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Date: Wednesday, 11 Jul 2012 10:30

In 2003, I inadvertently discovered web standards. The site was Dan Rubin’s Superfluous Banter and there was a beautiful light green menu bar with block hovers on the links. I loved it so much I told myself that no matter what I was going to decipher the crazy Javascript that made it work. I viewed the source and all I saw was a plain HTML unordered list. What was this black magic?

You see, years prior I had given up on web design because it seemed that to do anything “interactive” one had to learn mountains of Javascript. Viewing and trying to decipher the source of websites in 2000 was like reading Ulysses backwards. This clean presentation of markup in front of me was counter-intuitive to say the least, yet it felt so “right.” I was baffled.

Finally, I figured out that everything was being controlled by CSS and that this new approach was called standards-based design. I was hooked. I knew immediately this is what I wanted to do for a career. I was going to be a web designer. But not just a web deigner, I was going to run my own business as a full-time, freelance web designer. Nearly all the bloggers I followed freelanced on their own and I aspired to do the same.

In 2010, I was finally able to freelance full-time. In the two and a half years since, I’ve experienced about everything people say you will — feast and famine, huge checks and having to use up your personal savings account to stay afloat, fun projects and the ones that help you make payroll. All in all it’s been a good ride and I’ve learned much. Now I’m starting a new phase.

At the beginning of the year I was intending to tackle it in much the same format as years prior. Business was stronger than ever and I was booked in full until the end of April. This fortunate scenario allowed me to take it easy in May and gave me space to think a little. Here’s what I thought about:

  • I realized I could raise my rates and work fewer hours, or lower them and work more hours, but in the end it was more or less the same total. Of course the way around this is a value-based pricing model where the project cost is not tied to the total number of hours; or to hire employees to increase the available number of hours in a day. (Or the third power choice: a combination of both.) Though there’s much to be said about each approach, I’ll just summarize by saying not everyone can be Picasso in the park and not everyone can manage a business full of people.

  • I love building web/mobile products but it’s very hard to do this as a one-man show. Technology today gives you the greatest advantage as a single craftsman than ever in history — The Cloud™, open source software, zero-investement delivery infrastructure (i.e. app stores) and so forth. But the same rules of the market apply — you have to have a product/market fit, the product has to be good, building and shipping have to be somewhat timely and you need an audience (or a budget to buy one).

  • Bubble or no bubble there are a lot of job opportunities for designers in all sorts of companies. As Wilson Miner tweeted: “We asked for a seat at the table for design. There are more seats waiting for us than ever before. What are we going to do with them?” As one who is remarkably bad at predicting the future now seems like as good as ever a time to be part of a smart team in a design role.

I thought about other things, connected dots here and there, had some good food and coffee, but these were the major themes.

All of this converged to a decision of transitioning from a full-time freelancer to a full-time product designer with a startup or company. Long story short, a couple weeks ago I accepted a job with a startup in San Mateo, CA, called American Efficient.

I was attracted to the company because of the serious problem they are tackling and I really liked the team when I went out to visit and interview on-site. Basically the company mission is to affect energy efficiency on a large scale via individual consumer and business owner decisions. My first day on the job was this past Monday and I will be moving to the Bay Area as soon as we sell our house.

I am sad to leave Louisville as this has been my home for 11 years. Our friends are here and the majority of our family is within a two-hour drive; and only the people who have been here know how seriously good the coffee and food is.

That said I’m looking forward to experiencing a completely different part of the country and career-wise I’m very excited to start this next phase with American Efficient.

Now, would anyone like to purchase a house?

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Date: Wednesday, 02 May 2012 14:12

Borderlines – the iPhone game I’ve been working on for two years – launched on Monday of this week. We are calling this the “soft launch phase.” You can see it on the app store or visit the Borderlines website. We are gathering initial reactions, feedback and bug reports and will roll them in to the first update along with a few other features that didn’t make the first cut. Once this update has been approved by Apple we will start promoting it further.

For now I thought it would be fun to show you a couple of the first drafts juxtaposed to the final versions of the same screens. The difference in caliber is stark and a good reminder that your first idea is almost never your best idea.

The home screen

The first draft of the Borderlines home screen. The final version of the Borderlines home screen.

The game play screen

The first draft of the Borderlines game play screen. The final version of the Borderlines game play screen.

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Date: Friday, 13 Apr 2012 15:30

I thought I’d post a note saying excuse the mess. I’m reworking the layout a bit and experimenting with several typefaces at the same time. So things may look a bit “off” as a result. It’s not the best approach but when you’re busy all the time with client work and other projects it can be hard to find the time to work on your own site. Accepting these constraints I suppose you can say I’m live redesigning, though a better term probably would be live tweaking.

