Just hours after the official announcement, it’s probably not news to you that Steve Jobs has passed away. His family has lost a husband and father; Apple has lost their founder and leader; and we have all lost one of the greatest minds the world has known. I’ve lost one of my heroes.
I know I’m not alone when I say that I can’t quantify the number of ways that Steve’s work has made my life better. Besides the fact that he made incredible products that have inspired and enabled me to explore my own creativity, the way that he approached work and life has served as a roadmap whenever I doubted my own convictions.
I was first introduced to Steve’s famous Stanford Commencement Address around the time that I began my own creative journey. I had recently come to terms with the fact that I had such a burning desire to follow my own curiosities and passions that I couldn’t possibly – in good faith – work for someone else. I wasn’t quite sure what I would wind up doing, but – scary as it was – I was looking forward to finding out. I cashed out a bunch of Apple stock that I had made a healthy profit from (thanks for that, too, Steve), and vowed to obey whatever made my heart beat a little faster.
I honestly don’t recall the very first time that I saw the video, but I know that it rang true enough that I have watched it dozens of times since then. Any time that I doubted myself or felt frustrated with the entrepreneurial process, I watched the video. If a friend ever needed motivation, I told them to watch it. I was jealous of them for having, still ahead of them, the experience of watching it for the first time. Steve put into clear words what had been merely a high-volume murmur in my head.
If I were to quote every phrase that has echoed through my head at some point in the past few years, I’d end up transcribing the whole thing. Here are a few of the principles – which now inform my every action – that I’ve taken away from Steve’s wisdom.
You are already naked
Life is too short to not do what you love. You are here temporarily, and in the grand scheme of the universe, you are really less significant than a grain of sand. It sounds dramatic; and maybe by pure faith, you simply disagree. Your brain will try to trick you, filling you with “fear of embarrassment or failure.” People around you will off-load these fears onto you, trying to “drown out your inner voice” with doubts that are really of no consequence.
At the same time, life is long enough (if you’re lucky), that you should build something that matters to you. One little thing you do today, you may be thanking yourself for 10 years from now.
You can’t connect the dots moving forward
The world is constantly changing, with seemingly disparate subjects occasionally serendipitously colliding to create innovation. While the obscure topic that arouses your curiosity today may seem insignificant now, it may bring a new perspective in your approach to another challenge. The only way you’ll find out is if you heed its call.
The lightness of being a beginner again
Sometimes we become so familiar with our main domain of expertise that we can’t possibly see it in a new way. When you’re presented with something unfamiliar, embrace the lightness of being a beginner again. Seek out new things of which you have no knowledge. The new dots may later connect, after all.
Stay hungry, stay foolish
It’s easy to get too comfortable: to rest upon your past achievements, and stay the conservative course. This can be a nice reward for a job well done, but it’s a dangerous place to stay for too long. If you haven’t felt “hungry” for awhile, look hard for something to be hungry for – it’s out there. Don’t be afraid to be “foolish” – to risk what you’ve earned to once again follow your stomach.
That’s what Steve taught me. If you haven’t seen his talk, do yourself the favor of a lifetime and watch it. Live your life by these words, and you won’t regret a moment.
Thank you so, so much, Steve.
What did Steve teach you?
No related posts.
It was less than 10 months ago that I told you that I would be writing Design for Hackers. Less than 10 months, and the book is already available. In fact, I just signed a bunch of books for some of the amazing 138 backers of the Kickstarter campaign, and I’m also packing my bags and going on tour, starting (oxymoronically) with stops in Boston and NYC next week.
This is going to be a massive post, so here’s a little outline for easy skipping.
- how this book came to be
- the book
- why I want you to buy today
- teaming up with Hacker Monthly & KISSmetrics
- I’m going on tour!
Such a fast timeline is typical of “technology” books such as this. There was actually merely 6 months of actual writing time allotted for this book. It was a long, cold, winter holed up in my apartment writing. I put everything on hold: my client work, travel plans (I turned down a free round trip to Hawaii using a friend’s extra airline miles!), and the majority of my social life. There was no time for distractions as I dug in for the biggest project of my life: condensing my entire understanding of what makes good design into 300-or-so short pages.
A lifetime, plus six months
Six months doesn’t seem long, but as I like to tell those who ask, the book took a lifetime, plus six months, to write. It all began with my childhood obsession with drawing. I passed many boring Nebraska days, alone in my room, drawing. I drew everything: I copied from “how-to-draw” books, I drew characters from my favorite video games, and I even drew lettering. My encouraging relatives would sometimes surprise me with $5 bill for drawing when visiting their houses – while my brother mowed the lawn.
When it came time to go to college, it naturally took only moments to choose what I wanted to study: I knew I wanted to do something artistic, and – coming from the fiscally conservative land of Warren Buffett – I also wanted to get a job. “Graphic design” was the clear choice. Honestly, I wasn’t precisely sure what I was getting myself into.
But it was a great fit. I found communicating visually to be challenging and stimulating – purposeful, yet nuanced and artistic. And typography. God, how I grew to love typography. It was rational in being bound to language, yet artistic and expressive.
This love was bolstered by an opportunity to study design in the ruins of Ancient Rome. “Why would you study design in Rome?” people would ask. I wasn’t sure at the time, but I soon learned how important Roman typography was to the history of design. The influence of the letterforms that were born during this time – as products of pen and ink, of chisel and stone – can still be seen in the latest typefaces. Furthermore, understanding this was a perfect conduit through which to understand the most important principle of design: that form is a product of a mixture of intention, culture, and technology. Pandora’s box had been opened, and I was seeing the world through new eyes.
I spent my final semester of college once again locked in my room. Aside from my usual classwork, I devoured every typography book that I could find in my Unversity’s vast library. I read Chappell, Tschichold, more Tschichold, and of course Bringhurst. I conducted experiments in typography, color, and geometry, repeatedly rearranging the words from a bottle of deodorant. I gained new sensitivity not only for letters, but even more so for the tiny bits of space that surrounded them. Seeing typography in a new way, I was forced to rebuild my entire portfolio.
This obsession slowly converged with my love for computers and the internet. I drooled at my neighbors’ computer as a child, but it wasn’t until my brother left his college computer at home for a summer that I really got to spend quality time with a computer. I “broke” it countless times, having to reinstall everything. I used the web space that came with my AOL account to make my first website in 1996. It didn’t get updated much, but I got to dabble with HTML.
Then came writing. I never liked writing growing up. In fact, I hated it. I remember reading somewhere that Steven King had said that he was “constantly on fire to write” as a child. That made no sense to me. “That makes no sense to me,” I told my brother.
“You know how you feel about drawing? Well, that’s probably how he felt about writing,” he told me. At that point, it made some sense.
Responding to an irresistible internal force I started my blog in 2004. If you read the first post, it’s clear that I had no idea what I was doing. I think I mostly wanted a playground on which to improve my coding skills. A little more than a year later, I was whisked away to Silicon Valley by a startup.
Discovering the entrepreneur
What I found in California once again rocked my world. It was refreshing to be surrounded by optimism, technological savvy, curiosity for solving problems, and a culture based upon merit. This had not been my environment when growing up in Nebraska.
I was thirsty for the energy of The Valley. Coders got together for all-night software development parties (SHDH), and some startups consisted of a group of 12 guys crammed into a 3-bedroom apartment (Meetro). I rode CalTrain up to San Francisco to go to tech events – only to take the slow midnight train back to San Jose so I could go to work the next day. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people that made sense to me. I was beginning to discover: I was an entrepreneur, and there was nothing I could do to resist that.
Independence Day: starting the journey
Once I was free from employment, I vowed to never work for anyone else again. Working for VC-backed startups had taken it’s toll. I was tired at looking at my paycheck, asking myself “did I really generate that much value in the past week,” and knowing that I had not.
In the summer of 2007, I cashed out some Google and Apple stock that I had bought a few years prior, and began a long road of exploration. I wanted to remind myself that I was really good at something. I felt that if I really trusted my passions, I would eventually be able to create something of value. I wanted to recreate that feeling I had when I was alone in my room, drawing – so engrossed in what I was doing that I would skip meals.
I met up with other entrepreneurial wanderers at cafes in SF, where I now lived. We would explore random projects, helping each other with what we could, for 12 hours a day. I remember many times, leaving a cafe with the realization that I had not made a penny all day – but feeling great about the work I had done.
After a year of this, I had found enough of my entrepreneurial voice that I knew that The Valley wasn’t necessarily for me. I had met amazing people, and had learned a lot about myself, but I knew I didn’t want to raise money for a startup. I knew that the value of paying $1,000 a month for a tiny bedroom (with no job, mind you) had reached the point of diminishing returns. I wanted cheap rent, my own space, and a few cold winters to force me to really dig into my psyche, and hopefully find something good. Chicago was the logical choice.
At this point, I had gotten enough personal projects (and my savings) out of my system that I was ready to do some client work. I set up Kadavy, Inc., and – thanks to the great connections I had made in The Valley – I had some great clients.
Entrepreneurs who make money
Additionally, I was sharing space with entrepreneurs that actually made money. The Valley had taught me to believe in myself, and had unlocked creativity; but finally I was learning the nuts and bolts of business. I learned how to incorporate, invoice clients, and really how to earn my keep.
But I couldn’t stop working on side projects. Eventually, I gained enough passive income (more about that in the future), that I could comfortably pursue my creativity without being too concerned about keeping steady client work. It wasn’t much, but – after a year with no income – I was a master at living small.
This freed me up to explore the love for writing that had developed over the years. There was something exciting to me about packaging concepts into approachable and entertaining bits – like a chef mixing together unlikely ingredients to present bites with an overarching flavor, underlying notes, and a surprising finish.
As always, I wrote about what I knew: a problem I had recently solved, or something so basic that I took it for granted. Eventually it dawned on me that the one obsession that had persisted throughout my life was probably the subject on which I was best equipped to write. One blog post later, I had a book deal.
The book is here today
So, here it is, a lifetime and six months later. Everything that I know about what really makes great design great has been condensed into a few hundred pages. There are few life experiences that haven’t informed this book: from drawing in my room as a child, to studying the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii; from working with architects on typographic installations, to working with back-end developers on Django dash or Rails Rumble; from meticulously experimenting with typography, to producing designs at breakneck pace at a startup; from designing just because I loved to, to designing for economic efficiency – it’s all in here.
In it, you’ll find:
- Color Theory: How can you enliven your designs by understanding how colors interact?
- Proportion and Geometry: How can you establish a grid that is suitable for the device on which your design with be displayed?
- Size and Scale: How can you create clean design just by choosing the right type sizes?
- White Space: How can you use it elegantly to communicate clearly?
- Composition and Design Principles: How can you use them to make your designs more compelling?
- Typographic Etiquette: What tiny typographic details can make a huge difference in what you’re communicating?
Spreading design literacy
I see this book as much more than the product of lifelong obsession: I hope that it will be part of a turning point for mankind. It sounds crazy to type that, but really, that’s what I hope for. I hope that it will contribute to the revolution of design literacy.
What do I mean by design literacy? When Gutenberg invented the printing press, very few people knew how to read or write. Just a little over 500 years later, most of us are literate. We learn how to read and write in school. Clear communication is necessary for success.
