Category: personal

Adventures with Plex

I've written before about going completely digital for our home entertainment. To recap: I have a big, shared hard drive attached to an iMac that two Apple TVs share to using ATV Flash This was fine for a while, but, frankly, ATV Flash is a little buggy over our network and the Apple TV struggled with any transcoding (converting one file type to another) and streaming – especially in HD. So, we needed something better. In steps a few things: Netflix, Plex and a Mac Mini.

Plex has been on my radar for a few years and up until recently didn't really make much sense for me. But as ATV Flash was becoming more unstable as Apple updated their OS, then Plex started to look like a good alternative.

The hardware

As you may have read from my older post, I did have shared hard drive with all the media on hooked up to an iMac which the Apple TVs shared into to browse the media. The issue here became network and sharing reliability. Quite often, the shared hard drive was invisible because the iMac was asleep, or the network had dropped. Sometimes this happened in the middle of a movie. Not ideal.

The new setup is almost identical, but instead of using the Apple TVs as hardware to browse the library, they are now being used just as a device to Airplay to. I barely use the Apple TV UI at all. Browsing from my iPad and then air playing to the Apple TV. What's cool here is that the iPad just acts as a remote, the file itself is being transcoded on the server and just pushed to the Apple TV directly.

What about a standalone NAS (Network Attached Storage)?

Plex does run on a NAS , but the issue there is most consumer NAS boxes don't have the hardware grunt to do the on-the-fly transcoding. So, I finally decided to ditch my iMac in favour of a headless Mac Mini to run as a decent media box, running Plex.

Getting started with Plex

  1. Download it. Get the Media Server on your computer or NAS of choice (Plex has huge device support). Also, get hold of the mobile apps. Once you're done there, download Plex for your connected apps: from Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Google TV or native Samsung apps and, now, the Xbox One, too. The app support is really quite incredible.

  2. Plex Pass. Even though the software for Plex is free, there are some additional things that are left for a subscription that you have to buy. The good thing is, you can get a lifetime subscription and the cost is very reasonable at $149.99. For that, you get early access to new builds, syncing content remotely, things like playlists and trailers. But the killer feature of the Plex Pass is the ability to create user accounts for your content. Now this is something I've been after for ages on the Apple TV, and even more important now my eldest daughter regularly watches films on it. I need the ability to filter the content appropriately for her.

  3. Setting up a server is a breeze. Once you've installed the server software, get yourself a user account on the Plex website and set up a server. This launches some web software for you to start adding files to your libraries and fiddle away to your hearts content with all the settings.

  4. If you did get the Plex Pass, I'd recommend creating multiple user accounts and playlists with the features Plex Pass gives you. The way I did this was to have email addresses and user accounts for server-plex, parents-plex and kids-plex. server-plex is for administering the account and has all the libraries shared with it. 'parents' for Emma and I, and 'kids' just has the 'children's' library shared with it. Now, by simply signing in and out of the iPad, I can access the appropriate content for each user group.

Next up: streaming, or 'How do I watch the film on my telly!?'

There are a few options:

  1. Native apps (Samsung, XBox One etc) These are apps installed directly on your TV or Xbox. To watch your content, simply fire up the app and away you go. Yesterday, I installed the Xbox One app and was up and running in less than three minutes.

  2. iOS and Airplay This is what I described earlier. Simply download the iOS apps and hook up to your plex server. Once you're done, browse your library, press play and then airplay to your Apple TV.

  3. iOS and Chromecast Exactly the same as above!

Now, there are some disadvantages and advantages to streaming.

Disadvantages: From what I understand, adding Airplay into the mix does have a slight performance hit. Not that I've seen it, though. I'm only generally streaming 720 rather 1080 resolution, so the file sizes are coming up against network limitations. I do expect this to change in the coming years as resolution increases. Advantages: It's a breeze. I use my Plex app on my iPad, choose a film or TV show I want to watch and then just stream it via Airplay. When I'm travelling, I take a Chromecast with me to plug into the TV and stream to that (more on that in another post).

'Hacking' the Apple TV

Currently there is no native app for the Apple TV, but there is a way to get around this by 'hacking' the Trailers app to directly browse your content on your plex server using PlexConnect or OpenPlex. Now, there's a lot to read to get up to speed on this, so I'd recommend a good look through the plex forums. I followed the instructions here to install the OSX app, add an IP address to the Apple TV (to point to the plex server) and, so far, so good.

To be honest, though, I tend to just Airplay these days. The iPad remote / Apple TV combination is quite hard to beat. It's fast, flexible and stable.

Is this it for my digital home needs?

For a good few years now I've been looking for the optimum solution to this problem. My home media centre needed the following:

  • Multi-user accounts
  • Full-featured remote
  • Large file format support
  • Manage music, photos and movies
  • Fast transcoding and streaming (minimum 720)

Both iTunes, ATV Flash, Drobo (in fact, any domestic NAS) fail on all or most of these points. Plex not only ticks every single box (if it's run on a decent machine for transcoding), but provides very broad device support, an active developer community and a really good UX for the interface.

Who knows how long I'll stick with Plex as I do have a habit of switching this around as often as I change my email client (quite often!). But, for now, it's working just fine!

A Purple Princess

When I told my eldest daughter, Alys, about Rebecca Meyer passing away, she wanted to draw her a purple picture. Rebecca was the same age as Alys and she knew ‘exactly what she’d like’. So, here it is:

A purple princess for Rebecca Meyer from Alys Boulton

A Purple Princess for Rebecca Meyer from Alys Boulton, Age 6

In memory of Rebecca, whose favourite colour was purple.

Conference speakers, what are you worth?

Over the past couple of days, there have been rumblings and grumblings about speaking at conferences. How, if you're a speaker, you should be compensated for your time and efforts. My question to this is: does this just mean money?

I've been lucky enough to speak at quite a few conferences over the years. Some of them paid me for my time, some of them didn't. All of them – with the exception of any DrupalCon – paid for my travel and expenses.

When I get asked to speak at a conference, I try to gauge what type of conference is it. Is it an event with a high ticket price with a potential for large corporate attendance? A middle sized conference with a notable lineup. Or, is it a grassroots event organised by a single person. In other words, is it 'for-lots-of-profit', 'for-profit', or 'barely-breaking-even'. This will not only determine any speaker fee I may have charged, but also other opportunities that I could take for compensation instead of cash.

Back to bartering

When I ran a design studio, speaking at conferences brought us work. It was our sales activity. In all honesty, every conference I've spoken at brought project leads, which sometimes led to projects, which more than compensated me for my time and effort if it kept my company afloat and food on the table for myself and my team. The time away from my family and team was a risk I speculated against this. Conference spec-work, if you will.

In addition to speculative project leads for getting on stage and talking about what I do, I also bartered for other things instead of cash for myself or my company. Maybe a stand so we could sell some books, or a sponsorship deal for Gridset. Maybe the opportunity to sponsor the speaker dinner at a reduced rate. There was always a deal to be done where I felt I wasn't being undervalued, I could benefit my company, product or team, but still get the benefit of speaking, sharing, hanging out with peers and being at a conference together.

It's about sharing

If every speaker I knew insisted on charging $5000 per gig, there will be a lot less conferences in the future apart from the big, corporate, bland pizza-huts of the web design conference world.

My advice to anyone starting out speaking, or maybe a year or so in, is have a think about why you do it. If you're a freelancer, let me ask you: is speaking at a conference time away from your work, and therefore should be calculated as to how much you should charge based on your hourly rate? Or, is it an investment in yourself, your new business opportunities, and the opportunity to share. Of course, the answer to this is personal, and – for me – depends on what type of conference it is.

This community is unique. We share everything we do. We organise conferences to do just that. Most of the conference organisers I know come from that starting point, but then the business gets in the way. Most speakers I know, get on stage from that starting point, but then the business gets in the way.

There's nothing wrong with valuing yourself and your work. If speaking is part of your work, then you should be compensated. But next time you're asked to speak by a conference, just stop for a moment and think about what that compensation should be.

Why?

Just like most two year olds, my daughter likes to ask 'why?' Recently, I've tried responding to every 'why' to see where it leads. It's like a cross between improv and some perverse version of Mallet's Mallet. Here's a transcript of a conversation I recorded in the car earlier today:

  • Me: We're going into Cardiff today.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: To go to the castle
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Because it's better than watching TV, and it's a nice day!
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: That's what happens when the sun shines
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Because there are no clouds
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: It's due to high pressure
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Because that's how weather works
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: There's lots to it: solar radiation, air movement, global warming...
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Weather is complicated
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Lots of factors. That's why we have people telling us what the weather will be.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: So we know when to wear a coat
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: So we don't get wet
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Because wearing wet clothes is miserable, and it'll give you a cold.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Because, apparently, it can make you more at risk of infection.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: Maybe your immune system. Everyone has one.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: To stop you getting sick.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: So you can continue living.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: To procreate.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: To continue the human race.
  • Two year old: Why?
  • Me: You know, i've no idea.
  • Two year old: OK.

A conversation like that has happened almost every day for the past few weeks. This was the longest. And deepest.

I'm not a Craftsman

My uncle is a quiet man. He smokes a pipe with a wry smile. Like he knows something you don't. For years he restored traction engines; huge, victorian, steam-driven machines. He did it for the love of it. I have wondered if he did to escape. Like a lot of men that age, he spent a lot of time in his shed on his own, surrounded by the smell of oil, grease and pipe tobacco. A dusty pile of tabloid newspapers in the corner. Slowly whittling away on a small piece of metal, making some grommet or flange or something.

Sounds romantic doesn't it?

Now, how many times have you heard web designers and developers talk this way about their work? For me, it's been increasingly. And personally I find it concerning. For starters, it's a designer-centric way of working. It's a selfish exploit to pour love into your work. If you're working commercially, who pays for that time? You? Well, that's bad. The client? Well, that's ok if they see the value. But many don't.

Giving your work love is not just about giving it time. But, time can often be better spent than whittling away on some nubbin' or grommet just because you think that's where you can give the work your love. Your craft.

Over the past few years, I've spent more time on projects not whittling. Whittling happens in the very latter stages of work and I really don't find myself in that place very often. Mostly that's because the clients I work for have a myriad of big, sticky problems that need working out before you start 'crafting a user interface', whatever that means. I'm more often than not in a place where my own job, as a designer, is to not make something I love. But to make something appropriate. Something that does the job well. Something that responds to a hypothesis and serves a need. Not necessarily something loved and beautiful. And that's ok.

Craft is an emotional word not appropriate to describe the job of designing. It's too self-centred. Too mired in arts and crafts and puts a difficult-to-measure parameter into the minds of clients.

'I want a beautifully crafted interface from a passionate designer'

Translates to:

'I want a self-centred designer to spend way too long on the shiny than actually solving the problem or having the difficult discussions'.

If my uncle was restoring traction engines for a living, he would've been out of business. Craft is love. And love takes time. And time is scarce and probably best spent elsewhere.

Change your mind

My four year old daughter attends a rural primary school in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales. The school performs in the top 3% in Wales. Consistently. It's over-subscribed with waiting lists to attend. The head teacher greets every pupil – by name – at the school gates in the morning. She even knows my name. It's a school you feel part of. And the government wants to close it.

We learnt this week that, as parts of plans to change catchment areas for secondary schools, that my daughter's wonderful school is in a list of a few schools that are pencilled in for closure. The pupils will be sent to other, under-performing, under-subscribed, urban schools. We have a small window to fight these changes, but it seems that once this process gets started, it's difficult to reverse.

When I picked my daughter up yesterday, she told that the head teacher had told them in assembly that everyone is going to fight for their school. That mummy's and daddy's should write letters, they should too, and we should make posters. A wonderfully simple attitude to a dreadful situation. I gave her a hug.

As soon as we got through the house door, my daughter went straight to her desk and asked me if she could write a letter to the men in charge. This is it:

Change. I love my school. Please don't close it. Change your mind. Love, Alys Boulton.

This is what the men in suits don't see. They don't have to sit there and explain it to a four year old that thinks it's all going to be stopped with a couple of posters. They don't think about the illogical idiocy of closing a top, over-subscribed primary school. They think about numbers and averages. They don't think about rural communities, or try to understand why this school is doing so well. No. Thinking about averages leads to average. And who wants that?

So, we're going to fight. With every last breath, I'm sure this school is not going down without a fight.

Shorter Long Form

I started this blog in 2004. Nearly a decade later, I'd like to think my motivations for writing this blog are are same: it's a diary, first and foremost. A place where I can document my thoughts, observations, theories, design critique and more. It's also a place where I can engage in a wider discussion. My blog post responds to yours – or your tweet – and so we go around.

Over the past couple of years, we've seen more and more great industry-focussed magazines that publish online and off, but the flip side to this is I'm noticing more people writing for these magazines and less so on their own blogs. Why is this a problem?

Considered, well-written, edited, and produced content is hard – and time-consuming – to do. Writing an article for one of these successful publications is not an easy thing (well, for me it's not). Not only do you have to have something notable and interesting to say, but you have to stick with it through the editorial process. You get pushed, prodded and cajoled along the way – mostly for the good, I should say. But sometimes, you may begin with a pithy throw-away idea that wouldn't amount to a couple of paragraphs on a blog (kind of like this blog post, really), but through the process it gathers weight – and in some cases bloat – to fit the requirements of 'an article'. And articles are different to blog posts.

In traditional news journalism, this is the difference between a feature and a piece of news. A feature is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It's designed to have a less time-sensitive, longer shelf-life. But 'news' is transitory – documenting a period in time. It doesn't have a structure like a feature does, and probably doesn't have to adhere to the same editorial workflow. What we're seeing on this increasing number of publications are features. And because the authors are writing these pieces, we're seeing less shorter form writing because that type of content has no-where to live, other than blogs and everyone's busy.

I'd like to see more balance again. More short, scrappy blog posts (like this one), written off the cuff and in the moment. Sometimes, I'd like to read the author's actual voice, instead of a homogenised edited one. There has to be a space between 140 characters and 3000 word feature. We all need to blog more, I reckon. Roll on March.

Two Thousand and Twelve

Every couple of years I write a short post to document the year before. This was my Two Thousand and Twelve.

The year started with me taking a month off client work to finish writing my book. It went well, but one year on and i've still not finished it. It'll be done soon.

I blogged more in 2012! Hurray! I redesigned this blog and took it back to how I wanted it: simple, designed for long-form content. Most importantly, it now runs on Statamic and is designed for how I write. I'm really rather enjoying it so far.

2012 saw Emma, Alys, Nansi and I take a holiday in Portugal for a couple of weeks well-earned rest. Alys started school and in September, we all moved house. Going from a relatively new house that we'd spent ten years getting exactly how we wanted it, to a two hundred year old cottage that we're currently ripping to bits. It's been interesting and 2013 will be the year I skill-up on DIY. From plumbing to plastering, I plan on doing it all myself, starting with the bathroom.

The summer was amazing. Non-stop sport for three months: from Le Tour, to Wimbledon, to Euro 2012, to the Olympics. I'm still suffering withdrawal.

…working

This year has been a great one for Mark Boulton Design. We've worked with some great clients, and continue to work with them into 2013 on some really exciting projects.

We launched a product in 2012, too! Gridset continues to thrive helping people make responsive grid systems for the web in a jiffy without miring themselves in all the difficult maths.

Five Simple Steps released A Practical Guide to Managing Web Projects, and announced a series of smaller books coming up in the next couple of months. We're really rather excited about it. Five Simple Steps continues to be a heap of work for Emma and the team, but ultimately rewarding despite the late nights!

…travelling

I travelled quite a lot in 2012 with conferences and business trips. All in all, I was away 80 days and visited nine countries: United States, Doha, Dubai, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Portugal. I spoke, and taught workshops, at some fantastic conferences this year – a great mix of local, small single-track events and larger multi-track events: IA Summit, UX Bootcamp, Future of Web Design, Reasons to be Appy, DrupalCon Munich, Reasons to be Creative, Smashing Conference, Refresh LX, Fronteers conference, Web Directions South, and Beyond Tellerand.

I'll still be speaking next year, with a couple of events already lined up in the first half of the year that I'm very excited to be part of.

…2013

What does the new year hold? I'm not a big one for predictions or a follower of trends, but this is where my focus will be:

  1. Writing, speaking, teaching. As I said a few weeks ago, speaking and teaching is an important part of our work and I'm honoured to participate of a community where we (largely) welcome it.

  2. Balance and Focus. I'm reading a lot, recently, about people ditching social networks, over-sharing, spending more time making axes and keeping bees etc. But this is happening to a certain age of person who's been doing this web-thing a while. This reactionary behaviour is something socialogists have been seeing for a couple of decades now in the general public in the UK with regards to technology. What it represents is a desire for balance. I've spent the last two years working on balance, and up until the last few months of this year, I've been better at it. And that doesn't mean using Twitter less. It means making sure I give myself, my family and my work equal amounts of time and attention. I'll be spending 2013 getting even better at doing that.

On to work stuff…

  1. Community. I hope it's a more considerate year. I've had a gut-full of embarrassing, unconsidered discourse on Twitter and I hope we see a lot less of it this year in favour of responses in blog posts or in person. I hope it's a year of respect.

  2. Web Design. I don't think responsive web design will be the defacto method of web design. Not yet. As long as advertising revenue models exist, and platform channels (eg. m.sites with their own profit and loss), there will be difficulties getting that to work responsively. As I talked about at the end of this year, designing responsively impacts many parts of organisations. But, I do think responsive web design is no longer a trend. It's a bunch of techniques that have proved themselves useful and relevant, and will probably continue to be so.

I hope it's a year of a CMS shake-up. I hope it's a year in which open source CMS communities break out of their IRC bubbles and start working with writers, editors and designers. I hope they become less feature-focussed, and more human and organisation-focussed. I hope we see as much effort going into the design of our back-end systems and work flows as we put into our web site designs and user flows.

I hope it's a year where we stop Defining The Damn Thing. Design is design. I hope the term 'visual design' stops getting used. It's not a thing.

I hope Google stops giving us great, free, cool things and then deprecating them. I'll pay from the off.

I hope Twitter starts behaving like a media platform instead of a product. I'll pay for flexibility, freedom and content.

I hope Adobe stops acquiring everything. They need a big, scary, great competitor.

I hope it's a year we have a more balanced industry view. I think we need more publications, more voices, more speakers, more blogging, better journalism, better reportage, broader guidance, better conferences, more meet-ups. We rely too much on a small set of voices that guide the industry one way and another.

I hope we all take a moment, every day, and think about the importance of what we do. We're defining, designing, launching, and iterating upon a medium. It's big. And important. But… if you have a bad day, nobody died, right? That's important to remember.

So. That's that. I can but hope.

Oh. And, in 2013 I hope I stop starting sentences with the word 'so'. I'm British, and we don't do that.

I hope everyone has a successful, fruitful, happy 2013. Thanks for reading.

A New Canon

The evolution of the grid from geometric form and canons of page construction is quite clear. In no other period of history was the grid used as a core aesthetic as was in the 1950s and 60s where it emerged – almost simultaneously – from several design schools in Europe. From then, the grid system’s influence has been pervasive.

Today, the grid is viewed by many designers with equal amounts of distain and fervore. Its detractors – and there are many – claim a grid system is visual straight-jacket, designed to inhibit creativity and that using one produces dull work. Of course, I think that’s rubbish; there are no bad grids, just bad designers. In the hands of a competent designer, a well-constructed, considered grid system is the frame on which the fabric of the design is hung. It should create balance, provide landmarks and visual cues. It should allow the designer to exercise just the right amount of creativity and provide immediate answers to layout problems.

Canvas In

For the past 800 years, the printed page has been constructed in pretty much the same way; from the edges. The desire to create the most aesthetically pleasing book always starts with the size of the physical page. That page is subdivided to give us the optimum place to put our text and images.

Fast-forward 800 or so years to 1997.

The web is just about hitting the mainstream. I was working as a junior designer in a small firm in Manchester, UK. Typically, as the young guy in the studio, it was my job to create the websites for clients whilst the ‘serious’ designers looked after the large fee-paying clients on their branding, print design and advertising and what not. Remember, this is the early days of the web.

Designers who were exclusively designing for medium back then were doing what they knew; applying the rules of print design to the screen. We used tables for layout, shim-gifs and all manner of terrible ways to achieve our goal of ordered, controlled layout. And it drove us all crazy. And you know what? Despite all the great progress made in the last 15 years – web standards, inclusive design, UX, semantic thinking etc. – when you really think about it, as designers we haven’t really grown that much. Or rather, we’re still trying to force what we know into a medium that it doesn’t quite fit. Our practice of creating designs for the web is still mired in the great thinking that was done over the last 800 years. But who can blame us? 800 years of baggage is hard to get rid of! But that’s what we need to start doing; we need to start thinking in a new, and different way.

‘There is no spoon’

For print design, the ‘page’ is the starting point for creating your layout. The proportions define the grid within. The content is bound the book for pleasing effect. The ratio of the page is repeated in the smaller bodies of text for a feeling of connectedness when the reader moves from one page to another. For print design, the process of designing grids, and the layouts that sit on top of them, is a process with one fixed and knowable constraint: the Page. On the web, however, there is no page.

Consider the browser for a moment. The browser is a flexible window into the web. It grows and shrinks to the users screen size. The user can move it, stretch it, scroll it. The edges are not fixed. It is not a page, but a viewport.

Let us pop back to 1997 again. I’ve just been asked to design a website for a new art & architecture gallery in Manchester. The project is an exciting one, with some great potential for some really creative design and layout work. Typographically, it was a bit of a dream project. I’d been involved in the branding, the logotype design and the design work for the publications. I’d designed a grid system that would work across all of the media from flyers to signage – a kind of universal grid with the proportions of the logo as its starting point.

The time came when I had to knuckle down and design the web site. I started the design, as I usually did, on paper. Then Photoshop. Then Dreamweaver (trying to avoid looking at the code it produced – not because I was purist, but because it scared me to death!). The website design I created was based on a fixed width, fixed height modular grid. It had it all: ambiguous navigation, hidden content, images instead of text, all created with tables. It was cutting edge. But I know now, I hadn’t created a website, I’d created a brochure that happened to be on screen. I knew then, as I do know, that it was wrong. What I’d created had no place on screen at all – the wrong design for the medium. Instead of trying to understand the web, and the browser, I’d taken my existing thinking and shoe-horned my controlled design into it.

Now, let me ask you a question. If you replace Photoshop with Fireworks, Dreamweaver with Textmate, and tables for layout with Web Standards, how many of you are still designing this way? How many of you are still thinking of pages and edges? It’s ok. I am still, too.

800 years of baggage is hard to shed. There’s a lot of engrained thinking. Thinking that is, in fact, really great design and compositional theory. But, because of the attachment to the fixed page, we’ve not accepted the web for what it really is: fluid, chaotic, unordered, open. On the web, there is no page.

Content Out

If there’s no page, no thing with edges, then how can we begin to define a grid? One of the goals – as described by Jan Tschichold – was to create a layout that is bound to the book. How can we bind anything on the web if there is no page from which to start? I propose we stop trying to find the browser’s edge. We stop trying to create a page where there isn’t one, and we welcome what makes the web, weblike: fluidity. We start creating the connectedness Tschichold talked about by looking at what is knowable; our content.

It has been said that as web designers, we’re not designing around content, but rather we’re designing places for content to flow into. Particularly in large organisations, it was commonplace for designers not to know what the content is, or would be, but rather, at best, they’d have some idea of how the content would break down. At worst, they wouldn’t have a clue and basically guess. ‘Oh, this is an article page, so it must have a bunch of headings, some body copy, some lists’. Feel familiar?

Separation of content and presentation is the mantra of the Web Standards movement. So you may think this disconnect started when the web standards movement was in full flow, but it started way before then. I look back at when I worked in web design agencies in the early 2000’s and, as a designer, I was off in my little corner designing the three templates that the client was paying for, and that the Information Architect had defined. I had wireframes of these exemplar templates and was pretty much following them the number. What I was doing was designing in the dark. I had my blinkers on. I had no idea what the content would be in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years time. In fact, I’m pretty sure the client didn’t, either.

What I was doing was designing a box. A straight-edged, inflexible box that couldn’t grow with the content as it didn’t take into account existing graphical assets, either. Thankfully, skip 10 years to the present day and things are getting better. We have content strategy. We have a relatively mature UX industry. As designers, we’re in a much better position to know, not just what the content will be right now, but what it will be in 1,2 ,3 years time. Now we have this knowledge, we can use it to our advantage: by using it to create our grid system.

A NEW CANON

I’ve talked about baggage. Hundreds of years of thinking in the same way: canvas-in. We’ve taken grid design theory from the world of the physical page and tried to make work in a medium where there are pages with no edges. A medium where the user is able to manipulate the viewport. Where context matters – is the reader sitting at the TV, a desk, using an iPad or hurredley walking from one meeting to another snatching some news on the way on their mobile device. Where do we begin to design on these shifting sands and still retain the reason for using a grid system? Before I get on to that, let’s remind ourselves what those reasons are:

  1. Creates connectedness Grid systems help connect or disconnect content. They help people read and aid comprehension by chunking together similar types of content, or by regular positioning of content, they can help people navigate the content. Connectedness helps brands tell a consistent story in layout.

  2. Help solve layout problems We all need answers to layout problems. How wide should a table be? What should the whitespace be around this boxout? Grid systems help us with that with predefined alignment points.

  3. Provides visual pathways for the readers eye to follow A well-designed grid system will help use whitespace dynamically and in a powerful way. By filling a space with negative space instead of content, we can force the direction of the readers eye more effectively than anything else.

As with the printed word, the word on screen would benefit from some rules of form; a new canon of page construction for the web. A way of constructing harmonious layouts that is true to the nature of the web, and doesn’t try to take constraints from one medium into another. That starts with the content and works out, instead of an imaginary fixed page and working inwards. I’m going to repeat that, because it’s important: we start with the content and work out. Instead of starting with an imaginary fixed page and work in.

Design Principles

The new canon can be best described as an approach. A series of guidelines, rather than a single diagram to be applied to all. This first part of the canon are a series of design principles to adhere to. These design principles were created to provide a simple thought framework, an Idea Space; a set of guiding principles to be creative with.

  1. Define a relationships from your content. If none exist, create some. A grid for the web should be defined by the content, not the edge of an imaginary page. Look to your content to find fixed sizes. These could be elements of content that is out of your control: syndicated content, advertising units, video or, more commonly, legacy content (usually images). If none of those exist, you must define some. Make some up. You have to start somewhere, and by doing it at a content level means you are drawing content and presentation closer together.

  2. Use ratios or relational measurements above fixed measurements. Ratios and relational measurements such as pixels of percentages can change size. Fixed measurements, like pixels, can’t.

  3. Bind the content to the device. Use CSS media queries, and techniques such as responsive web design, to create layouts that respond to the viewport. Be sympathetic to the not only the viewport, but to the context of use. For example, a grid system designed for a small screen should be different to that intended to be viewed on a laptop.

By using these principles to design to, we're drawing closer relationships between our layout, content and device. Tschichold would be proud.

– This blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming book on designing grid systems for the web, published by Five Simple Steps.

Participation

Last week, there was an argument on the internet.

As usual, it started on Twitter and a flurry of blog posts are cropping up this week to fill in the nuances that 140 characters will not allow. So, here's mine…

[Aside: I did actually make a promise to myself that I wouldn't get involved, but, I find that cranking out a quick blog post, gets my head in the space for writing generally.]

I started speaking at web conferences in 2006. After attending SXSW the year before, I proposed a panel discussion (with the lofty title: Traditional Design and New Technology) with some design friends of mine: Khoi Vinh, Jason Santa Maria and Toni Greaves and moderated by Liz Danzico. I was terrified. But, in the end, it was fun – there was some lively debate.

