create a logical information hierarchy, how to use layout and typography to clearly communicate with your users. It’s important, however, not to mistake clarity of information or legibility with getting your message across. Few users actually read websites word by word: it’s far more likely they’ll just scan the page. If the page is copy-heavy and nothing grabs their attention, they may well just move on. This is why it’s so important to create a visual experience that actually means something to the user.

Meaningful design

When we view a poster or website, we make split-second assessments and judgements of what is in front of us. Our first impressions of what a website does or who it is aimed at are provoked by the style and aesthetic of the website. For example, with clever use of colour, typography, graphic design and imagery we can communicate to users that an organisation is friendly, edgy, compassionate, fun or environmentally conscious.

Using a certain aesthetic we can convey the personality of that organisation, target age ranges, different sexes or cultural groups, communicate brand attributes, and more. We can make our users feel like they’re part of something and, perhaps even more importantly, we can make new users want to be a part of something. And we can achieve all this before the user has read a single word.

By establishing a website’s aesthetic and creating a meaningful visual language, a design is no longer just a random collection of pretty gradients that have been plucked out of thin air. There can be a logic behind the design decisions we make. So, before you slap another generic piece of ribbon or an ultra shiny icon into the top-left corner of your website, think about why you are doing it. If you can’t come up with a reason better than “I saw it on another website”, it’s probably a poor application of style.

Design and style

There are a number of reasons why the web suffers from a lack meaningful design. Firstly, there are too many preconceptions of what a website should look like. It’s too easy for designers to borrow styles from other websites, thereby limiting the range of website designs we see on the web. Secondly, many web designers think of aesthetic design as of secondary importance, which shouldn’t be the case. Designing websites that are accessible and easy to use is, of course, very important but this is the very least a web designer should be delivering. Easy to use websites should come as standard – it’s equally important to create meaningful, compelling and beautiful experiences for everyone who uses our websites. The aesthetics of your site are part of the design, and to ignore this and play down the role of aesthetic design is just a wasted opportunity.

No compromise necessary

Easy to use, accessible websites and beautiful, meaningful aesthetics are not mutually exclusive. The key is to apply style and aesthetic design appropriately. We need to think about who and what we’re designing for and ask ourselves why we’re applying a certain kind of aesthetic style to our design. If you do this, there’s no reason why effective, functional design should come at the expense of jaw-dropping, meaningful aesthetics.

Web designers need to understand the differences between functional design and aesthetic design but, even more importantly, they need to know how to make them work together. It’s combining these elements of design successfully that makes for the best web design in the world.

Tags: craft design

December 04 2010


Go Forth and Make Awesomeness

We’ve all dreamed of being a superhero: maybe that’s why we’ve ended up on the web—a place where we can do good deeds and celebrate them on a daily basis.

Wear your dreams

At age four, I wore my Wonder Woman Underoos around my house, my grandparents’ house, our neighbor’s house, and even around the yard. I wanted to be a superhero when I grew up. I was crushed to learn that there is no school for superheroes—no place to earn a degree in how to save the world from looming evil. Instead, I—like everyone else—was destined to go to ordinary school to focus on ABCs and 123s. Even still, I want to save the world.

Intend your goodness

Random acts of kindness make a difference. Books, films, and advertising campaigns tout random acts of kindness and the positive influence they can have on the world. But why do acts of kindness have to be so random? Why can’t we intend to be kind? A true superhero wakes each morning intending to perform selfless acts for the community. Why can’t we do the same thing?

As a child, my mother taught me to plan to do at least three good deeds each day. And even now, years later, I put on my invisible cape looking for ways to do good.

Here are some examples:

  • slowing down to allow another driver in before me from the highway on-ramp
  • bringing a co-worker their favorite kind of coffee or tea
  • sharing my umbrella on a rainy day
  • holding a door open for someone with full hands
  • listening intently when someone shares a story
  • complimenting someone on a job well done
  • thanking someone for a job well done
  • leaving a constructive, or even supportive comment on someone’s blog

As you can see, these acts are simple. Doing good and being kind is partially about being aware—aware of the words we speak and the actions we take. Like superheroes, we create our own code of conduct to live by. Hopefully, we choose to put the community before ourselves (within reason) and to do our best not to damage it as we move through our lives.