Now we have tremendous publishing power. We create our own flyers, our own PowerPoint presentations, and we even tweak our Tumblr themes. We’re armed with a dizzying array of fonts – enough to make Claude Garamond blush – and most of us have no knowledge of how they really differ, or how to use them to facilitate clear communication.
I believe it naturally follows that the ability to use design to communicate clearly will eventually be as widespread as the ability to use language to communicate is today.
Starting with the Hackers
So why start with the Hackers? Because they’re the ones who are reinventing the world, one line of code at a time. They break down oppressive business models, and create markets from resources that were previously untapped. They can do this so much more effectively with good design.
Hackers have all of this power because they come from a sharing culture. If they run across an error while programming, a quick Google search or RTFM will likely lead them to a solution. This isn’t true when learning design.
Many designers try to share what they know, but since many of them truly are naturals, they have trouble articulating the decisions that they make. You can’t tell someone to “use white space,” and expect a great result.
In this book, I break down all of the factors that make a design great. I explain how different typefaces convey different moods, and why. I explain how different color arrangements convey different feelings, and how specific colors can communicate specific things in certain contexts. I’ll explain how tiny bits of white space, or tiny typographic details, can change what it is that you’re communcating.
Today – September 14th, 2011 – is the day I’d like for you to buy this book, so I’ve teamed up with a couple of partners that I know you Hackers will like, plus, I’m offering some of my own time and attention to help you with design. If you aren’t interested in my book, I don’t expect that you’ll buy these bundles just for the extra stuff (though sometimes, the value of what you’ll get is as much as that of the books themselves). Consider these giveaways a “thank you” for buying (from Amazon)
What’s in it for me (and other people)
You’ve seen similar promotions from other authors such as Tim Ferriss, Gary Vaynerchuk, or Eric Ries. These great authors do promotions like these because they want as many of you to buy at one time as possible. They’re shooting for the New York Times bestseller list, so they want you not only to preorder lots of copies of their book, but it’s not important to them where you buy the books from. All of the booksellers count towards the New York Time bestseller list for that eek.
But, I’m not expecting to be on the New York Times bestseller list. The genre of my book is far to niche for that: it’s a small but elite group of people who are not only building cool stuff with code, but who also want to build their design skill.
So, I’m shooting for a good Amazon rank. Things have been going well so far. I haven’t really actively asked anyone to buy my book yet, and it’s already an “Amazon bestseller,” ranking as highly as #13 in the “Hacking” sub-sub-category.
If you really look at that rank in context, it looks as if my book is dangerously close to being #1 overall.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, Amazon updates their sales rankings pretty rapidly. So, the more people who buy today, the higher the ranking for Design for Hackers will be.
The higher the ranking for Design for Hackers, the more people who will discover the book while randomly browsing Amazon. The more people who randomly discover the book, the faster design literacy spreads. (I won’t B.S. you either: this helps me out, too: in the form of hopefully paying out my advance, and eventually earning a small royalty per book sale).
If you’ve enjoyed my writing so far, simply buying my book benefits you. First of all, you get a great book: a full-color, exhaustive breakdown of everything visual. But, the better my book does, the more I can dedicate myself to teaching you about design. Beyond this book, I hope to continue developing content that entertains and informs. I want to teach you how to do my job – as if it were my job.
As an added bonus – as a “thank you” for buying
today , you’ll get a free 3-month digital subscription to Hacker Monthly (for new subscribers only).
Hacker Monthly condenses the best articles from Hacker News for each month in one easy-to-read issue. I know what it’s like to lose a whole day hitting “refresh” on Hacker News, reading every article that comes through. Hacker Monthly eliminates all of that, and ensures that you see the very best content that comes through Hacker News – all laid out beautifully, on any device you want (PDF, MOBI, EPUB format). Since I really have the Hacker News community to thank for the opportunity to write this book, I’m especially happy to be working with Hacker Monthly as this book launches.
Even if you buy only one copy of the book (which is plenty, really!), you get the Hacker Monthly subscription.
For those of you who buy at least three copies of the book, I’ve teamed up with KISSmetrics. In addition to the Hacker Monthly subscription described above, you’ll get a free subscription to KISSmetrics, good for as many as 55,000 “events” per month. KISSmetrics doesn’t even offer a free plan, and normally starts at $29 per month. This plan is lined up just for you guys, and is good for life.
For those unfamiliar, KISSmetrics helps you track and improve the stuff that matters about your customers. Instead of needing to wade through tons of confusing web stats, KISSmetrics keeps you focused on the metrics that will actually help your business grow.
Time remaining for Bootstrapper Bundles: These offers have expired! “Design Baller” packages below are still available.
For those individual Hackers, or small teams, I’ve wrapped up the above into a few “Bootstrapper Bundles.” These bundles can be redeemed
today only. Buy extra copies of the book to give to your co-founder, your teammates, or even donate a copy or two to your local library.
- 1 book: get a free 3-month digital subscription to Hacker Monthly. Forward your Amazon receipt to email@example.com
- 3 books: get the Hacker Monthly subscription, and a free KISSmetrics subscription, good for 55,000 actions a month, for life. Forward your Amazon receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org
- 5 books: get the Hacker Monthly & KISSmetrics subscriptions, plus an email consultation of one screenshot. I’ll give you at least 3 tips to improve your design. Forward your Amazon receipt to email@example.com
- 10 books: get the Hacker Monthly & KISSmetrics subscriptions, plus a 2-minute, publicly posted design consultation screencast. This will be just like the ones I did for my Kickstarter backers. Forward your Amazon receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org
If any of this interests you, please buy the book on Amazon »
Design Baller Bundles
Time remaining for Design Baller Bundles: 48 days, 6 hours, 31 minutes, 42 seconds ago
Understanding design isn’t just valuable for small companies and teams. I know some of you have entire departments of giant companies – or entire giant companies themselves – that are in need of design literacy. Or, maybe you just like to build forts out of books. Maybe you just hate trees and want to wipe them off of the planet. While you need a ton of books for any of this, I know you also probably need a little time to get budget approval to buy that stack of books. So, I’m giving you guys a whole week to redeem any of these bundles, which also include the Hacker Monthly & KISSmetrics subscription.
- 25 books: HM & KM, plus a 1-hour Skype consultation. We can talk about whatever you want! Forward your Amazon receipt to email@example.com
- 50 books: HM & KM, plus a 1-hour Skype presentation for your company. It will be just like I’m there! Forward your Amazon receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org
- 250 books (damn, playa!): HM & KM, plus I’ll come talk at your company, anywhere in the lower 48. Forward your Amazon receipt to email@example.com
If any of this interests you, please buy the sh*t out of this book on Amazon »
Some of you, of course, already bought a book. Or, maybe you’re one of the amazing people who backed my Kickstarter campaign at a level that got you a book. If this is you, or you already bought a book from a retailer other than Amazon, then just forward a screenshot or image of your receipt to the appropriate address above. (if you’re a Kickstarter backer, I’ll just recognize your name – we’re cool)
Does it have to be Amazon? What about Kindle & other ebook formats?
If you’re dead-set on buying from a retailer other than Amazon, or on buying in Kindle or some other electronic format, I still really, really love you; but none of these purchases are eligible for these bundles. Only paperback copies bought from Amazon will count towards the Amazon rank of the book. Thanks a ton for your interest!
Thanks to $5,827 raised from 138 amazing Kickstarter backers, I’m going on a U.S. tour. Not to waste any time at all, I’m going to be hitting Boston on the evening of September 19th, and NYC the evening of September 22nd (yes, next week, that’s how fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants this is). I’m still working out details on venues, but sign up for updates for your city here.
As I was writing Design for Hackers, I didn’t think the Kindle version would really be worthwhile. So, naturally, I didn’t even think about it as I announced that Design for Hackers was available on Amazon.
Additionally, I didn’t even think to notice that it wasn’t yet available on Kindle. My publisher had shipped the epub to Amazon in August, after all.
But, many of you have asked about the Kindle version, and – thanks to giving Amazon a nudge – now it’s here. I went ahead and bought a copy myself just a couple of hours ago, and I’m very pleasantly surprised. The words are right there for reading (and there are LOTS of words in this book), and the illustrations (with the exception, of course, for the color chapters) serve their purpose wonderfully.
So, if you’ve been waiting for the Kindle version, or wondering if it would be any good – I’d have to say that this book could still be extremely useful this way. You could do the majority of reading on the Kindle itself, and supplement with CloudReader, iPhone, or iPad for color examples. I know how much lugging around extra stuff sucks. You can start reading Design for Hackers in minutes if you wish.
Update on ranking
After doing incredibly well on the Amazon best-seller list, the paper version is still standing strong at #108 overall on Amazon, and just dropped to #2 on the Computers & Internet category. Buying the paper version helps this ranking (and any hopes of a NYTimes ranking), but if you bought the Kindle version instead – I couldn’t say I would mind that at all.
Update on out-of-stock issues
Note that Amazon currently says that Design for Hackers will ship in “10 to 14 days.” From what I’ve been told by my publisher, this isn’t accurate. Amazon is it’s own beast, and unfortunately, we have very little control over what that page says. Amazon just ordered a bunch more books, and will be getting them shortly. However, (and amazingly) all of the first print run has now been sold to vendors (such as Amazon), so Wiley is printing a new batch right now.
Thanks again, so much, for your shocking enthusiasm and support. I can’t even process what is happening right now.
7:35 this morning I was awoken by a call from my Publisher, Chris Webb from Wiley. I wasn’t expecting to hear these words any time soon in my life:
Best-selling author, David Kadavy!
I was aware that yesterday Design for Hackers ranked as highly as #18 overall on Amazon, but I hadn’t really been called this before – especially not from one of the world’s largest publishers. This was for real.
Even Chris was surprised to be saying this. Weeks earlier, as I prepared for the launch, I asked him what was the ultimate, maximum thing I could possibly expect to achieve with this book.
“Usually, we try to go for top 100 on the Computers & Internet category.”
When I asked, timidly, whether I should go for NYTimes best-seller status, he said it was “not possible.”
Just a “Technology Book”
As I understand it, the reason was that Design for Hackers is what is referred to as a “technology book,” in the publishing industry. Everything about these books is designed to get them out quickly enough that they aren’t out-of-date by the time they are released. The timeline is breakneck fast (I had 6 months to write – long by “technology book” standards), and (maybe because of this?) the price tends to be much higher (around $40 cover price) than your typical paperback (around $15). Plus, the audience is much, much smaller.
Somehow, on launch day, my book easily burned through #1 in the Computers & Internet category, all of the way to #18 overall on Amazon (currently #32). Author Central says there are over 8,000,000 books being sold on Amazon. #18. Wow.
Design for Hackers blew past many mainstream titles: Go the F**ck to Sleep, Dick Cheney’s In My Time, and even past Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body. (It’s only sort of coincidental that “4 Hours” is part of the title of this post. I really admire, and have learned a lot, from Tim’s work. This book couldn’t have happened without many things I learned from The 4-Hour Work Week)
This despite nearly everything that usually comes along with a mainstream book release. I can hardly count the number of things that weren’t exactly how it “should” be done about this launch:
- The release came earlier than I had expected, so I didn’t have time for the standard “pre-order push.” This helps determine how many books are printed and shipped, and helps with NYTimes best-seller status, so it was purportedly not that critical.
