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Writing is uncomfortable.

November 27

Pardon the lack of updates the past week. I seem to have melted my notebook’s A/C adapter and I just don’t find it comfortable to type for long periods of time at my desk.

eBay to the rescue, though — even obsolete Windows notebooks can be serviced if it’s possible for the world to pool their collective resources in a searchable index.

Proper typing posture is much easier, even comfortable when sitting on the couch with a notebook in my lap. It’s quite a pleasure to write from that position, but it feels too much of a chore otherwise.

I lust over the convertible Tablet PCs. If there’s one thing you buy your friendly neighbourhood geek this year, that should be it.

further apologies — 11/29

Seems my host decided to crash and burn. I appear to be back up and running, but I haven’t heard an explanation yet as to what exactly happened.

A friendly little error message greeted anyone viewing this site for upwards of 30 hours since yesterday afternoon. It was a 500-13, something about the service being too busy. It looked a little odd, and further probing revealed that only my .asp files were crapping out. Anything marked .html showed up fine. So the going theory, I suppose, is that IIS decided to stop parsing any active server pages.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed. Even though we already did ours last month.

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Tricky Characters

November 20

Non–standard character entry. It’s quite the problem, isn’t it?

You want to use smart quotes “” instead of double primes "" in your work. Time to fire up Windows’ Character Map and hunt for the proper quote. Or alternatively you could build a cheat sheet of the ALT-0147/0148 keyboard combinations. The Mac OS allows a slightly easier method with Option-[ and Option-], and provides further keyboard shortcuts for many of the varied typographical items.

But inconveniences of computer-based typographical frills aside, we’re just scratching the surface. The Unicode standard allows for over 65,000 possible characters, which covers most of the major world languages. Try accessing these characters in standard applications like Word or Photoshop though.

why would you want to?

There are times when an English-speaking designer is asked to work with type of a different language. It’s impratical and expensive for the designer to install a Chinese license of their operating system and a Chinese version of their authoring software to create a series of Big5 GIFs for a single web site, and they shouldn’t have to.

In his excellent book, The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst suggests an approach for typographical decoration that could theoretically work for some foreign characters as well. He recommends re-mapping your keyboard for various ALT+n and Option/CTRL+n key combinations to insert special characters into your work. While a great idea in theory, it breaks down in two important ways: software to easily re-map a keyboard any way you wish doesn’t seem to exist, and if it did, most of the possible Option/CTRL and ALT key-combinations are already assigned as shortcuts in the authoring software.

what i want to see

Since most major software manufacturers approach international language support as an afterthought, an add-on application that has considerably more power than Windows’ Character Map is needed. I want a program that allows me to map my keyboard to input any character with any key-stroke I choose. I need it to offer alternate mappings for different languages, that can be switched as easily as selecting my choice from a drop down. It also needs to offer an on-screen keyboard since I’m not going to spend the time needed to memorize all possible characters.

This program will only be as good as the software it inputs to, though. Microsoft seems to be on the right track, as most of their programs are quite good at displaying foreign characters if the proper language packs are installed. But the other major software manufacturers, especially graphic design software, need to approach this less as a value-added feature and more as built-in functionality.

A lot of things have to change to make this happen, and I don’t see many steps in this direction. Unfortunately, hacks and work-arounds like screenshots and bitmapped characters are going to have to remain the standard for the foreseeable future.

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Toned Photographs on the Web

November 19

Unfettered by the freedom a 16.7 million colour palette offers, it’s compelling to use the full-colour version of a photo for maximum impact.

Using full-colour photography due to lack of technical limitations is a choice made by limited designers though. While not inherently wrong, the inevitable “it’s a full-colour photo, why not use it?” is a simplistic view, and it can be equally argued that if we have a 26-letter alphabet, why not use all the letters in every sentence?

Photography in the context of good design is used to accent and highlight. It can bring context to a piece, or provide additional information. A picture is worth a thousand words, but those thousand had better say something important, or they’re liable to fall on deaf ears.