Take a bite out of the Apple

With some thought, we can weave this type of thinking and action into our business choices. We can take the simple acts of kindness concept and amplify it a bit. With this amplification, we can be a new kind of superhero.

In 1997, during a presentation, Steve Jobs stated Apple’s core value in a simple, yet powerful, sentence:

We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.

Apple fan or not, those are powerful words.

Define your core

Every organization must define its core values. Core values help us to frame, recognize, and understand the principles our organization embodies and practices. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting a new organization or you want to define values within an existing organization. Even if you’re a freelancer, defining core values will help guide your decisions and actions.

If you can, work as a team to define core values. Gather the people who are your support system—your business partners, your colleagues, and maybe even a trusted client—this is now your core value creation team. Have a brainstorming session with your team. Let ideas flow. Give equal weight to the things people say. You may not hear everything you thought you might hear—that’s OK. You want the session to be free-flowing and honest. Ask yourself and your team questions like:

  • What do you think my/our/your core values are?
  • What do you think my/our/your priorities are?
  • What do you think my/our/your core values should be?
  • What do you think my/our/your priorities should be?
  • How do you think I/we should treat customers, clients, and each other?
  • How do we want others to treat us?
  • What are my/our/your success stories?
  • What has defined these experiences as successful?

From this brainstorming session, you will craft your superhero code of conduct. You will decide what you will and will not do. You will determine how you will and will not act. You’re setting the standards that you will live and work by—so don’t take this exercise lightly. Take your time. Use the exercise as a way to open a discussion about values. Find out what you and your team believe in. Set these values and keep them in place. Write them down and share these with your team and with the world. By sharing your core values, you hold yourself more accountable to them. You also send a strong message to the rest of the world about what type of organization you are and what you believe in. Other organizations and people may decide to align or not to align themselves with you because of your core values. This is good. Chances are, you’ll be happier and more profitable if you work with other organizations and people who share similar core values.

Awesomeness Photo: Laura Winn

During your brainstorming session, list keywords. Don’t edit. Allow things to take their course. Some examples of keywords might be:

Ability · Achievement · Adventure · Ambition · Altruism · Awareness · Balance · Caring · Charity · Citizenship · Collaboration · Commitment · Community · Compassion · Consideration · Cooperation · Courage · Courtesy · Creativity · Democracy · Dignity · Diplomacy · Discipline · Diversity · Education · Efficiency · Energy · Equality · Excellence · Excitement · Fairness · Family · Freedom · Fun · Goodness · Gratefulness · Growth · Happiness · Harmony · Helping · Honor · Hope · Humility · Humor · Imagination · Individuality · Innovation · Integrity · Intelligence · Joy · Justice · Kindness · Knowledge · Leadership · Learning · Loyalty · Meaning · Mindfulness · Moderation · Modesty · Nurture · Openness · Organization · Passion · Patience · Peace · Planning · Principles · Productivity · Purpose · Quality · Reliability · Respectfulness · Responsibility · Security · Sensitivity · Service · Sharing · Simplicity · Stability · Tolerance · Transparency · Trust · Truthfulness · Understanding · Unity · Variety · Vision · Wisdom

After you have a list of keywords, create your core values statement using the themes from your brainstorming session. There are no rules: while above, Steve Jobs summed up Apple’s core values in one sentence, Zappos has ten core values:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

To see how Zappos’ employees embrace these core values, watch the video they created and posted on their website.

Dog food is yummy

Although I find merit in every keyword listed, I’ve distilled my core values to their simplest form:

Make awesomeness. Do good.

How do you make awesomeness and do good? You need ambition, balance, collaboration, commitment, fun, and you need every keyword listed to support these actions. Again, there are no rules: your core values can be one sentence or a bulleted list. What matters is being true to yourself and creating core values that others can understand. Before I start any project I ask myself: is there a way to make awesomeness and to do good? If the answer is “yes,” I embrace the endeavor because it aligns with my core values. If the answer is “no,” I move on to a project that supports my core values.