- Probably somewhat due to the above, Amazon ran completely out-of-stock within about an hour. It currently says it “Usually ships within 7 to 13 days.” Who buys a book that is that back-ordered!? Apparently, you do, and I thank you for that. (my publisher has informed me that they are working with Amazon on getting the book back in stock)
- There were ZERO reviews on the Amazon page. The book timeline has been fast, and this book is a pretty in-depth read, so there wasn’t time to get genuine reviews up. (There is currently a review up from an early reader)
- Most physical bookstores don’t have the book on their shelves. Not that there are many left. But, the other day I wanted to drop by my local Barnes & Noble to sign some books, only to find out they still weren’t in stock.
Not to mention that I have no publicist, no literary agent, and no staff.
So, how did this happen?
I’m not going to pretend this is a complete mystery just for the sake of appeal. I worked with what experience, resources, and relationships I had to do the best launch I could. I, of course, want this book to do very, very well. I talked with friends like Noah Kagan (AppSumo), and Ramit Sethi (NYTimes best-selling author of I Will Teach You to be Rich) to see what advice they had. I made sure to keep an email list, and cherish its subscribers, and to try to coordinate a launch in which I get lots of people to all buy my book at once.
There are a few things that I can posit (besides a hunger for design literacy) contributed to such an amazingly successful launch: my email list, Hacker News, and Kickstarter.
The email list
This group of folks has by far had the most impact (though most of them come from Hacker News, which I’ll talk about next). I’ve built it up since I announced the book deal. I tried to give them content as it came along, though honestly, I didn’t get as much out as I had planned because the book-writing was just too intense. I’ve had plenty of unsubscribes, but many have stuck with me along the way. I’ve gotten to know many of them, gotten their feedback and support, and learned a lot about what they need to learn about design.
So, after posting on my blog, I emailed these amazing people and explained to them my situation: my book is out > I want it to do well on Amazon > please buy it.
Incredibly, there were not one, but two links related to Design for Hackers on the front page of Hacker News all day yesterday: the blog post (which wasn’t a gigantic surprise), but even the Amazon link (which was a huge surprise). The blog post alone got over 10,000 views yesterday. 10,000 views on a post that basically says “hey, here’s my book, please buy it?”
Since the Amazon link actually performed better on Hacker News (and is now on the Amazon best-seller list), I can only imagine it got much more traffic.
A couple of weeks ago, I also had a successful Kickstarter campaign. Part of the reason I couldn’t coordinate a “pre-launch” was because it took nearly a month just to get my campaign accepted to Kickstarter. It got rejected twice, but I kept working on it. Honestly, it turned out much better because of it.
The Kickstarter campaign had a number of benefits. I also suspect it may have had the killer benefit:
- I got to practice launching. I don’t have a ton of experience launching things (other than blog posts). It was good practice in trying to convey what I had to offer strongly enough that 138 people – many whom I didn’t know before – took out their wallets and gave me money to tour the U.S..
- It built awareness. I was amazed at how much people rallied around the Kickstarter campaign. I’m sure many people who hadn’t heard of my book before did because of it’s success.
- It built my confidence. When you spend most of your day behind a computer, in your apartment by yourself, you sometimes have no idea if anyone really cares about what you’re producing. It’s always nice to have positive feedback and be reassured that there will be some people who are interested in what you’re offering.
And the killer benefit?
I ordered the books for Kickstarter backers, in succession, on Amazon yesterday. It may surprise you that it was actually much easier (and just as cost-effective) to just send the books to my Kickstarter backers through my Amazon Prime account. Yup, I paid Amazon’s full price for each of them. One side-benefit was Kickstarter uses Amazon Payments, so I got to use my balance from that to buy the books (so, I didn’t have to pay Amazon Payments fees on that portion). I knew I was going to be busy with the launch, so I hired a contractor to do the ordering for me.
Not a ton of orders. “Only” 70 books. They were doing it so fast that Amazon’s fraud department called to make sure the activity was authorized. “Are you buying things today?” “Yes, I most certainly am.”
So, while my blog post was going viral, and many of you were kindly buying my books, my Kickstarter backers were also having their books ordered for them. This may have helped with the ranking.
I say may because Amazon’s rankings are a big mystery. The only thing I really know about them is that they are updated very rapidly – probably by the hour.
I was told through a couple of sources that if I ordered all of the books from the same account that the orders wouldn’t affect my ranking. Other sources said that it might. I suppose that it probably did.
Of course, these things didn’t materialize out of thin air. This is just what I did to make the best of what I had at hand. I still like to think that people have enjoyed my writing thus far around the Design for Hackers topic, and that they are generally amazingly hungry to learn more about design. It’s still incredible to me that something as seemingly mundane as fonts and colors is of such interest to so many people.
How far can this go?
In my conversation with my publisher this morning, he conceded that now, yes, it may be possible to reach the NYTimes best-seller list. Even with the lack of reviews, and out-of-stock woes, this little “technology book” could hit the mainstream. Could you imagine that?
Imagine a discussion on NPR about the hidden meanings of different fonts.
Imagine Conan O’Brien talking about design literacy.
Imagine Oprah talking about white space. (even if she hadn’t retired, this, admittedly, would be unlikely, but you get the idea.)
Furthermore, imagine the mainstream media using the word “hacker” for what it really means: someone with a thirst for solving problems, a passion for sharing, and a vision to reinvent his or her world.
Maybe I’m just dreaming, but you’ve already exceeded my dreams. So, thank you for that.
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Everyone loves to hate Comic Sans. The child-like handwriting font is so infamous, there is a movement to try to ban it. Mention its name to the common layman (aside from a preschool teacher), and you will likely get a chuckle, mention it to a trained designer, and you’ll get a look of disgust. But what exactly makes Comic Sans so horrible?
I recently gave a talk at IgniteChicago – with less detail than what follows – about just why it is that Comic Sans is so hated:
Comic Sans vs. Helvetica
To illustrate the poor fundamentals of Comic Sans, I will compare it to Helvetica, which is such a beloved font, that there’s a movie – about typography – named Helvetica.
First of all, I should acknowledge that comparing these fonts is a bit apples to oranges (which are both fruits, mind you), in that they both convey completely different moods: Helvetica looks strong and serious, and Comic Sans is usually used in situations where one wants to look playful and casual.
Both Have Unmodulated Strokes
But they have their similarities as well. They both have a relatively unmodulated stroke, meaning that the thickness of the strokes on the fonts don’t change throughout the stroke. This sample shows how Helvetica’s form differs from that of Garamond, which has a modulated stroke. Comic Sans also has an unmodulated stroke.
This modulation is a result of Garamond’s form being derived from that of scribed letters. Before printing was available in the West, scribes lettered Bibles beautifully and patiently by hand, using a flat-tipped pen, held at a fixed angle, which influenced the form of those letters – resulting in a modulated stroke. As printing was developed, the letters created mimiced scribed letters, and – while they eventually developed their own forms – printed letterforms almost exclusively had modulated strokes until sans-serif type was popularized in the early 1800′s. The forms of most sans-serif fonts are not influenced by drawing tools.
Helvetica Manages Weight Better
Though the strokes of Helvetica’s letterforms are unmodulated, some adjustments are made to improve its legibility. For example, notice how the stroke on Helvetica gets thinner where the shoulder meets the stem on this letter n. This helps to give the letter a more even visual weight. Notice how Comic Sans is not this way. If you squint your eyes, you’ll notice that there is a disproportionately heavy area where these strokes meet on Comic Sans, while Helvetica’s weight is more evenly distributed. The ironic thing about this distinction is that Comic Sans is actually influenced from a drawing tool: a round, felt-tipped pen or marker; but, the stroke of this tool is unmodulated. Meanwhile, the letterforms of Helvetica are rationalized from predecessors, without apparent influence of a drawing tool.
This mismanagement of visual weight is the main issue that makes reading Comic Sans an unpleasant experience. Evenness of weight, or “texture” is important to the legibility and readability of typography. Letters or blocks of text that are free from disproportionately light or heavy spots allow the letterforms themselves to shine through and be read easily.
This example shows how a block of text set in Helvetica differs in texture from a block of text set in Comic Sans. I’ve blurred both blocks of text and bumped up the contrast so we can all collectively experience an objective form of squinting – to identify areas that are excessively light or dark.
First, notice the general variation of lightness and darkness in the lines of type. The Helvetica is a more uniform grey, while the Comic Sans varies widely, with some very dark spots scattered throughout the body of text. The most obvious anomolies are the letters “e” and “t,” the former of which appears like a blood stain a number of times in the example, and the latter which sticks out like a dead tree.
The Comic Sans “e” appears more dark than the other letters because it’s overall visual weight is mismanaged. When compared to Garamond and Helvetica, we can get some idea of why. Garamond’s “e” features a very large aperture, and small eye, but its stroke modulation keeps it balanced. The extreme heaviness of the stroke towards the bottom left of the “e” is balanced out by the large aperture, and the tiny eye is balanced out by the very thin bar that closes out the eye. Helvetica maintains balance by compensating for its absence of stroke modulation by having a larger eye and a smaller aperture. Comic Sans, however, by virtue of its handwriting-based style, has a tilted – incidentally “Venetian” – eye to its “e” giving it both a small eye, and a large aperture. Since there is no stroke modulation to Comic Sans, it can’t compensate for this lack of balance and thus utterly fails.
Comic Sans Has Poor Letterfit
But poor management of visual weight within the letterforms themselves isn’t the only characteristic that makes Comic Sans uneven in body text. The “letterfit” – or consideration given to the letterforms to allow them to be set together in an even manner – of Comic Sans is very poor. The letterfit of Helvetica allows for it to inherently have decent kerning tables. Kerning is the distance between two letters, and good fonts have parameters set for just about every letter combination (or “kerning tables”) in which the font may eventually be set; but if the letters themselves aren’t designed with consideration given to how the letters will relate to one another, then producing good kerning tables is impossible.
You can see that Comic Sans has an awkward gap between the “f” and the “o,” but this pairing can’t simply be more tightly kerned, as it would create an area of tension – from too close proximity – between the crossbar of the “f” and the “o.” You can see similar problems throughout the font, but this is one of the better examples. This problem could have been avoided if the leading portion of the crossbar of the “f” weren’t so long (notice that it is shorter on Helvetica). One way to compensate for these poor pairings would be to space the letters out a bit on the whole, to allow for relatively tighter pairings for problem areas such as I’ve described; but, this isn’t feasible in most computer applications, and it would do little to make up for the other blunders of Comic Sans.
So, the typographic fundamentals of Comic Sans are very poor as used in high-resolution situations, but Comic Sans was never intended to be used in this manner, and that is part of why its considered such a bad font.
Comic Sans isn’t Used as Intended
Comic Sans was originally designed to be used in the talk bubbles of a program called Microsoft Bob. The font wasn’t completed in time to actually make it into the program, but it lived on to eventually ship with Windows 95; and that’s when the font really got ugly.
Once the font was in the hands of Windows 95 users, there was no telling how people would use it. Now, it was going to be printed out on bake sale flyers, birthday party invitations, and even business cards. But remember, this font was designed to be used on-screen, and in 1994, when the font was designed, most computers for personal use – and Windows 95 – didn’t have anti-aliasing.