I wanted to do a panel at SXSW since seeing Dave Shea, Doug Bowman and Dan Cederholm sit on a CSS panel at SXSW in 2004. Not because I saw the adulation, but because I saw – for the first time – what it was like to contribute to this community. To be part of it. To give back: be it code, techniques, thoughts, debate or discussion. And I wanted a part of it. So, that's what I did. I started blogging – I felt I had some things to say, about typography, grids, colour theory. All of the traditional graphic design stuff that mattered to me. Not because of some egotistical trip, but because I genuinely wanted to make things better. Trite, I know.

Fast forward a couple of years and I'm speaking at the inaugural New Adventures conference in Nottingham for my friend Simon Collison. On that day, every speaker up on stage was trying to give the best talk they could. Not because of the audience, not because of who they were, but because of Simon. It was personal.

The talk I gave at new Adventures took about two years to write. Yes, it took me that long to write a twenty five minute talk. You throw that into the equation, a high-risk personal favour for a good friend, plus my family and best friend in the audience, and you've got a recipe for bad nerves and vomit. And I did vomit.

But, I got up there. Cast aside the nerves and held my head up and spoke for twenty minutes on things I've been thinking about for years. It was received well. Afterwards, all I did was sit in the green room for about two hours and didn't really speak to anyone.

My natural preference

It may surprise you that most speakers I know are not extroverts. I don't mean extroverts in the way you may think, either. I mean it in the Myers Briggs type: they are not the type of people who gain energy from other people, they gain that energy from themselves. I'm one of these people, too.

Being on stage is firmly out of my comfort zone. Firmly. I've had to learn to harness the nerves and put them to good use. A good friend of mine calls this 'peak performance' – the nerves help you bring your 'A' game.

My natural preference is to be on my own, working. Either thinking, sketching, writing, building, exercising… whatever. All through my life, I've enjoyed solitary sports and pastimes, from angling to cycling. Now, that's not to say I'm a hermit. I'm not. I'm pretty sociable when I need to be, but it's not my preference. So being on stage – sticking my head above the parapet – takes incredible effort, and then afterwards, I generally want to go and hide in a corner for a bit. It wipes me out.

So, why do I do it? Why does anyone do it in this community? If you're a regular speaker, or your first time? Almost everyone I know does it because they want to give back. They have something they'd like to share in the hope it may help someone else in a similar position.

This brings me full circle to my opening sentence. Why, then, knowing all of this, is there a general feeling of discontent in a vocal minority that speakers who do this regularly are:

  • In it for the ego
  • Not doing any real work
  • Not leaving room for new speakers

I'd like to address these points from my own experience.

In it for the ego

Why would someone get up on stage and speak to hundreds of people? Sure, some may get a kick out of that. People applauding you feels nice. But, let's be clear: that's not egotistical. That's being rewarded, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Not doing any real work

I wrote about defining 'work' last week. I see speaking as part of my work as a graphic designer. If you've studied graphic designers, art directors, ad copywriters and the like, you'll know that a lot of them speak to their peers – either at conferences or through publications. Writing and talking about what we do with each other is work. Not only that, it's fucking important work too. Without it, there would be no web standards, no open source, no progression.

Not leaving room for new speakers

Experienced speakers leave room for everyone. Experienced speakers do not run conferences: conference organisers do. And conference organisers need to put bums on seats. Just like a big music festival, you need the draw, but also you need the confidence that a speaker will deliver to the audience. Every experienced speaker I know works damned hard to make sure they deliver the best they can, every single time. They're professional. They don't screw it up, or spring surprises. They deliver. And that's why you may see their faces at one or two conferences.

A couple of months ago, I saw Heather Champ talk at Web Directions South in Sydney. Amongst many hilarious – and equally terrifying - stories of how she's managed and curated communities over the years, she came out with the nugget:

"What you tolerate defines your community" — Heather Champ

At this point, I'd like to ask you this:

What will you tolerate in this community?

Will you tolerate a conference circuit swamped by supposedly the same speakers and vote with your wallet? Or will you tolerate conference organisers being continually beaten up for genuinely trying to do the right thing? Will you tolerate speakers being abused for getting on stage and sharing their experiences?

Will you tolerate harassment, bullying and exclusion?

As I've said before, Twitter is like a verbal drive-by. It's fast, efficient, impersonal and you don't stick around for the consequences. Let's stop it.

Work

is…

  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Learning
  • Promoting
  • Researching
  • Teaching
  • Playing
  • Thinking
  • Sketching
  • Lecturing
  • Persuading
  • Negotiating
  • Tinkering

To me, this is all design. This is all my work.

… And long may it continue.

Dirty Hands

There is a gardening TV presenter on UK TV called Christine Walkden. She's from the north of England and has a wonderful turn of phrase. A few years ago, she was presenting Chelsea Flower Show on BBC TV and – whilst discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of some modern garden designs and designers she said something that has stuck with me. A single phrase which I think encompasses what it means to learn and practice a craft:

I'm not sure about a lot of these fancy designs and designers. For me, you have to spend some time with your hands in the dirt.

She was talking about learning by doing. Knowing your materials. Putting the time in.

I moved house a few weeks ago. I went from a modern house with all modern trappings: heating, insulation, double glazing – things I'd come to expect as a bare minimum. I moved to a 250 year old Welsh cottage. There is double glazing, but it's 20 years old and crap. There's no damp proof course. There was barely any loft insulation and the walls are two feet thick stone. It's cold. There are drafts. To combat this, there is a wood burning stove and over a few short weeks, as Jack Frost starts nipping, I've grown to love burning wood to keep myself warm.

Burning oil or gas in a big mechanised boiler abstracts the value you get from heating. You pay for your supply, it burns in a big white box, and your house gets warm. With wood, you have to care for it. You have to chop it then season it for at least a year to remove the moisture. You only get out what you put in when caring for your wood supply, otherwise – as I've found out – you'll find yourself either without any wood at all, or crap wood that won't burn and soot up your chimney. These are all problems you don't have to think about when owning a modern house. But recently – oh, maybe in the last week or so – I've started to look at these as just the process, not the problems.

Owning an old house brings with it a responsibility. Not only of looking after it, restoring it, giving the building what it needs, but also a responsibility to learn new skills in order to do that. For me that means buying a decent axe, learning how to store wood well and looking after my chimney. And there are a hundred and one of these new things I have to pick up to run this old house. At first, it was getting me down. But now, I'm realising it's a process I can't rush and I have to spend some time with my hands in the dirt.

Doing less

Mr Katzmarzyk was my art teacher in high school. A fresh-faced man in his 40's, he was a pivotal influence on me learning some of the craft of art and design I still use today. He taught me 3-point perspective, pencil techniques like cross-hatching, colour theory, how to see tone and line. But the single most important lessons he taught me – back in 1984 – was to be patient with my work, to discard first ideas, and to look at my work with a view to removing, rather than to adding. Pretty heavy lessons for an 11 year old. But they stuck fast. He would have me redraw and redraw the same still life study, not with a view of perfecting, but to explore the subject and the way I was representing it. Every time, the drawing was more simple, elegant and efficient.

He also taught me about noise. Noise in my work, noise in my technique. He described efficiency of thought and process in a way my child-like brain could grasp. He taught me that by doing less, we can get to something in our work so much more appealing. And that underpinning concept is something that I realised only recently I refer to almost every day. It's in my design DNA. I can still smell the power paint as he told me:

"Doing more is easier than doing less".

And that's it.

When someone hires me for my work, they're not paying me for what I give them. They're paying for what I don't give them: the iteration, the obvious ideas, the sub-optimal solutions, the years of experience, the learning I do. They're paying me to make mistakes, to produce work that isn't quite right so I can get to right. I rarely get to right first time.

I may produce more quantity of work this way, but the end result is always less than when I started. More simple, elegant, efficient.

When designing a user interface ask yourself not 'what does this need?', but 'what can this do without?'. As Brendan Dawes says: 'Boil, Reduce, Simmer'. Remove, iterate, remove some more. Sleep on it. Come back in a day or so. Chances are, you'll need to remove some more. Get back to the essence of the materials you're working with.

So, for all of this, when someone asks me what they get. I tell them: they'll get less, but they'll get better. And for that, thank you Mr Katzmarzyk.

Ideas Of March

Last year, Chris Shiflett -- together with a few other people -- decided to get behind blogging again and post a series of posts called 'Ideas of March'. What followed, throughout March, was some exciting and insightful reading. Having an initiative to blog around seemed to help get people away from Twitter and back to blogs again. I did it, too. And it helped.

I've been blogging – on and off – since 2003. That's close to 10 years (!) and I still find it a useful way of capturing my thoughts. The very act of writing something down for other people to read is a process I enjoy: often it means taking disparate pieces of information, thoughts, conversations and compiling it all into some kind of order. But along the way, there's been a problem for me. Blogging started to be about other people instead of myself.

When I write longer articles, or I get more people reading them, I can very quickly start writing to their expectations. I begin thinking more about an article as a design problem needing to be solved for a particular audience, rather than a simple creative outlet – just for me, nobody else.

Since last March, I've blogged the most i've done since 2007. I think that's not only a reflection of me being more selfish with my approach and understanding – finally – that blogging is part of my creative expression. I don't write because I want to, I do it because I need to. And it's taken me the longest time to understand that. But also, I've blogged more because I feel there's been more to say. We're wrestling with some exciting problems right now, and half of the articles I've written have been as a direct result of heated discussion in the Mark Boulton Design studio, or from Twitter.

Twitter is no comparison to blogging. That's not to say it's not useful. For me, Twitter is the point of fertilisation of ideas, debate or discussion. Brief conversations that happen there are often where ideas are sown, but it's here -- on this blog -- where those ideas are nurtured and grown into something more. The very act of considering what I write is what makes my blog an integral part of my design toolkit.

As with all the Ideas of March posts today, this is just a promise to myself. A promise that I'll continue to understand why I write, and therefore, not stop. For me, writing about design, and the problems I face with it, is as important as the work itself.

Snark

I'm not usually one for talking about how criticism affects people: either on Twitter, at conferences or elsewhere.

I am of course talking about the community's reaction to a few of us getting together in London yesterday for the Responsive Summit. Yes, yes. Stupid name.

But today, I've had enough.

  • Repeatedly attacking someone, or a group of people, for trying to do the right thing is not cool.
  • Inferring that a bunch of friends and peers are elitist simply because they decided to get together to talk about something is not cool.
  • Expecting said people to ignore personal and professional attacks is not cool.
  • Expecting said people to 'not be defensive' is not cool. How would you feel?
  • Think. Would you really say some of those things to people's faces?

Attacking someone on Twitter is like a verbal drive-by: it's at a distance and you don't stick around to see the consequences.

I'd like to ask you how you would feel? Personally, I attended yesterday's meeting leaving a sick family in Cardiff – who could really have done with me being there. I went because I felt it was important: not for me, my business, but for this period in time of web design. People have said it before, it feels like just before Web Standards happened. I was there for that, but wasn't directly involved. I have a chance to be involved in this, and I'm trying any way I can to help. I ask those people: what are you doing?

This isn't really about me feeling sorry for myself. For once, I'm reacting to being attacked. The notion of 'not feeding the trolls' is equivalent to saying to a victim of bullying: 'oh, just ignore them'. At some point, you have to stand up for who you are, what you believe and defend yourself. Because if you don't, who's going to?

To answer some of the concerns that come up again and again about yesterday:

  • 'Summit': Yes, we know it was a dumb name, and we're sorry.
  • 'Elitist wankers': It wasn't invite only, people asked to attend and they did.
  • 'Why wasn't I invited?': It was a small room, so the whole internet couldn't fit. It was pulled together very quickly.
  • 'What did you talk about?': We're going to blog about what we discussed.
  • We're collaborating on techniques and tools.
  • We're not telling anyone how to do stuff and deciding your fate (how could we even do that?)

I'm finishing off a long blog post about yesterday covering some of the things we discussed about workflow, and talking about how we work here at Mark Boulton Design. I'll post that later today.

Backups, Networks and a Digital Home

Since I've been using computers, I've been unfortunate enough to have quite a few of them to fail on me. Usually mechanical failures. Failures that start with a 'can you smell that smoke?', or 'Can you hear that rattling noise?'. You know the kind? The kind of failures that never end well.

Over the years, I've had the following either blow up, splutter and die, melt, catch fire, or just simply stop working:

  • 1 graphics card
  • 2 Power units
  • 1 LCD screen inverter
  • 2 Logic boards
  • 2 RAM controllers
  • 4 hard drives

It's the last in the list that has caused me the most pain and anguish. Since then, I've been paranoid about finding a good, sensible, relatively cost-effective way of ensuring that when hard drives die -- and they do -- that I won't lose any data. Losing work is bad enough, but losing precious photographs, or your entire music collection is worse.

A Digital Home in 2005

In 2005, Emma and I made the decision to sell our DVD and CD players, digitise all of our DVDs, tapes, CDs, records and stuff. Declutter our shelves from all this crap and go completely digital. To do this we needed a few things:

I went back and forth on several solutions, but opted for Apple TV in the end. Simply because we can buy shows and music, rent films and it's easy. For a while, I used a Lacie RAID server (2TB storage) that doubled up as my work backup when I started freelancing. It was a decent bit of kit and has lasted very well (we still use it at Mark Boulton Design now). What was lacking in all of this was a backup. The NAS was expensive, so I couldn't afford two. It was RAID, which eased my fears somewhat (until the controller actually went a few months ago).

So, I did without backup. Luckily for me, there's no bad ending to this little story. There could have been. The drive lasted well but our media was outgrowing our storage, and I needed a way of expanding it, plus the nagging in my head that I could have some kind of hardware failure and lose everything.

A Digital home in 2012

Last year, I reorganised our storage. I bought a 4TB RAID G-Technology drive (they're excellent), which was hooked up to my iMac and I kept my iTunes and iPhoto libraries on there. I had an old Airport Express which I put in the kitchen attached to a B&W Mini Zeppelin (which have to be heard to be believed: stunningly rich sound for a small unit), and an Apple TV in both the living room and the bedroom. These have both been 'flashed' with aTV Flash.

Network diagram

I've been using aTV flash for a few years, ever since using it on my first gen Apple TV. It provides a bunch of additional features, but by far the most useful to me is the media player which plays different file formats and also has an automatic hook into IMDB for importing meta data.

But what about backups?

Still the nagging in my head continued. We have all of our digital files sitting on one drive. Movies, music, TV shows, but most importantly our photographs. Photographs of the moments both of our children were born, our wedding, holidays, of people no longer with us. Photos I just couldn't lose.

Last year, I sat down and had a good think about the best way to back all of this up that wouldn't cost me an arm and a leg. I opted for buying another 4TB drive which mirrored my library and would backup daily using SuperDuper. That took care of drive failure in the primary drive. But, what about if there was a double drive failure, or a fire or flood? I decided that the photos were most precious and I would back these up to Amazon S3 nightly using Arq. Of course, with the addition of iTunes Match late last year, my music also now had a cloud backup option. Work and documents are backed up to Dropbox, and I have Backblaze on continueous backup.

Backup diagram

There we have it. Paranoid? Probably.

Of course, for the backups, you could opt for something simpler; like a Time Machine and Capsule. Or you could buy a DAT tape drive. Or backup everything to Amazon S3. or just use iCloud for all your documents and photos. That's the thing; there are so many bewildering choices out there for such an important aspect of consuming all your media in digital form. It's so bewildering, the size of the data in question is so large, that most people don't bother. Until it's too late.

For playing media in your home, there are an increasingly wide range of devices available: from Boxee to Sony's new player. There's a lot of choice for the consumer.

After six years the nagging in my head is slightly reduced. As I said at the beginning of this post, I've had hardware fail many times before. I've lost data. I've lost work in the many tens of thousands of pounds that had to be recreated. If your media is primarily digital, spending a few hundred pounds, and putting in place a good scheduled backup solution, could save you the heartache of losing data in the future.

White, Yellow, Orange, Red

When I was 16, I was mugged. I was taking a shortcut home from a friends house. It was winter, and dark, and I passed by a man in an alley way. He asked me the time. As I looked down to my wrist, he punched me once on the side of the face, he then tried to get my wallet from my pocket. It was a horrible experience, but at least he only used his fists. It could've been worse, as I told myself over and over again during the following months.

From that time until about ten years ago now, I taught, and practiced Martial Arts. Specifically: freestyle karate, kick boxing and capoeira. Since then I've done a fair amount of other fighting styles and systems; from boxing to MMA. I'm not training at the moment, but may well return to it. In all honestly, martial art thinking (not necessarily practice) is such a part of my life now, I don't think I'll ever give it up.

Throughout my time teaching, I'd been involved in several self-defence courses: both in university and in the work place. Central to our teaching back then was not necessarily the tools or techniques to effectively punch someone in the face, but to give people a deeper understanding of their own awareness.

We used a system of colour codes to describe awareness that was derived from John Dean Cooper's 'The Cooper Color Code'. The system does away with the notion that the best way to survive a lethal confrontation is to be a superior practitioner (in his case, a rifleman), or have better weaponry. Instead, the primary tool is that of the combat mindset. Cooper describes each state of awareness as colours starting with White:

White - Unaware and unprepared. If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy or ineptitude of your attacker. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be "Oh my God! This can't be happening to me."

Most people walk around in a pre-occupied fog for most of the day. Their mind is elsewhere: the errand they're running, what they did last night, speaking on the phone, checking Twitter... Humans are great at giving our tasks just enough attention. The rest -- looking, watching, observing, walking, breathing -- is all done automatically. We also respond automatically to certain cues, questions, thoughts and external stimuli. Such as checking your watch when someone asks you the time. Don't be in this state.

Yellow - Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that "today could be the day I may have to defend myself". You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary. You use your eyes and ears, and realize that "I may have to shoot today". You don't have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow. You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don't know. You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to "Watch your six." (In aviation 12 o'clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft's nose. Six o'clock is the blind spot behind the pilot). In Yellow, you are "taking in" surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, "I might have to shoot."

This is about knowing what is going on around you. Engaged in your surroundings rather than dreamily ambling along checking your phone.

Orange - Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you do not drop your six). Your mindset shifts to "I may have to shoot that person today", focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status. In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: "If that person does "X", I will need to stop them". Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.

This is an elevated state. There is a specific threat -- such as a small group of threatening men walking on your side of the road, coming towards you, and it's dark. of course, this elevated state can happen in conversation, or a business meeting, or on Twitter too. Whatever can be perceived as a threat, the state you find yourself in is one where you've established what that threat is, and are acting upon it.

Red - Condition Red is fight. Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. "If "X" happens I will shoot that person".

This is the decision to engage in the threat. Either verbally or physically.

For the past fifteen years or so, I've been going about my day to day activities in the Yellow state. Normally I don't recognise I'm doing it, until I'm in a new situation. This weekend was one of those.

This summer I started cycling. On the road, not mountains or footpaths. I bought a nice little bike, and we're lucky to live in a great place to get out and explore the countryside. On Saturday, as I like to do most weekends, I wanted to get some miles in and it was an unseasonably beautiful day here in Wales. I'd been out for about an hour and was heading downhill on a main road in a residential area. As I was concentrating on the road (in my 'Yellow' state), suddenly a car reversed straight out into the main road without stopping for me. After slamming on the brakes I barely missed the bonnet of the car as I screeched to a halt. The driver had still not seen me. The driver was in 'White'. And it's my experience over the past few months, many are.

My overall point is this: be aware. Be aware of your surroundings. People around you - especially vulnerable people. Don't think, walk -- or drive -- in White. It's dangerous for you and for those around you. It's a thoughtless state of mind.

Being Together

A few weeks ago, I attended the Do Lectures. Luckily, for me, it's a quick trip from Cardiff to Cardigan in West Wales. I'd been looking forward to it for months.

As I was soon to find out, Do is a magical place. Nestled in the woods, it is an intimate affair: thirty speakers and eighty attendees. You sleep in tents, share your meals seated on benches, and pack into a twin-roofed teepee to listen to the talks. You think big thoughts, whilst quietly reflecting on a wooden deck overlooking natural meadows supping freshly brewed tea.

Do is also unlike every conference I've been to. I wouldn't even describe it as such. It's more like a retreat. The content of the lectures was also a wonderful mix of big things from small ideas and small beginnings from big ideas. Personal highlights for me was an emotional talk from a Midwife about maternal care in the developed world, and a rousing final lecture from Mickey Smith: a surf photographer who had never spoken before in public, yet his raw passion for his work made every stumbled word a vital part of his delivery, ending the lectures with a superb film. The Internets Frank Chimero also spoke. For those of you who haven't heard Frank speak before, he's like a poet. Like an American version of Richard Burton reciting 'Under Milk Wood'. I could listen to him all day.

For me, Do was nourishing in a way I've not felt for a long time.

We all individually have to ask ourselves: 'what nourishes us'? How do we grow? Is it grass-roots bar camps, or skipping from one web conference to another listening to the same people say similar things. Or is it just hanging out with your friends and peers discussing our work.

I've asked myself a question over the past few years: are there too many web design conferences; what value are we *really* getting from them? For a long while, I thought the market was getting too saturated, and we've seen signs of this ripple through the industry consciousness. People see the same people say similar things time and again. For conference organisers, it's hard to find the right mix of experienced speakers – who will sell tickets – and people who are doing smart, interesting work, but don't have the speaking experience. Andy Budd wrote a great blog post on this subject a few weeks ago going into great detail on the challenges organisers face.

Yet, more conferences appear throughout the world and more sell out. Our thirst for all getting together under one roof to share, collaborate, listen and grow is an overpowering need that will not go away. But, let's ask ourselves: do we get the nourishment from the conference, or from simply being with our tribe. And if your answer is the latter, then are big, expensive web conferences the best place to just be together. If this is all really about community, then how can we do this better?

Since I began working with the Drupal community in 2008, I've attended – and spoken at – five DrupalCon events in Europe and the US. DrupalCon is different to other web conferences. It acknowledges that its primary purpose is for people who are working with Drupal to get together. And the result is infectious.

DrupalCon is managed by one of Mark Boulton Design's clients, the not-for-profit association: The Drupal Association. They are independent of the software and work to market Drupal, in addition to arranging and planning the bi-annual DrupalCons. They receive donations and membership from all over the world to pay for such events, and because one of their core remits is to nurture and grow the Drupal community, they keep the ticket prices down and focus on community collaboration over big-name speakers (except the keynotes) and venues. And it works. In DrupalCon Chicago earlier this year, over 4000 people packed a downtown hotel for a week. A big, collaborative soup of all kinds of people. And as a direct result of DrupalCon, every year, Drupal gets better. It's about the people, not the speakers or the glitzy conference. People speak for free. Give workshops for free. Not because they're being nice, but because they are giving back to the community and furthering a common goal.

Remember SXSW in 2006? Remember how that felt? Right?

So what if…

What if there was a web design association? A not-for-profit organisation that was small - with elected members, funded by donation and membership - set up and operated in exactly the same way that the Drupal Assocation is run - whose core remit was to provide a twice yearly event: one in the US and one in Europe for people to attend to be and work together. Now, of course, there wouldn't be the central goal of 'making Drupal better'; our efforts are not open source and largely commercial (read: secretive), but there is much we share. When people get together things happen. We find common problems and solutions; ideas are born; approaches simmer and products are created.

This would not be about profit. It would be about providing a place for us to be together. It wouldn't be expensive to attend. It would be about being inclusive, where people from all disciplines could gather round and share their work.

Now, I'm not sure this would be at all achievable, or in fact if it's really a good idea. It would be hard work. It would be political. But what we could gain from this would be the type of nourishment I got from Do...

Nourishment that is slowly being eroded in the web industry as the volume of conferences reduce variety...

Nourishment that is lacking by speakers under pressure to give quick, practical info-talks rather than to inspire, challenge, provoke, debate or collaborate...

Nourishment that is increasingly lacking in polished, high price, high cost (for the organisers), high risk (for the organisers) professional web conferences....

Nourishment that we get from being together.

What if we could do that?

During the Do Lectures, speakers are encouraged to communicate a Big Do – a big idea, that may take a lot of hard thinking and hard graft, and a Little Do – something you can do right now. They also encouraged attendees to think of the same. So here's my Big Do: how can we create a place or a gathering for our community that isn't motivated by profit, but by nourishment? And my Little Do: make a conscious effort to reach outside of the community and industry to help me learn and grow as a designer. Yes, even Midwifery. Or surfing.

What are yours?

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

In 1992, I started using my first Macintosh when attending art classes at college. Frankly, it was a frustrating experience with tools that were not as immediate as pencils or paint. Yet, in that small dark room, surrounded by the smells of powder paints and musty paper, this large box attached to a CRT display captured my imagination. Next year, I will have been using Apple Macs for 20 years.

This morning's news of Steve Job's passing was shocking and saddening. Made even more poignant by the fact I'm working in Bangalore in India currently, and this week is a Hindu religious festival called Dussehra. This festival goes on for ten days, and on the ninth day in Southern India, Ayudha Puja is celebrated. On this day, people give thanks for the tools they use everyday: vehicles, spades, kitchen tools and computers.

Without these tools I use, I wouldn't be doing what I do now. I wouldn't have studied design, or studied at the university where I met my wife. It all started back then in that small, dusty room in the art rooms in college.

Today, I'm thankful to Steve Jobs for giving me the tools to do my work.

Two Thousand and Ten

For the last couple of years, I hadn't really bothered summarising the year on this blog. Which is a real shame, actually, because now I kind of don't remember what happened in detail – only the big moments. So, this post is really just a reminder for me of what happened with me this year so in later years, I can look back all wistfully and what I can look forward to next year...

January

The start of the year got off to a typically hectic start. Mark Boulton Design were knee deep in a big design and technical project working with – the then development release – of Drupal 7. Leisa Reichelt and I announced our little side project on trying to make Drupal 6 (and eventually 7) a nicer place for content creators and administrators: Project Verity. There was snow and ice. For the first time in nearly ten years of living by the coast, Emma, Alys and I were snowed in. It was Emma's birthday. Nick (my brother) and I cook a Thai feast for eight guests. It was fun.

February

Went snowboarding to Chamonix with family. No new snow in a week. Cold and icy. Not so great for snowboarders. Malarkey and I sat in an old pub and discussed an idea that came to fruition later in the year.

March

Attended the best web conference in Seattle. An Event Apart was astoundingly good. Released my book online, for free.

April

Alys' 2nd birthday. How time flies.

May

My birthday. Three more years and I'll be 40.

June

Went on a short break with the family. I spoke at @Media Web Directions on Designing Grid Systems. Five Simple Steps turns the dial up and launches A Practical Guide to Information Architecture by Donna Spencer.

July

Emma and I spend a child-free couple of days in Amsterdam thanks to my parents.

August

Five Simple Steps is in launch mode as we publish Brian Suda's A Practical Guide to Designing with Data. Speak at DrupalCon Copenhagen.

September

Went on holiday to Portugal. Attended my brother's wedding in Portugal. Gave a workshop at dConstruct in Brighton.

October

Spoke at Webdagene on Designing Grid Systems. Ate raw whale sushimi. It was amazing. Spoke at Web Developer's Conference about clients. Launched Hardboiled Web Design by Andy Clarke. It was a big hit.

November

Attended Build in Belfast. The conference, like last year, was a special little event with a great community. I'll be back again next year. Thought I was going to die in a plane crash on the return from Belfast. Three failed attempts to land with a diversion to Birmingham. Went to Portugal to work on my book. Procrastinated and redesigned this blog.