Unleash your powers

Although every organization will craft different core values, I imagine that you want to be a superhero and that you will define “doing good” (or something similar) as one of your core values. Whether you work by yourself or with a team, you can use the web as a tool to help do good. It can be as simple as giving a free hug, or something a little more complex to help others and help your organization meet the bottom line. Some interesting initiatives that use the web to do good are:

Go forth and make awesomeness

Knowing your underlying desire to return to your Underoos-and-cape-sporting childhood and knowing that you don’t always have the opportunity to develop an entire initiative to “do good,” remember that as writers, designers, and developers, we can perform superhero acts on a daily basis by making content, design, and development accessible to the greatest number of people. By considering other people’s needs, we are intentionally performing acts of kindness—we’re doing good. There are many ways to write, design, and develop websites—many of which will be discussed in other articles. As we make content, design, and development decisions—as we develop campaigns and initiatives—we need to keep our core values in mind. It’s easy to make a positive difference in the world. Just be the superhero you’ve always wanted to be. Go forth and make awesomeness.

If you would like to do good today, support The United Nations Children’s Fund, an organization that works for children’s rights, their survival, development and protection, by purchasing this year’s 24 ways Annual 2010 created by Five Simple Steps. All proceeds go to UNICEF.

Tags: craft

December 21 2009


Make Out Like a Bandit

If you are anything like me, you are a professional juggler. No, we don’t juggle bowling pins or anything like that (or do you? Hey, that’s pretty rad!). I’m talking about the work that we juggle daily. In my case, I’m a full-time designer, a half-time graduate student, a sometimes author and conference speaker, and an all-the-time social networker. Only two of these “positions” have actually put any money in my pocket (and, well, the second one takes a lot of money out). Still, this is all part of the work that I do. Your work situation is probably similar. We are workaholics.

So if we work so much in our daily lives, shouldn’t we be making out like bandits? Umm, honestly, I’m not hitting on you, silly. I’m talking about our success. We work and work and work. Shouldn’t we be filthy, stinking rich? Well… okay, that’s not quite what I mean either. I’m not necessarily talking about money (though that could potentially be a part of it). I’m talking about success — as in feeling a true sense of accomplishment and feeling happy about what we do and why we do it.

It’s important to feel accomplished and a general happiness in our work. To make out like a bandit (or have an incredible amount of success), you can either get lucky or work hard for it. And if you’re going to work hard for it, you might as well make it all meaningful and worthwhile. This is what I strive for in my own work and my life, and the following points I’m sharing with you are the steps I am taking to work toward this.

I know the price of success: dedication, hard work & an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen. — Frank Lloyd Wright

Learn. Participate. Do.

The best way to get good at something is to keep doing whatever it is you’re doing that you want to be good at. For example, a sushi-enthusiast might take a sushi-making class because she wants to learn to make sushi for herself. It totally makes sense while the teacher demonstrates all the procedures, materials, and methods needed to make good, beautiful sushi. Later, the student goes home and tries to make sushi on her own, she gets totally confused and lost. Okay, I’m not even going to hide it, I’m talking about myself (this happened to me). As much as I love sushi, I couldn’t even begin to make good sushi because I’ve never really practiced.

Take advantage of learning opportunities where possible. Whether you’re learning CSS, Actionscript, or visual design, the best way to grasp how to do things is to participate, practice, do. Apply what you learn in your work. Participation is so vital to your success. If you have problems, let people know, and ask. But definitely practice on your own. And as cliché as it may sound, believe in yourself because if you don’t think you can do it, no one else will think you can either.

Maintain momentum

With whatever it is you’re doing, if you find yourself “on a roll”, you should take advantage of that momentum and keep moving. Sure, you’ll definitely want to take breaks here or there, but remember that momentum can be very difficult to obtain again once you’ve lost it. Get it done!