Anti-aliasing is the technology that makes fonts looks smooth on-screen. Without ant-aliasing, fonts look jagged – as if they were made of LEGOS®. This isn’t the end of the world, as long as the font is designed accordingly. Notice how much better the “e” of Comic Sans distributes its visual weight when aliased.
In fact, when compared to Garamond, which wasn’t originally designed for the screen, Comic Sans fares quite well in terms of readability.
Where the Hate Comes From: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time
So, the story of Comic Sans is not that of a really terrible font, but rather of a mediocre font, used incorrectly on a massive scale. Windows 95 was the first operating system to really hit it big. Just as computers were starting to pop up in nearly every home in America, Windows 95 was finding itself installed on all of those computers, and with it, the font Comic Sans. So now, nearly every man, woman, child, and bake sale organizer find themselves armed with publishing power unlike civilization had ever seen; and few of them really had any design sense.
Comic Sans Rode a Wave: Desktop Publishing
It used to be that if you lost your kitten, and wanted to make a poster, probably the most efficient way to make a flyer would be to draw one up with magic marker, cut out a picture of the cat, and go down to the nearest supermarket to make copies of it at 15 cents apiece. Then, you would post them up in your neighborhood; and – like a caveman – you would pick up a phone, call the newspaper, and place an ad to help find your kitten.
But now that you had Windows 95, a personal computer, and a printer, you could use Word to make your lost kitten poster, and print it out at home. And, wow! You could use any font you wanted. What’s that? You don’t know anything about fonts? Of course not, because you’ve never had this power before. So, guess what font makes you think about your lost kitten?
This is a monumental moment in history – right up there with the invention of printing – for common people to suddenly have the power to typeset and print documents. No big deal for awhile: some people got to enjoy making their own Christmas cards, birthday party invitations, etc. for awhile, and the small audiences of their families and coworkers suddenly had to put up with some ugly, clip art riddled Christmas cards.
But then, gradually, over the next 10 years or so, the internet got more and more popular. Now, that publishing power got even stronger: instead of flyers posted in break rooms, Comic Sans was showing up on websites, and even as the default font for many people’s emails. Now, any one person could write a message that could potentially be read by millions, in Comic Sans. This actually happened when Cleveland Caveliers owner, Dan Gilbert wrote a letter regarding the dramatic departure of LeBron James, in Comic Sans – resulting in a media storm over the poor font choice.
The Rise of the Graphic Design Degree, & The Formation of an Army of Haters
But where did all of this hatred come from? Well, while grandmas around the world were printing birthday invitations in Comic Sans, the field of Commercial Art (now known as “Graphic Design”) was enjoying the revolutionary typesetting power that the Macintosh provided. No longer did they have to blindly “spec” out type, not knowing what the final result would look like until their work got back from the typesetter. This made the production of high quality print design much cheaper, and much more viable for businesses to spend money on. So, with the increased demand for Graphic Design services, Design schools started churning out graduates at an unprecedented pace. Who doesn’t want to just sit and draw stuff for a living, right?
At this point – the late 90′s – all of these young people are suddenly seeing the world through new eyes. Having been through it myself, words cannot describe the jarring experience of Pandora’s box being opened up to reveal that 95% of every designed thing you see is ugly. Terrible font choices, poor kerning, haphazard color choices, and stupid concepts suddenly assault your eyes once you learn about design principles, color theory, typography, and concept development. A large portion of conversations between myself and other self-righteous design students were – and still are – about how terribly designed everything is: campus wayfinding signage, the t-shirt for the latest toga party, and yes, lost kitten posters.
But most of these design students were – and still are – blind to what a monumental, mammoth, incredible, revolutionary, huge thing was occurring. Their grandmother could typeset and print out as many lost kitten posters as she wanted. She can even make a website about her kitten, and someone in Tanzania can read about it (this is probably only remarkable to you if you don’t live in Tanzania). This makes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible look like the non-self-inflating Whoopie cushion!
The Clash of Knowledge & Ignorance
Eventually, regular people got more familiar with this publishing power, desktop publishing applications – like Microsoft Publisher – became more widely available, and more people started to get the hang of publishing on their own. This really started to encroach on the territory of these fresh design graduates, many of whom were finding being a Graphic Designer to really suck: a client may have her nephew design a brochure, and hire you to clean it up, or worse yet – take a stab at it herself.
Meanwhile – this is the last decade or so – the same invention that made Graphic Design easier was making it way harder: print was dying, and the web was growing. Now, clients are trying to direct designers themselves, and the designers need to learn how to code web pages just to stay relevant. This doesn’t sit well with most designers.
So, you see, Comic Sans is an archetypal enemy of the Graphic Designer. Its not only an unattractive font, but it also represents the invisible, evil force that is making the “print” designer less and less relevant. A natural reaction to being threatened is violence, and the hatred for Comic Sans is arguably violent.
A Well-Designed Future
Comic Sans is at the disposal of nearly everyone with a computer; but that doesn’t mean that we will always have to be subject to its awkward forms. The spread of Comic Sans – a pretty bad font – is the result of the spread of an inarguably good technology. Just as the advent of movable type eventually lead to a spread of literacy, the advent of personal publishing should lead to the spread of design literacy; and with it, a populace too informed to stoop to using Comic Sans.
I’m hoping to help with the spread of this design literacy – starting with software developers – with my book, Design for Hackers. If you’re interested in learning more and getting a few email updates for me, sign up for the email list.
Also, I’ll be doing a reading from my book at SXSW Interactive, if you’ll be around.
Until then, you can follow me on Twitter here, if you’re into that.
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One of the most often overlooked factors of design – by beginning and even professional designers – is that of the delicate use of white space. By really considering the way that white space works, you can communicate more elegantly, and create design that has a more “clean” look. By really considering the way white space works, you’ll be less likely to use extraneous ornamentation such as rule lines, and you’ll be less likely to change fonts and colors just to differentiate pieces of information in your design.
The most powerful concept in really understanding the way white space works is that of 1+1=3. My introduction to this concept was in the book “Envisioning Information”, by information design guru Edward Tufte. If you like what follows, go read his books.
White Space is Something
When we think of white space – or negative space – many of us think of nothing. But to understand that 1+1=3, you have to understand that white space is, in fact, something.
If I put the words “dogs” and “furry” right next to each other, you can hardly distinguish the words, but for your knowledge of the English language. You probably have yet to be introduced to the word “dogsfurry.”
But, just by separating those two words by a piece of white space, they are now perceived as separate pieces of information.
But, since they are still relatively close to each other, and lined up with one another, we see them as belonging together in some way. This phenomenon is described by Gestalt theory, which posits that we view things as more than the sum of their parts.
If we divide up this white space with a simple rule line, we now have not one, not two, but three design elements separating our information: the rule line, and the two pieces of white space that flank it.
Most tabular data is laid out this way by default. Supposedly these rule lines help guide our eye the navigate the table and see which column and row with which each data point is associated. So, you often see tables that are designed like so:
These rule lines hold no information. This table may seem fine at first glance, until you learn that you could have an equally (or more, as I’d argue) effective table with no rule lines at all:
Our brains connect these pieces of information without the aid of rule lines. Because these things are lined up, we can make the proper associations. Note, also, that I have italicized the values to further differentiate them.
Of course, not every table is this simple. With exceptionally wide tables, it can be truly difficult to keep track of which row of data you are scanning. This is where alternating dark and light backgrounds can come in handy.
This has the added benefit of making the table a little more visually interesting, which – alone – is not a good reason to do this.
Notice that the shaded backgrounds do not have rule lines to signal where they begin and end. The end of the shaded background alone is enough to signal this. Also notice what a beautifully crisp appearance the left and right side of the table has: because the shaded rows line up, we perceive this as a crisp edge.
Taking it Further
Understanding white space in this way won’t only make your tables cleaner. This table is just a small petri dish within which you can see at a very detailed level how white space, information, and our perception all interact.
This little error message looks laughably bad. Here are some of the problems it has:
- Too many factors are being used: font, a colored background, a rule line. The (imaginary) designer wasn’t sure why it didn’t look right because he didn’t know how to manage white space.
- There’s no rational relationship between the amount of white space between the elements, and the sizes of the elements themselves.
- There’s no rational relationship between the sizes of the various elements, so it’s communicating unclearly. What is more visually important, the icon, or the main “hey you!” message?
This one looks much nicer. Here’s a few reasons why:
- There are few factors being used. The white space is managed well, so the designer can get away with this.
- There is a rational relationship between the amount of white space between the elements, and the sizes of the elements themselves. For example, the white space between the “hey you!” heading and the smaller message is about the same height as the smaller message itself.
- There is a rational relationship between the sizes of the various elements. For example, the icon is about the same height as the main “hey you!” message. The icon is clearly the dominant element, and anchors the eye.
Next time you’re designing something, before you throw in a rule line, or a shaded background, or even a font change, think about the white space first. Doing so can make a big difference in what you communicate, and make your designs look cleaner.
If you liked the above, I’m very glad! If you liked the above, and love the SXSW Interactive conference as much as I do, please vote for my panel: “White Space: Shaping Nothing for Clean Design.” Voting closes at midnight CST (this) Friday night!
I’m already working hard on this talk, so I’ll be trying it out on my book tour, for which I’m raising money (with surprising success!) on Kickstarter. If you’re in any of the cities on my tour, get updates on the status through email.
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Last week, I signed a contract to publish Design for Hackers: Reverse-Engineering Beauty with John Wiley & Sons. I still have plenty of work left to get this book onto shelves – and to exist at all – but I’m extremely excited about it, and wanted to share the news with everyone, especially visitors coming from Hacker News (more on that in a bit).
What is Design for Hackers?
My goal for Design for Hackers is to help Software Developers and Entrepreneurs (Hackers) – who are interested in design – see the world the way a designer does. Hackers are used to teaching themselves whatever is necessary to achieve their vision; and for most things this is relatively straightforward. If they are learning to program, and come across an error, they can do a quick Google search. If they want to know how to do their own bookkeeping, they can learn about this easily with a book or by looking around on the web. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix found when you Google “my design sucks.”
The problem with most advice given by designers is that it usually consists of rules (“use no more than two fonts”) that are often conflicting and easy to forget. Naturally, the decisions made by designers are difficult to put into words, and many designers are better with images than words. Rather than teaching you to fish, they give you a fish. When you’re still confused, they may shrug their virtual shoulders and explain that its just their natural talent that makes them able to design. This is usually true, but I believe natural talent is not a requirement for understanding design – especially not for naturally curious people who can teach themselves nearly anything, given the right information.
There are some very consistent principles behind what makes a design visually compelling, and these principles are as important on the screen of your iPad as they were on the streets of ancient Rome. My goal is to weave these principles into your brain using examples from today, as well as from the history of art, architecture, and design. I will tell stories and present examples that will infect your brain, make you look smart when you retell them at parties, and change the way you see the world around you. I’ve been telling my friends, “it’s like Freakonomics, for Design.”
How did this book deal come about?