December

Together with 24 Ways, launched The Annual – a limited edition, printed magazine - and raised over £10,000 for UNICEF.

Next year is looking great. I'm honoured to be speaking at New Adventures, DrupalCon Chicago and An Event Apart in Boston. I'm publishing my second book on Designing Grid Systems. We're working on some great projects at Mark Boulton Design for some wonderful clients. Five Simple Steps has a couple of big projects in the works next year. Once again, it's looking busy. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

As always, I have a few personal goals for 2011: Make yoga part of my day Lose weight and get in shape Delegate my work Do more designing, less managing. Do less designing, more living. Support my family the best I can.

I'd like to wish all of you a happy new year.

Back to reading feeds

A month ago, I travelled to Seattle for An Event Apart and got myself an iPad. A month in, and up until this morning, it hadn't really changed the way I interact with the web. This morning, I bought NetNewsWire for the iPad, and I think it's going to make me read blogs again.

Like many people, over the past couple of years, i've relied on Twitter to provide me with links to blog posts from people I follow. It worked well for a while, but when you live on a diet of 100 characters or so, you get get thin, jittery and unhappy. For a long time, I've been unhappy with the way Twitter has altered my content consuming behaviour. I'm hoping that by having a device that won't multitask (for now, I think this is a feature, not a bug), and provide me with daily feeds in an almost newspaper-like format, will get me back to reading long-form again.

Oh, and this was posted using the Wordpress app on said iPad. Maybe I'll start blogging more again. You never know, pigs might fly.

New Drop Caps

When I redesigned this blog a little while ago, the drop caps I used were always going to be a placeholder. Following an evening with my Sister-in-law--who happens to be a textile designer/illustrator by training--I commissioned her to produce a complete uppercase alphabet based on Georgia. I'm thrilled that two months later, they're live on the site. (if you're reading this on RSS, then pop on to the web to see what you're missing).

The brief was pretty simple. I wanted illustrative drop caps produced that were aligned to the inspiration for this design; namely Renaissance illustrations and carvings. They ended up being slightly broader in inspiration than that though. They're hand painted on thick, textured cartridge paper in black ink.

I planned on interviewing Helen (and I still plan on doing that), but I just couldn't sit on my hands until then. Here's a few letters that are particular favourites of mine. Interview coming soon...

Drop cap G

Drop cap S

Drop cap h

Drop cap o

The Personal Cost of Designing on Spec

Yesterday, a rather heated debate raged over on Carsonified’s blog regarding a design competition they’re running to design a slide for the upcoming Future of Web Design conference in London. The debate was an old one, resurrected every now and then and fiercely debated on both sides. The debate was regarding speculative work. It’s a subject I feel very passionate about as I’ve seen the damage it causes – both personal and professional.

I’m a little tired of justifying my position and opinions on Twitter, so I thought I’d pen a few thoughts here and explain my personal viewpoint and hopefully spark some considered, intelligent debate (see my paragraph citing Matt Henderson for an example of this).

Defining Spec

I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time defining this here. I think most people understand what spec work is and why it’s damaging. Speculative work (or spec), can be defined by the AIGA as:


‘work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation’


Spec work, in my view, leads to a number of things:

  1. Sub-standard work.
  2. It undermines and devalues design.
  3. It harms the design industry.
  4. Exploitation.

Are Design Competitions Spec Work?

If you’re in the UK, you probably know of Blue Peter. Blue Peter is a long-running childrens TV series that has been going for, oh I don’t know, maybe 500 years on the BBC. Up until recently, Blue Peter ran many, many design competitions for children across the UK to enter. Kids would send in drawings of their wild and wonderful designs for all many of things. Now, is this spec work? Is it unethical? No, I don’t think so.

Children aren’t designers. It’s not their profession, and they’re not submitting professional work.

There was a great comment on the thread yesterday regarding Threadless. People submit designs to threadless, get paid if their design is picked, and get the glory of seeing it printed on t-shirts. Is this spec work? Even though Threadless are making money from this? No, I don’t think it is.

Designers and Illustrators want to be part of the Threadless brand. They have a lot of pull, so much so that professionals are willing to contribute to that brand. In the same way that if Apple were to do something similar, I’m sure many people (probably myself included) would contribute. Wanting to contribute to something you feel part of, or want to be part of, even if money is being made as a result is not spec work. It’s about wanting to belong.

Personally, I see a competition that targets a profession and solicits entries for a prize as exploitative and professionally unethical. For some, it may just be a bit of fun, but for me, it’s pretty reprehensible. I feel rather strongly about it.

The Personal Cost

I’ve worked in two industries where spec work is the norm: advertising and print design, and I’ve a close relationship with another: architecture.

I used to work for a reasonably sized design agency. We would spend maybe 30% of our time on unpaid, creative pitch work. We would also spend perhaps 10% of our time on design competitions, which I believe is spec work. That’s right, 40% of our time was spent working for the potential of winning one project that would pay for all of that speculative time. Now, if you’re starting out in business, or feeling the pinch as many companies are during these difficult times, your time, and the way you spend it, becomes critical. If 40% is spent doing stuff your not paid for that is potentially damaging.

The practice of spec work is the industry norm in architecture.

My father’s an architect. He runs a small practice and spends an extraordinary amount of time producing spec work. Unfortunately, the industry demands it. The spec work is conducted on the hope that one of the projects will be awarded to the practice and that will pay for the time lost on the other projects. Architecture is also an industry that is rife with design competitions. Some would argue that this is worse than spec work to a shortlisted field. Architects are invited to submit bids, proposals and designs for prestigious competitions. The winner gets the contract and the glory. The losers get nothing; the work is conducted speculatively.

I believe the practice of spec work harms business. It can be crippling, for both suppliers and consumers. Businesses fold, and consumers get sub-standard work.

A Free Market

In amongst the usual trolling on Ryan’s blog, I had a very interesting discussion with Matt Henderson regarding spec work. Matt is a guy I admire tremendously. I’ve worked with him in the past out of his Marbella office on some fascinating projects and he’s a smart bloke.

Matt’s take on spec work, if I understood this correctly, was that the market will dictate the practice. If both sides of the market – the supplier (the designers), and the consumer (the client) – find that speculative work is mutually beneficial, then the practice would become an industry norm. This view sidelines personal opinion, and presents spec work as a consequence of market conditions, which is fine, it is. But does that mean that the creative profession should shrug their shoulders and accept it as such despite ethical misgivings?

For The Record

For the record, Ryan is a good guy. My intention wasn’t to target Ryan personally, or to claim that Carsonified was unethical, they’re not. He doesn’t deserve the lambasting he receives on his blog for genuinely trying to do the right thing; for doing something he believes in. But all of those designers who commented on that growing thread were also doing that – commenting on an issue they believe in. The debate wasn’t personal, or unprofessional, it was a raw nerve.

I’m hoping this post sheds some more light beyond 140 characters on my own personal relationship with spec work and how I’ve seen first hand the damage it causes. I for one welcome an industry that debates these issues. An industry where you’re free to make a mistake, to openly question motivations and to do something you believe in. As Matt said, ‘let the market run its course’, but if you don’t agree with where it’s headed, push back and fight for what you believe in.

White Screen Of Death

I was on a business trip last week, and as always, rely heavily on my iPhone for not only calls, but email, navigation, and - courtesy of AirShare - a method of carrying files to and from meetings. Who needs USB sticks, right?

I’ve used this 3G phone since August without too many problems. Well, that’s not strictly true, I’ve had the usual phantom restarts, blank screens, and general software lag. Just like everyone else. But, as I’m an Apple fanboy, I’ve put up with it, hopeful that with subsequent software releases, the platform would become more stable. The pitfalls of early adoption.

That all came to a grinding, abrupt halt on Thursday when my phone croaked and then died. 

Here’s what happened.

I’d just finished a call. Then two minutes later, I tried to call someone else. The iPhone was just a white screen. Unresponsive. I turned it off, turned it back on. Same thing. This was a problem as, because of AirShare, I had some important documents I’d just picked up from a client (who needs USB sticks right?), that I needed to review on the journey back to Cardiff. Back to the white screen. This must be a known issue, so I started on the hunt to track down either some wifi, or at the very least, a book on the iphone, where it might just give me some indication of what to do. Even a hard restart. I could live with that.

Sod’s Law dictates that ‘if something can go wrong, it will’. Following missed trains, cancelled trains, momentary panic when I thought I’d lost my wallet. All of this without being able to call anyone, email anyone, Google for help. In a crowded station, I felt completely alone and helpless. Then, I came to my senses. I wasn’t going to let blind panic ruin an otherwise good day.

I couldn’t find a book, and the wifi was down. My last resort was to quickly hook into the wifi in the stations en-route to Cardiff. Reading, Didcot, Swindon, & Bristol all have wifi, so I was able to snatch moments to try to get to the bottom of the mysterious White Screen Of Death.

Common problem

Turns out it happens a fair bit. Your iPhone will enter some kind of error loop. It will still be visible to iTunes. In fact, it will still be operable ‘behind’ the white screen - you just can’t see anything. It can usually be fixed by a hard restart of the device. Holding down home and sleep for 10 seconds should sort it out. Well, it didn’t. Failing that, I read, you might need to do a factory restore. Bugger. Not to worry, I have a backup, should be fine. Although, I didn’t backup AirShare before getting this important file.

The restore didn’t work either.

Apple were surprisingly helpful. ‘It’s defective’, I was told. Yes. It is. ‘Take it back to where you bought it, and they will replace it’. All good.

O2 where actually quite helpful too. Although, it was all a bit of a headache. They couldn’t issue a replacement, as they had to send it off for repair. So, I had to buy a new handset, wait for the replacement to come through and then get a refund on that handset. A lot of messing around. Why can’t they just replace the handset? Why can’t O2 interface with Apple customer support (with reference numbers)? Why does the consumer have to jump through hoops to replace a defective handset?

Over-reliance

This whole episode made me realise the over-reliance I have on this phone. The gravitation from simple phone, to mobile computer has made business possible on the move, but with that, it’s made business potentially impossible too. Previously, when travelling, I’d be incommunicado. Sure, I could answer the phone etc. but the enforced solitude from the daily grind had massive benefits. Not just the headspace it provides, but by not raising expectation of what I could and would do whilst sat there watching the world go by.

I learnt some important lessons about data too. I lost that important file from a client. I lost the time to review it on the journey. The following day, I had to call to explain, the file was resent, reviewed etc. Luckily there was a copy. AirShare is a cool app, but I was using it in the wrong way. I won’t be doing it again. 

Why have a chair when you could have a Sumo

Like Jeremy, I’m such a blogwhore.

And, like Jeremy, I was contacted a while ago by the nice people at Sumo, asking if I wanted an Omni in exchange for a blog post.

Yes, like I said, I’m a blogwhore too.

When I was a kid, my brother and I had beanbags to sit on when we watched tv, or played with lego. We would use them as islands, ships, weapons, dens. Many hours went by trying to find the most comfortable, or damaging, beanbag configuration for the particular task at hand:

The Egg

There was the ‘egg’, as demonstrated by position five on the Omni page. This was great for general TV watching, providing good support. The downside is, it’s difficult to get up out of. As Emma said, ‘you don’t want to sit down on this when you’re pregnant’.

The Pancake

So called because it’s flat. This configuration provided perfect cushioning for many, many hours of lego assemblage. It also doubled up as a nice bed, or landing platform for the death-defying jump from the 5th step on the stairs.

The Ball

Pick the beanbag up, let all the filling fall to the bottom, spin the bag until you have a nice handle with a tight, heavy ball at the bottom. The perfect clubbing weapon.

There were probably more, but those three were the favourites.

So, when the Omni arrived, all these memories quickly came flooding back. Sadly, it’s too big for the The Ball (and yes, I did try).

I opted for a lime green bag (as you can see, I’m a sucker for lime green). The first thing that struck me was the scale of these things - they’re enormous. Alys quite likes it too, although is somewhat dwarfed. They’re made out of this tough-as-nails nylon (so would be perfect for The Ball if they weren’t so large).

Emma and I decided in the end that it was just a little too large for our house. So, it’s now providing ample seating provision for the Mark Boulton Design library. 

Don’t screw with conventions

I’ve got a confession to make: i’ve got a thing about signage design. On any given day trip, excursion, or holiday, and I can be seen ignoring the attraction and taking photographs, or even drawing little sketches, of the signage. I’m particularly interested in airport signage.

A few days ago, I took a business trip to Brussels, via Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. I’ve wanted to visit Schiphol ever since I attended a lecture in 2005 by the designer of the signage system, Paul Mijksenaar. As a designer, you know when you get those moments where something somebody says turns you’re entire understanding on its head? Seeing Paul talk, I probably had one of those moments every minute.

Schiphol vs Cardiff

Cardiff International Airport has, without doubt, some of the worst signage I think I’ve seen. I’m not sure what constraints (or lack thereof) where placed on the designers in order to produce these. I mean, white Arial on blue lozenges? All the same, regardless of content. Honestly, it makes for a navigation nightmare.

<

p> Cardiff International Airport signage compared to Amsterdam Schiphol airport

Cardiff International Airport signage (left) compared to Amsterdam Schiphol airport (right). More photographs of these are on Flickr.

Thank goodness Cardiff is not often used for transferring flights, like some of the major hubs throughout the world. Case in point, on Tuesday, in Schiphol Airport, I had 25 minutes to:

<

p>

  • Take a leak
  • Change Terminals
  • Xray my hand luggage again
  • Find some water to buy

I was running in-between each of these tasks to make sure I didn’t miss my flight to Brussels. Without clear signage, in the place I expected them, I would have missed my flight for sure, and may have wet myself along the way.

Schiphol has some of the clearest signage I have seen in any airport (in fact, its signage system has been copied by several airports, London Heathrow included). It is designed around some extremely simple rules (Paul explained some of these in his talk a while ago), the three that stood out for me were:

<

p>

  • Conspicuity
  • Contrast
  • Task

Conspicuity is obvious. Make the signage stand out. They should compete with other things; architecture, or advertising. They should be high contrast. Most of all, they should help users complete their task. Paul mentioned three things that people want to do when they arrive at an airport (and this holds so true)

<

p>

  • Go to the bathroom
  • Find my gate
  • Get out of the airport

On arriving in Cardiff on Wednesday evening, it took me a good ten minutes to find the bathroom. Ten minutes! This was because the toilet signage was ingeniously attached to a wall facing away from the prevailing traffic through the baggage reclaim hall. A genius bit of wayfinding that is.

Parallels with web design

It’s not difficult to draw parallels with airport signage (in fact, most wayfinding systems) and website design. Good signage should enhance a user experience, it should help a user complete their task, and it should do it in a way that is unobtrusive.

Over on Paul’s website, he has some fantastic gems of design advice. These are written in a context of designing wayfinding systems, but they could also be applied to a multitude of other media:

Colour Coding
Should reinforce a category of information that is equally clear without colour coding.

A no brainer this one, but it’s amazing how often colour-coding is abused.

Jargon
Assume that all visitors know nothing about the airport. Select terminology geared to users rather than concocting clever airport gibberish.

To be honest, I’ve not visited an airport where they’ve used their own jargon. Of course, there are cultural differences. For example, I’m sure I’ve seen a sign for ‘Bathroom’ in a US Airport. As a British bloke I’m sure this would make it difficult to find if I was in the muddled state of badly needing a pee.

Maps
The number of passengers capable of reading (and correctly interpreting) a map is negligible. By and large, maps are display windows for the presentation of airport facilities and not substitutes for signposting.

I hate maps. Hate them. Why is it, in any attraction/shopping centre/airport, the designers of maps see it as a creative exercise? I’ve lost count of the amount beautiful isometric maps that are completely useless.

Fonts
Only graphic designers show interest in fonts. Do not use more than one font and, unless you have plenty of time and money, stick to Frutiger, Clearview, Gill or Meta

This one made me chuckle, but he’s got a very good point. Take Cardiff for example. Arial? Why? Why not use Clearview, or Frutiger. Why use a font that is an inferior knock-off of Helvetica that is less legible as a signage typeface? Licensing? Probably.

Illuminated signs
Don’t save money on lighting. All primary signs require built-in lighting. The sunnier the climate and the more daylight available, the bigger the need for illuminated signs.

I don’t think any of the signs in Cardiff airport where illuminated (although I may be wrong on that).

Pictograms
Don’t expect too much of pictograms. Always add text to less generally known functions.

This is another little beauty and can be applied to web design with regards to icons. Don’t expect too much from them.

Put it to the test
Test all ideas that deviate from the standard solution.

This must be the number one recommendation for signage, but note the closing words. But, that said, testing standard solutions can always solidify thinking and may throw up the odd surprise.

Some wise little nuggets of design advice.

There are more photographs of airport signage, good and bad, on the aptly named Airport Signage, Airport Signs and Pictograms, and Signage Systems Flickr groups.

Alys Rose Boulton

Little Alys was born on 15th April 2008, weighing in at 7lb 8oz. Isn’t she a looker? There are more photos up on Flickr.

Alys Rose Boulton

A proud dad doesn’t even come close. :)

From Poly to Pole

Every six months or so, my brother-in-law, Bruce Gordon, updates his website (which I designed a while ago) with his latest work. I’m generally not one to pimp sites, especially family, but Bruce’s work continues to amaze me. He’s a Head Sculptor for the film industry in the UK and his website is glimpse into the world we rarely see--set design and construction.

Fred Claus

His latest project (other than Wolf Man that he’s currently working on), is Fred Claus. He was the HOD (Head of Design) Sculptor for the project, which I think means he ran the crew whose responsibility was realising the art department maquettes. Now that just blows me away. Scaling up a clay model, that may only be a few inches across, into a life-size construction. Of course, the art department is concerned with the vision of the production, not if the thing can actually be built. That’s up to Bruce and his team to figure out.

Santa's house in Poly
Poly Building showing construction
The finished North Pole set

These images from Fred Claus show the scale of construction and attention to detail. From intricate wood sculpting, to ensuring layered snow on roof tops looks like it actually might drop off any minute. All of this work, and it’s an incredible amount, can only be on-screen for a few minutes. I guess that’s the price for trying to accurately portray another reality.

If you have a mo, browse around his site. There’s some stunning work on there from production such as Charlie and Chocolate Factory, Batman Begins, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Ten Crimes Against Web Typography (and how to avoid them)

Cardiff is finally getting its act together. Tonight, I’ll be speaking at the second Cardiff Geek Night, along with Dan Zambonini. It’s a ‘microslot’ that will last about 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time for questions.

When I spoke in November last year at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin, the feedback I got from my Typography presentation was generally positive. It seemed that most of the people I spoke to preferred the last 10 minutes, on Micro-Typography, and all the quick tips that you could use every day. Tonight will be more of the same, with a slightly different slant. I’m going to highlighting my top ten crimes against web typography, and how you can put them right. Ten crimes (and subsequent tips on correcting them) in ten minutes. I’m told the talks will both be recorded, so I’ll post up a link to them (and slides), when they’re all done.

If you’re at a loose end tonight, and fancy a pint, then feel free to come along. We’ll be at Cafe Floyd from 7pm.

Start Your Own Business

This article was published in .Net magazine before Christmas last year. I was asked to write a small article on making the leap to working for yourself (as it was still fresh in my mind). It’s by no means a definitive guide (for example, there is no mention of the legal aspects of setting up and running a company). It’s also aimed at a UK market, but a lot of this will work no-matter what country you’re in. Most of it is actually just common sense.

It’s been eighteen months since I went freelance, and almost six months since starting my small design studio. I’m no expert. So, this article documents what I did, and when. It also features a little interview with our very own Colly.

[Article originally published in .Net magazine in November 2007]

So you want to work for yourself? And why not. You can dictate your own hours, have the freedom to take time off when you want it without getting into trouble from the boss; you can do what you want to do, when you want to do it. At least, that’s what I thought when I started working for myself a year ago. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The freedom of being in control is terrifying. The pressure of knowing it really is down to you whether you succeed or fail can weight heavy.

Where I live, in Wales, almost 400 people a week start their own business. Everybody is different and end up giving it a go for a variety of reasons. However, most of these people share common ground. Things that they need to think about when planning to go it alone.

As I said, I’ve only been my own boss for a year now, so I wouldn’t call myself an expert on this. I can however tell you my story, and the mistakes I made along the way.

Why do it in the first place?

Starting a business is one of the most challenging, but rewarding, things you can do. The reason most people never end up doing it—although I’m sure many would love to—is because they think it takes luck, a clever idea or just knowing the right people. That’s not true. It’s about you.

Maybe you have a great idea that you just can’t keep a secret anymore. Maybe a colleague has approached you to setup business with them on the back of a contract they’ve just secured. Maybe you just hate your job and wish you were your own boss. The catalyst is different for everyone.

For many people, including myself, they’ve found their career take a certain path where self-employment is the next natural progression. I was working full-time at the BBC as a designer when my enquiries to do freelance work reached such a peak that I was doing two jobs. At that point, one of them had to go before my wife did!

Whatever the reason to set up business, it’s a personal one that only you can make.

Do you need a business plan?

A Business Plan is just that; a plan about your business. It’s used to look ahead, allocate resources, focus on key points, and prepare for problems and opportunities. It doesn’t need to be a scary document that you take months to write. However, some banks, investors, or other funding bodies will insist on a well-written, concise Business Plan on which to base their decisions, so in that sense, it’s a very important document.

A standard business plan will contain the following:

  1. Executive Summary:
  2. Write this last. It’s the summary of the document.
  3. Company Description:
  4. This details how and when the company was formed.
  5. Product or Service:
  6. Describe what you’re selling.
  7. Market Analysis:
  8. You need to know your market. Establish the need for your product and why people need it.
  9. Strategy and Implementation:
  10. Be specific. Investors love this stuff. They need to know you have a clear plan of attack.
  11. Management Team:
  12. Include backgrounds of key members of the team.
  13. Financial Plan:
  14. Include a profit and loss account, cash flow breakdown and a balance sheet.

Make no mistake, writing a business plan can be a daunting prospect, but it doesn’t have to be great the first time around. A business plan should be revised throughout the business’ lifetime - it’s not just for startup businesses. I’ve just gone through my third draft in my first year of business.

As usual, the web has some great resources to offer. The BBC has a good overview of ‘How to Write a Business Plan’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2943252.stm).

Get help

This is perhaps the most important step in setting up your own business. You will realise you can’t do it on your own. You will need good advice from the following people:

  1. An accountant:
  2. Preferably a small business specialist.
  3. A bank manager:
  4. All new businesses should be allocated a small business specialist from their chosen bank.
  5. A financial advisor:
  6. You will need the advice of somebody who can assist in the financial direction of the company.
  7. The Government:
  8. Yes, the government can help.

Out of all of these, I’d advise you spend the most time trying to find a really, really good accountant. Many businesses owners will tell you that a good one is worth their weight in gold. In addition to the usual accounts stuff they can give you invaluable advice.

A great source of business advice for England and Wales is the Business Link website. (http://www.businesslink.gov.uk) Here, you can find information on starting up and funding options, to Health and Safety and employing people.

The different kinds of ‘company’

To register as self-employed in the UK, you have to register with the Inland Revenue as one of several company types:

Sole trader

Being a sole trader is the easiest way to run a business, and does not involve paying any registration fees. The downsides are you are personally liable for any debts that your business incures and, if you do well, you could be paying high income tax.

A Partnership

A partnership is like two or more Sole Traders working together. You share the profits, but also the debt.

A Limited liability partnership (LLP)

An LLP is similar to a Partnership. The only difference is the liability, or debt for example, is limited to investment in the company.

A Limited liability companies

Limited companies are separate legal entities. This means the company’s finances are separate from the personal finances of their owners.

Franchises

A franchise is like a license to an existing successful business.

Social enterprises

This one probably doesn’t apply to web development. According to Business Link, Social enterprises are ‘… businesses distinguished by their social aims. There are many different types of social enterprises, including community development trusts, housing associations, worker-owned co-operatives and leisure centres.’

This is something you must do in order to pay your taxes. Speak to your accountant about which will suit your needs better.

How to finance yourself

Before I made the leap into full-time self-employment, I read a lot of articles which said I’d need six months salary in the bank before I went out on my own. Although that is good advice, depending on your salary, that is quite a hefty chunk of cash that will be hard to save.

Like most people, I didn’t have that sort of money knocking about so I had to have a close look at cash flow over the first few months of business to ensure I could pay myself. This cash came from several sources.

  1. Money in the bank.
  2. I did have some money in the bank. Not a huge amount, but I had some.
  3. Contracts.
  4. I had a number of contracts signed and ready to go when I went on my own. These proved invaluable in kick-starting my cash flow.
  5. Funding.
  6. There are many funding options available. Grants, loans and private investment. All of them except grants require you to pay them back though, and for that you need a good business plan and an idea of how you’re going to pay them back. Grants (and small business loans) are available from local government bodies for example. I’d advise making an appointment with your local Business Link to discuss your options.
  7. The Bank.
  8. Get an overdraft facility. Mostly, even for limited companies, these will have to be personally guaranteed - which means if you default on paying it back then you’re personally liable - but they can provide a vital buffer for cash flow in those early days.
  9. Charge up-front.
  10. When you get a contract in, especially if it’s for fixed cost, then charge a percentage up-front. This will help with the cash flow. If you can’t charge up-front, then make sure you charge monthly. Again, it will keep the cash flow nice and happy.

Basic accounting

What is Cash Flow?

Cash Flow is the life blood of your new company. It’s the ebb and flow of cash coming in and going out. The aim is to have a positive cash flow, so there is more cash coming in than there is going out once you deduct all your overheads.

You will also need to forecast your cash flow. This is still one of the most sobering things I have to do regularly because is clear shows the current state of your business. Every month I review my cash flow and I forecast for three months, and for six. I make a list of all the invoices which need to be sent in those two time periods and make sure I’m hitting my monthly and quarterly cash flow targets. Like I say, it can be scary at times.

Tax

There are two types of tax: Income Tax and Corporation Tax. For Sole Traders, Partnerships and LLP’s, you will be charged income tax on your profits. That’s important, so I’ll say it again. You’ll only be taxed on your profits. Things like equipment costs, rent, phone and other office expenses are deducted from this.

Limited companies are charged Corporation Tax on their profits. The employees of that company are charged income tax on their income. As with a Sole Trader etc. Limited companies are only taxed on their profits.

VAT

If your business earns £64,000 or over in a financial year, you have to register for VAT. If you think you might hit that target during the year, you can voluntarily register before hand.

Being VAT registered means you have to charge your customers for VAT on top of your services. Currently in the UK, VAT is 17.5%. You’re in effect collecting taxes for your government. Nice aren’t you? One of the advantages of being VAT registered is that you can claim VAT back of purchases for your business. Say you bought a new computer, you could claim the VAT back from that purchase.

All this VAT gets added up and you have to pay the government every quarter.

For more information of your obligations as a business to pay your taxes, go to the Inland Revenue website. There are some great tools on here to help you - you can even file your taxe return online.

Establishing a customer base

Prior to starting my own business, I worked full time. As a designer, or developer, you will probably get enquiries to do freelance work in your spare time. This is the time to start building up your customer base whilst you still have the security of a full-time job. Sure, it means burning the candle at both ends, but it does ensure a smoother transition from employed to self-employed.

Schmoozing

A good way to drum up business is to network. This can be done traditionally, such as Business Club lunches and events organised by your local authority. One of the most effective ways of getting your face known is by attending the many web conferences, workshops and meetups going on throughout the country. From Pub Standards and the Oxford Geek Nightsto the larger conferences such as @Media and dConstruct. They all provide a great platform to meet people in the industry who may require your services.