Deal with people

Whether you love or hate people, the fact is, you gotta deal with them — even the difficult ones. If you’re in a management position, then you know pretty well that most people don’t like being told what to do (even if that’s their job). Find ways to get people excited about what they’re doing. Make people feel that they (and what they do) are needed — people respond better if they’re valued, not commanded. Even if you’re not in a management position, this still applies to the way you work with your coworkers, clients, vendors, etc.

Resolve any conflicts right away. Conflicts will inevitably happen. Move on to how you can improve the situation, and do it as quickly as possible. Don’t spend too much time focusing on whose screw up it is — nobody feels good in this situation. Also, try to keep people informed on whatever it is you need or what it is you’re doing. If you’re waiting on something from someone, and it’s been a while, don’t be afraid to say something (tactfully). Sometimes people are forgetful — or just slacking. Hey, it happens!

Help yourself by helping others

What are some of the small, simple things you can do when you’re working that will help the people you work with (and in most cases, will end up helping yourself)? For example: if you’re a designer, perhaps taking a couple minutes now to organize and name your Photoshop layers will end up saving time later (since it will be easier to find things). This is going to help both you and your team. Or, developers: taking some time to write some documentation (even if it’s as simple as a comment in the code, or a well-written commit message) could potentially save valuable time for both you and your team later. Maybe you have to take a little time to sit down with a coworker and explain why something works the way it does. This helps them out tremendously — and will most likely lead to them respecting you a little more. This is a benefit.

If you make little things like this a habit, people will notice. People will enjoy working with you. People will trust you and rely on you. Sure, it might seem beneficial at any given moment to be “in it for yourself” (and therefore only helping yourself), but that won’t last very long. Helping others (whether it be a small or large feat) will cause a positive impact in the long run — and that is what will be more valuable to you and your career.

Do work that is meaningful

One of the best ways to feel successful about what you do is to feel good and happy about it. And a great way to feel good and happy about what you’re doing is to actually do good. This could be purpose-driven work that focuses on sustainability and environmentalism, or work that helps support causes and charity. Perhaps the work simply inspires people. Or maybe the work is just something you are very passionate about. Whatever the work may be, try working on projects that are meaningful to you. You’ll do well simply by being more motivated and interested. And it’s a double-win if the project is meaningful to others as well.

I feel very fortunate to work at a place like Crush + Lovely, where we have found quite frequently that the projects that inspire people, focus on global and social good, and create some sort of positive impact are the very projects that bring us more paid projects. But more importantly, we are happy and excited to do it. You might not work at a company that takes on those types of projects. But perhaps you have your own personal endeavors that create this excitement for you. Elliot Jay Stocks wrote about having pet projects. Do you take on side projects? What are those projects?

Over the last couple years, I’ve seen some really fantastic side projects come out that are great examples of meaningful work. These projects reflect the passions and goals of the respective designers and developers involved, and therefore become quite successful (because the people involved simply love what they are doing while they’re doing it). Some of these projects include:

  • Typedia is a shared encyclopedia of typefaces which serves as a resource to classify, categorize, and connect typefaces. It was founded by Jason Santa Maria, a graphic designer with a love and passion for typography. He created it as a solution to a problem he faced as a designer: finding the right typeface.
  • Huffduffer was created by Jeremy Keith, a web developer who wanted to create a podcast of inspirational talks — but after he found that this could be tedious, he decided to create a tool to automate this.
  • Level & Tap was created by passionate photographer and web developer, Tom Watson. It began as a photography print store for Tom’s best personal photography. Over time, more photographers were added to the site and the site has grown to become quite a great collection of beautiful photography.
  • Heat Eat Review is a review blog created by information architect and user experience designer, Abi Jones. As a foodie, she is able to use this passion for this blog, as it focuses on reviewing TV Dinners, Frozen Meals, and Microwavable Foods.
  • Art in My Coffee, a favorite personal project of my own, is a photo blog of coffee art I created, after I found that my friends and I were frequently posting coffee art photos to Flickr, Twitter, and other websites. After the blog became more popular, I teamed up with Meagan Fisher on the project, who has just as much a passion for coffee art, if not more.