Photographs are useful because they can provide realistic detail that will pump up an otherwise flat piece. However, as with any element of design, a balance needs to be struck between too dull and too much.

methods

Toning a photo doesn’t necessarily mean bumping the colour value to monochrome and then assigning it a uniform hue. Adjustments to the overall colour makeup can be made subtly with Photoshop’s adjustment layers.

Increasing the brightness of the red channel can change an outdoor scene from bleak and winter-esque to warm and summery by adding more warmth to the photo. Dropping the contrast and toning a portrait with subtle blue tones can add a melancholy feel that accentuates the subject. The experienced designer will tell you there are many levels between full colour and monochrome colour.

figure 1

In figure 1 we see an ambiguous photo of a woman on the phone. What emotion is she showing? Anger? Excitement? Triumph? The designer can interpret it any way he wants, and reinforce his view by colouring the photo to match.

The original photo is on the left. The center photo has been toned with additional red to boost the dynamic nature of the photo and increase the visual tension. The woman takes on a more aggravated or angered look, simply due to a minor colour change. On the right, the same photo has been toned a monochrome blue to cool it down and give it a more tranquil feel. The subject matter conflicts with the peace of this new colour scheme, however, so this particular variation is unsuccessful.

weight considerations

Sometimes a photo is needed to provide context for the surrounding text, but isn’t as important as the text itself. A lush, vivid photo thrown into this scenario can only serve as a distraction and draw the reader’s eye away from the text.

figure 2

This is illustrated in figure 2, above. The panel is an ad that requires primary focus on the text. The example on the left uses the full-colour photo and seems to emphasize the “confusing” message of the piece, since the eye has no resting place within the borders of the white box. Too much is happening, and it’s overly confusing for the reader. The example on the right uses a toned version of the same photo that takes on the same lack of dominance as the less important faded text in the background, leaving the main message in the foreground clearer and more easily readable.

The designer’s job is to make the decision on a case-by-case basis of what processing needs to be applied to the photography being used, if any. As in other facets of design no rules exist that can’t be broken, but it’s important to establish a general guideline in your own work to keep your approach consistent, clean, and logical.

Develop an eye for picking up the most important part of a page. Determine if the surrounding photography adds to it. If the distraction is too great, figure out a way to pull it back and restore the focus to the element that deserves it.

Good design is part function, part form; making the proper choices when processing your photographs will satisfy both sides of the equation.

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More on CMS

November 13

I began this as a comment to my last update, but it hits on too many important points to be buried “below the fold”. The content management fest continues.

The Trouble is…

What inherently bothers me about Content Management in general is that the content owner (the client) has full control.

This rarely becomes a problem in companies with on–staff copywriters and designers, but coming from a web firm with a much smaller client base (in size as well as scope), I only infrequently get to work with this type of client. Instead, I deal mainly with <50 employee companies.

These are the sort of clients who will litter newsletters with clip art. These are the guys that are notorious for sending out e–mail laced with “wht do u think ?” These are the clients that pass along a 100x80 pixel GIF from a random site on the web and ask you to blow it up to 6 inches for their annual report.

I am ecstatic when I receive well thought–out copy and professional studio photos, but in reality I must get a hundred “welcome to our web site, tell us what you think of it!” for each of those, and a hundred more poorly lit, highly JPG’ed digital photos. Or magazine scans. Or images stolen from other people’s web sites. You get the idea.

A Helping Hand

Being at least well–read, if not well–writ, I don’t mind fixing copy. But if I am to do that, I would also like the ability to obsess about the typographical considerations, and make sure the page meshes as a coherent whole.

…which pretty much obliterates the need for a CMS in the first place. Back to square one.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know my clients’ industries. I don’t know how to build a snowboard, and I’ve never manufactured chocolate by hand. I haven’t a clue what legal considerations a lawyer needs to make when providing free information to the general public.

What I do know is what a user expects out of a web site.