Contribute and Interact with your market

If you’re a design studio who designs websites but has a strong focus on User Experience design, then write a company blog about that subject. If you write interesting content, and give it away free, then traffic to the site will increase as will your page rank in Google. This means that if a potential client searches for User Experience, they will get your site in their search results and there is a clear path into your site from some quality content.

Giving a little quality content away for nothing may make the difference in landing that big next project.

Making the switch from being employed to self-employed

The power of the Day Job

If you’re employed, but planning to go freelance, then keep your day job for a while. Get work in to work in your spare time, but use the cash that generates as a buffer for when you do go it alone. Make sure the two worlds don’t collide though. Keep your boss happy in work, but now is the time to be a bit of a jobsworth. Get in on time, leave on time, take an hour for lunch - do everything you can to maximise the time you have available to work on the freelance projects.

A smooth transition

Working two jobs is hard, and you won’t be able to keep it up for long. This stage in starting up your business is perhaps one of the most difficult. The aim is to ensure a smooth transition from being employed to self-employed. You will need some cash in the bank, a few contracts for your first couple of months of being on your own. The hard thing is keeping you current boss happy in the process. It’s not easy.

There are a number of great job boards which advertise design and development projects regularly. The two I’ve used successfully in the past to drum up some business are the 37Signals Job Board, and Cameron Moll’s Authentic Jobs.

How to achieve long term success

Keep one eye on the future

Forcasting business can be quite difficult. How does cash flow look in three months time? Are you saving enough money for the end of year tax bill? To succeed in business I think you need one eye on the present and one eye fixed firmly in the future. The short-term future. Whilst it’s great to have dreams and aspirations for your new business, that shouldn’t be at the expense of ensuring you have enough work coming in over the next six months.

Customer service

Remember if you’re a designer or developer, you’re providing a service. We’re in a service industry and with that comes Customer Service. I know it may sound a bit trite, but treat clients as you would like to be treated. Treat them with respect and never lose sight of that fact that they are paying the bills.

Wrapping up

Making a leap of faith is the first step to starting a business. However, for your business to grow and flourish, you will need much more than faith. First off, you must have upmost confidence in your ability to make it work. You need to be aware of the risks, but not scared to death by them. You’ll need to have good organisational skills, flexibility and a high degree of commitment. Most of all, you need to have fun and love what you do.

Interview: Simon Collison

[The following is an interview conducted in Nov 2007]

Q. Why did you end up working for yourself?

After four happy and successful years with another great agency, I did start to dream about being in control. I’d sometimes receive offers to work for other people, but nothing ever grabbed me. I’d get a few people emailing me every week with requests for websites, and I grew in confidence, realising that I could actually earn enough money to survive. Generally, I just wanted to nitpick clients and decide who to work with on projects.

Q. What do you love about working for yourself now?

The autonomy. I love making my own decisions and being in total control of the direction in which we are heading, the clients we choose to work with, and being able to handpick colleagues!

Q. What don’t you like about it?

Hmm, lots. The hours (I did over 100 hours last week). In general, it can take over your life if you want to produce quality work with no cutting of corners. Sacrifices are inevitable – everything from working the majority of evenings and weekends to missing your best friend’s birthday. If there is an immovable deadline and the work needs doing, the buck stops with you, and no excuses are good enough.

Perhaps the biggest shock to the system is the unavoidable responsibility for ensuring that cash flow is steady and that we have enough money coming in to pay the wages, cover office rent and general overheads.

Q. If there where three key pieces of advice you could give to someone who was thinking of going into business for themselves, what would they be?

Just three? OK. One. Achieve a work/life balance and stick to it as best you can. Ultimately though, except for crisis stuff, you’ll end up putting work first, so be prepared for that.

Two. Trust yourself. You will make mistakes, but generally the decision to work for yourself won’t be one of them. Have the courage of your own convictions and just go for it! You will know when you are ready and have enough work or contacts to ensure you break even and can pay yourself.

Three. Realise that you are not an expert at everything, so get people to help you. Get business advice, get to know your bank manager, and use an accountant. When you are seriously busy, the last thing you’ll want to be doing is invoicing, or doing anything at all in Excel.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made since you started up?

Under-charging in the first few months. The temptation from day one is to bring the work in and build up a client list. This kind of thing will not wreck your business, as you’ll simply put the extra hours in, but it is seriously detrimental to your health and lifestyle, and even the quality of the work you produce.

Q. Where do you see your business in two years time?

Thriving – you gotta be confident, right? We’re lucky in that word of mouth and recommendations bring the work to us. We don’t take this for granted and never will, but the hard work in our first year is paying off, and we now have a solid foundation to build upon.

I never dreamed there’d be five of us within a year, and we hope to grow to about ten soldiers in the next 24 months. When you work this hard, you have to remember to be proud and enjoy what you do.

[Finally, rounding off with a couple of boxouts from the article]

TIMELINE: Six months to making the plunge

6 Months to go—Start building a customer base. Trawl the freelance websites (job boards - authentic jobs etc) and get yourself a few freelance gigs. Register your business with the Inland Revenue. (see section on deciding what business you should be). I’m afraid for the next six months, you’ll be working two jobs. If you can get funding for your venture, start researching what you can get and when.

5 Months to go—Continue to get those freelance gigs in. Begin to research a good local accountant. Book an appointment with several banks - you’ll need to get a business bank account - but it’s worth shopping around. Have meetings to discuss funding opportunities.

4 Months to go—Found a good accountant? Right, you need to have a meeting with him/her regarding your new venture. Finalise your bank account with your chosen bank. Continue to build up your customer base. Now is the time to speak with some local companies to see if they need freelance help. Are you going to be working from home? If not, you need to start looking for somewhere to work from.

3 Months to go—You should be getting some money in from your freelance gigs by now. Save it—you might need it in a few months.

2 Months to go—You should be working like a dog now and really looking forward to working for yourself. At this stage, everything should pretty much be in place for you to make that smooth transition from employed to self-employed.

1 Month to go—Hand in your resignation. If possible, try and get some work booked in for the first three months of being on your own. Make sure you also get paid by these clients monthly so cashflow isn’t an issue.

Ten things I wish I’d known

10. Wearing many hats

Before I set up business, I’d read a fair few ‘how to’ books and a number of blogs that talked about the many roles you would have to adopt whilst running your new business. I still struggle with it. On a typical day I am a designer, a project manager, a salesman and a book-keeper. Each role requires a different mindset and it can be very difficult to switch between them.

9. Home is for home things

Keep work and home separate. When you work at home, this can be difficult. When I had my workplace in my house, I made sure it was a completely different room which was furnished like an office—not just your spare room with a desk in it. One tip which worked for me: wear your shoes during the day, when you’re working, and at night, take them off. It’s a silly little thing, but you will soon associate shoes with work. So, when you take them off, that’s home time.

8. What goes around comes around

Be nice to people. Business doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Treat people how you expect to be treated. Be fair, professional and above all, polite.

7. Don’t take on too much

This one is a killer. I still do it and probably will for many years to come. When you don’t have any work booked in in three months time, the tendency is to get more work in now with the hope that, financial, you’ll be more stable in the months you don’t have work. It makes sense, but you end up working too hard. As a result, quality dips, customers get a bad service and, over time, your business will dry up.

6. Hire somebody before you need to

I’ve recently had this problem. I’ve been so busy recently that I needed help. After hiring someone, I realised I’d been in this position for too long. I needed help about three months before I thought I did.

5. Don’t under-charge

Work out your costs on an hourly, or daily, basis and then add 30%. It covers costs and, until you get the hang of it, you’re probably under-charging anyway. I was.

4. Confidence

Remember, you’re the expert. You’re not doing this job because you’re average at it. If a customer wants to buy your product, or hire you, it’s because you’re good at what you do.

3. Customer Service

If you’re a web designer or developer, unless you’re producing and selling a product, you will be providing a service. With a service comes Customer Service and, yes, customers are always right.

2. Accounting Software

I was using a homemade system coupled with an Excel spreadsheet for my accounting needs. As the business grew, I needed something a little robust. I wish I’d learnt Sage or something sooner because now I don’t really have the time.

1. Plan for tomorrow

I have three to-do lists. A Month list, a Three Month and a Six Month. Each list has a bunch of things I need to do for that time period. This allows me to have short, mid and long term goals. I class Six Month as long term here as, in this industry, I believe you need to be adaptable and can’t really plan for more than six months in advance.

Just the way I like it

As I said, this is just the way I set things up, and some of the many thoughts and conclusions that I came to over the past couple of years of running my own business. Hope it may help some of you thinking of taking the plunge.

Sir Edmund Hillary: 1919 - 2008

Hillary and Tenzing following their successful attempt on Mount EverestSir Edmund Hillary, one of two men to first scale Mount Everest and live to tell the tale, has died age 88. Not only was he a mountaineer of legendary repute, but he was a tireless humanitarian devoting much of his time to setting up schools and hospitals in Nepalese Himalayan region.

My initial interest in armchair mountaineering was awakened by watching a documentary of Hillary and Tenzing’s first ascent. Since then, I’ve consumed countless books and films on the subject—more recently, I’ve finally finished reading The White Spider, a book documenting the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger, by Heinrich Harrer. It’s probably an interest I’ll have for the rest of my life, and it’s down to that first documentary I saw of two guys, with primitive equipment, hauling themselves up the tallest mountain in the world. Inspirational stuff.

Twitter didn’t eat my blogging, 2007 did

Like a few other people, I’ve found myself into 2008 already and not posted my ‘end of year’ post. I don’t think it’s laziness, although it could be. I’m pretty sure I’ve not run out of things to say. Is it a lack of time? Probably. I certainly don’t have as much time as I did twelve months ago. But, that’s like everyone right? Why has blogging slowed right down then? Sorry, let me rephrase that, why has web design blogging slowed right down? Specifically, why has mine slowed to a crawl?

Molly thinks Twitter did it. Well, I’m the only person who doesn’t use Twitter. I used Pownce for a while, but then that bored me. I dip in and out of Facebook, but I’m tired of all the pokes, headbutts and slamdunks. So, who’s the culprit?

A full plate

Personally, I’ve got an increasing amount on my plate. The business is going extremely well. We’re expanding, new clients coming on board and as such, there’s a lot more to do - from admin and project management to actually get my teeth stuck into designing.

Then there’s a big personal project Emma and I have been working on for the past few months. We’re building an extension on our house. Not personally you understand, we have a builder, but the time it takes to liase with our architect (which isn’t so bad as it happens to be my Dad) through to making sure the building is on track, is something I personally didn’t bargain for. We’ve got another 2.5 months to go on this project and it will extend out house by about 40% more living space, which will be great and it brings us onto our next project.

Mini me

Emma and I are having a baby in April (which is why I won’t be attending SXSW this year). I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should write about it here - as you never know what could happen - but we’ve told our friends, colleagues and family a while ago, so I thought I’d mention it. Mother and bump are doing extremely well at the moment, and we’re both very excited about the next year.

So, it really is like Grand Designs at the moment (a property development TV show in the UK where the partner always seems to be pregnant). We’ve got a deadline looming and a house to build. Which brings me onto the housebuilding process itself.

Building a house is EXACTLY like building a website

I’ve found it fascinating. My Dad is an Architect, so I’ve grown up with a healthy interest in buildings, architecture and the like. My brother and I spent many a Saturday morning holding a three meter high ruler whilst my Dad took levels on a wreck of a building site. Therefore, the I don’t find the process particularly problematic. It does help having my Architect at the end of a phone though.

What amazes me about the building process, particularly residential development, is the level of difference between what is on a plan compared to what the builder produces. Nowadays, plans are produced in CAD packages and plotted on high resolution plotters. They’re accurate, and to scale, to the nearest millimeter. Then the builder gets hold of it and it is somewhat interpreted rather than followed. I’m amazed at how much is just kind of worked out as they go along. Luckily, we have a great builder. He’s approachable and happy to talk over any small question or problem I have. We should count ourselves lucky.

The parallels between building a house and building a website continue to make me smile. No-matter how much we like to plan, measure, specify, you will always end up with some degree of bodging on a project. I see this all the time on site at the house. But, as my Dad said, there’s nothing wrong with bodging if it solves the problem. No, it might not be as specified. It might not be the ideal way to do it. But, you know, sometimes you just need to get the job done and move on.

Writing a book is bloody time-consuming

I’ve been writing this book for over a year now. It’s over a year late and I’m not too happy about it. yes, I know I should try and finish it before the baby’s due, or the extension is finished, and I’m really, really trying. I have a fantastic editor, Carolyn Wood, but I do feel sorry for her. She doing a fantastic job of both editing my cobbled together thoughts and scribbles, and kicking me in the arse. We’re getting there with it, but it’s slow going and that’s entirely down to me.

There’s talk of the book being produced in print—initially a run of about a 1000. It will be full colour, hardback and distributed from the UK. As such, it won’t be cheap I’m afraid, but I’m hoping it will be worth the price. More details on that on the run up to the launch.

I’ve been writing for a couple of other publications recently as well: A List Apart, .net magazine and 24ways. I’m always thrilled to be asked, but it doesn’t half take a long time to come up with something that readers may find interesting.

On to 2008

This has turned out to be a somewhat forward-looking post. 2008 has already got off to a brisk pace. Mark Boulton Design continues to pick up exciting contracts for varied clients. I still love every day and don’t regret the decision to go freelance over eighteen months ago. I did a bit of speaking last year, but as we’re due a new arrival in April, I won’t be doing any this year that require any amount of time away from home. It’s a shame, as I do enjoy it, but next year I’ll have plenty to talk about I’m sure.

This year, I’m finishing the book. Oh yes I am.

I’m not going snowboarding, which is a killer.

I’m going to enroll in a boxing gym. Probably.

That’s about it really. As you can see, Twitter didn’t eat my blogging last year, I did a pretty good job of that myself. Maybe this year I’ll sort that out. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

BBC redesign tellys have rounded corners, right?

The BBC have redesigned their homepage.

BBC Logo Beta thumbnailI used to work for the BBC. So, I have a good understanding how difficult it is to work there and get anything complete and out of the door to a high, exacting design standard. So, today, when I was told the BBC has opened up the new homepage beta for feedback, and also prompted by Jeremy’s post on the subject, I wanted shove my oar in.

Web 2.0 design nonsense

This is a shame. The BBC, in design terms, used to be a leader in the field. In one fell-swoop, they’ve turned follower. The trends, from a few years ago, are all over this thing. From the ‘Beta’ label and the rounded corners, to the gradients. Why? I honestly can’t think of a sensible response as to why they’ve gone down this route. Hasn’t Facebook proved you don’t need to have reflections or curved corners to be ‘Web 2.0’?

Now, I’m well aware I’m judging this on face value. I’ve not been privy to any discussions that may or may not have taken place.

However, Richard Titus—The acting head of User Experience at the BBC—has kindly written a blog post describing some of the specifications and requirements.

High on this agenda was ‘widgetization’ (oh, I hate that word) of the content. Dynamically generated and syndicated content has been high on the content priorities for the BBC for many years. What puzzles me is why jump on a visualisation bandwagon? Recent newspaper designs, such as The Times, or The Guardian, deal with top-level content in a similar way. To all intents and purposes, the modules on their homepages are ‘widgets’. Perhaps it is that word that makes designers want to recreate netvibes.

Innovation over information?

I’m sure there are plenty of clever things going on under the hood on this homepage. From Ajax, and a move towards PHP, through to localised content and user customisation. My gut feeling on this, and this is a personal view of course, is that all this visual guff gets in the way of the information. The design aesthetic is not ‘simple, and beautiful’. It’s obtrusive and dated.

My lecturer in university instilled a mantra into me: ‘don’t let the type get in the way of the words’. It can be applied to any design. Don’t let the design get in the way of the information, or the problem you are trying to solve. Sure, enrich the user experience by delivering the information in a fulfilling environment, but make the clever stuff invisible.

An example of this is when you click on the four coloured tabs running underneath the main promo. Now, how does that make you feel? Confused? Surprised? Sick?

New colourways on click. Pointless. They also gave me quite a shock.

Why did they do this? Really, what is the value here? To showcase the power of CSS? I’m totally baffled.

The last of the weather icons

The weather icons also breath their last with this redesign. I’m sad about that. Not because they look worse, but they are an inferior solution.

New and old weather icons

On TV, the richer weather graphics are far more useful in actually illustrating weather forecasts, but on the web, when there is no animation, we’re left with icons that mean nothing without the words to describe them. Of course there is an accessibility reason for having the text. However, the text shouldn’t be there to prop up bad icons. I mean, is that one in the middle cloud, or fog?

Anything good to say?

There are some nice things about it though. The buttons work well. I think the on/off state is very tactile. And, like Jeremy, I love the analogue clock in the top right.

Dinosaurs designing websites

What strikes me most plainly about this design is how the effect of a big, lumbering organisation can impact on a redesign. A good few months ago, or maybe years, when this proposal was first taking shape, it was probably the time when curved gradients, reflections and like were at the forefront of the ‘web 2.0 aesthetic’. Thing is, it takes any large organisation ages to get their shit together. Which is why designing to visual trends such as this is so risky. If your organisation can’t react quickly enough to keep up, then go the classic design route every time. If you don’t, your design will look dated within months. Or, in this case, even before it’s launched.

I’m led to believe this project took three months to complete. And I go back to my initial comment, it’s a huge result that the team responsible for this managed to get this project to this state in that time. In fact, it’s pretty miraculous. We’ll see how things pan out over the next few months. But, like some other websites that the BBC produces, they seem hell-bent on trying to make the web like telly.

But tellys have rounded corners, right?

Typesetting Tables at 24ways

I was thrilled to be asked by Drew a few weeks ago to pen something for this years 24ways. I’ve mentioned typesetting tables in a couple of presentations recently, notably, @media and the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin. However, due to time constraints and the breadth of material I intended to cover, it hasn’t been possible to cover typesetting tables in the depth I wanted to. Until now.

As I say in the article, typesetting tables is often overlooked for a number of reasons, although it’s mostly because it can be tedious, time-consuming and, therefore, dull. But the devil really is in the details, especially for information and data in tables. Tables are not read like sentences. They’re scanned horizontally and vertically and have to be designed to help the reader do this. It’s not a time for eye candy. I tried to explain some simple rules that I apply when designing tables. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, it’s just my way.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the article.

Two iPhones How do you tell the difference between them?

Goldfish don't bounce. ApparentlyHere’s the thing. The Wife and I are getting an iPhone each. Apart from turning them on and seeing which background image is on there, how can you instantly tell them apart. I thought that engraving might be the best way to go for this. So, I’m planning on getting mine engraved with an odd saying or something (rather than my name or something like that). I recently heard an interesting statement: Goldfish don’t bounce. That’s the best I can come up with.

Any other amusing ideas?

UPDATE: It seems Apple don’t offer engraving options for the iPhone. At least not at the moment in the UK.

Stephen Fry on Fame

Stephen Fry has a new blog. To date, there has been two posts: one about Device and Desires, and the latest about fame. To call them blog posts is an understatement really, they’re essays, or blessays as he calls them. It’s an absolute pleasure to read a blog post by someone who can write this well. It’s so inspirational and entertaining, I just had to mention it.

The latest post includes a wonderful paragraph I’m calling ‘what’s it like?’

Is it fun? [re. being famous] Or, as student journalists always ask, what’s it like? ‘What’s it like working with Natalie Portman, what’s it like doing QI, what’s it like being famous?’ I don’t know what it is like. What is being English like? What is wearing a hat like? What’s eating Thai red curry like? I don’t believe that I can answer any question formulated that way. So, student journalists, tyro profilers and rooky reporters out there, seriously, quite seriously never ask a ‘what’s it like’ question, it instantly reveals your crapness. I used to try getting surreal when asked the question and say things like ‘being famous is like wearing blue pyjamas at the opera. It’s like kissing Neil Young, but only on Wednesdays. It’s like a silver disc gummed to the ear of a wolverine. It’s like licking crumbs from the belly of a waitress called Eileen. It’s like lemon polenta cake but slightly wider. It’s like moonrise on the planet Posker.’ I mean honestly. What’s it like?? Stop it at once.

See? Genius.

Pink is the new black

Once again, I’ve gone all Pink for October support of National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Okay, it’s national in the US, but in this global world we live in, I thought I’d once again support the campaign. 

Like most people, I’ve been directly effected by cancer. Firstly, I lost my grandmother to breast cancer when I was about ten years old—at the time, I didn’t really understand what it was, or why she was so sick—but it still left a lasting impression. Secondly, I’ve had friends—young and old—diagnosed with some form of cancer. Some got better.

It’s only in later life I’ve understood how neglect of a condition or problem can have terminal consequences. Yet, it still amazes and bothers me that people ignore such blatant symptoms by burying their head in the sand. Cancer awareness is getting much better, no doubt about it, but still some people think it’s a problem that will go away if ignored.

I try and do my bit. Donating will help of course, but money can only go so far. Awareness of yourself, possible symptoms and, most importantly, when to go to a doctor, can make a real impact today.

Think Do Think

When I worked at the BBC, I participated in a workshop where the entire department went through a Myers-Briggs Personality questionnaire. I think the aim of the workshop was for all of us to understand, to some degree, the personality traits of our colleagues.

The Myers-Briggs test was originally devised in the Second World War by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. The form of the test I participated in was a very long questionnaire which, when analysed, highlighted your personal preferences. That’s a very important aspect of the results—they describe what you prefer to do, not what you do all the time.

I was sceptical at first, but after completing the test, and the following workshops, i’ve had some fantastic insights into my own preferences—particularly when carrying out my job day to day.

I, N, T, P

The four pairs of preferences or dichotomies in the Myers-Briggs test:

  • Introversion - Extraversion
  • Sensing - iNtuition
  • Thinking - Feeling
  • Judging - Perceiving

Combinations of these preferences build to give you a set of traits, eg. ISTJ: Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging or ENFP: Extraverted, iNtuition, Feeling, Perceiving.

I turned out to be INTP. Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Perceiving. But what does that mean? Well, there’s a whole load of information which breaks this type down. A good source is Type Logic.

At this stage of the workshop, in all honestly, I felt I was having my palm read—I really didn’t buy it. It was only discussing it in detail with the Wife (who has a degree in Psychology), that I began to understand my new pigeon-hole.

Think Do Think

Some of the biggest conflicts, especially in the workplace, are when two opposing personalities (whose preferences are opposites) fail to understand the way the other prefers to work. This, for me, was the value of doing this test openly in the workplace. I knew what my preferences to working were, but I wasn’t aware of other peoples and therefore couldn’t put myself in their shoes.

It turns out, I prefer to work in a Think Do Think way. For example, I get a brief and I go away and Think about it. I’ll then Do something on it, then go away and Think some more. My preference is to think about it first. Other people have an opposing preference though—Do Think Do. These are the people who I find it very difficult to work with, simply because they work in a completely opposite way to me. You know the type (maybe you’re one). You solve problems as you talk about them. You Brain-Dump. You thrive on brainstorming. You instantly get a plan together and know where you’re going. You then validate that direction by thinking about it for a while. And so it goes on.

Get the brief in early

At Mark Boulton Design, as I have done throughout my career, I’ve made a point of trying to get the brief in early. As soon as possible actually. Quite often the client will want me to act upon that brief right away. I prefer not to. I’ll sit on it and think about it for a while.

When it comes to actually doing the work—from brainstorming or discovery, to designing the UI or layout—I’m already in a more informed position. I will have questions, and answers. I will, hopefully, have a good grasp of the problem. Quite often though, this has all happened on a subconscious level. I will have been stewing it over during those quiet moments in the day.

This working practice works very well for me. However, quite often, it goes against working practice of clients and colleagues who want results right away.

Try it for yourself

TypeLogic have a few links off to online tests. If you’re currently having conflict with some colleagues, or a particularly difficult client, then have a go at this test. It may not tell you about them, but it may well give you enough insight into your own preferences which could help the situation.

If you do, or have done the test before, I’d be interested in knowing what you thought of it.

My little secret

For those who saw my talk at @media will know that I have a dark secret. It’s something I’ve never talked about on this blog and I’m not sure why. It’s a secret that I learnt not to talk much about as it could get you in trouble. So here it is:

I have a twenty year interest in martial arts. I’ve also trained in many, many styles and achieved a black belt in one. I was an instructor, competed at national level and I’ve got a pretty good right hook.

There.

Why am I telling you this? You may well ask.

Out of the closet

When I arrived to the hotel in London on Wednesday evening, Jason and I popped out for a beer (mostly so I could introduce him to the delights of Bitter). Following a swift half, we met up with Jon, Drew and Colly where we were collectively discussed our presentations. It was then I revealed my dirty little secret and I would be talking about it tomorrow in reference to Typography. Of course I was met with quizzical looks. So, here’s the full confession…

Mugging

When I fourteen, I was mugged. I wasn’t beaten up or anything, but my ego was badly bruised. Back then, I was a slight little chap and I’m sure I had the word ‘victim’ plastered across my forehead. Anyway, the next day, I enrolled on a karate course. It was a traditional Shukokai karate class which was fortunate as that particular style of karate focusses on being loose, accurate and above all, fast. Suited a little runt like me. Right from the start, It was something I felt very comfortable with. I attained a purple belt before the teacher moved on and joined the police leaving us all in the lurch. It was another five years before I put on a belt.

Freestyle karate

In 1995, I was nearing the end of my graphic design course in Salford university and a good friend of mine at the time said he planned on going to a local karate school and asked if I fancied it. Too be honest, it was ages since I’d attempted to get my leg up that high and I didn’t know if I had it in me. Throwing caution to the wind however, I signed up. It turned out the instructor was an old student of the class I attended five years previously. I managed to coax my best mate Phil along with me and soon it was pretty much all we did. Work and train.

We progressed very quickly that summer. By the end of it we’d graded up to Blue and Green belt and it was a lot of fun. I then went off to university, leaving my training partner and martial arts behind for a further two years.

The university years

Like most students in Fresher’s week, I enrolled in some sports clubs. Most of them were martial arts. I tried Judo, Ju Jitsu, Shotokan Karate, Kick-boxing, Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Shootfighting. They all had interesting aspects but more typical student pursuits took hold (drinking and chasing girls) and martial arts in my life once again hit a dry spell.

Getting serious

On completing university and returning home it was back to the karate club I’d left. The style being taught had changed from a loose traditional Shukokai base to a freestyle mix between Sport Karate and Kickboxing. It was this style I eventually gained my black belt in after ten years of sporadic training. Then things started getting serious.

A black belt is a big aim in training for karate. I had worked damn hard for many years to get mine. Then things start to get a bit more internally focussed. You train for you, not the next belt. After ten years of belt chasing, this was a bit of a change in mind set and, in truth, I never adapted.

I then took the natural step to being an instructor. I’d like to think I was a good one. At its peak I ran a successful night class with over twenty regular students ranging from six years old to fifty six. I had fun but, after a year or so, I started to get bored.

Phil (my training partner and best mate of over seventeen years) and I both started to look to external martial arts sources for our inspiration. Phil looked to MMA (mixed martial arts) and continues to run a successful gym in his spare time. I dabbled in Capoeira for a while before meeting the girl of my dreams (who I’m now married to) and setting off to see a bit of the world with her. It was once again a good few years since I put a belt on.

Beating up your boss

Ever wanted to hit your boss? Well, when I worked in London, I did (all in good sportmanship you understand). During my stint with Agency.com I taught kickboxing to the staff of the London office for two years. I had a ball. That was the last time I wore my belt and the last time I trained. It was over six years ago.

Why stop?