So, what’s important to you?

This is the very, very important question here. What really matters to you most? Beyond just working on meaningful projects you are passionate about, is the work you’re doing the right work for you, so that you can live a good lifestyle? Scott Boms wrote an excellent article, Burnout, in which he shares his own experience in battling stress and exhaustion, and what he learned from it. You should definitely read the article in its entirety, but a couple of his points that are particularly excellent are:

  • Make time for numero uno, in which you make time for the things in life that make you happy
  • Examine your values, goals, and measures of success, in which you work toward the things you are passionate about, your own personal development, and focusing on the things that matter.

A solid work-life balance can be a challenging struggle to obtain. Of course, you can cheat this by finding ways to combine the things you love with the things you do (so then it doesn’t even feel like you’re working — oh, you sneaky little bandit!). However, there are other factors to consider beyond your general love for the work you’re doing. Take proper care of yourself physically, mentally, and socially.

So, are you making out like a bandit?

Do you feel accomplished and generally happy with your work? If not, perhaps that is something to focus on for the next year. Consider your work (both in your job as well as any side projects you may take on) and how it benefits you — present and future. Take any steps necessary to get you to where you need to be. If you are miserable, fix it!

Finally, it’s important to be thankful for the things that matter to you and make you happy. Pass it along everyday. Thank people. It’s a simple thing, really. Saying “thank you” can and will have enormous impact on the people around you. Oh. And, I apologize if the title of this article led you to thinking it would teach you how to be an amazing kisser. That’s a different article entirely for 24 ways to impress your friends!

Tags: craft

December 18 2009


A Pet Project is For Life, Not Just for Christmas

I’m excited: as December rolls on, I’m winding down from client work and indulging in a big pet project I’ve been dreaming up for quite some time, with the aim of releasing it early next year. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for pet projects and currently have a few in the works: the big one, two collaborations with friends, and my continuing (and completely un-web-related) attempt at music. But when I think about the other designers and developers out there whose work I admire, one thing becomes obvious: they’ve all got pet projects! Look around the web and you’ll see that anyone worth their salt has some sort of side project on the go. If you don’t have yours yet, now’s the time!

Have a pet project to collaborate with your friends

It’s not uncommon to find me staring at my screen, looking at beautiful websites my friends have made, grinning inanely because I feel so honoured to know such talented individuals. But one thing really frustrates me: I hardly ever get to work with these people! Sure, there are times when it’s possible to do so, but due to various project situations, it’s a rarity.

So, in order to work with my friends, I’ve found the best way is to instigate the collaboration outside of client work; in other words, have a pet project together! Free from the hard realities of budgets, time restraints, and client demands, you and your friends can come up with something purely for your own pleasures. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to work with other designers or developers whose work you love, the pet project is that excuse. They don’t necessarily have to be friends, either: if the respect is mutual, it can be a great way of breaking the ice and getting to know someone.

Figure 1 Figure 1: A forthcoming secret love-child from myself and Tim Van Damme

Have a pet project to escape from your day job

We all like to moan about our clients and bosses, don’t we? But if leaving your job or firing your evil client just isn’t an option, why not escape from all that and pour your creative energies into something you genuinely enjoy?

It’s not just about reacting to negativity, either: a pet project is a great way to give yourself a bit of variety. As web designers, our day-to-day work forces us to work within a set of web-related contraints and sometimes it can be demoralising to spend so many hours fixing IE bugs. The perfect antidote? Go and do some print design! If it’s not possible in your day job or client work, the pet project is the perfect place to exercise your other creative muscles. Yes, print design (or your chosen alternative) has its own constraints, but if they’re different to those you experience on a daily basis, it’ll be a welcome relief and you’ll return to your regular work feeling refreshed.

Figure 2 Figure 2: Ligature, Loop & Stem, from Scott Boms & Luke Dorny

Have a pet project to fulfill your own needs

Many pet projects come into being because the designers and/or developers behind them are looking for a tool to accomplish a task and find that it doesn’t exist, thus prompting them to create their own solution. In fact, the very app I’m using to write this article — Ommwriter, from Herraiz Soto & Co — was originally a tool they’d created for their internal staff, before releasing it to the public so that it could be enjoyed by others.