The way this book deal came about just affirms my beliefs about Inviting Serendipity. I started with a very strong desire to present at SXSW. I love the conference, I love to share knowledge, and I really wanted to contribute. But, I wasn’t sure what I had to offer. I brainstormed for a couple of weeks, bouncing ideas off of friends, amongst them that of Being Yourself for a Living. Nothing really stuck.
Then I remembered the talk that a friend encouraged me to give at BarCamp Chicago a couple of years ago, Design for the Coder’s Mind: Reverse-Engineering Visual Design. I at least had something to start with, but the title needed more pop. Since I also love the community on Hacker News, and that community overlaps with that of SXSW, I settled on Design for Hackers.
But 30% of SXSW’s panel selection process is based upon votes on their Panel Picker; and, unfortunately, I am not famous enough to get a considerable amount of votes. Fortunately, I had previously had some luck in getting some articles on the front page of Hacker News, so I set out to do that again, with the hopes of directing the community to vote on the Panel Picker.
Hacking the System
The plan was to write sample content related to my topic and get on the front page of Hacker News – which isn’t necessarily easy to do at will. So, I spent a couple of weeks drafting, refining, and crafting Design for Hackers: Why You Don’t Use Garamond on the Web. The topic felt great to write about, and the words came easily, tickling my brain on the way to my fingertips; but just when I thought the post was good, I would iterate again, digging as deeply into the details as possible. The goal was to to make it so brain melting that the HN community couldn’t help but love it.
And it worked! The article made it to #1 and brought in over 20,000 views within a couple of days. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing how many votes it was bringing in on the Panel Picker.
I said I most certainly had. Writing a book has been a nebulous sort of “wouldn’t that be nice” goal; but I wasn’t sure about what I would write. I had thought of writing about Being Yourself for A Living, but I didn’t have much with which to work. Since Goals are Bananas, I figured I would just keep swinging through the trees and see what happened.
But this idea really made sense for me to write about at this point – making it The Perfect Salad. My childhood obsession with drawing, which grew into an adulthood obession with design and typography, which melded with a fascination for the internet and knowledge sharing; the itch I scratched with that first post on my blog, which brought me to Silicon Valley – all were melding with my experiences of studying typography in Rome and working at an architecture firm, to create what I really felt like was a unique point of view. This was Being Myself for a Living.
So it felt like the right idea, but author friends of mine warned me what a huge undertaking – with little immediate reward – writing a book is. After a few months of weighing all of the considerations, and getting the right agreement together, it still felt like the right thing for me to do at this point. It might not make me rich, but the satisfaction of having people tell me “[I] blew [their] mind” is enough.
What about that original goal?
The funny thing is, after two rounds of selections, my panel hasn’t yet been accepted to SXSW – maybe the book deal will help. UPDATE: SXSW has accepted me into their book reading program! I’ll be presenting about my book on Monday, March 14th. Sign up for the email list for further updates. See you at SXSW!
So, here we go
Design for Hackers: Reverse-Engineering Beauty is due out in September of 2011, in all major book outlets: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc..
Be a part of it: sign up for updates
To start off the book writing process, I want to start getting closer with my most loyal readers. So, I am starting an email newsletter, where I’ll share with you some of the techniques I developed to turn my passion for designing and writing into a book deal. I’ll be testing out some of the content I’m working on for the book – seeking your feedback; but I’ll also be sharing some of my most closely-held secrets I’ve used to get this book deal. I plan to send out about an email a month, and have already started drafting some sample content. Find out:
- How 6 of my last 9 blog posts made it to the front page of Hacker News, and what my writing style has to do with good design.
- How I turned my blog into a passive revenue stream (including over $20,000 in one year from *one* blog post), freeing myself to follow my creativity all the way to a book deal.
- How I have turned my blog into a virtual R&D department, providing me valuable data to tell me what “spin-off” sites to develop for more passive revenue.
Since the book is Design for Hackers, the newsletter will of course be filled with more brain-liquefying observations on design-related things I’ve seen around the web, and sneak previews of content that won’t be seen otherwise until the book launches in September 2011. Some things I’m kicking around for the book:
- Why designers should stop whining about crowd-sourcing, and cash in on the revolution
- Why even the ugliest “lost dog” poster is beautiful
- Why SEO is Design
I’ll also be asking for your help in developing content for the book, asking questions about what great design you’ve been seeing, and what challenges you face as you learn about design.
I’ll, of course, still be exploring the topic right here at kadavy.net.
Pardon me now, as I had better get writing.
The basics of SEO are stupidly simple; and it seems like everyone knows – or at least pretends to know – those basics. Still I get asked about SEO pretty often. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’ll share what I know, and hopefully it will help some people.
I’ll be talking Google-centrically because Google will likely account for the vast majority of your inbound search traffic. Additionally, if you rank highly on Google, you will probably do pretty well on other search engines anyway.
I’ve been writing with SEO in mind – and using best practices as best as I can – on kadavy.net for over 6 years now, and my search traffic has steadily increased.
Why SEO is Important
SEO is the “location, location, location” of doing business on the web. If you have a bicycle shop on a busy street, you’re going to sell some bikes. It doesn’t matter how high your prices are, or how rude your employees are – you are going to sell some bikes. Likewise, if you rank highly on Google for “bicycles,” you are going to sell a lot of bikes, because a lot of people search for “bicycles.” That is your foot traffic.
I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows just what it means to rank highly on a keyphrase. If you are selling a product or service, ranking highly on keyphrases related to that product or service is essentially free money. If you rank first on Google for “bicycles,” (which is darn near impossible, by the way) you will get a huge number of visitors on your site looking for bicycles, and it will cost you nothing. This is called “organic” traffic, and it’s what SEO builds for you.
But, some businesses pay big bucks for such traffic by buying Google’s AdWords. In doing so, their site shows up next to Google’s organic search results, and they pay whenever someone clicks through to their site. For “bicycles,” those businesses pay an average of 71 cents per click. For “cambria bicycle” they pay an average of $12.55.
Paying for traffic like this can be profitable if the campaigns – and conversion within your site – are managed carefully; but obviously free traffic is ideal, and translates to big sales. This is why SEO is important.
Choosing the right keywords
Before you make sure you’re using SEO best practices, it’s helpful to have some idea what keywords, or keyphrases, you would like to rank highly on. But, just because you pick a descriptive keyphrase, doesn’t mean people will find you. It has to be a keyphrase they are actually searching for. I kick ass on “lump in mouth” because that’s what people search for when they have a mucocele. Most people don’t search for “mucocele” because they don’t even know what one is – until they get a lump in their mouth – and search for it.
Ideally, each page on your site should compete well on a couple of keyphrases that are descriptive of the content on your site, have reasonable search volume, and on which you stand some chance of competing.
You can find out the volume of keyphrases by using the Google Keyword Tool. If you’re just starting a site where you sell bicycles, it would be nice to compete well on the keyword “bicycles,” which has a monthly search volume of over 7 million searches per month – but you don’t stand a chance as a new site. If your site is for a bicycle shop in Chicago, then you’d probably have better luck competing on “bike shop in chicago,” which has a measly 390 searches. Once you dominate that keyphrase, then you can start trying to compete on “chicago bicycle shop,” which has 1,300 searches.
A good place to start to find keyword opportunities from your site is your existing data. If you don’t already have a stats package set up on your site, you should. Google Analytics is great and it’s free. If you happen to already have Google Analytics installed, you can find the keywords that visitors are using to get to your site under Traffic Sources > Keywords. Here you can see what keywords are bringing in the most traffic, and if you’ve set up e-commerce or marketing (such as lead-generation) goals, you can see what keywords are actually converting into business. You are likely to find a few keywords you didn’t expect, that you happen to rank pretty highly upon. It’s a good idea to aim to build upon this success by targeting these keywords further, or targeting related keyphrases. Look for synonyms that you may not already be using (bump ~ lump, mouth ~ lip), and update your content accordingly.
Ranking highly for your target keywords/keyphrases
There are endless complex theories on just how a site ranks highly on search engines. Some of those theories have no basis at all. The truth is, nobody except little robots at Google knows just how a site ranks higher than another. What we do know is that 1) the content of a page, and how it is coded, and 2) the authority of other pages that link to a page – especially for the topic in question – are the most powerful dictators of how well a page ranks on search engines.
Content and coding
The content of a page – meaning the words within that page – have a huge impact on how well a page ranks for given keywords. If your target keywords don’t appear on your page, you will have a hard time ranking highly for that keyword. It’s not impossible, but I’ll get to that later. Relevant content has to be within your page – as code (meaning not as an image) – for search engines’ crawlers (the robots that read your pages) to read that content, and rank you for the appropriate keywords. This is a strong reason why Flash websites do poorly on search engines, and former print designers that just slice up a design on a WYSIWYG program make poorly-performing websites: the real content gets locked away, where crawlers can’t access it.
It’s also essential to use good coding practices in building your pages. There are standards for writing HTML content, and they help rank chunks of content within a page in order of importance. This helps search engines know the difference between the important – and less important – information on a page, and thus rank that page for various keywords.
Following is a run-down of important content-based factors that dictate how your pages rank on search engines.
Before a search engines’ robot can read the HTML on your page, it will read the URL at which that page resides – and the content of this URL has pretty heavy influence on how that page ranks on search engines. So, if my bike shop is at http://bikeshopinchicago.com, it will rank very highly on “bike shop in chicago.” If I have a page for Cambria Bicycles, I may want to put it at http://bikeshopinchicago.com/cambria-bicycles. Note that you shouldn’t automatically pick your top keyphrase to be the domain that you purchase, as branding – and planning for the future expansion of your business – are both important; but you should have search engine (and human) friendly URLs that are in plain english instead of http://example.com/?p=34.
The Title Tag of a web page is the strongest piece of information indicating what a page is about. Many businesses make the mistake of naming this page “Home Page,” or ignoring it altogether (this is why there are so many pages on the web called “Welcome to Adobe GoLive…”). For any given page on your site, your Title Tag should contain the exact keyphrases that you want to rank highly on. If it is the home page – or if your business name contains your target keyphrases, you could then follow that with your site’s name. So, if you’re business is David’s Bike Shop, your title should be “Bike Shop in Chicago – David’s Bike Shop.”
The meta tags also contain some information that search engines give strong authority to when evaluating a page. There are several different meta tags, but the one that you should concern yourself with is the “description” meta tag. This is a very short (like around 200 characters) description of what the page contains, and search engines not only use its content to evaluate what a page is about, but also to display to users when your page is listed in search results.
Then we have the headers within your HTML document. These are ranked in order of importance: H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, and H6. There should only be one H1, and this should probably be used for the actual title of your page (which may or may not be the same as your title tag). Some people like to use the H1 for their logo and link to their home page – it depends upon how narrow of a focus your site is. So, if you have a long document, full of text, it’s a good idea to break it up a bit by inserting some useful headers that also happen to contain some of your target keywords.
Content – EM, STRONG, IMG
Finally, you have the actual content of your page, which is hopefully helpful, interesting, and – incidentally – contains your target keyphrases. In addition to your target keywords, your content will probably bring in visitors on a number of “long tail” keyphrases that just happen to show up naturally within your great content.