That’s a tricky question. There are a few things though. First of all there are no clubs near where I live which teach what I want to learn (although that could change with a boxing gym due to open just around the corner). Secondly, I want a life.

Training in any martial art takes dedication. To be really good at it takes a little more; it takes obsession. In truth, I would never want to train as much as I once did. It consumed my every thought. Ironic really when you consider most martial arts are about balance and harmony at their core.

I’m still deeply interested in martial arts and I hope I’ll train again one day, but until that day comes I’ll continue to watch the boxing and borrowing UFC dvds from Phil at every opportunity I can.

So, there you have it.

@media 2007: Third time’s a charm

atmedia 2007 in LondonThat’s @media done for another year. Patrick put on a great event. Again. Seriously, year on year the bar is raised and he delivers. The speakers were great, the venue, the food, but most of all the location; Islington is such a great place for an event like this.

I feel like I’ve lived with @media 07 for a while. I produced the conference printed matter for San Fransisco and London, so for the best part of a month I’ve felt the looming pressure of speaking. I was very nervous about it, but I think it went ok.

There were so many highlights of the two days. Firstly, it was so great to meet up with friends from home and oversees. This year saw, amongst others, Jason, Dan and Molly take the trip across the pond, along with Joe Clark (whom I finally met for the first time).

Secondly, it was equally great to see friends in the UK who I talk with all the time but very rarely get to share a beer with. Those jet-setting men of mystery from Clearleft were there in force (I have to thank Hannah for that term—personally I think it’s going to stick). Jeremy was, as usual, on fine form. Of course the Britpack were propping up the bar at any given opportunity. It goes without saying it was nice to see Colly out of his cave along with his other Erskine Design cave-dwelling work-o-holic Jamie (those chaps seriously work too hard). Great to see Steve again and to meet the inspirational Hannah Donovan from Last.fm (who gave a stonking half hour talk along with Simon Willison).

The presentations were superb. Typically, I attended most of the design-focused talks and occasionally dipped into the tech-focused. Highlights for me were Simon and Drew, Joe, Hannah and Jason. Andy delivered an entertaining look at internationalisation which was also a cracker.

On Thursday, I presented ‘Five Simple Steps to Better Typography’ in the 3pm slot. The slides are here (along with a few resource links) It was my first solo presentation of that length and to an audience similar in size to the presentation Rich and I gave at SXSW in March. It went without a hitch and, on reflection, really wasn’t worth the nervousness before-hand. For those who didn’t catch it, I’m sure the podcast will be released shortly and I think Joe was live-blogging in the front row.

I talked about, you guessed it, Typography and how by applying some simple guidelines, you can create much better typography for your website. There was a twist though.

When I prepared the presentation a while ago, there was no story. Sure, the facts were there but on presenting them a couple of times, and various run-throughs, I felt there was no cohesive thread to tie it all together. Enter my dirty little secret: martial arts (which I’ll talk about shortly in another post). You see, Typographic design and martial arts have an awful lot in common. The presentation saw me compare Boxing to Vertical Rhythm and Ninjas to Hyphens.

That’s it for a while then. No d.Construct for me again this year as I’m away on holiday. Bit gutted about that as it looks like such a great event. I guess I’ll have to wait until March to get my next web conference fix.

New digs

Since I started Mark Boulton Design last August, I’ve been working at home. It’s been mostly fun, but the words of Andy kept ringing in my ears loudly as time went on.

“Get out of the house as soon as you can afford it” would rattle around my head like some crazy mantra. Andy’s point was, sooner or later the two environments would merge; home and work. You’d end up doing the laundry whilst at work, and designing when you’re supposed to be enjoying a nice evening with your wife. He wasn’t wrong.

As of last week, Mark Boulton Design Ltd. has a new home.

I’m sharing offices with a web development company I know well; Beanlogic. We’ve been developing Flow together for ages now (yes, yes, it’s coming) so we all get along well.

The new desk and Beanlogic: Keeran, Kate and Martyn Elwyn is missing from this shot, but he sits to my right.

The new desk and Beanlogic: Keeran, Kate and Martyn (Elwyn is missing from this shot, but he sits to my right).

The new office occupies two rooms on the top floor of an old dock offices building in Sunny Cardiff Bay. For those of you who have watched the apalling Torchwood, the office is just around the corner from the secret exit/entry point near the funny fountain, mirrored sculpture thingy. For those who are familiar with Cardiff, I’m just around the corner from the Oval Basin, the Millennium Centre and the new Senedd (the Welsh Assembly Government building). It’s a nice place to be, especially in summer.

Back to the half-hour commute and having to make sandwiches (when I remember). I’m actually really enjoying it at the moment. The commute gives me a degree of separation which wasn’t there before and there’s a level of office banter which was all but absent when I worked at home (I don’t really count the Postman as a colleague).

To go with the new digs is a new business website (which has been on the go since SXSW in March) and I’m so looking forward to designing the letterhead and new biz cards. Print is really a treat sometimes. Like cooking, print design is nice to do occasionally, but if I had to do it for a living, it’d do my head in.

I said when I first started this ‘working for my self’ thing, I’d try and document every step. Well, as predicted, I haven’t. But this is a pretty big landmark for me and the business and I just wanted to put it down for the record so I can look back in a few years time.

To Coda

{title}A while ago, Mr Hicks pointed me in the direction of a beta test for a new application by Shockingly Good Mac Software company, Panic. So, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been using Coda and, truth be told, being a terrible beta tester. Although, you could put this down to Panic producing lovely, bug-free software.

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Coda’s interface showing the range of features available: CSS editor, FTP upload, Terminal. Oh, and books too!

Timing is everything

Coda came at just the right time for me. I’d used skEdit for a while and more recently started using TextMate. The former is just how I like my text apps; small, lightweight and lean on functionality. The latter has fantastic subversion integration in addition to a load of other stuff I’d just never ever need. Then along comes Coda, just as I’m floundering about as to which application to use and blows them both out of the water. Panic have focussed heavily on one aspect of simple html/css development: workflow.

Edit, Save, Upload, Test and Repeat

How often do you get into that pattern of tasks? I do, all the time. Coda deals with this in a simple elegant way. You can set up sites by importing your Transmit favourites, or by creating new ones. Sites not only have the FTP details, but local folders too. The neat thing in Coda is, you publish files by simply right clicking on them (or selecting a few). Edited files are indicated by a small circle (until you save them) and can also be uploaded. Coda’s slick integration makes the workflow of publishing to the web a painless joy.

Not just a text editor

Coda ships with a CSS editor as well. Something with the power of CSSEdit combined with Transmit and then the ease of a text editor like skEdit bolted on. Have a look at the features. Once you’ve decided you want to buy it (because why would you not want this software), it’s available for a limited time for only $69 (if you own Transmit - if not it’ll cost you $79).

Annual Jaunt Across the Pond

SXSW 07 logoWell, it’s all over for another year. This was my third year at SxSW and despite being ridiculously sick during the first couple of days, it was probably the most interesting. I’m choosing my words carefully there.

There is little doubt that SxSW is growing at an alarming rate. I heard some people say there were close to five thousand attendees to the Interactive Festival alone this year. That’s an awful lot of people. In fact, for the first time, I wasn’t allowed into some of the panels due to lack of space. That hasn’t happened to me before and this year it happened three times. Too many people or just small rooms?

Too much Navel-Gazing?

I don’t mean to gripe, really. Maybe it’s the jet-lag, but I have come away from this years SxSW feeling a little odd. On one hand, it’s nice to see more panels being devoted to graphic design, user experience and content. As Zeldman pointed out yesterday, I too felt a little out of place last year having not recently launched, been bought out, or selling my latest, greatest web-app. This year, there was more talk of the craft of web design and I think that is great.

The other side of me is a little disappointed though. Not with the quality of the conference but with a general feeling of navel-gazing with the attending crowds and panelists. More so than previous years, I felt a lot of the panels I attended were preaching to the converted, or worse still, to your mates. Maybe I was guilty of that too? And what is the point of that?

All grumpyness aside, I really enjoyed catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. This is really the highlight of SxSW for me. Even though I didn’t make it out to many of the parties whilst I was still nursing my sick throat, I did manage to make it to the bowling (where a few of us manage to surprise ourselves and make it through to the second round), the EllisLab party and of course the Great British Booze Up.

Grids and Typography

The presentations I had to give went well. First off, Grids Are Good, went down a storm on Saturday. I just wish we had more time. All credit really must go to Khoi on this for the amazing amount of preparation he put in. Like I said, I was still nursing a raging headache, a fever and a sore throat and it really was touch and go in the Green Room. Never-the-less, it went well.

Web Typography Sucks, presented with Rich, went very well on Tuesday. I was feeling much better, relaxed and confident and the time flew by. I was pleased we’d left plenty of time at the end for questions—there really didn’t seem to be enough of that this year. The slides are up online and the podcast will follow no doubt.

Next year?

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p> I’m looking forward to next year. I’m hoping for a few things:

  • The continuing rise of the graphic design based panels and presentations from designers who know their shit on this medium. One on Art Direction would be great next year.
  • More practical presentations. We don’t all know everything ok? Personally, I like going to panels and presentations where practical things can be learnt. We all don’t have oodles of time to sit and read books and blogs all day. Sometimes, bullet-points are good.
  • No illness. It’d be nice to be well next year and I’ll be able to enjoy some of the parties. Who knows, maybe Mrs B. will be in tow too.

So, if I didn’t meet you this year, then I hope to next year. If I did, nice to see you again. Just a shame we have to wait a whole year.

One Principle to Design By

I’ve just been pointed to a post by Andy , called Five Principles to Design By by Joshua Porter. It’s a very good post, but point 2 has set some alarm bells off in my head once again.

Design is not art. That old chestnut.

This keeps coming up recently. Why? I’ve no idea but it’s beginning to bug me. Here’s my take on it all.

Design is not art.

That is, design is not art if you define the simple motivations. An artist is self-motivated, a designer is motivated by a client. True, artists could be commissioned etc, but I don’t want to quibble about semantics here. You get my drift.

How do I define design? Design solves a problem.

Now, that problem could be communicating a message, telling a brand story or inventing a new type of dishwasher; it doesn’t matter. So, that is my One Principle to Design By. Solve the problem

Ah, but.

That’s not the whole story.

The grey area of Art and Design is the practice of the craft of design. It’s the difference between a design being usable and a design being usable and special.

Take the Dyson vacuum for example. This vacuum works slightly differently than the others. It still does the same job, but has been designed to differenciate itself from its competitors. The designers solved the same problem in a different way. Ok, all good. Now we get down to how the thing looks. There is love in this product. There is craft in this product.

Of course, no discussion on this would be complete without mentioning Apple. Apple make beautiful products. But they didn’t always do that, and they nearly went bust because of it. For a long time, Apple made pretty good computers. In 1998, they made the first iMac. The distinguishing features of this new machine were crafted and mostly aesthetic. They are examples of beautiful product design. As a result, they sold a bomb and the rest is history.

Those are product design, but the same applies to graphic design. I’d argue that a well crafted, beautiful piece of design that solves the problem, will always do it better than one that just solves the problem. There is an important place within design for beauty and craft and it bothers me that experienced designers* in this medium don’t recognise this and are blindly advocating successful design as a practice without craft. It’s not the case.

Ok. Rant over.

* I’m not having a dig at Joshua here, or anybody in particular, it’s just a vibe I’ve been getting for the past year. 

SXSW: Third time’s a charm

Mark Boulton Design shuts up shop for a week next week as I’ll be taking my third trip over to Austin to enjoy South by Southwest Interactive.

Like Jeremy, it will be my third time at the conference and if the last two were anything to go by, this will be bigger and better. Talking of Jeremy, he’s put together his superb little guide to all the parties. If you’re going, that is well worth looking at.

So, what’s on the cards this year?

The first time I went to SXSW, in 2004, I didn’t know a soul (apart from Andrew of course; my colleague from the BBC). Then, last year, I met an incredible amount of great folk whom I really looking forward to seeing again.

Talking of parties, I have to plug the The Great British Booze-up. Organised by those nice chaps at Clearleft, @media America and Boagworld. It’ll be well worth coming along.

The bowling is happening again. Last year I was on a team, but haven’t put my name down this year. What’s the point? Did you see the Pixelworthy, now Happy Cog, team? What chance does a Brit, no, a Northern Brit, have against that? Now, if Rugby Union or Crown Green Bowls was your game, then I’d be all up for it.

I’ll be giving two presentations this year. One, on typography, with Rich, and the other one with Khoi on Grids. I’m pretty nervous about both of them, which is kind of normal I guess, but still, if you see me looking slightly ill, or wandering around a glazed expression, it’s not the local beverage.

Of course, as on the last two occasions, I will be making a visit to the local Apple Store. The strength of the pound is just too tempting to resist. As my iPod is knocking on three years old know and the battery has pretty much has it, I think I may be shelling out on an upgrade. Might just get a red Nano for the missus too.

Whymper’s Mountain

Mrs B and I are on our annual jaunt to the Alps for a spot of snowboarding. This year we’re staying in the, rather large, Swiss town of Zermatt which is nestled in a valley underneath the beautiful Matterhorn. The snow is not great at the moment. And it’s raining here in the village which is making everywhere covered in a thin, almost invisible, coating of ice. Putting the snowboarding aside for a moment, this place is rather special for one reason: The Matterhorn.

The other day, when Mrs B was off on her birthday treat (a massage at the rather grand Zermatterhof hotel), I had an hour to kill so went with my dad and brother to the Matterhorn museum to soak up the mountaineering atmosphere. It didn’t disappoint. I’ve been an armchair mountaineering enthusiast for a good few years now, so coming to the home of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks (there are six of the top ten highest mountains in Europe in plain view from here) was something I was really looking forward to.

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The Matterhorn. The view from our chalet on the outskirts of Zermatt in Winkelmatten

The Matterhorn is a stunning peak. It was considered unclimbable until, after 13 (or was it 12) failed attempts, Englishman Edward Whymper summitted the peak in July of 1865. Four of the party of seven climbers were killed on the descent when they fell and the rope which held them all together snapped. Since then, the Matterhorn has been summitted countless times and a relatively experienced climber can be guided to the top.

I’d love to be able to do it. However, I’m scared to death of heights. Sometimes, I think I’m ok, like the other day when me, my wife and brother took the cable car up to Klein Matterhorn and climbed up to the exposed viewing platform at nearly 4000 metres. Stunning views, and I’m sure I would have really enjoyed them if not for the fact of the abyssal cliff faces on three sides of the platform. I wanted to jump off. That is what vertigo feels like. I was light-headed, and was not happy about going near the edge. It is because of this, that I couldn’t possibly be a mountaineer.

The snowboarding has been pretty good this year. We both have new, more advanced boards which are holding up well in the conditions. Zermatt itself is ok, but I think it’s more skier friendly and there is certainly a feeling of skier/snowboarder rivalry. After the impressive ski in/ski out facilities of Les Arc last year—and the incredible snow—it’s frustrating having to walk for twenty minutes with all your gear and then have to catch three lifts to get up the top. Typical bloody Northerner; always moaning.

So, only one more day left and it looks like the weather may clear a little and we’ll have a day on the glacier before we leave on Sunday. Then it’s back to work. Great.

That was 2006

As I did last year, I thought it was about time I attempted to summarise my 2006 before embracing 2007 in a couple of days time. I find it slightly cathartic, sometimes embarrassing, but mostly fun to ponder on the past year. Where have I been, what did I do and who did I do it with? This was confirmed just now when reviewing this same post from last year.

So without futher ado, I’ll get on with it.

2006: Early on

The year started on a bit of a downer really. I’d bust my wrist and was in the middle of another flare from the damn Colitis. But, a few weeks later and a vastly improved wrist, it was possibly the highlight of mine and Emma’s year; the week in the Alps snowboarding. This year it was Les Arcs in France and over three feet in powder. Heavenly.

Freelance work was once again picking up and the balance between that and the day job were beginning to get difficult. During this time I also left 9rules.

The highlight of the early part of the year was without doubt SXSW. I enjoyed the panel I sat on with Jason, Khoi, Toni and Liz. It was great to finally meet so many people who I’d only ever read blog posts from. I promise this coming year, I won’t be quite so jet-lagged.

2006: The Middle Bit

The middle bit got off to an exciting start in April. Emma and I travelled to Australia again for a friends wedding in Perth. Whilst there, I gave a talk to those fine folks at Port 80 along with John Allsopp. From Perth, Emma and I spent time in Cairns (in a Hurricane no less) for a week before heading to Sydney to visit old friends a spend a little time in Manly (where we lived for six months).

May brought a redesign (or should it be realign?) of markboulton.co.uk. It’s interesting to go back through the comments six months later actually and revisit some of the issues. I may actually do a slight update to address some of issues after living with the design for six months.

It was during this time, I was involved in being a design reviewer for Andy Clarke’s new book; Transcending CSS. It is a credit to Andy, Molly and Peachpit that they decided to expand the remit of a technical reviewer to include a design reviewer as well (given the nature of Andy’s new book). It goes without saying it is an outstanding piece of work. Don’t take my word for it though. Buy it.

June was of course time for a bigger and better @media. Once again, meeting up with friends was the order of the day (and the excellent presentations of course). The football was also, er, satisfactory. I think I’ll carry the look on Colly’s face with me to the grave.

The tail end of The Middle Bit brought the big news; my resignation from the BBC. It was not an easy decision. Given an illness which will be with me for the rest of my life, an uncertain local industry in Wales and several other personal issues, it took about six months of thinking to come around to the idea. But, in July, I handed my resignation in and I would leave a month later for a holiday in Portugal before beginning trading as Mark Boulton Design. Was I scared? Yep. Petrified.

That brings me on to the last few months.

2006: The last few months

Following our return from Portugal, things thankfully got off to a busy start. I began work for my previous employer on a health portal for BBC Wales’ autumn health season.

In the middle of all the work was my first Britpack Geekend to the birthplace of the Industrial revolution; Ironbridge. It was refreshing to chat to that circle of friends outside of a conference context. There was good food, fireworks, some great letterpress printing and a strange game called Werewolf.

Then it was onto a redesign of a News and Entertainments website; Monsters and Critics. From there, things pretty much snowballed. Mark Boulton Design is currently involved in some exciting projects for some great clients. I’m doing some work for a software company in Bristol, an airline, a prestigious publisher and a UI consultancy in Spain on an exciting Drupal project. And then, there’s the new book…

Next year?

Well, selfishly, hopefully I’ll continue to remain pretty healthy. I’ve got a couple of speaking engagements lined up. But first, I’ve got to get this book released.

Thanks for reading and your continued support through the past, rather hectic, year. Here’s to 2007…

SXSW panels: Take two

In March I’ll be heading over to Austin for the third time for the SXSW Interactive conference. This time I’ll be on one panel: ‘Web Typography Sucks’ with the guy behind The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web and fellow Britpacker, Richard Rutter of Clearleft. The second panel isn’t really a panel at all, but a ‘’Power Session’: “Grids Are Good, and How to Design with Them’ with my good friend, Khoi Vinh.

Got my work cut out

So, things are pretty busy at the moment; book to finish, new work piling up for the business (which is great—musn’t knock it), a couple of articles to write and now two panels at SXSW. I’m not going to give too much away with regards to the panels just yet, but I’m hoping they will be light and fairly entertaining yet informative. I’m pretty sure both will be practical and, if you attend (which I hope you will), you’ll come away having learnt something that you can apply day-to-day. Not sure what time we’ll be on, but hopefully it’ll be soon on in the conference so I can kick back and get over the jetlag slowly.

Oh, and if you’re coming I’ll reiterate what a lot of people are saying at the moment: book your hotel now!. Seriously, if you haven’t, you’ll be staying out near the airport. It’s getting pretty full already.

Getting the basics right

Warning. This is a grumpy old man post. Why oh why can’t places like airports, in fact most places, get the basics right. Let me explain.

I’m sat in Bristol departure lounge heading off to Spain for a client meeting and as it’s 5.31am, I need a good tea to kick start the day and get my brain working. I also need good wifi to check my email and things. Those two simple things are crap here. Crap tea. Crap, expensive wifi. It’s really not that difficult is it?

That is all.

Small is beautiful

{title}When I left the BBC a few months ago, they were kind enough to give me an Amazon voucher with which I bought a new Apple iPod Shuffle.

Well, Amazon took two months to actually get the stock in from Apple (don’t know whose fault that was, but the delivery date kept on going back and back with no word from either party.) But all that aside, I received it yesterday and it’s a little thing of beauty.

The Unpackaging Experience

I’m sure Apple have dedicated a lot of time, energy and money into this aspect of buying an Apple product. It’s a really important one. I was talking to the Wife about it ages ago and she was saying it’s similar to buying really nicely packaged clothes or cosmetics. I guess what I’m saying is, the retail experience doesn’t stop when you leave the store.

I decided to document my unpackaging experience (the limited photos are over on Flickr). It was good but there was one slight glitch. It took me longer than I thought to work out how to open the plastic container. I then noticed this little sticky out sticker bit. All was good. I could get at my Shuffle.

Partial to green

Now, you know I like green. The previous Shuffle used a lime green in the branding and on the product. This has been carried through again to the packaging, branding and product of the new Shuffle. It’s all black, white and green (except for the silver of the Shuffle itself).

The proof is in the pudding

The new Shuffle itself is great. Really tiny and sits well in its little dock. The new earphones are great with much better sound and comfort than the previous models. So, all in all, as you’d expect from Apple. However, I’ve got one gripe. The controls are 90 degrees the wrong way.

If you clip the Shuffle to your trousers, all the controls are facing the wrong way. Also, the interface assumes you are going to clip it to your body on your right hand side (on the edge of a jacket or pocket for example), so all the controls are the right way up and you can get at the on/off switch etc. But doesn’t this mean you’d use your left hand to clip pit there? The natural place for my iPod is in the inside left pocket of my coat. Maybe I’m being a touch picky.

Well, tomorrow will be the proof. I’m heading off to Spain for the day for a client meeting and I’m just going to take the Shuffle for company. We’ll see after two flights and two bus journeys if the Shuffle still holds up.

Muse: Ridiculously good

On Sunday night, Emma and I braved the cold South Wales weather to venture into Cardiff to see probably our favourite rock band at the moment, Muse.

They were good. Ridiculously good actually.

Weird balloon things(I didn’t take that many shots - the problem with being vertically challenged in a nation of increasingly taller people)

I’ve seen a fair few rock bands over the years (sounding like a right old timer now), from large Arena tours to tiny pub bands. Muse however, needed to be in a large venue with a big crowd. In fact, I thought Cardiff CIA wasn’t a great venue for their music. Muse need somewhere special for their venues; maybe some tumbled down warehouse or ruined turn-of-the-century mill.  I’m not going to harp on about the crap venue, the smell of burnt cheese form the sandwich vendor, the girl who was clapping and dancing out of time or the shockingly bad support act.

I was totally blown away by the musical ability of the band. Matthew Bellamy, the band’s guitarist, pianist and lead vocalist, is such a talented bugger. I play a bit of guitar myself (having done so for about fifteen years) and was blown away with some of the technical difficulty of what he was playing whilst singing. Like I say, ridiculous.

My ears have just about recovered which leaves plenty of time until the next rock band I’m ticking of the list in February: Nine Inch Nails.

Pink for October

I’m a little late for this one, but I’ve now managed to go Pink for October in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness month. At the moment, NBCM is a US based thing, although a pink month was done by Cancer Research UK a while ago. Anyway, the point is, breast cancer awareness shouldn’t be limited by country.

If you don’t know much about breast cancer, please take this opportunity to go and read a little about it, and consider a small donation.

The normal green service will be resumed in November. Although, I am quite liking the pink. Maybe a touch of brown as well…

OS X theme for a Sony Ericsson k800i

{title}Yesterday I finally received my new mobile phone, a Sony Ericsson k800i, and it’s a little beauty. There were a few problems though.

Firstly, it’s a little larger than I expected. Not in physical size though - it’s a bit of an illusion. Because the sides don’t taper, like my Nokia 6230, the k800 just seems larger. The fact is, it’s only a couple of mm taller and about 3mm either side wider. I can live with it. Secondly, Vodafone ships the phone with it’s own ‘branded’ os and by God has it been beaten with an ugly stick. So, I took it upon myself to reflash the OS and install my own OSX theme.

Flashing the OS

The prospect of this scared me to death. It was a risk. As I was reading on a few forums the phone could just stop working and I’d need to return it to Vodofone claiming it was dead on arrival. Part of me really couldn’t be bothered with the potential agro. The other part of me however, the part that would open a door it shouldn’t and the part that really couldn’t live with the Vodfone icons, just had to do it.

I paid a few Euros for a reflashing account on Wotanserver, and made sure I followed the instructions to the letter. In fact, following a bit of research and cobbling together their own instructions, I got together my own list.

  1. Turn phone off and do proper charge and not optimised charge until it says fully charged.
  2. Turn on phone, clear out all data from your memory and contacts etc.. back them up to wherever, like Outlook
  3. Remove all non-standard themes - leave only the ones that came with the phone and activate the default.
  4. Do a master reset, ie. leave the phone as you first got it from your network provider, this can sometimes activate the earlier point of removing themes and therefore point 3 may not be nexcessary.
  5. TAKE OUT YOUR BATTERY FOR 30 SECONDS AND REMOVE YOUR SIM!
  6. Do a final charge check before hooking up to your PC.

Then connect to your PC. I used XP running under Bootcamp on an Intel iMac and everything worked out fine. So, onto the reflashing. These are the instructions from the Wotanserver site:

  1. Please first be sure, that you have DCU-60 USB Flash Driver installed and your phone battery is charged 100%!
  2. Download & run WotanClient and wait few seconds until data are updated from server.
  3. Have DCU-60 Cable connected to computer, push “Start” and and connect off phone while have C keep pressed
  4. Now check if phone model detected correctly, choose desired firmware (latest one is selected automaticaly), choose desired CDA and check “Finalize” option (this is required to have working phone after flashing - if you not check then you get “Configuration error!” message after flash). Push “Continue” button.
  5. Wait until all required files are downloaded. Your phone flashing will start automaticaly. When finished you will see “==FINISHED OK==” message.

It took about 8 minutes to complete the reflash, then to be super-cautious, is what I did:

  1. Took out battery for 30 seconds
  2. Put in battery, but before booting the phone I checked the charge and all was well.
  3. DO NOT PUT IN SIM!
  4. Start phone and fingers corssed your phone will go through the PLease Wait loader
  5. It will then present you with the normal phone or flight mode
  6. Work through the steps making sure everything is in order then turn off yor phone.
  7. Insert sim and reboot phone and go through instructions.
  8. Load your contacts
  9. Job done

After all I that, I ended up with a debranded phone with the newest OS on there, which is great. The Sony Ericsson icons are just soooo much nicer than the horrible isometric yellow and red icons from Vodafone. The next thing to do was to install my new OS X theme.

Tiger theme for k800i

I used the fantastic Sony Ericsson theme builder to cobble together an acceptable Tiger theme for this phone. It’s a ‘blue’ theme at the moment, but i’m tempted to do a grey one soon as I think it will suit the phone a bit better. You can download the theme here (149kb), along with Apple spinny screen saver I knocked up. Here’s a picture of it in the wild:

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Syncing

The k800i currently isn’t supported by iSync, but for a couple of quid, you can get the iSync 2.3 plugin from here. Works like a charm.

What about the camera?

Well, it’s good. Really good for a phone. I’ve actually not taken that many pics I’ve saved yet, but I imagine this will be my digital camera’s downfall. The quality of this camera phone is just excellent. I’ll post some shots up when I get some good ones.