Just last week, Tina Roth Eisenberg launched Teux Deux, a pet project she’d designed to meet her own requirements for a to-do list, having found that no existing apps fulfilled her needs. Oh, and it was a collaboration with her studio mate Cameron. Remember what I was saying about working with your friends?

Figure 3 Figure 3: Teux Deux, the GTD pet project that launched just last week

Have a pet project to help people out

Ommwriter and Teux Deux are free for anyone to use. Let’s just think about that for a moment: the creators have invested their time and effort in the project, and then given it away to be used by others. That’s very cool and something we’re used to seeing a lot of in the web community (how lucky we are)! People love free stuff and giving away the fruits of your labour will earn you major kudos. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making some money, either — more on that in a second.

Figure 4 Figure 4: Dan Rubin‘s extremely helpful Make Photoshop Faster

Have a pet project to raise your profile

So, giving away free stuff earns you kudos. And kudos usually helps you raise your profile in the industry. We all like a bit of shameless fame, don’t we? But seriously, if you want to become well known, make something cool. It could be free (to buy you the love and respect of the community) or it could be purchasable (if you’ve made something that’s cool enough to deserve hard-earned cash), but ultimately it needs to be something that people will love.

Figure 5 Figure 5: Type designer Jos Buivenga has shot to fame thanks to his beautiful typefaces and ‘freemium’ business model

If you’re a developer with no design skills, team up with a good designer so that the design community appreciate its aesthetic. If you’re a designer with no development skills, team up with a good developer so that it works. Oh, and not that I’d recommend you ever do this for selfish reasons, but collaborating with someone you admire — whose work is well-respected by the community — will also help raise your profile.

Have a pet project to make money

In spite of our best hippy-esque intentions to give away free stuff to the masses, there’s also nothing wrong with making a bit of money from your pet project. In fact, if your project involves you having to make a considerable financial investment, it’s probably a good idea to try and recoup those costs in some way.

Figure 6 Figure 6: The success of Shaun Inman‘s various pet projects — Mint, Fever, Horror Vacui, etc. — have allowed him to give up client work entirely.

A very common way to do that in both the online and offline worlds is to get some sort of advertising. For a slightly different approach, try contacting a company who are relevant to your audience and ask them if they’d be interesting in sponsoring your project, which would usually just mean having their brand associated with yours in some way. This is still a form of advertising but tends to allow for a more tasteful implementation, so it’s worth pursuing.

Advertising is a great way to cover your own costs and keep things free for your audience, but when costs are considerably higher (like if you’re producing a magazine with high production values, for instance), there’s nothing wrong with charging people for your product. But, as I mentioned above, you’ve got to be positive that it’s worth paying for!

Have a pet project just for fun

Sometimes there’s a very good reason for having a pet project — and sometimes even a viable business reason — but actually you don’t need any reason at all. Wanting to have fun is just as worthy a motivation, and if you’re not going to have fun doing it, then what’s the point? Assuming that almost all pet projects are designed, developed, written, printed, marketed and supported in our free time, why not do something enjoyable?

Figure 7 Figure 7: Jessica Hische‘s beautiful Daily Drop Cap

In conclusion

The fact that you’re reading 24 ways shows that you have a passion for the web, and that’s something I’m happy to see in abundance throughout our community. Passion is a term that’s thrown about all over the place, but it really is evident in the work that people do. It’s perhaps most evident, however, in the pet projects that people create. Don’t forget that the very site you’re reading this article on is… a pet project.

If you’ve yet to do so, make it a new year’s resolution for 2010 to have your own pet project so that you can collaborate with your friends, escape from your day job, fulfil your own needs, help people out, raise your profile, make money, and — above all — have fun.

Tags: craft

December 04 2009


What makes a website successful? It might not be what you expect!