Within your content, you will hopefully have some images, since they are useful for users. Much like the URL of your page is important to search engines, the file name of your images is also important, and should be descriptive. So, if you have a JPEG of a mountain bike, your image should be called mountain-bike.jpg, or – even better – include the color and brand: mountain-bike-schwinn-blue.jpg. The “alt” attribute of your IMG tag should also be descriptive, so “blue schwinn mountain bike” would do. Don’t forget, you can end up with a large amount of traffic from Google Image Search, if you use descriptive alt attributes.
The italic and bold HTML tags (EM, and STRONG, respectively) also hold higher authority in an HTML document than your plain content (which sits inside of P tags). When you italicise or bold words within your content, it lets search engine crawlers know that those words are important and relevant to the point of the page in question, so it’s a good idea to do a little of this – provided it supports the experience for your human users.
Authority of linking pages
Ranking highly on Google is ultimately all about the authority of your page or site on the keywords in question. This concept of authority also applies generally to your site just being an authoritative site. Google uses a ranking called “PageRank” to measure how much authority a given page has, on a scale of 1-10. There is a complex algorithm behind PageRank that you shouldn’t concern yourself with, but Google does provide a Firefox plugin called Google Toolbar, which shows what the PageRank of a page supposedly is. 7 is considered a very high PageRank. NYT.com is a PR 9. Kadavy.net’s home page is a 4, which is considered to be decent for a personal blog.
There are a number of factors that go into determining a given page’s PageRank. While the actual algorithm is an ever-changing secret, here are a few factors that are widely accepted to be a part of the algorithm:
- Age of domain: how long has the domain been registered?
- Authority (or PageRank) of pages that link to the page from other domains.
- Date of expiration of domain: is the domain expiring soon, or has the owner registered it a couple years into the future? This is in one of Google’s patent filings.
Content of linking pages, and of anchor text of link
To put it very simply, when other pages on a given topic link to your page of a related topic, search engines generally will rank you higher on that topic. If the PageRank of the page linking to your page is particularly high, Google will rank you higher for that.
Also important is the actual “anchor text” – or the content between A tags – of the link that links to your page. So, a link that says “Bike Shop in Chicago” will do more to rank “David’s Bike Shop” higher for searches for “bike shop in chicago” than if the anchor text says “David’s Bike Shop.” I’d be remiss to not mention that people once did this on a mass scale before (known as a Google bomb) such that the top hit on Google for “miserable failure” was once the Wikipedia page for George W. Bush. Such a Google bomb was implemented by tons of people doing this: miserable failure.
The A tag also has a couple of attributes, such as the “title” attribute, which can have descriptive text applied to it. I haven’t seen anything to make me think that using this title attribute helps with SEO, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. The rel attribute can have a value of “nofollow” which tells Google’s crawlers not to follow the link, and therefore to not give the page any extra authority based upon the link. Most blogs give all links in comments a rel=”nofollow” attribute to discourage SEO-minded spammers from exploiting the comment functionality.
Everything in moderation
So, if you took all of this knowledge literally, you might stuff all of your pages full of keywords to the point that they didn’t make any sense, and contact site owners all over the web, purchasing links, and stuff all of your pages full of links – full of your keywords – to other pages. You may even obscure these links by making them the same color as your background, or hiding them with CSS.
Using some of these tactics in extreme moderation may even help you a little bit, but anything more than that will be heavily frowned upon by Google. They supposedly take very sophisiticated measures to detect use of these tactics, and will downgrade a site for doing so – which is something you do not want to experience (think immediate loss of tons of business). There are tons of shady tactics for getting links. As a general rule of thumb: if it feels like its deceiving someone, Google probably has some way to detect it, and won’t like it.
Getting the content / getting the links
Having a site full of relevant keywords, and being linked to by sites with relevant keywords, is a means to an end, not an end itself. You achieve this by using good coding practices, generating content, and generating useful and compelling content that others want to link to.
Here are a few legit ways – that Google doesn’t frown upon – to get content and links to your site:
- Have a blog. To rank highly on keywords, it’s pretty much a must to have useful content, rich with your target keywords, that is updated on a regular basis. A blog is the best way to have these attributes. Unfortunately, Google still ranks some pretty shitty content really high, so I’d say that having some not-so-well-written content is better than having none at all; but hopefully this will change when they improve or someone gets around to building a better search engine.
- Directories. DMOZ is the highest authority directory, and is free – but it’s nearly impossible to get into. There are plenty of paid directories out there, but the only ones I know of that are definitely high-authority are Yahoo! Directory and Business.com. Be wary of other directories or consult a professional. Then, still be wary.
- Write guest posts on other sites. Find a high-authority site that your target audience reads, and pitch a guest post to the author. They’ll get great content, and you’ll get links, and exposure to their audience. Ramit wrote a fantastic article on writing and pitching guest posts.
- Write link bait. The best way to get lots of links is to write content that other people will link to, share, and talk about. A really thorough, information-rich how-to (like this post) is a good example, but writing posts that are very controversial works well, too (unfortunately). Such posts then get shared on social news sites such as Digg.com, and on Facebook and Twitter. Do lots of research and make some pretty graphs, and your chances of getting lots of links increases again.
- Find your audience. When you’ve written really great, useful, and interesting content, get as many people in your target audience to see it as you can. Submit to a social news site in a category where those people hang out, or buy traffic in your target category on Stumbleupon (5 cents per visit, with a chance of unlimited free traffic). Another good tactic is to find an already popular post on your target topic, find other sites that have linked to it, and pitch to the authors of those sites.
You already knew all of this stuff about SEO, but applying this knowledge is all that you need to be well on your way to ranking highly and having money streaming into your business. There are probably some very reputable SEO firms out there who are great at applying this knowledge, and more; but be wary – because there is so much mystery behind SEO, the field is rife with consultants that overcharge and use tactics that will either only work in the short-term, or will get your site downgraded.
I’m sure there are tons of other great tips I didn’t cover – or maybe I’m just plain wrong about a thing or two. Talk about it in the comments!
Related around the web:
- Search Engine Ranking Factors – A survey of SEO professionals on what is important to search rankings.
- WordPress Optimization: How I Reduced Page Load Time by 75% – Google also recently started ranking based upon page load speed
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I’ve been writing on kadavy.net since May 31, 2004 – 6 years and a few months. Last month was the first month that kadavy.net reached 100,000 pageviews, which is a modest achievement, but at least I know that there are many blogs that will never reach this milestone. Even more gratifying is just looking at how traffic has grown over the years (Google Analytics has only been available since November of 2005).
Sure, many sites grow much bigger, and much faster, but I think the value of slow, steady, growth like this is often overlooked, and is at the core of Being Yourself for a Living. Here’s how its done:
Stay true to yourself
This sounds incredibly trite and cheesy, but its really true. Its easy to get distracted by the latest trends, and spiral into writing useless “top 10″ posts about how to create the coolest Twitter background, but you have to follow your passions, interest, and experiences. The things that are really hot at any given point do have plenty of importance, but nothing is more important to focus upon than the unique perspective that you can provide. Fortunately, there’s only one you, complete with things that have happened to you, things you think about, and things you can’t help but do. While you are unique, you’re probably just unique enough that there are plenty of people who are interested in the same things that you are, and are interested in what you have to say.
Be patient, be committed
I was talking to an elderly man in my neighborhood the other day. He has been living in Lincoln Park, Chicago since he bought his house more than 50 years ago. A lot has changed in the neighborhood since then, and – as you can imagine – his house is worth much more than when he purchased it (even when adjusted for inflation).
It’s stories like these that have caused many people to seek real estate as an investment – often to their own financial peril. “God only made so much dirt, and there will always be more people,” they say. The problem is, the time to lay claim to your piece of dirt has mostly passed, and the way we interact with information has altered the way we interact with “dirt.” But information – and experiences – are not like dirt. There are always more.
What is 10 years, really, in the grand scheme of your life? If it takes you 10 years to build something great, there’s plenty more life to live; and if you’ve stayed true to yourself, you’ve had a lot of fun building it. Many entrepreneurs dream of starting a company, giving up most of it in exchange for funding, building said company, and cashing out 3 years later for millions. There is so much fervor around the success stories that have worked this way, sometimes its hard to recognize whether that is, in fact, what you really want from your career and life.
I once wanted this, too; but I can say with certainty today that I no longer do. I don’t love money enough, I’m not interested enough in such bragging rights, to muster enough motivation to put up with what a personal drain I imagine that to be. I don’t know if those are the things that motivate such founders, but I’ve definitely met some for whom money and acheivement are their driving forces. Why would you work so hard on something if you didn’t love it? If you loved it so much, why would you sell it? After 6 years of tinkering around, I’m finally making a very modest living off of the Kadavy, Inc. family. Most of this happened in the last year (I hope to share more about that in future posts). I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 4.
When you’re true to your curiousities, and accept that something will take a long time, you can more easily enjoy the whole process. By using only the resources you have at hand, whatever it is you build is yours the whole way.
Write with SEO in mind
Most posts on kadavy.net have come from answering this question: what do I know that I could teach someone else, and how would they search for it? When I had a lump in my mouth, and agonized over just what it might be, once I finally knew what the issue was, I set out to help inform other people who might be searching for the same thing. Instead of writing about mucoceles (whatever those are), I wrote about mucoceles using the language someone would use to search for them. This experience has paid for its own medical bills and then some. By using SEO best practices, you can make sure the people who are looking for what you have to share – actually find it.
Find an audience
Whatever websites there are that you like to read, those are probably the ones where you can find your audience. The first breakout post for kadavy.net was Eight Life Hacks for Health, Wealth, & Happiness. It was during the budding days of “Lifehacks,” and Lifehacker, naturally was a good place for such content. I thought of the post while in the shower, wrote it and published once I got out of the shower, and sent it in a quick e-mail to Lifehacker, who then published it on their site. I’ve had good luck being covered by Lifehacker a number of times over the years, and lately I’ve had good luck with the (amazing) community on Hacker News. You have to find out where your audience reads, and get in front of their eyeballs – usually, this will take some effort on your part (like sending an e-mail). Guest posts are another great way to reach an audience, though I’ve never actually done one.
Build upon your successes
Not every blog post is of use to a lot of people. Unsurprisingly, not that many people are looking for the meaning behind the movie “swimming pool,” or trying to figure out how to set proper book margins. But, a surprising amount of people have lumps in their mouths, or want to transfer their itunes library. Aside from poking around on Google Keyword Tool, its hard to know if many people will really care about a given blog post; but when you do have a successful post, build upon it. Write related posts, research related keywords and incorporate them into the post, or build a whole separate site. If you have a post that goes viral, try to think about what elements made it interesting to your particular audience. I’ve found that explaining design principles by using popular examples is apparently as much fun for others to read about as it is for me to write about.
So, take it or leave it. I’m not rich. I’m not famous. But, I got 100,000 page views last month and I’m happy about it. It may have taken a long time, but I’m not stopping any time soon. Hopefully some of my advice can help you reach 1,000,000 page views.
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Amongst designers – especially print designers - Garamond is considered one of the best fonts in existence. It’s timeless, and very readable. But, because of the limitations of current display technologies, it’s not a good font to use in web copy – even with the advent of font embedding methodologies such as TypeKit and Google Font API.
One of the most important principles behind every good piece of design is that the designer has to master his or her medium. With any medium – whether it’s pencil and paper, steel and glass, or pixels – the designer has to work with strengths and limitations. Work with these characteristics, and the design stands a chance to be good – work against them, and there is no chance.