As part of this reformatting I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask you fair readers what kind of content you would like to see on the site. I’ve embedded a poll below and I would be honored if you’d take the time to offer your feedback. Please choose the top three (or less) types of content you would enjoy reading on this site. The answers are a bit mixed and you’re highly encouraged to add your own answer if you have other ideas. Thank you for your time!

Update

The survey has ended. Thanks to all who answered! Your feedback was valuable and has given me some things to consider.

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Date: Tuesday, 27 Mar 2012 20:11

Brooklyn Beta, one of the premier conferences for web folk, has launched a new website. In addition to their 2012 conference they announced a new funding venture: Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp. But this is more than just another fund to back startups, they want to enable designer-developer teams. And with the advisors you’ll have access to it will be difficult to be steered wrongly. Lastly, from the FAQs:

What sort of ideas are you hoping to back?

We are hoping to back big ideas looking to make a real impact. Don’t just make something for your peers. Build something that fixes the insanity of modern education. Or helps people weather the upcoming financial crises and rise in unemployment. Or improves the health of people around the world. Or brings neighbors closer together. Or helps people run small businesses. Or strengthens the bonds of families. Or puts existing abusive, mammoth institutions out of business (pretty please).

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Date: Wednesday, 14 Mar 2012 01:58

I’ve been browsing Offscreen Magazine (which is great by the way, you should get a copy) and something Drew Wilson said in one of the feature interviews resonated so much I thought I’d share. He’s answering why he hasn’t been snatched up by one of the big companies in Silicon Valley.

In the end what I value most about what I do is freedom. No company can offer that, and what they try to supplement it with is nowhere near as good as the real thing.

Andrew Wilkinson of MetaLab – answering more or less the same question – says the same thing in his interview.

I get to wake up every day and build cool things with insanely talented people. Nobody can tell me what do do, I value that more than anything.

There are definitely times in which working at a well-funded startup or larger company seems like a cold glass of water amidst the freelancing desert. I never rule it out completely, and I don’t whatsoever discount the personal and professional benefits from working amongst an insanely talented group of people, but complete professional freedom is a hard thing to trade in once you’ve experienced it.

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Date: Friday, 02 Mar 2012 15:40

Pitchbrite firm profile screen shot

Pitchbrite is a service that connects entrepreneurs with venture capitalists via common life factors (like a shared alma mater, location, etc.) and a unique social network algorithm. After entering information about yourself and your startup, it matches you with relevant VC firms and professionals.

Pitchbrite is the brain child of Matt Winn who worked in the VC world for several years prior to starting it. I was in charge of the visual design and have been working with Matt on the project on and off for nearly a year now. The site is still in “beta” mode and is only for entrepreneurs who are seriously looking for VC funding (mainly because right now you have to pay to see your matches and the rest of the VC profiles). If you are interested you can use the checkout code SHOWMETHEMONEY to get half off your first month.

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Date: Wednesday, 15 Feb 2012 15:11

Mark Boulton just penned the canonical approach to content and design.

Let’s be really clear about this. It is unrealistic to write your content – or ask your client to write the content – before you design it. Most of the time. Content needs to be structured and structuring alters your content, designing alters content. It’s not ‘content then design’, or ‘content or design’. It’s ‘content and design’.

I couldn’t agree more with what Mark says in the article. Creating content from a “blank slate” is akin to a client asking you to design a website with no constraints or input. I’m guilty of telling clients that in a perfect world they would have all of their content and then I would start designing. This is plain wrong. We don’t need to worry about a perfect world anyways, because the best approach is equally beneficial to the designer and the client — content and design.

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Date: Tuesday, 14 Feb 2012 16:11

For the majority of website projects I use modular scales to set the typographic harmony. You can get an overview of this technique in the first section of Tim Brown’s excellent A List Apart article.

Basically, you choose a starting point and then use the golden ratio (1.618) to calculate the rest of the sizes.

I’m a big fan of Sass so I was curious if I could use a mixin to automatically calculate a font size based on the Golden Ratio and two user-defined default values. Thereby forcing a modular scale as long as you stuck to outputting the font size with this mixin. Answer (spoiler alert): yes.

First I’ll share the Sass formula and the output and then I’ll explain the function in a little more detail.