Going it alone: Putting the pieces in place

First off, let me thank everyone for their kind words and support over the past week, it really has been fantastic. As you may know, a week ago, I handed in my resignation from the BBC. Before that day however, there’s been a lot to do in order to make the transition from employee to self-employed a little bit smoother. As I mentioned in my last post, I want to document this journey as much as I can so that I can look back in the months to come and see where I went wrong!

So, this first post is all about putting the pieces in place: Company and financial stuff, working environment and some systems.

Self-employment status

Before I start on this, I just want to make it clear that this has been my experience in the UK. I’m not offering financial advice, or even saying this is the way you should do it. Now, that said, where the hell do you start when you’ve made the decision to go freelance or start your own company?

In the UK, first of all, you need to tell the Inland Revenue that you are self-employed. At which point they’ll ask if you are a Sole-Trader, a Partner (in either an LLP or a normal partnership), or a Director of a Limited Company. There are other business types, but for simplicity (and because they were options available to me, I’ll stick with these).

Eighteen months ago, when I landed a fairly large freelance contract, it was obvious I needed to register with the Inland Revenue for tax purposes. The easiest way to do this is as a Sole Trader:

Sole Trader

Becoming a Sole Trader is the most straightforward way to set up in business. It’s quick and painless. The advantages are the accountancy bills will be cheaper than all the other options. The disadvantages are, if everything goes wrong, you are personally responsible for any losses the business makes. That means your house and possessions are at risk.

That last bit bothered me if I was going to set up my own business. I wanted some separation, financially, between myself and Emma and the business. So the next option I looked at was a Limited Company.

Limited Company

A Limited Company has to be registered with Companies House. The ‘limited’ means there is limited responsibility, or liablity, for business debts for the company’s directors. The company exists as a seperate legal entity. The disadvantages to this are you have to comply with a larger range of legal duties and the subsequent legal fees are higher.

On talking with my Accountant, he suggested that a limited company may be overkill at this point when forming a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) offers the same limited liability, but with cheaper registration and ongoing accountancy fees. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Limited Liability Partnership

An LLP is a partnership between two or more business partners (in this case, Emma and I). Members, like in a Limited Company, are protected from personal liability and business debts. It now costs ?25 to setup, instead of ?95 and depending up on your turnover and how involved your finances are, your annual accountancy bill should be in the region of ?600 - ?1000. Not too bad.

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p> Mark Boulton Design LLP. Officially.

Mark Boulton Design LLP. Officially.

So, that seemed much more straight-forward than a limited company at this moment in time. Mark Boulton Design LLP it was.

Some Systems

A lot of people who work for themselves in the creative industry are shocked by the amount of time account-handling takes. I’m beginning to realise this already. Whereas before, when I worked in agencies, there would be a few people who handled the finances, project management and day-to-day client contact. Now, it’s all up to me. If this is going to work, in that I’m not going to feel swamped by work, then I have to have some simple systems in place to help me.

My little app

DashboardI developed my app (which I’m hopefully going to take further into something a little bigger (but not much) and a whole lot better), which has already helped with giving me an overview of what’s been estimated, and what’s been invoiced. It has already helped with streamlining getting estimate’s together for clients as well. Whereas before, crazily, they were done individually in Indesign, now they are outputted from a system and it’s taken the task from one which could take half an hour, to one which takes five minutes. It’s these little savings in time across the board which, hopefully, will ease the strain when deadlines are looming.

Filing

Yes, dull. Filing. Who wants to think about that? Well, you kind of have to if you have a lot of little things on. Thanks to Emma and Ikea, I now have a very simple filing system shown on this photograph. White files are jobs on, black are complete. All project paperwork, including copies of estimates, are stored there and are just a arms-reach away.

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p> White are for curent jobs, Black are for complete. Pretty easy really.

White are for curent jobs, Black are for complete. Pretty easy really.

The Environment

My working environment is incredibly important to me. I consider it perhaps the most important factor in determining productivity and, well, just overall happiness in work. If you like your surroundings, you’re happier and happier people work better. With that in mind Emma and I gave the office at home a lot of thought.

Previously it looked like a spare room with a desk in it. It was fine, but not good enough if I was to spend every day in there. The separation between home and office needed to feel much larger. With that, paintbrush and Ikea catalogue in mind, we set to work.

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p> A green wall, all-new furniture and some nice new carpet. Of course I dont normally drink wine at work.

A green wall, all-new furniture and some nice new carpet. Of course I don’t normally drink wine at work.

We stripped out everything. New walls, fixtures and fittings, carpet and office furniture from Ikea. It now feels like an office instead of a spare bedroom with a desk in it. Already when I’m working in here, I really don’t feel like I’m at home.

That’s it for now. Not sure what I’ll be talking about in the next post. Hopefully about how crazy busy I am.

Leaving the BBC and going freelance

Emma and I have just returned from a celebratory meal from our favourite little place in Cowbridge, which is about ten minutes drive from our house. The reason? Well, you may have guessed from the title of the post, but this morning I handed in my resignation from the BBC. The 25th August will be my last day. On returning from Portugal, the 7th of September will be my first day trading as Mark Boulton Design LLP.

Excited? I can barely contain myself.

I started working for the BBC nearly four years ago. On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time there. Coming from an agency background, working client-side took a lot of adjusting, but on the whole, it’s been incredibly rewarding. I’ve grown both professionally and personally but over the past couple of years it’s become clear BBC New Media and I are on a different career paths and it’s time to take advantage of the opportunities that are presenting themselves to me on an almost daily basis. I can’t do that and continue to be a BBC employee.

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve been doing projects on the side (some pretty big projects as well as this site), and it’s been incredibly difficult to juggle that commitment and a full-time job. I’ve been doing 50-60 hour weeks for over twelve months now and something’s got to give.

What’s in a name?

As I mentioned, from the 7th of September I’ll be trading as Mark Boulton Design LLP (the LLP stands for Limited Liability Partnership, which basically means the company will be a legal entity and all that that entails). I pondered long and hard about what to call my new business. Initially I’ll be freelancing, but the plan is to grow to the workload (hopefully!). Anyway, after talking to friends, family and colleagues, it became clear that I was the brand. Why associate myself with another brand and try and build that when I already have a profile of sorts on which to build rather than starting afresh.

The Plan

Well, I’ve decorated the spare room! This is now my office, complete with apple-green wall, proper furniture and, yes, new carpet. Now I know this doesn’t make a good business, but I’m starting as I mean to go on. Trying to separate work from home. The hope, like I said, is to move into a small studio in the near future to really get that separation. Yes, I’m scared to death. I think it’s natural, but also a good thing. I’m sure it will make me work hard to make this a success.

Need a freelancer?

Do you work for an agency who needs an experienced freelance designer? Are you a business who needs a brand or website designing, or a company who wants to work on a project together? If so, then I’d love to hear from you.

A blow by blow account

Now everything is out in the open, I’m planning on documenting the journey. Not just for my benefit, but maybe for those who, like me, are about to take the leap.

Slugging it out with backup solutions

A small purple slugLast May, I became paranoid about backing data up and opted into a buying a Linksys NSLU2 with which I could stick a hard drive in the back and all my worries would be sorted. Right? Well, not quite.

A couple of nights ago I had a gut-wrenching moment when I thought I’d lost all my digital photos and music. Panic turned to grit determination to sort this problem out. I’ve had too much experience of losing important data to let this slip again.

A sick Slug

Let me backtrack a little. The problem originally arose the other night when I couldn’t connect to the Slug (as the NSLU2 is affectionally known in the Linux community). Hmmm, not a problem, sometimes it happens and it’s normally sorted with a quick restart. Not on this occasion. I tried and tried but it turned out there seemed to be a problem with the Slug’s firmware. It needed to be upgraded. This is when things went from bad to worse.

The Slug, being Linux and all, formats it’s attached drives in the ext3 format, which can’t be read by a Mac. I needed to get the data off the old hard drive in order to back it up first. I did finally manage to connect to it, but copying turned out to be a complete nightmare - it took over two days to copy 50Gb of data. Two days! Even then it didn’t work correctly. I had to rethink my strategy.

Thank the Lord for Bootcamp

I opted for buying another drive with a quick visit to PC World which I then plugged that directly into the Mac. Oh, did I mention I now own an Intel 20” iMac? Because if I didn’t, or didn’t own a Windows machine, I’d be up shit creek right about now. So, I decided I needed to install in the new firmware in the Slug, but I could only do this with a special utility and on a PC. No worries, as I’m running Bootcamp with XP and that all worked fine amazingly. New firmware installed and a happy Slug again. Copying across to the new USB drive in Windows, from the old drive attached to the Slug proved to be much quicker than OS X. So, over went all the data and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Now it was time to think about how I’m going to be backing up all this data. I needed a good synchronisation solution, rather than an archiving system so after a couple of recommendations I opted for Chronosync.

I’ve set up shares on both drives:

On the new drive:

  1. Media
  2. Mark
  3. Emma

On the backup drive:

  1. Media_backup
  2. Mark_backup
  3. Emma_backup

Then, it’s simply a case of syncing the two which run on a nightly schedule. The beauty of syncing the data is it will only copy over what has been changed (new, edited or deleted). I’m just copying over the backed up files now to the new Media share ready to set up the first sync to run throughout the course of the day.

Lessons learnt

There’s a few things I’ve learnt over the past couple of days:

  1. Hardware is cheap. A 320Gb Toshiba drive from PC World was under a ?100.
  2. Backing up is really important. The thought of losing all my holiday photos from Australia nearly made me spew.
  3. Hard drive problems and resulting stress leads to insomnia. I’ve been up doing this since 5am this morning. Either that or it’s the medication I’m on.

So, please, learn from my pain and tiredness over the past few days. Sort your backup proceedures out. Yes, it’s boring, tiring an tedious and can be expensive, but it really will pay off.

Sorting my workflow out

Screenshot of estimates dashboardA while ago now, like Jason, I realised I needed better organisation in my life, from both a personal and business perspective. I don’t consider myself a really busy person, although one thing has made me realise I need to be much more organised: I’ve got a lot on!(detect the slight edgy panic in my voice?).

I guess it all started last September when Khoi and I were discussing our panel for SXSW and he got me started with Backpack.

Putting Basecamp and Google Calendar in your Backpack

First let me say, and I’m not the first to do this, that Backpack it great. Really great.

I had my doubts when it was first launched—how many people thought, ‘well, I’ve got a diary, why do I need this?’—but after using it, first on the SXSW panel organisation, and every day since then, it has saved my bacon on a number of occasions. Couple Backpack with Google calendar for, you know, calendar stuff and Basecamp for those projects which are larger and require a little more client interaction and I have 75% of my organisational infrastructure solved. However, there’s one thing which is missing for me: Invoice and Estimate workflow management.

Keeping track of the business side

I’m sure I’m not alone on this. I’ve had a problem over the last year, which seems to be getting more complicated, of managing the jobs coming in and going out, the estimates and invoices, what’s been paid, part-paid or hasn’t been paid at all, what’s overdue, what’s not. See? The list goes on.

I’ve tried several products, such as iBiz and Studiometry, but they all suffer from the same old problem. Too much functionality and the UI and workflow, to be used on a daily basis, are just too complicated.

Of course, there’s Blinksale for invoice management, which does a great job but is only part of the equation.

Following reading Jason’s post, I was really inspired to just solve this problem myself. I may not be building a web app here, but I can give something a go to solve my problems.

Getting the requirements together

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p> The first thing to establish were the problems. What did I need the software to do? So, I got together this list:


  • List all current and closed jobs
  • Each job must have a job number, client, associated estimates and invoices
  • Create, edit and store all estimates. Give them a status of Pending, Approved and Rejected.
  • Ability to print estimates and invoices using a well designed print stylesheet
  • Saving off PDF’s using the same print stylesheet
  • Create, edit and store all invoices. Give them a status of Paid, Part-paid and Unpaid

The list could go on, but I stopped there.

Understanding the workflow

<

p> The next step was understanding my workflow. How do requests come in? What is the process following that request? Again, I went through the same process:

  1. Request comes in (usually by email)
  2. Set up client details
  3. Set up Job and Job number and assign to client
  4. Create estimate and assign to job number
  5. Send estimate to client and change estimate status to ‘Pending’

Then, following my appointment and competion of the work.

  1. Set up invoice and assign to Job
  2. Email to client

Building the thing

So, I started building the thing using Expression Engine which has a couple of drawbacks. The big drawback is the application has two parts: a web interface and a control panel. So, not everything is done on the same screen such as adding estimates and invoices etc. This could be done using EE’s stand-alone edit form, but you would only able to add stuff and not edit and delete (I think). I may look at this in the future and see how I could use it.

Once it’s complete, I plan on doing a more detailed write-up of how I built it using EE. It’s quite an interesting project trying to build an application like this, rather than a website using EE. It’s liberally using the ‘relationship’ fields to save on data input and duplication and has a bunch of custom php in there to work out if invoices are past their 30 days terms.

Here’s a quick grab of where things are at so far:

Screenshot of the dashboard showing pending estimates

Yes, the design looks like Basecamp and a hundred other applications like it. However, there is a reason for this. All of my 37Signals apps, and EE’s control panel all look the same. I use the same tabs, colour ways, links and everything on all of them. I use half a dozen apps to manage my life and business so I’m much more comfortable if they all look the same. There’s nothing more jarring, for me anyway, to switch between apps and have the core design and colourways change.

Your thoughts?

I’d be really interested in your thoughts on this. What systems and workflow do you currently use? Is it more traditionally paper based? Where do you think I could improve on what I’ve got going on here?

This past month

This last month has been a bit crazy. First of all England’s dire performance in the world cup has pretty much consumed me over the last four weeks. I’m honestly not much of a football fan, but international tournaments (especially this one) really get me hooked, so what do we reckon? Italy: 2 France: 1? That’s my prediction.

Then there’s been the work. I’ve got some news, which I can’t talk about just yet, but will in the coming months. It’s all very exciting but it means I’m currently working my ass off, and along with being ill again with the damn colitis, it’s made this past few weeks a pretty difficult time.

There’s a been a number of sites I’ve worked on which have gone live. Footballkitdesigner has just launched in Beta 2. Lots more functionality in there such as team kit designing and now you can purchase your kits online. The Kit Designer section is excellent and offers ways of adding team player names and possibly corporate sponsor logos.

{title}Secondly, I’ve developed a brand and website for film industry sculptor, Bruce Gordon. It’s primarily a portfolio site which uses Expression Engine as its backend and lighbox.js to display the images (keeping it all nice and trim). What is interesting about this project is the photographs which are up there. There are some incredible construction photographs of sets such as the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Batcar for Batman Returns. Fascinating stuff.

Next month I’ll be getting my new phone. I like new gadgets and this little beauty promises to deliver. I’ve opted for an Sony Ericsson K800i (the new Cyber Shot 3.2 Mega Pixel camera phone). I’m hoping with a camera this good on a phone, I’ll begin to take a lot more photographs as I’m wandering around. Also being a bit of a self-confessed Mac geek, I’m half way through designing an OS X theme for it using the delightful Sony Ericsson Theme Creator application for OS X. I’m currently working on a blue aqua theme, but I’ll probably develop a number of different hues over time. The only problem is I can’t change the default icons which is a bit of a shame.

August is looking busy but then Emma and I take a well deserved break to my parent’s place in Portugal. I’m so looking forward to just sitting down, sans-laptop, and just reading a book. Of course that will only last for about a day, then I will be bored and will probably end up redesigning this site. Again. 

Bloody penalties again!

Well, there we are again. England lose to Portugal in the quarter finals on penalties. Totally rubbish. I’m not normally a fan of football, I don’t really support any premiership club for example, but I tend to follow my nations team in the major competitions.

This particular world cup held a lot of promise. In fact, this game held a lot of promise, but from the moment Rooney stamped on that Portugese player’s nads and was sent off, I knew a loss was on its way.

Ah well, the good news is Murrey is up a set against Roddick at Wimbledon.

Refurb 20” Intel iMac? Or should I just sit on my hands?

{title}Right, here's the thing. I bought my G5 iMac nearly two years ago now and I've been overall very happy with it, but lately there's one thing which has been really beginning to bother me. The damn fan. It's a revision A iMac (the one's with the dodgy fans), so it's a well documented problem which can't be fixed. The problem is, it's been getting much worse over this past year—it's screaming loud right now—and to be honest, it's getting to point when it's even audible over music at full volume.

Well, I've gone and done it. Ordered my new 20" Intel iMac yesterday. After the heat of last week, coupled with the fact I needed to do quite a lot of intensive processor work on the machine, the fan noise was pretty much unbearable. Called Apple, they said it was 'within accepted limits'. I guess if you're only surfing the web and reading email, this might be the case. The new machine should be here on Wednesday. Can't wait.

So, I’ve been giving the idea of upgrading to an Intel machine. Currently, there some available in the Apple Refurb Store for about ?900 (a saving of 26%). I’d of course have to chuck some extra RAM in there though. I’d probably get about ?500 for this machine on eBay, which makes a ?400 outlay for a brand new machine, with a whisper-quiet fan, very tempting.

The only thing which is currently stopping me is the Adobe Apps thing. Adobe will be releasing them in about a years time, which in itself isn’t too much of a problem I guess. I’d rather put up with a slightly slower Photoshop than a loud fan every day, all day. There are also the added benefits of a machine that could dual boot in XP for testing purposes (and also for Emma’s work). I’ve got a couple of questions though:

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p>

  • What’s the Refurb Store like? Anyone had good or bad experiences with them?
  • Should I go for an Intel machine, or just wait for the Universal apps?

The fan is just too much though. It’s like having someone sat next to you blow-drying their hair all day long.

@media 2006 is just around the corner

@media 2006 logoI’m getting pretty excited abut @media which kicks off in a couple of days.

Over the past few months I’ve been working with the guys at Vivabit to produce the printed material for the conference. It’s been great to get my teeth stuck into some print again, but I’ve forgotten how stressful print deadlines can be. I think printers are like builders, and to be perfectly honest I’ve no idea how some of them remain in business. But if you find a good one, it’s a totally different story.

There were problems with finishers (not being booked in to do the stitching), to name badges having to be printed again (bloody printer cropped them landscape instead of portrait), but we got there in the end, the client’s happy and I’m looking forward to seeing them in situ.

That brings me neatly onto the conference itself. It looks a belter this year. Not only the panels, but I’m in the position of knowing a lot more people so the social side of it will be more enjoyable. On another positive note, I’ll also be enjoying @media 2006 illness free. Last year—about two weeks after @media—I was in hospital, I’d lost a stone in weight and was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. At SXSW, I had a flare up (probably due to the stress of preparing for a panel!). However, currently (touch wood), I’m symptom free and feeling good. I’m just so looking forward to meeting up with friends and making new ones.

So, if you see me, say hi.

Podcasts and an article

This is a bit of self publicity, but what the hell.

Firstly, I’ve written an article for those lovely Carsons over at Vitamin.

It’s a piece I originally started thinking around here in my Journal, but have expanded upon for Vitamin (and there’s probably more to come on the subject). It’s about the way designers think and semantics.

Secondly, Podcasts are available for the panel I sat on at SXSW in March called Traditional Design and New Technology. And also for a presentation I gave at Ideas3, an event held by Port80 in Perth, Australia last month, where I talked about typography and craft on the web.

Monica and The Rainforest

After an uneventful overnight flight from Perth, Emma and I arrived bright and early at Cairns airport. There’s nothing to do in most airports, but Cairns is the exception. There is absolutely nothing to do, especially at 4.30am. Even sleeping was out of the question due to the constant beeping of the xray machine as hordes of tourists forgot to remove their belts. Anyway, we waited until 8am then went off to pick up our campervan for our six day trip in the tropical north of Australia.

The campervan itself was a great bit of kit. A long wheelbase Mercedes van converted to comfortably sleep two - It even has it’s own shower, toilet and fully equipped kitchen. It took a bit of getting used to driving something so large, but after half an hour or so, things were fine. That was until it started raining.

Cairns, and where we were heading, The Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation, are situated in the tropical north east of Queensland. Like most tropical regions, there are two seasons here; wet and dry. We’re at the tailend of the wet season and with impeccable timing, we’ve managed to coincide our trip with an impending category three cyclone called ‘Monica’, which was due to hit land about 300 miles north of here. The winds were quite light, but I have never seen so much rain. Ever. It has rained non stop for four days. Not your typical British ‘fine rain’, but big, fat, soaks-you-to-the-skin-in-two-seconds tropical rain. Mind you, I feel sorry for the people who live here, apparently it’s been raining for about sixty days. More on that later.

So, Monday was spent driving to Port Douglas to find a camp ground to get settled in before our trip up to Cape Tribulation the following day. An unevenful night really, it rained.

Woke up to light rain on Tuesday, which quickly turned into heavy rain, and we headed off up the coast road to The Daintree.

The landscape here is simply stunning. The Daintree National Park is the world’s oldest surviving rainforest (no idea how they know that, but they do apparently). The road winds its way past huge trees supporting the rainforest canopy hundreds of meters overhead. The crossing over the swollen Daintree River was interesting, in part because of the large ‘Beware: Crocodiles’ signs present on the side of the river. We stayed in our van. Cape Tribulation was disappointing though. In part because the amount of time it took us to get there, the weather and because there’s nothing there; not even a pretty beach or a view. Maybe that’s the point.

Wednesday and Thursday were shocking days weather wise. Monica hit the top end in the early hours of Wednesday morning with winds up to 240km hour. Apparently nobody was hurt, but there’s been substantial damage to the forests. It continued to rain, heavily. Emma and I headed up to the Atherton Tablelands from where we were staying in Port Douglas. The drive was terrible; couldn’t see a thing. What we did see was a very different landscape. Lush rainforests made way to rolling hillsides and fields. In fact, it looked a little bit like the UK in parts which was very odd.

The good thing about record rainfall is it makes for spectacular waterfalls. On Thursday we visited Mirraa Mirraa falls, which was ok, but the Barron Falls, just outside of Kuranda, were awesome. A trip to the butterfly sanctuary in Kuranda also made for an interesting hour, even if to escape the rain for a while.

Stories of the cyclone were on everyone’s lips over the next couple of days. Cairns had suffered (and continues to suffer) recordbreaking rainfall and flooding. The Bruce Highway is closed going north and south out of Cairns. This is one of the reasons we’ve had to cancel the reason for this trip to the north of Australia: diving on the reef. After my bust wrist in Portugal and now a bloody cyclone, something is telling me I’m not destined to dive. Although I think we made the right decision. Two metre swell and 30-35 knot winds does not make for a good day on a boat.

We cancelled our flights and are now flying into Sydney a day earlier. This way we get a full day on Saturday in Manly before meeting up with old friends on Sunday for a BBQ and a few drinks. It’s been an adventure and we’ve mostly enjoyed our trip up here but we’re looking forward to getting out of the rain and back to a place where we lived for six months over seven years ago.

Pimping my brother’s site

Just a quick post, now that he has more content up there, to pimp my younger brother’s site.

About six months ago, my younger brother Jon, left his job of six years with Norwich Union with a big fat pay off. So, he’s spending it travelling the world over the next twelve months. He asked me to get a little site together for him, mainly so he can chuck some photos up there and blog about his travels so all his mates can keep up.

It’s built in Expression Engine of course over the course of a couple of days and, yes, it’s black and white. Why? Well, why not - he seems to like it!

So, if you fancy, go and have a look. If you say hi, tell him I sent you!

A week in Perth

I’m a little bit late posting this. Needless to say, internet access - let alone wifi - is somewhat lacking in the oldest rainforest on the planet. As I’m writing this, Emma and I are sat in our camper van just south of Port Douglas in northern Queensland. Tommorow, we’re driving up to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation which promises to be fantastic, if the weather holds out (but I guess it’s our own fault for coming to Queensland at the tail end of the rainy season, and did it rain today!). But this post isn’t about Queensland, but our week in Perth.

I like Perth. There are lots of reasons why; from the pristine CBD and cheap sushi, to the stunning scenery and great beaches. There’s an energy in Perth similar to other Australian cities, but Perth in particular seems more so. There’s a lot of building going on, house prices are on the riseit certainly seems like a city on the up. However, there’s one thing I couldn’t get used to in my week in Perth—apart from the tea as Emma pointed out last week—was the feeling of isolation.

Perth is an isolated city. Let me try and put it into some geographical context. Perth’s closest major city is Singapore, not an Australian city. It’s the same distance from Perth to Sydney as is it from London to Moscow and you can fit three UK’s in the state of WA (Western Australia). Imagine one large city in half of europe. So, Perth is pretty isolated geographically and you would expect that culturally things might be a bit out with the rest of the nation—thankfully this isn’t the case as Perth seemed as metropoliton as Sydney or Melbourne. But, I just couldn’t get the isolation thing out of my head, and to be honest, it kind of made me feel quite agoraphobic. Is this because everything is so close, and we’re so packed together, in the UK? Not sure.

Anyway, following on from Emma’s post, things were quite hectic with the run up to Emma and Clinton’s wedding last Friday. The day itself was fantastic. The happy couple were blessed with beautiful weather (a cool 30C!), great food, good music and plenty of booze. The ceremony was quite different to a UK ceremony—It was very laid back, conducted in a public venue overlooking Perth under a large gum tree. Following photos in several locations we accompanied the bridal party to the reception in a fish resturant called the mussel bar in Freemantle (about three doors down from Little Creatures) for quite possibly the best sit-down meal for a wedding we’ve been too. Emma and Clinton headed off for their honeymoon in The Kimberley an Emma (The Wife) and I, were left in the capable hands of the bride’s sisters (Jenny and Rachel and boyfriends Tim and Russell), to show us the sites for our last two days in Perth.

We were all geared up for a trip to Rottnest Island the day after the wedding, but booze, too much sun and lack of sleep got the better of us (and the fact it was Easter weekend). Instead, in the afternoon, we headed over to Freemantle and up the north coast along the beaches.

Our flight to Cairns on Sunday wasn’t until 10:30pm, so we had plenty of time to get another full day in. Jenny had the idea of heading up to one of the wineries in the Swan Valley for lunch (no complaints from us!). Jane Brook winery is a fairly small winery, but produces some cracking wines. Favourites were the Margaret River Merlot and the Shiraz and, wierdly, a sparkling red. Coupled with a great spread of local cheeses, bread, homemade coriander and chilli pesto and hummous we settled down for a slightly tipsy lunch.

We’ve enjoyed our time in Perth. We’ll give it a few years, but we’ll be back for sure.

Wedding nerves by proxy, by ‘The Wife’

This is ‘The Wife’ guest authoring today as Mark is otherwise engaged (doing nothing actually). We’ve spent around an hour trying to find a cafe with wifi in the centre of Perth (avoiding McDonalds ‘cos it smells of fat food) and when we finally found somewhere, they charged us $14 for an hour. Nice. We’ve got 14 mins left, so I’ll try and be brief despite the fact that I’m Welsh and we tell LONG stories.

Well, Mark and I arrived in Perth on Sunday around 2pm local time after the longest flight in the world - well it wasn’t really but you forget how boring these types of journeys are when you haven’t done one for a while. There were some interesting people on the plane which always passes the time for me. Mark made me sit in the middle so he could look out of the window, so I was sitting next to a nice lady who was flying to Sydney. We had a very nice chat which passed the time. Hope she got over her jetlag.

Our friends Emma and Clinton picked us up and we drove back to their house in the suburbs for a brew. Several brews later and a little tour of the local neighbourhood and house, we went for a BBQ picnic at Heathcote Park which is where the wedding ceremony is going to be tomorrow. After returning to the house, we managed to stay awake until about 10.30 before passing out with extreme tiredness and Melatonin that Clinton gave us.