I know how to increase the number of unique visitors a site gets in a month. I know what can be safely used on a site, and what violates copyright laws. I’ve helped triple sales on more than one site, I know why users drop shopping carts, and I know how to increase exposure of selected pages. This is what a client pays me for, because she can’t do it herself.

But these techniques are only as good as the minds behind them. When I relinquish control, and begin trusting the client to handle the promotion and development themself, I walk a dangerous line between making myself redundant and allowing my client to fail.

Some Suggestions

What I support is a middle ground. There is a way to allow the client control over the regular, minor changes, while keeping him safe from himself.

Content creation needs to be a collaborative process. The web developer should be willing to work with the client to iron out the raw ideas generated as the result of meetings, e–mails, and brainstorm sessions. And it should be well–understood that this is an on–going process. It doesn’t end when a site goes live.

Feature creep, or the addition of “one more thing” that the client thought of while in the bath last night is the bane of the web developer. Many ways of combatting this have been developed, but the fundamental problem is that web development has been shoehorned into an allegorical publishing process, which isn’t true to the format. It should be recognized that a site is a living, breathing entity, and if not continuously updated to give the user a reason to come back, it will wither and die.

Updates made solely by the client should be limited to changing factual information. These are time–consumers that the developer needn’t trouble herself with. The client can and should have the ability to modify information that has no consequence to site marketing and flow.

Things are Rarely Perfect

This is not a one–size–fits–all solution, naturally. One constant in web development is that every client needs a unique approach. Some clients will involve their own talent in the process, leaving you much less to accomplish. These are the type that a CMS will benefit the most.

But most others are approaching the developer for direction of their online strategy. Their budgets may be small, their focus narrow, but they are looking to us to lead the way. We can choose to follow their directions to the letter, but our work can only be at its most effective when the client and the web developer work together.

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Macromedia Contribute vs. the Developer.

November 12

Sending ripples of joy/shock/fear through the web development community, Macromedia announced Contribute this weekend, a $99US content editing system.

The Golden Age?

The smarter web shops have realized that the best approach to site updating comes through enabling the client to literally do it themselves. Comfortable with competition like Vignette, Interwoven and Microsoft’s Content Management Server pricing into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, many have elected to create their own Content Management Systems, allowing control over page layout, text formatting, image libraries and more.

Revenue comes from licensing this proprietary technology, and comfortable margins are generated by licensing the software. Content Management has become the new e–Commerce to the developer, a revival of an industry that was starting to doubt its own feasibility.

And so the Bottom Drops

But along with these high margins comes a hidden price. After having spent long months and even years developing these products, the news of a cheap replacement comes along to destroy that sense of security. While the investments are beginning to pay themselves off, there is still an awful lot of time and money tied up in many companies’ systems.

The release of a single product doesn’t precipitate the death knell for the independent CMS developer, since free systems have long been available. However, it’s certainly no comfort to those who have invested in their systems without already recouping the cost. It can now be done cheaper, quicker, and since Contribute (based on the Dreamweaver engine) generates W3C standards-friendly code, it can possibly even be done better.

What Macromedia offers with this program is a sense of stability and legitimacy. Buying into an Open Source CMS is cheap initially, but the hidden costs manifest in high–margin external or on–staff support. Middle–of–the–road developers are able to offer support, but resources are more usefully tied up in development. Macromedia thus provides a trusted name brand, as well as a tie–in to existing, well–supported products like Dreamweaver.

All is not Lost.

While this is a rather large shock to those who assumed they had their market locked up, hope still glimmers. The program hasn’t been released yet, and even when it ships, it will be Windows–only for a while yet. The $99 license will most likely be a single–processor license, requiring multiple purchases for companies wishing to allow access control to more than a single individual. And of course, as always, the site doesn’t create itself.

What Once Was, Becomes Again

And that really is the core of the matter: development is what it once was all about, and now, again, it becomes the raison d’être. Developers don’t like maintenance, and clients don’t like paying for any more than they have to. The promise of the Content Mangement System is now more poignant than ever, and it becomes vitally important for the small developer to focus less on the creation of the tools, and more on their deployment and use.