This is what the Sass code looks like:

Figure 1

If you are familiar with Sass you may know that the exp() function is not a native function. You have to add this functionality with an external Ruby file (sass_functions.rb) and then reference it when you run the command line.¹

Contents of the sass_functions.rb file:

Figure 2

Command line command (ha):

Figure 3

Once that’s ready here’s how you would reference the mixin function:

Figure 4

If you reference Figure 1 you will see we have our base font size and minor font size set at 16px and 10px respectively. The way the formula works is the base font size is at position 1 on the scale. Position 2 moves up the Fibonacci scale one place so its value is 26px, position 3 is 42px and so forth. It moves down as well, position 0 is 10px and position -1 is 6px.

So the output of the code above would be:

Figure 5

Where the magic happens is in Binet’s Formula for the nth Fibonacci number. It’s a function of position n where n returns the value of the Fibonacci scale at that position.

So:

  • f(0) = 0
  • f(1) = 1
  • f(2) = 1
  • f(3) = 2
  • f(4) = 3
  • f(5) = 5
  • etc…

Where the Fibonacci sequence is: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and onward

The nice thing about the function is it always returns an integer. And since two values in the type scale have been preset you can use this formula to get the point-size at any position in the scale by following the Fibonacci pattern of the current value being the sum of the preceding two values.

font size = f(n-1)*10px + f(n)*16px

  1. font size at position 1 = f(0)*10px + f(1)*16px = 0 + 16px = 16px
  2. font size at position 2 = f(1)*10px + f(2)*16px = 10px + 16px = 26px
  3. font size at position 4 = f(3)*10px + f(4)*16px = 20px + 48px = 68px

Perhaps this is a little overkill, but the larger vision of mixing SASS and typography like this is a structured way to set typography on the web. The font-size mixin could be part of a larger “typeset” mixin that used a baseline variable to set line-height, vertical margins and padding. It could also include a option to reference a double-stranded modular scale (see the ALA article referenced in the beginning). The options dare I say are endless.

  • ¹There’s probably a better way to do this, not sure, I’m still a Sass amateur. If there is I would love to hear about it and would be very grateful. Contact me!
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Date: Wednesday, 08 Feb 2012 19:51

A friend emailed me a while ago asking how to create a good website. Here’s my response to him, edited and expanded a bit for publication here.

Creating “good” design for a website is a combination of taste, talent, creativity and stamina.

Taste is more inherent than the other three. I don’t think it’s genetic or anything, taste can be developed like any other skill, but I think you’re at an advantage if it’s something that you possess naturally. And by taste I mean the ability to distinguish between quality and kitsch, thoughtful work versus lazy execution, proper proportions and so forth.

Talent is just a factor of time – how much you have to invest in learning CSS, reading about graphic design principles, learning about typography rules and guidelines, etc. Copy work that you admire to develop your own skill set. (Just don’t ever publish this copied work as your own!)

Creativity comes from thinking of something and then being able to produce a tangible real-world item from those thoughts. Creativity is influenced a lot by what you see and experience around you. It’s harder to be creative in a vacuum, surround yourself with things that inspire you.

The major frustration with creative work is the difference between the idea of what something should look like in your head versus what is actually created in the real world.

Stamina is what is required to keep plodding along when the chasm between the ideas in your head and the execution with your hands seems incomprehensible. Over time the gap becomes more and more narrow until you’re fairly efficient at executing the ideas you think of.

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Date: Wednesday, 08 Feb 2012 03:20

Tired of declaring the width of an element and then having to subtract from it as padding and borders are added later?

* { box-sizing:border-box; } is the set it and forget it of box models. Set your desired width and leave it intact as you later add padding and borders; they don’t affect the overall width.

Paul Irish has more of the specifics on his blog.

And in case you were wondering, margins are rendered the same either way.

(via Jeff Croft)

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Date: Monday, 06 Feb 2012 18:32

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence… It kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

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Date: Wednesday, 14 Dec 2011 15:41

A List Apart has published summarily a collection of thoughts by leading web thinkers on what they learned about the web this year.

I enjoyed Chris Fahey’s:

Making is momentum. Everything you make is a step toward making something else. Making your first product is a lot like finishing your first novel. Like most first novels, it will most likely collect dust in a shoebox while you move on to better and better work. Later, when your masterpieces come, you’ll always know that the unreadable dreck in that dusty old shoebox—or that wonky web app that nobody ever used—made it all possible.

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Date: Monday, 21 Nov 2011 21:44

I was fascinated by the ideas presented in this talk from Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler & Frere-Jones and – naturally – I’m excited about their forthcoming web fonts.