Monday was spent being jetlagged and finding our way around the local neighbourhood. We went to the local Mall for a mooch and tried to find wifi for Mark to connect with his beloved internet but to no avail. He was already feeling cut off from the rest of the world after not going online for a whole day but this made it worse. God knows how he’d cope if he ever went to Alaska or something. We bought some great Barramundi in the fish shop and cooked our hosts a nice meal before going out for a few beers in a pub in South Perth. We met up with someone I went to school with and her boyfriend. They work in the mining industry here in WA which was pretty interesting to hear about.

Tuesday was another jetlag day. We went into the city in the afternoon with Emma and had some GREAT sushi before separating. Mark went off to do his talk at the Melbourne Hotel with Port80 and I went to Kings Park and had dinner with Emma and Clinton. Mark’s talk seemed to go well which is good.

The last two days have been spent helping out with wedding chores and getting wedding nerves by proxy. Chores have included: picking up dresses, getting a manicure (not Mark obviously!), moving chairs, tidying up, making place settings, ironing honeymoon clothes, dropping off stuff at the venues etc etc. We’ve now left the bride and groom to pack for their honeymoon whilst we do some tourist things in the city… and look for wifi access! Whilst Mark caught up with the world, I played my own special game of ‘Spot the Pom’. My total so far is 13. Pretty good going.

So, we’ve got the wedding tomorrow which will be fun (except for the fact we’re in the house with the bride and bridesmaids all morning which will be chaotic!) and then we’re off to Rottnest Island on Saturday for some snorkeling and cycling—yay!

So, to sum up our time here so far:

Three bad things about Perth:

  1. The brews are like milky water
  2. There’s too many ants
  3. There’s too many Poms

<

p> Three good things about Perth:

  1. It’s beautiful
  2. Public transport is cheap and plentiful
  3. Even the fish and chips seems healthy here!!

Next stop, Cairns on Sunday.

What happened to the design?

Like Jon, I’m a little late with this one.

Today is CSS Naked Day, a very cool idea by Dustin Diaz, whereby you remove your CSS to show the lovely semantic XHTML markup beneath.

Upgrading your mobile phone

{title}It’s that time of year again. Mobile phone upgrade time.

For the past year I’ve been pretty pleased with my Nokia 6210. Yes, it’s a bit old and clunky and yes, it isn’t supported by iSync, but it’s been good to me. However, I’m feeling the need to become organised again. I’m also getting slightly nervous about replication of data on my various computers (work, home, and laptop) and could do with a phone which *is* supported by iSync to make things slightly easier.

So, What would you recommend?

I’ve had problems with Sony Ericsson before simply because I’ve never really got on with their UI. I’ve almost always used Nokia phones since about 1997, so I’m pretty much institutionalised with their operating system. For a while there though, Nokia made disgusting phones, which is why I switched over the Sonys. One Nokia has caught my eye though: the 6280.

It’s a good looking phone. I guess that’s why I like it. And, to boot, it ticks all but one of the checklist:

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p>

  • Fit in back pocket
  • Looks good
  • Small and light
  • Bluetooth
  • Makes phone calls
  • Camera

Which leaves one big, black mark: No iSync support.

So, what’s a bloke supposed to do? Manually do everything? Don’t think so. Has anyone any other suggestions for a good phone?

Talking in Perth

Are you in Perth, Australia on the 11th April?

If so, and you fancy an evening of listening to myself and John Allsopp talk about web and type stuff, then pop along to Ideas3 hosted by Port80 at the Melbourne Hotel in the centre of Perth at 7pm. You can get your tickets here.

That was SXSWi 2006

I really don't know where to start writing this post. There's been so much that's happened over the past few days, it's really hard to encapsulate it all in a blog post.

I'll give it a go though.

Following the Traditional design and New technology panel on Saturday, I kind of hung around with the nice chaps from Philly enjoying, not only the company, but the good restaraunts in Austin. Talk was, as you might expect, centred around the panels, the event and design in general. That's the one thing that struck me compared to when I attended a couple of years ago; the socialising.

SXSWi 2004

When I attended in 2004, jetlag absolutely floored me. I'd be getting maybe three hours sleep a night, getting up in the morning at about 5am following lying there wide-eyed from 2am. As such, I didn't really attend any of the parties. This year was very different though. As I'm writing this, I'm glad I'm leaving because I couldn't really go out any more than I have in the past few days. Maybe I'm getting old, but there only so many loud, dark clubs and free beer a man can take.

I don't really want to compare this year's event to last time I came in 2004, but I can't help it. This year was big. I mean, there were a lot of people in Austin this year. Busy panels, busy hallways and even busier bars. Don't get me wrong, I like a buzz at an event, and nothing quite tops SXSW (yet), but for me, this year I felt like SXSW had put on a lot of weight and there weren't many notches left on the belt.

The people

There are just too many people to mention here, so I won't. If I met you, it was a pleasure. If I didn't, maybe there's next time.

Two days in Philly

Following SXSW in Austin, I'm spending two days in Philadelphia at the UIE Usability Roadshow. Sounds like it could be good fun. The part about Philly I'm most looking forward to however is Cheese Steaks and running up those steps Rocky did (Jason and Rob did promise they'd ditch, er, take me). Then it's back on the plane on Friday afternoon for the flight to London, then the train to Cardiff.

It's been cool being away, but I'm missing the wife and the creature comforts of home. Plus, the washing machine is on the blink and Emma's going nuts with the computers in my absence. It'll be good to be back.

SXSW: Six months of prep and now it’s all over

Well, I thought that went pretty well. Khoi, Liz, Toni and Jason and I sat on our panel this morning, following a rather early breakfast.

As Khoi mentioned in his latest post, I'm pretty relieved it's all over and I can now move on and enjoy the rest of SXSW.

Liz did a sterling job as a moderator. I mean, she was really, really good in steering the discussion and made sure each of us could have our say.

There were two things I was chuffed about; The room was packed—standing room only—which was great to see for the first panel and I'd like to thank everyone for coming along. The second thing was the questions following the panel discussion. I'd always had an idea that people would either really agree with some of the things we said, or really disagree. And they did, and it was great because of that. Nobody wants to sit in a bland panel, not think of any questions then leave feeling nothing. I'd rather people left feeling really pissed off than feel nothing at all.

The slides will be available soon, as will the podcast. Once they're up and link them in.

Oh, and that book I was harping about is 'Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005' by Phil Baines. A stunning book.

Anyway, I'd love to know what you thought if you were there; pissed off or not.

SXSW: Day one

Yesterday's travelling sucked. Just long and really boring. Almost as bad as the previous day. When travelling to Heathrow, a train in front of mine managed to fall off the rails or trip over a leaf or something. Well, the journey time to London Heathrow from Cardiff ended up being over 6 hours. Rubbish.

The highlights of yesterdays trip was passing the Ice Sheets over Greenland, which was awesome, and passing a very active thunderstorm somewhere over the middle of the US.

I arrived in Austin last night at about 9pm (3am UK time) following a shared mini bus ride with Zach Inglis, who I met at Washington Airport passport queue. When I arrived, needless to say, I was a little jet-lagged but I still managed to unpack and get myself sorted. At about 11pm I finally succumbed only to awake two hours later. Lots of dosing later and at around 5.30 am I thought I may as well get up and begin my first day in Austin.

I met up with Andy for breakfast at the sociable hour of 6.30am. After a while we headed over to the conference centre to get all registered and stuff where we bumped in Faruk and Zach. Off for lunch in the baking temperature - which is easily 30c presently - for a slap up Mexican feed at a quant little cafe where we had to walk through the kitchens to get a table. Nice grub though.

Tomorrow, at 10am, I'll be sitting on the Traditional Design and New Technology panel at 10am - One of six panels to kick this year's conference off to a, hopefully, good start. If you're in Austin, please come along and say hello.

My SXSW

I'm getting pretty excited about SXSW now (and a tad nervous about the panel I'll be sat on). I've already started making those essential lists before going travelling anywhere, you know, all the essentials needed for 10 days away from home: Pants, Coat (although not sure I'll need this, have you seen the temperature in Austin!), Socks, Laptop, Cash etc. etc.

In addition to these lists I've also made a list of what I'm planning on attending during the day. If you happen to be in the same panel, come and say hello—if I'm not too jetlagged, I may even say hello back! Anyway, here's my list…

Saturday

Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

SXSW: Traditional Design and New Technology

{title}Three weeks today, I'll be landing in Austin, Texas for SXSW. I cannot tell you how excited I am about going to this event again.

Two years ago, A collegue and I attended to what I thought was just going to be another industry do. How wrong I was. The inspiration fuelled my creativity and design direction for about six months. Little did I know then that in two years time I would be sitting on one of the panels. Nervous? Me?

A star-studded panel

I'll be sharing the big, long table at the front with some very distinguished designers:

As you can see, quite a list. I'm utterly in awe of some of the work these guys produce so it's going to be fantastic to sit up there and have a discussion with them on a topic I hold so dearly. It will be passionate for sure.

So, what are we going to be talking about?

Traditional Design and New Technology

{title}I'm not going to give much away (or what would be the point coming?). I will say that I believe it will be quite a different panel in terms of the content matter; not the usual SXSW material. It's going to appeal to designers and developers alike and If you're a project manager, then no worries, I'm sure you'll enjoy it too.

Get there early

Now here's the thing, and partly the reason for this post, get there early.

Our panel starts at 10am on Saturday. That's right, we're pretty much first up. So, no excuses. Jetlag, hangovers, no sleep, too much dodgy mexican food the previous night; they're all weak excuses.

Once you finished with our panel, at 11.30am is our very own (I'm talking in terms of the Britpack and the UK here) Andy Budd and Andy Clark with their, bound to be superb, panel; How to Be A Web Design Superhero.

Four Things

Thanks Rob, I was kind of feeling left out. I love Memes I do (In my best South Walian accent).

Four Jobs I?ve Had

  1. Paper Boy
  2. Video Games Advisor for Toys R Us
  3. Junior Designer
  4. Art Director

Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over

  1. The Sure Thing
  2. Aliens
  3. Clerks
  4. Star Wars: Episode V

Four Places I?ve Lived

  1. Marple, Cheshire, UK
  2. Portsmouth, UK
  3. Manly, Sydney, Australia
  4. Muswell Hill, London, UK

Four TV Shows I Love

  1. "Scrapheap Challenge"
  2. "Shameless"
  3. "24"
  4. "Red Dwarf"

Four Places I?ve Vacationed

  1. Langkawi, Malaysia
  2. Bangkok, Thailand
  3. New Zealand
  4. Florida, US

Four of My Favorite Dishes

  1. A really good fish pie
  2. Steamed Sea Bass
  3. Phad Thai
  4. Sashimi

Four Sites I Visit Daily

  1. BBC News
  2. Stylegala
  3. Newsvine (increasingly)
  4. Expression Engine forums

Four Places I Would Rather Be Now

  1. In bed; it's early.
  2. Back in France, waist deep in powder.
  3. Sitting on the Manly ferry in Sydney.
  4. Sat by a lake side, fishing.

Four Bloggers I Am Tagging

  1. Paul Haine
  2. Richard Rutter
  3. Andrew Wong
  4. David Lloyd

That time of year again

{title}It's that time of year again when Emma and I set off to deepest Europe in search of the white stuff - I'm not talking hard drugs here of course - but snow and it looks like there's going to be plenty of it this year.

Seven years bad luck

I must have broken a mirror seven years ago to have the run of bad luck we've had with snow conditions. Emma and I started snowboarding seven years ago and every year since then we've managed to skillfully avoid the best snow in Europe every time.

Take last year for example, loads of snow all over Europe in February. The French, Swiss and Austrian alps are waist deep in the stuff. In fact in Austria it was a bit of a problem last year, too much of the stuff. Where did we go? Italy, where there was none. No, that's a lie, there was loads of fake stuff on 30% of the piste. Pretty rubbish really. So, this year we thought we'd go high in the mountains to give us a fighting chance.

Les Arcs 2K

We settled on a trip with friends to the French resort of Les Arcs 2000 (2000m altitude that is - imaginative eh?). There's already a 90cm base there, although it's a little icy, but the good news is there's up to 50cm forcast for Tuesday.

The child in me

Snow, amongst other things, really does bring out the child in me. Unfortunately with that it brings a child's reckless abandon which is why I end up injuring myself whilst on holiday. So, I've tried to complile a small list to ensure I have a better time than the past couple of years.

Notes to self

  • Do not get over-excited in the new snow.
  • Do not compete with much fitter, younger brother.
  • Do not leave Wife behind at any point on the slopes.
  • Do not get lift rage with badly-dressed European skiers.
  • Do not get lift rage full stop.
  • Try to do at least one jump safely.
  • Try not to be jealous of talented five year old European skiers.
  • Do not drink Port - you don't like it.
  • Do not drink cold Gluwein - It's gross.

You might think, on reading that list, that in previous years I've been a bit tetchy on the slopes. Well, yes, sometimes, but that stress has mostly been directed at the badly-dressed, skiers (sorry skiers, but you've bugged me - especially last year) and smokers (how anyone, despite having an addiction, wants to fill their lungs with smoke rather than mountain air is simply beyond me - but I'm a non smoker, so there you go.)

This is year, I'm determined to rise above it all and enjoy the mountains. There's something about being up there, in those surroundings, that is so good for the soul.

A week with Camino

{title}A week or so ago, can't remember exactly when, I followed a link from Jon's site to the latest Beta of Camino. I've used Camino a few times over the months, mostly when it was in early alpha stage, but ended up ditching it for Firefox.

I've been using it pretty much exclusively for a week or so now and it is very good.

I don't what makes a browser on a Mac a good one, or rather one that feels like it belongs. Firefox never did feel like a Mac application - it always felt like a badly implented port from PC, which is a bit of a shame. Camino however feels like a Mac app through and through.

Camino browser

Quick?

Yes, it's very fast. From opening to rendering pages, Camino seems to have the edge over every other Mac browser. It just feels lightweight compared to Safari and FF.

Features?

Absolutely packed with them - just have a look. From Annoyance blocking and tabbed browsers to Spotlight integration.

Stable?

For a beta, yes, it's really stable. In fact it seems to be more stable than FF.

Is there room for yet another browser?

That is the question. It's not so bad with Camino being built on Gecko Mozilla 1.8 rendering engine so at least there aren't to many problems there.

Browser choice is a funny thing. Sometimes dictated by fashion, sometimes by habit or ignorance. I tend to fall somewhere between the first two. I guess I'll habitually use Safari, but I'll dip into other browsers occasionally (incidentally, I'm talking about general browsing here, not development or testing).

What I'd like to see

More of the same. Please Camino, stay trim. Don't go bloating with features and end up like another Omniweb. Stay looking like a Mac application although you could do with losing the candy coloured buttons, I'm not really a fan.

Have a go

Have a go of Camino - it's really quite good! There's a great support page, with loads of helpful faq's to get you started.

2005 has been quite a year

What a year. What. A. Year.

From launching this site, being ill and getting to meet so many new friends - it's been eventful that's for sure.

I don't really know where to start, so much stuff has happened but I'll try and be brief.

2005: Early on

The year started off with the launch of version5 of this website, the primary driver being the new version of Expression Engine and my new found enthusiasm for this publishing software.

Within a month or so it was great to see this site on Stylegala and CSS Vault and I was invited to part of the 9rules Network. I wrote a couple of articles in the first few months, one of them for Design In Flight and from there things pretty much snowballed.

2005: The Middle

During early summer, Emma and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary with a trip to Rome which was fantastic - we even saw the Pope! On our return I spent a couple of days in London at the @media conference. It was great to finally meet some of the people whose blogs I've been reading for a couple of years.

After coming back from @media things went downhill. I lost over a stone in weight and was really quite ill. After a few of hours in hospital, I was diagnosed with an Inflammatory Bowel Disease called Ulcerative Colitis. I'll have it for the rest of my life and have to take daily medication to try and keep it in check. It could have been worse though and since August I've been pretty well.

It was during this time I wrote two series of articles which have proved to be the most popular on this site. Five Simple Steps to better typography and Five Simple Steps to designing grid systems.

2005: The last four months

Things have been really hectic in the latter part of 2005. I've had my largest freelance project coming to a close, and what with juggling that, a full time job and trying to be a husband, i've had my work cut out.

I made it down to the Carson Workshop with Andy and Molly, which was superb (write-up is here). Following that I went on holiday, nearly learnt to dive and sprained my wrist.

Some lists

Here's some lists for you:

Notable mentions

These range from the people who continue to inspire me to those who continually bring a smile to my face. Without them, 2005 would have been slightly less inspiring and not as funny.

  • Khoi Vinh: Daily inspiration from Khoi. Smart writer, even smarter designer.
  • All of the Britpack, but a special mention to Andy, Jon, Colly and John.
  • Molly: I've only met Molly once, but in that short time you can't believe how inspiring she was.
  • Jason Santa Maria: For being a designer first, and then someone called Stan...
  • Kitta: Nothing quite like an Aussie wit.
  • Andrew: For continually entertaining me.

Stuff that I couldn't get by without in 2005

  • Tea
  • My new car
  • My Wife and family
  • Prednisolone and Colazide

On a lighter note

Highlights from markboulton.co.uk in 2005

2006 promises to be a biggy

2006 promises to be quite a year already.

Em and I are off to Australia for three weeks in April for a friends wedding amongst other things. I'll be speaking at SXSWi '06 with Jason, Khoi and Toni and also for those lovely Australians at Port 80. Add to that a couple of big personal projects in the first half of the year, the day job and continuing to be the loving husband I am :).

Oh, and I'm doing my best to stay fit and healthy as well.

A big thank you to everyone who reads, comments and contributes to this site. I really wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't for you. Soppy eh? Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Right, is that the kettle I can smell? I'm off, tea beckons. See you in 2006!

Diving and a bust wrist

A couple of weeks ago Emma and I took a holiday to my parent's new pad in a little place called Luz, near Lagos, on the southern coast of Portugal.

A bust wrist

We arrived nice and early in the morning, after our parents met us at the airport, and between all of us (Em and I, my brothers and parents) we all began the task of setting up home - building beds, moving furniture, unpacking boxes etc. It was during this that a lone footbal on a tiled floor proved far too tempting. I took a small runup to boot it at the wall and went arse-over-tit on the slippy floor. My wrist was not chuffed about being landed on.

Three hours later, an x-ray and some pretty good painkillers and it turns out I've torn some ligaments in my right wrist. A pretty crappy start to the holiday and put a bit of a downer to mine and Emma's planned PADI open water diving course we were attending in a weeks time. However, after eating plenty of painkillers and the work of the local doctor as was able to being the course.

Scuba Diving

For years, Emma and I have wanted to learn how to dive, ever since visiting Australia years ago and since we're off there again in March I thought it's about time we sort it out. So, we booked ourselves on a course.

The day of theory (videos and exams) was pretty straight forward although lots of alarming stuff about decompression sickness and lungs exploding. The second day was spent in the coldest swimming pool I've ever been in. Even with 7mm of wetsuit (hood, gloves and boots) we were all bloody freezing. Lots of exercises was the order of the day - everything from removing your mask underwater to what to do with a bust regulator. Despite trying to be careful with my wrist, this day completely knackered it again. So, that was that.

My brother and his mate went on to complete the open water dives and Em and I will complete these in Australia in April (should be a tad warmer than the Atlantic in December!)

A photo gallery

I've finally got myself sorted and built an EE photo gallery. It's pretty barebones at the moment and exists mostly for me and my family, but have a look if you fancy.

The road to recovery

I started physio today (acupunture too, which was a bit odd), so hopefully my wrist will be ok for snowboarding in France in four weeks time. Then in only six weeks before SXSW...

Things you may not know about me

Marko at mcville.net was nice enough to ask to interview me. Of course I obliged. There's some other great interviews on there, particularly fellow brits John Oxton and Simon Collison. So, go on, get yourself a nice cup of tea and have a read.

Goodbye SquirrelMail, Hello RoundCube

{title}My host, Dreamhost, comes bundled with IMAP email (which is great btw. Mike explains the benefits much better than I could). SquirrelMail is Dreamhost's webmail client of choice.

For a while now, SquirrelMail has been bugging me. Now don't get me wrong, SquirrelMail is has some great features: It's stable, feature-packed, fairly configurable but BY GOD it's been beaten with the ugly stick.

Before you send me a torrent of email - yes, I know it's configurable BUT not it seems with Dreamhost without a load of faffing around with ssh etc. Something which I don't really fancy getting into.

I mostly use SquirrelMail whilst I'm at work because of the brick, er, firewalls won't allow IMAP access at all. Pesky proxy servers don't help either. Anyway, after speaking to some of my esteemed colleagues, I'm directed to an alternative to the ugly SquirrelMail.

{title}RoundCube is a PHP/MySQL based webmail system, which is opensource and rammed full of AJAX goodness. It's still officially an alpha release, but shows a LOT of promise. Here's the opening line from the RoundCube website...

RoundCube Webmail is a browser-based multilingual IMAP client with an application-like user interface. It provides full functionality you expect from an e-mail client, including MIME support, address book, folder manipulation and message filters. RoundCube Webmail is written in PHP and requires the MySQL database. The user interface is fully skinnable using XHTML and CSS 2.

{title}As you can see, it's pretty well stocked with features already, some of which really appeal (like skinnable XHTML and CSS for example). Not only is it already feature packed but it looks great. There's some great icons designed by Stephen Horlander and Kevin Gerich for Mozilla.org, a great looking 'mac-like' UI and it's all very simple looking. I'm hoping, as more features are added, that this doesn't change.

There are some features it needs though, and soon. Signatures is the biggest request I have. There's also a strange icon for sending email, but as this application is skinnable, that's not really too much of a problem.

So, I've only been using it for a day, but so far so good.

To Applecare or not?

{title}

That is the question.

I bought my iMac G5 almost a year ago and according to Apple's nice serial number tester thing (which now sports a nice bit of AJAX) I have exactly 19 days in which to buy Applecare if I want it.

So, do I?

It's a ?139 for an additional two years of warranty. Not too bad on the face of it. But then I got thinking about the way the G5 iMac is built.

A lot of the G5 iMac is designed to replaced by the user at home using a few tools and detailed instructions from Apple's websites. In the past when computer's have broken down, you've had to send them off or get experts to fix them, and there's the cost. So, does apple's new strategy with the iMac get round this? I'm not too sure, and have 19 days in which to make up my mind.

Your help, however, would be appreciated. So, is it worth it?

Here, there and everywhere

Looks like the next six months is looking very busy for me - from conferences to holidays.

{title}In November I'm off to the Carson Workshop one day workshop, "CSS for Designers" in London. It promises to be an excellent day with Molly and Andy at the helm covering topics such as 'demystifying structure' and 'CSS: Managing Design Process and Alternative Device Design', which is of particular interest to me.

They've just added a new date on the 17th with limited places available, so what are you waiting for? Book a place.

So, after a couple of holidays in between I'm off to SXSW for the second time. I'm so looking forward to this and this time round I get to sit on a panel with, amongst others, Khoi, which is a bit of a daunting prospect but one I'm really looking forward to.

I can't quite believe the hype with SXSW, it seems to get bigger and bigger every year. Can't wait.

Then, me and Mrs Boulton are off to Perth, Australia (for the second time) to attend a good friends wedding. I love Australia, I really do. Several years ago Emma and I lived in Manly, Sydney for 6 months and it's quite possibly the happiest six months of my life. The Australian's have just got it sorted in my opinion, from the bbq's to the surfing. The whole zest for life they have going on is wonderful - I hope I pick a bit of it up whilst I'm there.

So, just thought I'd share all that as - after being quite ill for most of the summer - I'm really enjoying being able to make plans and be excited about design again. Oh, and the sun... and beaches... and Australian fish and chips...

Nizlopi and the JCB Song

{title}I've got to credit Andrew for pointing me in the direction of this one. The JCB Song by Nizlopi is a stunning song.

<

p>Maybe it's the mood I'm in, or maybe it's the weather, but this song got to me. I had such a stupid smile on my face when listening to it and with lyrics like:

We're holding up the by-pass,
Me and my dad having a top laugh.
I'm sitting on the toolbox and I'm so glad I'm not in school....
I'm Luke, I'm five and my dad's Bruce Lee and he drives me round in his JCB...

Genius.

Such simple lyrics about simple childhood things brought to life by a staggeringly beautiful animation by those clever chaps at Monkeehub. Kind of reminds me of Counting Crows / Radiohead / G Love and Special Sauce (the early stuff mind), with the lyrics of, errrr, Mike Skinner.

Anyway, I've bought the album, and judging by the reviews, it promises to be right up my street.

ebook download security question

A friend of mine is planning on self-publishing a book, via a website as a downloadable pdf, and then through something like Lulu for people who want a nicely bound offering.

So, the question is Paypal. I've got as far as going through the documentation, seeing how you can set up a pay now button etc. Which then directs back to the website for downloading the file.

My question is this. How secure is that? Or rather, how secure is the page on which you can download it? What measures can I put in place to maximise security? I'm only asking because googling this just gives a list of commercial companies hell-bent on trying to sell you something.

Anyone able to shed some light on this?

11 days and no updates?

That's correct, 11 days and counting. So, what's up? Well, I'm ill again and been off work now for two weeks and counting - what's up? Well, I have a very angry colon which isn't too much fun. I'm on some rather strong drugs and to be honest this site is really the least of my worries at the moment. But...

I've almost finished the latest in the grid series, which is proving to be much more than a 'Simple Step', maybe I need to rename that series eh? Either that or just make them smaller and, well, simpler. I've got some other articles in works too, one of which isn't going to be published here, but will hopefully bring some sense to wayfinding on the web and how we can draw on signage design to do that. That's something I'm really interested at the moment and will touch on semiotics (still doing the research though).

So, please do keep checking in. I've not gone, or given up, just having a bit of a rest.

Probably the last to talk about @media

Been rather busy since I got back from London - up to my eyeballs in Persona's and Application flows... But here goes the very short review.

Simon and I headed up to London on Wednesday afternoon and checked into the hotel. It was a relaxing journey right to the hotel door before we headed out for a pint and some scran before crashing early for the somewhat early start the next morning.

So, there we were at 6.30 eating some breakfast before heading down to Waterloo for 8.00am to register. The venue wasn't too difficult to find as there were so many others doing exactly the same thing (we bumped into one poor woman who came down from Skye and had just arrived!). Upon checking in we got the (still smelling of print) programme and a rather retching fetching orange bag emblazend with the @media logo.

I'm not going to go over the presentations but I'll skip through some of my thoughts.

Zeldman was good, although I couldn't hear him very well at the back (the conference as a whole had a bit of a problem with the sound).

Doug Bowman was good as always with both his presentations.

Joe Clark was superb. It's a shame I didn't get to meet him as I've got a few important questions to ask him - maybe I'll just send him an email.

Robin Christopherson was very, very good. I think this was simply because he's blind and it is always refreshing to see a screen reader user using the web.

Andy Budd's, Jeremy's and Ian's presentations were also excellent.

One that really stood out for me was Andy Clarke's presentation. I guess this was because I come from a very similar angle being a designer who happens to use web standards. What I mean by that is WS doesn't define what I do with design and this brings me on to my summary of the whole conference.

The accessibility side of the conference was superb. A real eye opener to get some practical advice on how to design for better accessibility. Joe's presentation, 'Zoom the Web' was very good and I'll be implementing a zoomed layout here shortly. The Web Standards side of things was a little disappointing. Only because I felt, judging by the amount of raised hands at one point, there was a large degree of 'preaching to the converted'. It was the wrong audience to talk about the virtues of Standards based design, and maybe this was reflected in a lot of the questions which were generally very in depth with regards to syntax etc.