What makes some sites succeed and others fail? Put another way, when you are asked to redesign an existing website, what problems are you looking out for and where do you concentrate your efforts?

I would argue that as web designers we spend too much time looking at the wrong kind of problem.

I recently ran a free open door consultancy clinic to celebrate the launch of my new book (yes I know, two shameless plugs in one sentence). This involved various website owners volunteering their sites for review. Both myself and the audience then provided feedback.

What quickly became apparent is that the feedback being given by the audience was bias towards design and development.

Although their comments were excellent it focused almost exclusively on the quality of code, site aesthetics and usability. To address these issues in isolation is similar to treating symptoms and ignoring the underlying illness.

Cure the illness not the symptoms

Poor design, bad usability and terribly written code are symptoms of bigger problems. Often when we endeavour to address these symptoms, we meet resistance from our clients and become frustrated. This is because our clients are still struggling with fundamental concepts we take for granted.

Before we can address issues of aesthetics, usability and code, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clientʼs website will fail.

Let me address each in turn:

Understand the business objectives

Do you ask your clients why they have a website? It feels like an obvious question. However, it is surprising how many clients do not have an answer.

Without having a clear idea of the siteʼs business objectives, the client has no way to know whether it is succeeding. This means they have no justification for further investment and that leads to quibbling over every penny.

However most importantly, without clearly defined business aims they have no standard against which to base their decisions. Everything becomes subjective and that will inevitably lead to problems.

Before we start discussing design, usability and development, we need to focus our clients on establishing concrete business objectives. This will provide a framework for decision making during the development phase.

This will not only help the client make decisions, it will also focus them on the business and away from micro managing the design.

Establish clear calls to action

Once business objectives have been set this opens up the possibility to establish clear calls to action.

I am amazed at how few website owners can name their calls to action. However, I am even more staggered at how few web designers ask about them.

Calls to action are not just limited to ecommerce sites. Whether you are asking people to sign up for a newsletter or complete a contact us form, every site should have a desired objective for users.

What is more, each page of a site should have micro calls to action that always draw users on and never leave them at a dead end.

Without clearly defined calls to action you cannot successfully design a site, structure the user experience or measure its success. They bring focus to the site and encourage the client to concentrate their efforts on helping people reach those goals.

Of course in order to know if a call to action is going to work, it is necessary to do some user testing.

Test against the right tasks

As web designers we all like to boast about being ʻuser centricʼ whatever that means! However, in reality I think many of us are paying lip service to the subject.

Sure, we ask our clients about who their users are and maybe even do some usability testing. However, usability testing is no good if we are not asking the right questions.

Again we find ourselves working on a superficial level rather than tackling the deeper issues.

Clients find it relatively easy to tell you who their target audience is. Admittedly the list they come back with is often overly long and contains a lot of edge cases. However, where they begin to struggle is articulating what these users will want to achieve on the website. They know who they want to reach. However, they cannot always tell you why those people would be interested in the site.

These user tasks are another fundamental building block for any successful website. Although it is important for a website owner to understand what their objectives are and what they want users to do, it is even more important that they understand the users objectives as well.

Again, this provides context for the decisions they are making about design, usability and functionality. Without it the site will become self serving, largely ignoring the needs of users.

User tasks help to focus the clientʼs mind on the needs of their user, rather than what they can get out of them.

So am I claiming that design, usability and code do not matter? Well the shocking truth is that to some extent I am!

The shocking truth

Whether we like it or not there is significant evidence that you can create a successful website with bad design, terrible code and without ever running a usability test session.

You only need to look at the design of Craigslist or the code of Amazon to see that this is true.

However, I do not believe it is possible to build a successful website without business objectives, calls to action and a clear idea of user tasks.

Do not misunderstand me. I do believe design, usability and code matters. I just believe that they only matter if the fundamentals are already in place. These things improve a solid foundation but are no use in their own right.

As web designers it is our responsibility to ensure fundamental questions are being asked, before we start exploring other issues. If we do not, our websites will look great, be well coded and have gone through endless usability tests, however it will not be truly successful.

Tags: craft design
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