Apple’s lead designer, Jonathan Ive knows this. He recently said
The best design explicitly acknowledges that you cannot disconnect the form from the material – the material informs the form…
Medium and Form in Type History
Typography is the perfect vehicle with which to illustrate this concept throughout history. From the beginning, the forms of our letters have been influenced by the tools we used to create them.
This cuneiform inscribed tablet is an early example of how medium influenced form in written communication. You can see, looking at these pictograms, that they are made up of a series of indentions that are pretty much identical. This is because they were formed using a wedge-shaped stylus.
As this language was replaced in the west by our current roman characters, and the tools which we used changed, so did the form of our letters. Some of the best examples of early typography using roman characters are from – you guessed it – the Roman empire.
This is graffiti from the ancient city of Pompeii. It was created using a brush, and this is apparent in the letterforms. You can see there’s a great deal of variation in the strokes that make up the letters, and they all terminate with a soft point, just like you would expect from a brush.
Here’s a picture I took from Pompeii that I blogged about several years ago – dating back to the same time (remember, this city was frozen in time when it was buried under volcanic ash in 79AD). Only this time, the sign was chiseled in stone – and you can see how this has influenced the letters: all of the strokes of the letters are uniform in width, and to make the ends of those strokes looks nice – serifs were added. You can see little spur serifs from where the chisel was applied perpendicular to the stroke of each of these letters.
Now, moving more quickly through history, we have letters from the column of Trajan (which inspired today’s Trajan font), which were formed first by brush, then by chisel (it would have been awkward to chisel letters like the brush-drawn ones in the earlier Pompeii example). Then we moved on to lead and wood-cut printing, which first imitated work done by scribes with pens.
Once actual drawing tools were a smaller part of the design equation, typographers started to get more theoretical with their designs – creating constraints of their own – fonts like Bodoni are geometrically rationalized, as they were created in a medium (cast metal) with relatively few restrictions.
A Little Too Much Freedom?
In modern web typography, we still have the restriction that the letters of our alphabet take certain forms, but many restrictions have been removed. Rather than only having a couple of fonts available in our typecases, there are thousands. So, this makes it easy for bad habits to develop, such as trapping our information in images, or using fonts that just aren’t good for the web.
So, what makes a font bad for the web? There’s the widely-known issue of availability of fonts on the computers of our audience members – this, of course, is why we’re usually using widely-available fonts like Arial, Verdana, Georgia, Times New Roman etc.. Now there are some pretty feasible ways of using whatever fonts we want – methods like SIFR, Typekit, and Google’s new Font API, but that still doesn’t mean you should use just any font. Even great classics like Garamond can be a disaster on the web, so its better to use a modern font that has been drawn with the screen in mind.
And the reason behind this is that our display technology isn’t up to par with paper. You can see here a comparison of the great classic font, Garamond, blown up (as it might look on paper), next to a detail of what it would be anti-aliased at 12px height on a modern computer screen. You can see that it doesn’t look so good on-screen, because it’s just made up of a bunch of blocks of color.
Working With the Screen
So, the popular web fonts (Arial, Verdana, Georgia, and Times New Roman) are such not only because of their wide availability, but because they are drawn with the screen’s limitations in mind.
This Flash animation that I created illustrates how pixels distort curvilinear form – such as that of typography. It’s the same series of concentric rings, but as it changes sizes, you can see that a moiré effect results from trying to draw these rings out of mere pixels. So, the most web-appropriate fonts are drawn with these limitations in mind.
This illustration shows just what I mean by that. Georgia reads better on screen than Garamond primarily because it has a higher x-height (the height of an “x”), and – as a result – a larger eye. This prevents letters such as “e” from becoming muddled and unreadable, and overall makes the letters actually look larger. The notes on this illustration are in 9px Verdana with no anti-aliasing; and you can see those letters read very crisply, as this font was made for such an application.
Georgia has a huge advantage over Garamond on-screen because it was designed to be displayed as such from the very beginning, when it was designed by Matthew Carter for Microsoft in the mid-90′s. This has manifest itself in sharp serifs on Georgia, rather than more subtly modeled ones on Garamond. Look at little curve on the bottom of Garamond. This gets blurred at smaller sizes, and hurts the legibility of Garamond.
This limitation of screen technology has been embraced, and taken to extremes, though.
Starting in the late 90′s and early 00′s, we saw lots of pixel fonts being used in Flash, such as these from Craig Kroeger’s miniml.com, which are designed to be used at specific sizes, with no anti-aliasing.
When it was more common for computers to have only 256 colors, which caused dithering, designers embraced that constraint to inform their designs. Though ostensibly created to minimize bandwidth (another constraint of medium), designs that were created for the5k embraced dithering and lucidly used every pixel.
The “Web 2.0″ design trends of the last five years or so, are thanks to display quality and bandwidth improving, removing some of this constraint. In 2000, 12% of web users had only 256 colors on their monitors – in 2010, 97% have over 16 million colors (the number of colors available has a big impact on how crisply type, images, or *gradients* are displayed). This has put into the hands of designers a color palette beyond that of CMYK printing, with increased bandwidth to push it through.
Additionally, displays are cramming in more pixels per inch (ppi). The cheap Dell monitor I’m typing this on is displaying at 100ppi, and my MacBook Pro is displaying at about 115ppi. Compare that to the iPhone 4, which displays at an impressive 326ppi. Now, we’re starting to get some display technologies that are approaching the quality of paper when it comes to displaying letterforms readably.
So, maybe some day Garamond can make its comeback.
Monet’s paintings evoke a sense of energy and life, they leap off the canvas with color and contrast, but Monet somehow managed to avoid using the color black for nearly his entire painting career. By avoiding black in your own designs, you can replicate some of this dynamism.
Monet and Other Impressionists Explored Their Medium
Monet, and other impressionists, experimented obsessively with their medium: paint, some brushes, and a canvas. So just as pixels prohibit the use of Garamond on the web, the characteristics of the impressionists tools shaped their work. The inherent qualities of oil paint (thick and viscous), paint brushes (just a bunch of hair on a stick), and sometimes the texture of the canvas itself, lent themselves well to paintings being much more – put simply: blurry – than the more realistic paintings that were popular at the time. Photorealistic painters strived to make these qualities invisible, but the impressionists (like pixel fonts did for pixels) embraced them.
In the course of this experimentation, impressionists had to experiment with color to create the desired effects. Much like a rich-colored image is dithered when restricted to a 256 color palette, the impressionists experimented with creating the illusion of a color by placing colors next to each other which would create the illusion of the color they desired for the viewer.
The Impressionists Became Masters of Color
This effect was experimented with further until it became the major focus of some impressionist painters as a technique called pointillism – which involves painting dots of color next to each other to create the effect of a different overall color. Georges Seurat is credited with developing the technique, and one of his paintings close-up doesn’t look all that different from a dithered GIF image, as you can see in this example of a close-up of one of Seurat’s paintings next to a blown-up GIF image with a palette of only 8 colors and a pattern dither.
By experimenting this way, the impressionists were doing much more than simply trying to replicate reality: they were analyzing the area between the subject of a piece of art, and the eye of the viewer. They were exploring just what makes ripples on water, with light bouncing off of them, glimmer the way they do. They analyzed what collection of colors make up the shadow of an object to give it dimension, and black wasn’t one of those colors.
Color Theory Explains What the Impressionists Discovered
Why this is can be explained by color theory. You’ve probably seen a color wheel before. Here’s an extremely basic refresher:
One half of the color wheel: from yellow through red, is made of what is called “warm” colors. The other half of the color wheel: from green through purple, is made up of what is called “cool” colors. Because these colors are completely saturated, I’ll go ahead and call them hues from now on. I’ll explain a little later what I mean by that.
Also, of note later on: colors that are opposite of each other are called complementary. Complementary colors contrast each other strongly, and any two complements, when mixed together as paint, result in a brownish-grey color.
Warm Colors Pop, Cool Colors Recede
As a general rule, warm hues pop out at the viewer, giving the appearance of being closer; while cool hues recede, or give the appearance of being farther away.
As you can see on the left side of this example, the blue block recedes, looking as if it is a hole in the center of the red block. On the right side of the example, you see the opposite effect, with the red block looking almost as if it is a tower extruding towards you from the blue block. The warm hue – red – pops out at you, and the cool hue – blue – recedes from you.
The hue is the pure base color – as taken from the color wheel. To create a more sophisticated color, a hue is tinted or shaded. A tint of a hue is basically a lighter version of that hue. If you were mixing paint, you would just be adding white. A shade is a darker version of the base hue. If you were mixing paint, you would essentially be adding black to create a darker version of the hue.
Tints Pop, Shades Recede
Its probably no surprise to you that – much like warm hues pop, and cool hues recede – tints pop, and shades recede, as you can see in the example below. With the same color of blue as the backdrop, a tinted square of that blue pops, while a shaded square recedes.
Context is Important
But will that tinted blue square always pop? Of course not: context is important, too. In this example, that exact same square is barely noticeable on a backdrop of slightly less tint, while it really pops on a heavily shaded backdrop.
Temperature is Stronger than Tint
This same phenomenon of context applies to the relative position of two hues on a color wheel as well. While neither of the middle squares of both sides of this example have any tint nor shade, their appearance relative to the blue backdrop differs drastically. The square that is purple – a color which is adjacent to blue on the color wheel – almost blends in completely, while the square that is orange, which is blue’s complement, leaps violently off of the blue field. The contrast between these two hues is so great that there is a sense of vibration where they meet. Also note that while purple is a cool hue, it is still slightly warmer than blue, which causes the purple square to pop very slightly.
The effect caused by the relative color wheel position of two hues is so strong that it nearly overpowers the effect caused by tint or shade. Even when laid over a shaded purple backdrop, the tinted blue middle square on the left side of this example recedes. Contrast that with the tinted purple square on the right side of this example, which rockets towards you off of the shaded blue backdrop.
The impressionists avoided black not only because it nearly doesn’t exist in nature, but because the effects caused by changes in hue are so much richer than those caused by changes in shade. When you use pure black to create contrast, you miss out completely on the powerful effects of changes in hue.
The left side of this example is the exact same color combination as the right side of the previous example. Notice how the dark blue backdrop recedes away from the light purple square, lifting it toward the viewer. The black backdrop certainly contrasts with the purple square, but since it has no hue relationship with the purple square, the purple square seems to just float around, while the edges between it and the black backdrop give an unpleasant effect of vibration.
Now You Know, Now What?
So, how can you use this knowledge to make your web designs better? By understanding how colors interact with one another, you can more strongly establish a heirarchy of information in your typography. Web conventions have made it widely acceptable to use black on white for text on web pages, but this is neither the most readable, nor most aesthetically pleasing option.
Enrich Your Typography
In the example below, the main text is 16px and pure black, or #000000, while the secondary text is 12px and #888888, or a neutral (neither warm nor cool) grey. You can see that there is a pretty clear heirarchy here.
© The lazy dog
This second example uses the same fonts and text sizes, but this time, a warm, dark gray is used as the base color. The main text is #503e2b, a very dark orange (a warm hue). The secondary text is a lighter version of this base color – #9e948a – found with w3school’s handy color picker. There is still enough contrast as to be readable, but the contrast isn’t as harsh as black vs. white. Overall, it’s visually pleasing, and, well – warm.