Let’s leave the distraction behind and focus on the goal. Let’s stop worrying about the process and start concentrating on the end result.

Let’s build the house, and forget about constantly improving the hammer.

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In Praise of Moveable Type

November 8
Ben and Mena Trott, you created something wonderful. Moveable Type celebrated its first birthday recently, and it amazes me what an incredible publishing system these two fine people have built.

initial impressions

The initial setup was a breeze for someone like me who doesn’t know perl. When confronted with any non–typical behaviour, a quick check of the well–written documentation took care of all my problems. Total installation time couldn’t have run over an hour, due in no small part to the pre–programmed install packages that automate the process. Customization was a dream. Thanks to the W3C standard–compliant code that MT produces, fitting the content into my design was as easy as styling a few classes. The daily use is uncomplicated and elegant. A couple of clicks, and I can compose my post. A futher click or two, and I have published. The further options built into the well–designed interface provide complete web–based control over my site’s content. While I could use a combination of hand–coded html and an FTP program to maintain my site, MT offers a much more efficient way to do it. Why re–invent the wheel each new post? Moveable Type is simple enough that anyone with a basic grasp of the web is able to maintain a dynamic site, but it’s flexible enough to allow those who work on the web daily to create something much more complicated and fine–tuned. I’ve tried Blogger, I’ve run LiveJournal, but both rely on external servers to process the posts. The former isn't even worth embedding into a custom–designed site due to all comments pages using a common LJ–branded template.

caveat, if you could call it that

While thriving in the domain of the blogger, I suspect anyone wishing to run a multiple page site where the priority is less on day–to–day postings will have trouble using MT. Great at archiving based on date, I see limitations in the archiving and display of more permanent information. I have much more to learn about this wonderful system though, so it’s possible there are configuration options that allow a more flexible archival format. Either way, it’s completely free for non–commercial use, so it’s not something I’ll complain about at length. My education continues, and I’m sure newly discovered virtues will be extolled here.

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Inaugural Post

November 8

Okay, I admit it has been significantly longer than 12 days since I took the original mezzoblue down, so to those who actually visit this site on somewhat casual basis (all 1.4 of you) I offer an apology and an explanation.

I realized around the beginning of summer that the last incarnation just didn’t cut it anymore, and I set about fixing it. My skills have snowballed since September of last year, and the previous site was a hang-over from that time period. It served its purpose, but it was time to move on.

The Struggle for Representation

Except I got sidetracked. I found it necessary to put together a new portfolio, and in the process I was further distracted by the need to refine my Flash skills. For months I toiled away at a Flash-based portfolio. Time, effort, frustration, and triumph reigned, and in the end, I was left with a piece that I felt was… not remotely representative of my skills.

I blame the outcome on my own limitations, and I realize that as a learning effort it wildly succeeded. But in creating a work that showcased what I am capable of producing given no time constraints or budget limitations, it fell far short of my own high standards.

By a stroke of luck, I began work shortly after on a piece that I saw some merit in, and what started out as a simple art piece (read: wallpaper) ended up being the groundwork for a new portfolio. Happily, with a bit of elbow grease and motivation, I was able to complete this next version in a far shorter time than the first. And this time, I was more than pleased with the result. You can view my effort (modernalus:the genesis) in the ‘latest projects’ section, top right.

Which Brings Us to mezzoblue

Funny enough, despite the setbacks, this period was one of intense personal productivity. Not only did I start two separate portfolios, I completed them both. These were big projects, the first (and longer) one took over two months.

Finally removing that from my to–do list, I was able to re-visit the rest of my site. I had recently installed Moveable Type on another site, and was much impressed by the ease of installation and customizable components. Plagued by site rot for years on my own work due to the work involved adding a new post to my site, I decided this was a good thing to do.

I still have a lot of behind–the–scenes work to do on this site, including print–media style sheets, formatted comment pages, and adding further projects. I’ve finally moved in though, so bear with me as I set up my furniture and paint the walls.

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