Idea - Typography - Form

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Date: Wednesday, 16 Nov 2011 20:57

In a 1995 interview, Steve Jobs lays out an eloquent encapsulation of the relationship between ideas and finished products. Quoted at length because there’s no better way to say it:

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

Full article on CNN Money

Via daringfireball.net

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Date: Tuesday, 25 Oct 2011 12:31

Wendell Berry is a prolific author who lives about an hour northeast of Louisville. His writings are critical and prophetic of the way we live and their consequences. Mr. Berry writes beautifully about what he’s for as well: “sustainable agriculture, a connection to place, the miracle of life, and the interconnectedness of all things.”¹

At the end of an essay about the specialization of poetry (written in 1974) there exists one of the most elegant and true descriptions of the balance between work and life that I’ve ever read. I’ve quoted it at length below for your edification:

Perhaps the time has come to say that there is, in reality, no such choice as Yeats’s “Perfection of the life, or of the work.” The division implied by this proposed choice is not only destructive; it is based upon a shallow understanding of the relation between work and life. The conflicts of life and work, like those of rest and work, would ideally be resolved in balance: enough of each. In practice, however, they probably can be resolved (if that is the word) only in tension, in a principled unwillingness to let go of either, or to sacrifice either to the other. But it is a necessary tension, the grief in it both inescapable and necessary. One would like, one longs in fact, to be perfect family man and a perfect workman. And one suffers from the inevitable conflicts. But whatever one does, one is not going to be perfect at either, and it is better to suffer the imperfection of both than to gamble the total failure of one against an illusory hope of perfection in the other. The real values of art and life are perhaps best defined and felt in the tension between them.

The Specialization of Poetry, “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry, pp. 21-22
  • ¹Quote from the publisher’s — Counterpoint Press — bio.
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Date: Thursday, 20 Oct 2011 20:44

I am currently working on a refresh for the popular Social Media Explorer. We are almost finished and should be launching soon. Jason Falls, the CEO & Founder of Social Media Explorer, made a comment about the project on his Google+ public profile that I wanted to share here as well:

As I work with +David Yeiser on the new user experience for Social Media Explorer’s website, I feel compelled to reassure all of you that there is absolutely great value in investing in good design. If anything, I feel confident and comfortable my site is going to look and behave in awesome ways for people. The best designers will never be cheap, but damn are they almost always worth the money.

Good design = good investment.

Also, #humblebrag :)

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Date: Wednesday, 19 Oct 2011 19:36

Writing is fun. Writing is fundamental. If you don’t write, you don’t know what you think.

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Date: Monday, 10 Oct 2011 14:45

The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after the sweetness of low price has faded from memory.

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Date: Wednesday, 05 Oct 2011 12:24

If you’ve been wanting to add responsiveness to your site but don’t know where to begin start with something small. In other words, you don’t have to jump from a 960 pixel fixed-width design to one that adjusts from the iPhone to an 80” wide-screen TV.

I’ll give you two examples of minor responsiveness.

If you’re viewing this site with a browser viewport larger than 1240 pixels it looks like this:

Design Intellection About page at full-width

If the viewport width goes below that threshold then the layout adjusts slightly to this:

Design Intellection About page at adjusted width

An even more minor implementation is the design for Wake Forest University that I did last year. In the header, the logo mark hangs outside of the primary left margin by 63 pixels. This creates a tasteful emphasis on the logo and has a nice balancing effect to the overall layout; except if a visitor’s computer has a resolution of 1024x768 (or less). Then the left portion of the logo is hidden by the screen and the visual emphasis we sought to achieve is destroyed. So we used @media queries to push the logo inside of the margin when the view port is less than 1080 pixels wide.

Greater than 1080 pixels:

WFU News page at adjusted width

Less than 1080 pixels:

WFU News page at adjusted width

Browser Support

Of course versions of Internet Explorer less than 9 don’t support media queries. What do we do? For Wake Forest (and my site) we could have used JavaScript to accomplish the same task (see adapt.js), but since it was a cosmetic preference only, we used IE conditional comments to set it inside the left margin for IE versions 6–8 irrespective of the viewport width.

Semantics, semantics.

Some may take me to task for labeling the above methodologies “responsive web design” because responsiveness goes beyond just @media queries. I see your argument and raise you these helpful resources for more reading on the subject:

The main goal is to encourage you try respsonsive approaches if you haven’t yet. It’s not hard at all. Baby steps.

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Date: Thursday, 29 Sep 2011 19:42

When you subtract quality from quantity, the gross result is not a net gain.

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