Now don't get me wrong, the more Web Standards is used by the community the better it is all round, but don't you think we are close to approaching the point where it's 'just the way it's done'? Then what are we going to be talking about? AJAX? Oh no, we're doing that already.

Here's my two penneth about where this is all heading:

I don't think there will ever be a standard platform for the web, not really. It's simply not possible for the industries big players to sort themselves out because they are big, slow moving er... (tries to think of an animal) cows (?) after feasting on grass for a week (what??). What I mean is, they can't react quickly. But anyway, that's a whole big mess that I'm not even going to get involved on.

We, as designers, are now emerging from a time when you needed to know php, mysql, flash, javascript etc. in order to make a living. I think we're beginning to see a time of going back to core skills. Designer's will begin to be employed for their design skills and hopefully this will rekindle the the craft of design again.

During the @media party Jon Hicks, Simon and myself were sharing a nostalgic moment about Omnicrom and the dark and distant past of print design. There's something about print design which still really appeals. I think it's about the craft, it's about making something with your hands. I wonder in a few years time if we'll be looking back on this period of our careers with the same amount of fondness.

Familiar faces

It was great to finally meet some people whose stuff I've been reading now for a couple of years, so a quick shout out to them. If I appeared a bit subdued after about 9pm at the party this was entirely due to an empty stomach, after 9pm I became entirely focussed on getting some grub!

And a few more people besides (particularly the Uni of Glamorgan lot). If we didn't meet this time, maybe we will next.

Right, I'm off for some lunch!

A bunch of batons

Oh, don’t you just love t’internet? Today I was passed a bunch of musical battons batons from Veerle, David, Chris and Andrew. If all these fine folk are up for it, then I am.

Total music files residing on my computer: 18.99GB

Last CD I bought: Hmmm, not bought a CD for ages as I download most stuff I buy now. I think it has to be going way back to Massive Attack's 100th Window. Yes, it's been that long!

Song playing right now: 'Good Bye Ray', Powderfinger

Five songs I listen to a lot / mean a lot to me:

  • 'Teardrop' - Massive Attack
  • 'Passenger' - Powderfinger
  • 'Baby's got sauce' - G Love and Special Sauce
  • 'Woodburning' - Toad The Wet Sprocket
  • 'Angel's Heap' - Finn

Five People I?m Passing The Baton To:

Getting geekier by the minute

No kidding, soon I’m going to have my own shed full of gadgets, sitting in amongst them giggling like a schoolgirl.

Or maybe not.

What I have done though is sorted out my backup situation following my external hard drive failure after installing Tiger.

After much research I've opted for buying a Linksys NSLU2 (or 'Slug' as it's also known) and a Lacie 250gb triple interface drive for my backup needs. This saves me a bit of cash overe most of the other all-in-one consumer NAS solutions.

The NSLU2 is actually turning out to be an interesting bit of kit.

It's basically a interface between external hard drives or flash drives (USB2 x 2 ports) and an existing ethernet network (ethernet port x 1). The cool thing is it runs a stripped down version of Linux and has a rather large development community dedicated to hacking the crap out of it.

Some interesting things you can do with this seemingly remarkable bit of hardware:

All of this does require a bit of, or a lot of, unix familiarity (which I am not, at all) so we'll see how thing progess once I get it set up next week.

Now all I have to do is wait for Apple to fix the ongoing wireless problems I've got with the Netgear router.

Supersize Me and a climate of fear

{title}Last night in the UK, Supersize Me was shown on TV. I’ve heard a little bit about this film, but not enough to go and see it in the cinema. Ok, some bloke eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month and he gets sick. So? What do you expect if you eat nothing but that crap for a month.

If you ate, say, fish and chips or nothing but English Breakfasts for a month it would have the same effect. In fact any high fat, low nutritional value, food would have the same effect right? Of course.

So, with this in mind I thought I'd watch it for the entertainment value of some bloke just eating McDonald's for a month. Sounded good.

It made me feel very ill and guilty. And I like to think I have a pretty good diet. I'm not sure that was the desired effect from the audience the director had in mind. I had the feeling he was after more of an anti-McDonald's feeling. Not the case. At least not with my wife and I.

For those who haven't see it, let me fill you in on some of the highlights:

  • Morgan Spurlock embarks on eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days under medical supervision from a Cardiologist, a Gastroenterologist, a gP and a Nutritionist.
  • He follows three simple rules.
    1. No options: he could only eat what was available over the counter (water included!)
    2. No supersizing unless offered
    3. No excuses: he had to eat every item on the menu at least once
  • He began to make himself ill pretty quickly. One nice scene was him throwing up after eating a Supersize meal (which includes 2 litres of Coke).
  • He gained well over 10% of his body mass in 4 weeks.
  • The doctor said, and I quote,
    If you were drinking right now, and I saw these (blood test) results, I would tell you - if you continue, you will die.
  • Morgan slowly becomes addicted to the sugar, caffiene and fat in the food. He begins to feel depressed and lethargic until he eats some McDonald's, at which point he feels rather peppy.
  • Near the end of the 30 days his liver is turning to fat. Some of his blood results are off the charts. And he begins to smell.

So, all in all it was watching someone self-destruct. Literally. Entertaining? Not really.

One thing which did annoy me about the film was it adding to this climate of fear we live in at the moment. If terrorists don't kill you, then McDonald's will. I'm getting a bit tired of it all. If you eat this, you'll die of that. If you go there, you might get blown up. Everything and everyone is out to get you. Apparently.

But anyway. It was a good film, made me feel ill but other than that quite entertaining and informative.

Oh, and apparently cheese has the same 'pleasure' chemicals as heroin. Explains why I like cheese so much!

Not much to say about Doctor Who (well, maybe a little bit)

It’s been over a week since I last posted and really i’ve got nothing more to say at the moment.

Life has been pretty hectic over the past couple of weeks with work seriously mounting up which has unfortunately left little time to post anything here (at least anything of any interest). In fact there are loads of things which I can’t talk about just yet, which is kind of annoying.

In addition to work, we’ve bought a new car, attended a wedding and i’ve been ill. I’m sure normal survice will be resumed shortly once i’ve sorted myself out.

Being ill you tend to watch a lot of daytime telly. After one day of this I couldn't cope and had to go out and buy Battlestar Galactica (the new series). I watched the 3 hour film a couple of weeks ago and was very impressed. But it did, and still does, have a bit of a detrimental effect on watching other sci-fi.

I had the unfortunate experience of watching that Battlestar Galactica film and then watching the first episode of the new Doctor Who afterwards. I've not got much to say about it, which is a bit sad. There's been loads said about this in the UK press and of course Christopher Ecclestone has now resigned. Interestingly he said he was going to be watching the first episode at home with his folks. You can imagine him sat there and afterwards and the conversation going something like this:

Mum "Oh Christopher"
CE "Sorry mum"
Dad "Hmmmm"
CE "Sorry Dad"

Long pause

CE "I'll try better next time, promise"
Mum "I don't think there will be a next time, will there Christopher?"

Maybe that's a bit harsh. One good thing about it, or rather better than expected, is Rose - apart from the posh/cockney accent thing. Anyway, working for who I do, I can't really comment anymore on that.

And that brings me neatly on to Sci-fi. Why, oh why is current sci-fi generally unimaginitive and pretty rubbish? I don't get it. Sci-fi used to be the realm of imagination and intelligence (go on flame me with examples of dumb predictable sci-fi!).

Roll on Ender's Game

Anyway, i'm off to watch wash my new car.

Nokia and getting organised

{title}

I’m pretty disorganised and as my collection of things, which help me organise myself - computers, diaries, phones etc - grow, the less organised i’m becoming.

At home, we have have calendar on the fridge. Although I generally don’t add many things to it. I also have a whiteboard in the study which I regularly scribble on. So far so good. So, how come I forget things all the time then? Information overload? I blame RSS.

Anyway, this brings me on to phones and in particular my new Nokia 6230.

I've had quite a few mobile phones now, since I succumbed in 1998 - 4 Nokias and 2 Sonys. My last phone was a Sony Z600. Pretty chunky silver clamshell. Nice phone, shame about the size. I never really got on with it's operating system though. Nokia have spent a huge amount of money testing the operating system. They make great phones that, most importantly, are easy to use.

The new phone is pretty good so far. It's feature packed:

  • Bluetooth
  • 640x480 camera
  • Radio
  • MMC media card (32mb supplied)
  • The usual polyphonic tones etc
  • mp3 player

Getting organised

I've decided to now use this phone to help me organise my life. Here's how:

  • Use iCal at home and work: I now use iCal for my home, and freelance, calendar. These are then published to my server, I then subscribe to both of these from the day job to keep myself up to date.
  • Use Phone Director to integrate iCal and Address Book on my Mac: This application is great and certainly helped clinch the decision to buy this phone. You can edit your sim & mmc card, download / upload mp3's, images and files, which is great because with a 128mb card which I bought my phone can now act as a mini storage device.
  • Use Basecamp for freelance work: I'm giving Basecamp a go. Hopefully this make sure my clients can keep upto date with projects but also it helps me organise milestones etc.
  • Begin to use iBiz for freelance work: For keeping track of time, budgets and invoices. Cheap, useful bit of software - includes iCal and Address Book integration.

You can probably spot a pattern here. iCal and Address Book. These two applications are becoming central to me organising myself - all of the above applications integrate pretty seamlessly with iCal, that means I can create and subscribe to calendars and have them available on my mac at home, at the day job and on my phone. At least that's the theory, the danger it all becomes too much of an effort to keep up to date!

Bluetooth to the rescue

I'm impressed with Bluetooth. Or should I say i'm impressed with the way the mac handles bluetooth. The Bluetooth utility made it sooo easy to recognise the new phone, pair with it, then upload and download information. the hardware dongle is so small I can carry it around with and simply blug it into the keyboard at home and work. I love it when Apple makes things a no-brainer!

So, what do you use?

What apps do you use, if anything, to keep yourself on top of things? I'm particularly interesting in any applications which you use to help with your business - time-keeping, invoicing - that kind of thing.

Fluffy white stuff…

{title}Tomorrow i’m off for a weeks snowboarding in Italy. Last year, two days in to the weeks holiday, I broke my finger (see xray) - which sucked - I only had two days on the slopes, the rest of the time was spent in the hotel room or walking with my crazy, alpine-walking (crampons and all) parents. Hopefully next week will be injury free - fingers crossed (’scuse the pun)

Dungeon Master - 18 years on…

{title}A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across the Dungeon Master Encyclopedia site whilst randomly surfing. It brought back some good memories of being completely hooked on this game when I was about 15 (16 years ago now). Whilst having a look through this site I noticed, to my delight, there was an OS X download. With great anticipation, tinged with “am I going to regret this?”, I downloaded the app.

i’m now hooked. Again.

{title}Dungeon Master is just such a classic. If you’ve not played it before you probably won’t fully comprehend when i’m so enthusiastic about the game. It is pretty much perfect, in the same way Pacman is perfect - the gameplay is everything. Even when this was released, in 1987, the graphics weren’t all that great at all.

I had an Amiga, so my Atari ST owning friends were goign about this game for a couple of years before I could get my hands on it. When I did, I pretty much kissed goodbye to a couple of months of my life. Even now, when playing the game, I still remember the UI really well, or is it because the UI is so incredibly intuitive? The only stumbling block for me at the moment is the spells - I can only rememebr Health potion, Light and Fireball (note to self: print out spell list)

{title}So, maybe it’s just me, but discovering and enjoying this game after soooo many years is really refreshing.

Who else played this? Was is really the most talked about computer game for a while?

Accessibility and Design are the same thing

Prompted by a letter by Nigel Gill, accound director of Sigmer technologies, in this week’s New Media Age (page 17) I just had to get pen to paper so to speak.

Nigel states in his letter that “general design opinion seems to be that accessibility is diametrically opposed to great design”. What? Is this true? He’s obviously not talked to any good designers. He goes on to talk about how you define design, information architecture and usability etc. Which is all really valid, but I can’t quite get past his opening sentence.

Now, Mr Gill may not have worked with good designers before. He may have worked with print designers who are new to the medium or simply designers who don’t see accessibility as part of their remit, or probably designers who see accessibility as a constraint rather than part of the medium. Accessibility doesn’t mean dumbing down. It doesn’t equal bad design. Is really should equal great design. Take architecture for example.

My father is an architect. He’s designed all sorts of building types for the past thirty five years. A couple of years ago the DDA act in the UK made it UK law that all buildings had to be accessible. This doesn’t just mean sticking a ramp at the front, it is a lot more complicated than that. Public buildings, such as libraries, for example should have accessiblity requirements built in to the fabric of the building - ramps, braile signage, hearing aid loops, attendents who can sign etc. It shouldn’t be dealt with as a bolt-on extra.

I asked my father about this a while ago. What difference did DDA have on his work and the buildings he designed. His reply was “it makes them better”. He went on to explain the DDA is a set of guidelines which good architects took into account anyway and bad one’s now need to follow. The same can really be said about designers.

Accessibility is Design. It’s part of the problem and therefore should be part of the solution. The two are intertwined and accessibility shouldn’t be seen as this black cloud on your design radar.

Backup solutions?

Yesterday evening, whilst getting to grips with a particularly tricky bit of design, Photoshop crashed. Wierd, photoshop hardly ever crashes on me. The dark days of OS 9 rose up within me like the morning after a really good night. It suddenly dawned on me I didn’t save my work for the last hour. Then it dawned on me again (there was a lot of dawning last night), I don’t have a reliable backup solution.

<

p>Since last night i’ve been giving this a bit of thought and quite a bit of research. I have the following kit at home.

  • A G5 iMac
  • A Compaq laptop
  • My iPod
  • My wife’s iPod Mini
  • Airport Express
  • A Netgear wireless router
  • Airpot expreme
  • A USB scanner and printer

Neither the mac or the PC is backed up and now as my wife and I are a two iPod family, and the fact we mainly use Airport Express to play music directly from iTunes (can’t remember the last time I played a CD), we have a lot of music on these computers.

Ideally, i’d like the PC and MAc backed up to a network hard drive and also have all our media stored on this drive as well - photos, video and music. The clincher would be to have our iTunes libraries remote on this drive and accessible over the network when we launch iTunes, that way we keep all media in a central location.

Backup solutions?

So, i’ve been looking around for a suitable solution to the hardware issue and i’ve found a solution. The Lacie Ethernet Mini is a drive with an ethernet and USB port, which is then accessed over a local network and administered via http. It comes in 250, 400 and 500 Gb models. Maxtor and Iomega have similar solutions but I can’t find anywahere in the UK where they are as competitive as the Lacie.

<

p> So, i’ve got my hardware. I’ve got all my media on it. This is where I need your advice. I need to backup the media on the drive (partitioning might be an answer here). I also need to backup the work folder on a 60Gb PC and an 80Gb iMac and have remote iTunes libraries. Here’s the questions:

  • What backup software would you recommend?
  • Is it possible to have external iTunes libraries sharing the same music files?
  • Would I be able to use the external hard drive’s USB port to share my printer and scanner via a usb hub?

I’m amazed it’s taken this long for the industry to release a cheap networkable drive like this. But what I also find amazing is the lack of robust, cheap backup software. Let me know your thoughts, I could do with your help!

London and the Vault

In less than an hour i’ll be getting in my car, with my wife, and off to visit friends in London. Really looking forward to it. It’ll be just over three years since i’ve been to London properly after living there for a few years, so visiting old haunts will be nice.

Another note. I’m chuffed to bits that i’ve finally made it into the CSS Vault. Thanks go to Mark for the submission.

On to the London thing again. I am thinking of dragging the wife, and chums, to the Design Museum whilst we’re there as we never really did much of the museums when we lived there. The Tate may be on the cards as well, that kind of depends what exhibitions are on at moment.

Of course there will be a visit to the Apple Store and possibly a purchase (my ears have been complaining of late because of the unforgiving iPod earphones. Some of those squidgy ones may be in order)

So, anyone got any ideas? Where can I go at the weekend? (that is of course assuming the friends, and wife, want to come with me!)

Expression Engine - Designers Questions

Since the launch of this redesign a few weeks ago I’ve had quite a lot of emails asking how I built it using Expression Engine. A large proportion of these emails have been from designers who see, and want, the benefits of a low-cost, flexible content management system for their own portfolio websites. Hopefully I can answer some of the specifics here.

My requirement

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p> First off, it might be useful if I list some of the requirements I had for a Content Management System before I rebuilt this site using Expression Engine.

  • Free or Low cost
  • PHP/MySQL dynamic environment
  • Custom fields - (This was a big one, see below for more detail)
  • XHTML / CSS template system
  • Easy updating via a web based interface

As I said, Custom Fields wa a big one. one of the major gripes with MovableType was the amount of hacking around I had to do in order to get all of the information in to MT. Originally I used a bunch of PHP variables in the MT Keywords field. This isn’t a bad solution and I know quite a few designers do that (Jon Hicks did before moving to Textpattern, Doug Bowman still does).

The problem with this is it requires you to have the list of variables to hand, which isn’t ideal. Also, from a technical point of view it isn’t good practice to have so much data in a field like that. As I found out, it makes migration to other systems tedious.

Most designers who wrote to me want to build, or rebuild, a portfolio. MT doesn’t make this easy for you, it is afterall nothing more than good blogging software. Expression Engine has it’s roots in blogging, but goes much further. I guess a lot of my requirements would mirror most designers needs - A simple, intuitive piece of software for managing a portfolio online. That’s what it boils down to.

Questions and Answers

Is it worth the money?

Well, this really depends on your budget and what you want to do with it. I think Expression Engine is extremely good value for money, especially considering the Gallery module shipped with version 1.2.

I use Movable type at the moment, how does Expression Engine differ?

In essence, the functionality of any content management is similar - you update content, via an interface, which then gets inputted into templates for display on the web. In terms of functionality Expression Engine is much more flexible than Movable Type. It comes with default custom fields which means you can tailor the data sets for any section you create. There are many differences between the two once you get down to to the detail, I really can’t go into all of them here - best you look at the websites to do your own comparison.

Was it very difficult to set up?

No, Expression Engine is very easy to set up. A simple process of setting up a database, making some changes to a config file and some folder permissions, then running an install wizard. That’s it.

How is the learning curve?

The learning curve isn’t too bad, especially if you’re familiar with a systme like MovableType. I would say this though, you do require a degree of knowledge of HTML and CSS if you wish to customise the sites you produce, Expression Engine isn’t WYSIWYG. There are however plenty of tutorials and templates available to help you out.

How long did it take you to do your site?

From start to finish, probably about 4 days. I did have a lot of the css already written though from the previous version of this site. The way I have the css configured is as separate stylesheets for the colour, structure & typography which means I can apply changes to one without affecting the other. A lot of the grids and structural layout was already done.

Have you used other systems before?

Yeah, loads. I think i’ve dabbled with most of the cms’s on opensourcecms.com! Three versions ago, this site ran on it’s own custom php/mysql based cms I built using dreamweaver and a bunch of other plugins. This was ok, but required a lot of messing around if I wanted to change the design (as it was built using tables etc, and minimal css, shame on me but it was 1999!). The version after that was built using MT 2.6, I then upgraded to MT3 and with it another big redesign.

But I did get tired with MT’s continuing spam attacks, limited flexibility and slow rebuilds. It was time for a change.

How were you able to get rid of the /index.pbp/ in the url

With a little help from the Expression Engine forums and an .htaccess file.

In the root of my server I have an .htaccess file with the following code in it.

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond $1 !^global/.
RewriteCond $1 !^images/.

RewriteCond $1 !^archive/.*


RewriteCond $1 !^expressionengine/.
RewriteCond $1 !^index.php.

RewriteRule ^(.*) index.php/$1 [NC,L]

Basically this code gets rid of the index.php and still allows access to the folders - global, images, archive etc. You need this so your site can use stuff from those folders, if they aren’t in the list it won’t work. Now, I must say, this works for me, on my version of Apache, it may not work for you.

Do you use Expression Engine on any other sites?

Not yet, but there are a couple of sites in the pipeline which I am planning on using EE on. Another one of the reasons for choosing EE is that it’s a system I can invest my time in learning, knowing that I can use it for a wide range of commercial applications as well as my own site. I was getting a little of tired of learning another system everytime I built a site, or having to re-learn how I hacked MT that last time.

This way I can invest my time in learning Expression Engine very well and as it’s PHP based I can also use what PHP knowledge I do have to good effect.

Any more questions?

Feel free to let me know, or comment here, and maybe we build up a list of answers tailored to questions which a designer may ask.

Update: padawan.info has a great article on a MovableType / ExpressionEngine comparison.

Site relaunch

So, here we have it. Version 5.5 of this site. More of a Reversion than a Redesign. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, MovableType was beginning to be difficult to use because of the Spam problems (which they seem to have now fixed) and the increasing problem of stretching the intended useage of MT - ie. to run a portfolio (I know this is possible, as I did it before, it’s just not as easy as i’d like). I moved to using Expression Engine as the software to power the site.

Read on for more about the design ethos behind this site. Why do a redesign and what I discovered about web standards, css, expression engine and mac IE 5.5 on the way.

The design

Why do a redesign? Well, I’d already redesigned a few months ago but already the design was beginning to get on my nerves (as a designer, this tends to happen with your own work.). It seemed to heavy, a bit to ‘state-side’ for my liking.

I wanted the design to really reflect what i’m about as a designer with a typographic background. I set myself a bunch of typographic goals, such as:

  1. Correct usage of heading sizes
  2. Relationships between all typographic elements
  3. A balance between the grid and the typography
  4. An timeless feel, stripped of meaningless decoration
  5. Sympathetic use of colour

The list does go on, but i’ll stop there for now.

I’ve approached the design of this site as I would the design of a good book. You don’t notice the design, if you do, the design is bad. You shouldn’t notice good design. (as one of my lecturers at University used to tell me. At the time I thought he was mad, but i’m beginning to see his point.)

I will talk a little bit more about this design shortly.

Web Standards

I didn’t learn too much more about Web Standards redesigning this site. I trimmed the markup, went Strict with the XHTML and separated the colour into a different stylesheet.

Expression Engine

Expression Engine surpassed my expectations in almost every way. It’s an extremely quick platform on which to develop and it’s ‘out-of-the-box’ functionality is second-to-none. Not really the time to delve into this at the mo, but I will shortly.

So, in summary i’m very pleased with the reversioning of this site, pleased with the overall design. What’s most important is it’s a solid base on which to build. I’m sure over the coming months there will be plenty for me to add, so expect a certain amount of spit and polish being applied!

If you do spot any errors (most likely caused by the migration from MT), please let me know. Cheers.

Crisp, sunny days in December

After spending the morning, and most of the afternoon, taking photographs for one of the sites i’m working at work I came to the conclusion that I like Winter, pre Christmas that is. Winter after Christmas is rubbish.

It’s not often I get out with a camera, which is a shame because I should do it a lot more. Driving round this morning was great until I realised I must be missing so much being in a car, so I abandoned the car and set out on foot. I was right, I was missing a lot. Three hours and over two hundred shots later I was back in front of my new iMac sorting through the shots. I’d forgotten how long it takes to edit a shoot - ages! Still haven’t finished!

Wedding website

Today sees the launch of Emma and mine’s website for the upcoming wedding. You can RSVP online here and after the wedding there will be a gallery where registered guests can download images from the gallery, or order prints direct from Kodak.

As all my new site builds, it’s valid XHTML with CSS controlling all of the presentation. I had initially thought to build it using MovableType, but this seemed a bit daft for only a few pages. I will be implementing a MT backend for when the Gallery comes online though.

Last night in Austin

Well, the last night is drawing to a close. Some good panels today, the highlight of which was User Interface Design by 37signals. Some really good nuggets of contingency design - design for when things go bad! Some good advice.

SXSW has been good although my brain has reached saturation point after 4 days of intense panels and lectures. I’d definatley come again if I had the chance.

SXSW - the highlights and lowlights (so far)

The conference has been good so far. The attendance is through the roof although it’s disappointing not to see more of a global representation, both on the panels and in the attendees.

The highlights so far have been:

Hi-Fi Design with CSS
CSS, the good, the bad and the ugly
The frontiers of User Experience

The lowlights:

Edutainment
Non-traditional navigation

I think my fave so far has been the “Frontiers of User Experience”. This was originally to be give by Jesse James Garrett, but he couldn’t make it, so Jeff Veen did it instead. A very, very good panel. Some interesting things cameout of it, most of which was that we’re going the right direction at work, we really are. Once he posts the presentation on the Adaptive PAth site, i’ll link it in here.

I’ve got a bunch of the panels to write up, once I’ve done it i’ll chuck them up here, there’s some great resources come out of these panels.

More to come…

Texas, not quite grasped tea.

I’ve now been in Texas for 3 days. I’m writing this post in my Hotel room, on the laptop I said I was going to buy (which is excellent by the way). Overall the experience has been been good so far. The flight was ok, the hotel is superb, the conference is really good and the food is fantastic.

The bad stuff is, tea. First off you have to ask for hot tea, then your have to say what type of tea you want, and then 50% of the time the tea that arrives is wrong. Then, you have to ask for milk, at which point cream arrives. You get the idea. America would be a better place if they got the tea right.

Laptops mmmm

Well, off to texas next week for 7 days to the SXSW conference which should be good. I’ve been thinking of exploiting the weak dollar by buying a laptop over there (and possibly an ipod if I can wangle it.). True, can’t really afford it at the moment but the way i’m looking at it is it’s about long term saving and we were going to buy one towards the end of the year anyway.

The model i’m looking at, the Compaq X1230US costs $1,699.99 from Circuit City in the US (kind of like Dixons) which is £932.18 and the same computer, funnily enough in Dixons in this country costs £1529.99 . That’s a difference of £597. Which is pretty good really. That extra money will come in handy!

Mushy, mush, mush.

My brain is complete and utter mush. Two days of intensive task based interaction flow design. Good, but mush.

Shame on me …

For not writing anything for a month. shockingly bad. But in my defense i’ve had a lot going on. I’ve been on holiday to Switzerland, snowboarding, and broke my finger on the second day which was rubbish. So, now i’m strapped up with visits every couple of weeks to fracture clinic. On top of that i’ve had a stinker of a cold. Other than that, what’s happening?

Well, work wise things are ticking along with several big launches coming up as well as an increasing usability / IA work load. On top of that i’m heavily involved in the content management workflow. BUT, the cool thing is, i’m off to SXSW in March for 7 days in the US of A. Should be really good. Some big names are there, so hopefully i’ll be hobnobbing with the likes of Zeldman and Doug Bowman.

I’ll be hopefully getting round to getting the homepage of this site built as well as the inclusion of the portfolio (with a little help from a great article by hicks design) I still need to do the contact forms and stuff as well as getting the photo gallery online too. Should be easy enough, but with organising a wedding as well, things are a little bonkers at the moment.

Talking of Snooch, the knocked back blue look is beginning to bug me slightly so expect an introduction of some lovely colour throughout the coming months in addition to some tweaks to the stylesheets.

Same s**t, different day

What did I do over Christmas and New Year?

Eat
Sleep
Eat some more
Watch some telly
Drive
Eat
Sleep
Play with kids
Eat
Open presents
Shop
Eat
Sit on my ass
Sleep

Nice being home for Christmas with the oldies, we did cook which was fun seeing my mum flap around the kitchen not knowing what to do with herself. But why does Christmas have to be about excess? Sick of it this year - far too much sitting around being lazy, eating rich - bad for you food, very, very boring. Roll on next year where i’ll be out in Portugal. Sun, beach, swimming and grilled fish - now that’s what Christmas should be like!

Elsewhere