© The lazy dog
The main text in this final example uses the same dark orange from the previous example, but this time – instead of simply using a tint of this color, a complementary (cool) grey is used for the secondary text – #808094. This adds extra dimension to the hierarchy we’re establishing. The secondary text is not only smaller and tinted, but now it’s a cooler color, thus causing it to recede even more. Now there is a color relationship between the two pieces of information, which intensifies our intended hierarchy while still creating a sense of harmony and realism.
© The lazy dog
Add Life to Your Graphics
Skillful manipulation of color relationships is at the crux of creating engaging and lifelike interface graphics, such as buttons. The example below, created in Photoshop, features two buttons that are created by vector masks sharing the exact same base color (#cc6666), but the highlights and shadows are treated differently. The highlights and shadows for the button on the left are created using a “Gradient Overlay” layer effect featuring a simple black-to-white-to-black gradient, a “Linear Burn” blend mode, and a 26% opacity. The drop shadow on this button is composed of black, at a 75% opacity. This is a generally attractive button, but it doesn’t have quite the richness of the button on the right, which is created using a green-to-yellow-to-green gradient (green being cool, and the complement to red, and yellow being warmer than red), and a dark blue drop shadow – for more harmonious contrast, the text on this button is also a very light yellow. The color swatches adjacent to each button illustrate clearly how the resulting color palettes of these buttons differ.
Don’t be so quick to use black: if you really master manipulating color relationships to create dimension, you can really add freshness and life to your designs.
Check out my previous Design for Hackers post: Why You Don’t Use Garamond on the Web.
This is week 6 of Creativity Bootcamp, based upon the Eight Life Hacks for Creative Thinking. Last week, I told you to Isolate by doing an activity that strengthens your individual point of view. This week, I want you to Laugh.Not only does laughter reduce stress hormones and decrease blood pressure; but it also promotes creative thinking. Laugher is good for your health, but the very nature of jokes introduces you to non-traditional ways of thinking. And non-traditional ways of thinking are at the core of creative thinking.
To make laugher more enjoyable, give yourself permission to laugh – make it a point to laugh more over the next week. Some people experience guilt over taking time to enjoy the funner things in life, so if you’re one of these people – remember what good you’re doing yourself by laughing.
Some ideas to get you chuckling:
- Watch some videos on YouTube: maybe your work blocks it, or you live in Pakistan, but if you can find your way around one of those things, YouTube is the ultimate place to find something to make you laugh. I enjoy Reckless Tortuga, The Onion News Network, or Wheezywaiter.
- Go to a live show: the only limitation of watching a video on YouTube is you’re still in your usual environment. If you go to a live comedy show – improv, sketch, or stand-up – you’re in an environment with laugher in mind, surrounded by people with laughter in mind. This builds on the social aspect of laughter to get laughing even harder, and relaxing even more.
- Schedule a night with friends: hopefully your friends make you laugh. If not, you need to get some new friends. If you haven’t all gotten together for awhile, host a party at your place, or summon everyone to dinner. Laughter better ensue.
- Laugh while you work: if you really can’t get away – or are having trouble thinking creatively on a project at work, try consuming some funny media while you work. I like to watch 30 Rock on hulu on my second monitor while I work, but Podcasts are of course ideal for this. I hear that Uhh Yeah Dude is funny.
Yuck it up!
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This is week 5 of Creativity Bootcamp, based upon the Eight Life Hacks for Creative Thinking. Last week, I told you to Socialize by finding a group outside of your core interest. This week, I want you to Isolate.
Too much exposure to other people’s opinions or thoughts can drown out your own inner voice; and creativity is all about your individual interpretation of what you encounter in the world. To really develop a strong and individual point of view that is still relevant to the world, not only do you have to understand the world – through socializing – you have to develop and own your unique way of processing the stimuli of the world. But, the constant blizzard of information that we encounter throughout our day makes this a challenge.
This week: do one activity in isolation – away from computers and people – that uses your brain. Here’s a few ideas:
- Check out a book from a library: yeah, that’s right, a paper book. One that doesn’t even have hyperlinks on it. Choose a dense subject which interests you, preferably non-fiction. Read the table of contents, and pick the chapter that makes your brain “salivate” when you read it. Then eat it up. Take notes. Repeat. If you don’t finish the book, who cares? I recently did this with Evolutionary Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide. What subject will you explore?
- Write in your notebook: this is like the writing exercise I talked about, but this time you have to use a notebook – not a computer. This is to slow down your mind to your writing pace, and keep you from checking Twitter every 3 minutes.
- Think: stare at a wall. Stare at a sunset. Just do nothing, and think. I do this habitually, and I swear – it’s like watching television for me.
Or, maybe you have an idea for an isolating activity that helps you develop your own point of view. When you’re done, do some more thinking: how do these new thoughts that you’ve processed – isolated from the day-to-day world – relate to the discussions and subjects you encounter day-to-day?
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This is week 4 of Creativity Bootcamp, based upon the Eight Life Hacks for Creative Thinking. Last week, I told you to Use Your Senses by cooking something. This week, I want you to Socialize.The more you socialize with others who have genuine interests, the more you get the opportunity to observe the patterns that make passionate people successful at what they do, and the more you begin to see the opportunities that are present in your own life.
This week: attend a social gathering around an interest that is outside of your core competency (but is still something about which you are curious). If you’re a designer, go to a gathering of computer geeks. If you’re an architect, go hang out with some web designers. As you talk with these people, what do you notice about them that is different from what you observe in people from your own field? What are some similarities that you find?
Sometimes when we get too involved in a particular interest, we forget that there are communities around other interests, which approach things differently. I’ve encountered many different communities of interest working in Advertising, traditional Graphic Design, Architecture, and startups – and they all have their own unique ways of seeing the word, and different sets of things which they value.
For example, the people I encountered working in Architecture tended to have an appreciation for design, history, and credentials that was completely different from what I encountered working for startups in Silicon Valley. While an Architect will tend to be interested in the material honesty of a real brick wall vs. a brick veneer – the tech startup person tended to be interested in disrupting the status quo. When I moved to Chicago, I wanted to reconnect with the Architecture community, so I went to a Young Architects Forum happy hour just to get that fresh perspective.
Where can you find these groups with which to meet? Meetup.com is probably the best place, but there’s also Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, or even Craigslist.
So get out there and have some conversations with some people who are passionate about something that may just be a curiosity of yours. It will open your eyes.
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I heard rumblings last year that Google would start altering their rankings based upon speed of page loads. This was confirmed a couple of weeks ago on the Google Webmaster’s blog, and – while they say that their new speed standards will only affect 1% of searches – you can bet that portion will rise in the future.
A few weeks before Google’s announcement, I decided it was time to start looking at site performance. I moved a couple of my sites, including this one, from my Dreamhost Shared server, to a Virtual Private Server (VPS) on The Rackspace Cloud. Additionally, I implemented a few other performance enhancements that I’ll cover below. From all of these changes, I cut load time of pages on kadavy.net by 75%, and my Webmaster Tools performance graph now looks like this.
Also, Googlebot now crawls my site 90% faster. A summary of what’s to follow:
- I reduced average page-load time from 12 seconds to 3 seconds, saving my visitors almost one week of time per month.
- I did this by first switching from a Dreamhost Shared server to The Rackspace Cloud.
- I then used the W3 Total Cache WordPress Plugin, and served my media files from Amazon’s Cloudfront CDN, from multiple subdomains.
Great web publishing platforms like WordPress have made it easy for just about anyone to publish information and have it seen by the world, but as Google starts favoring sites that have the resources and knowledge to optimize page load time, some publishers’ messages may not have the reach they once did. Exacerbating this problem is that information on website optimization is somewhat complicated and assumes a considerable amount of technical knowledge. I hope to share my experience with improving the page load time of my WordPress site in as plain of language as possible. I’m a designer by training, and get by how I can as a developer. So, maybe some folks out there who know more than I do about this stuff will have some knowledge to offer. Maybe I did something completely wrong, in which case, let me know in the comments!
Servers: What’s the difference between Shared and VPS?
With shared hosting – such as Dreamhost‘s – your sites are all on one machine with a whole bunch of other sites, sharing all of the resources (CPU usage and RAM usage). You also don’t have much control over the configuration of your server, such as what PHP modules are activated (of which, there are probably way too many), and the configuration of your PHP.ini file.
With a VPS – The Rackspace Cloud, specifically – your “server” is a piece of a machine, with CPU and memory resources dedicated just for your piece of it. You can choose what flavor of Linux you have installed, how your Apache server is configured (if you want to run Apache at all), how your PHP is configured – you can control pretty much everything. The drawback is that you have to administer it all yourself. This was challenging for me to figure out, but as you can see the speed payoff is pretty amazing.
Why not use Dreamhost’s PS?
As I evaluated my options, I considered simply upgrading to Dreamhost PS. All I would have had to do was press a button to do this, but I had heard not-so-good-things about Dreamhost PS – and most importantly, my MySQL database would have still been on a shared server. I would have to pay extra if I wanted my database on a nicer server. This seemed pointless to me, and didn’t sound like a VPS at all. I wasn’t keen on administering my own server, but after help from some nice people at Jelly (especially Chris Chandler from Flatterline) things are going okay so far.
How much does the Rackspace Cloud cost?
I’m not really sure yet, because I haven’t gotten a bill, but it looks like you can get started for around $12 a month, with a server with 256MB of memory. There are bandwidth and storage fees on top of this, but they seem pretty low. The coolest thing about The Rackspace Cloud so far is that you can scale your server up and down in a matter of minutes, and only pay by the hour, based upon the size of the server. My two WordPress sites, totaling about 60k pageviews a month, are currently on a 1024MB server, which I hope will cost me less than $50 a month, but I’m starting to make money on my properties, so the expense is worth it for me. If you don’t have much revenue, it may not be worth it for you – or you could increase your revenue: something I hope to write more about in the future.
Using the Rackspace Cloud
Once I signed up for Rackspace (they called me within 15 minutes of signing up, to confirm, before I could start using it), I signed in and created a server. When doing this, you can pick the flavor of Linux that you want to use. I didn’t really know what this meant, but I was advised by a friend to choose the latest version of Ubuntu they had. So I chose 9.10 (Karmic Koala). I also could have chosen one of various Windows servers. After selecting the Linux flavor, I was able to name my server, and select the size of server that I wished to use. I started off with 256MB, but I very easily scaled up later on. After a few minutes, the server was all set up, and I got a confirmation e-mail, with my dedicated IP address, and login and password.
Setting up the rest of the LAMP stack
Now that my Linux was set up, it was time to install Apache, MySQL, and PHP. I SSHed into the server using Terminal on the Mac. That command looks like this (but I used my actual IP address):
Setting up Apache, MySQL, and PHP – and phpmyadmin – was super easy thanks to this great article in the Ubuntu Documentation.
Transferring the Data
Now I was ready to get the data over to my new server. I SSHed into my Dreamhost server (you may have to contact support to get this enabled), and created an archive of kadavy.net:
tar -cvf kadavy.tar kadavy.net
I then transferred that archive over to my Rackspace Cloud server using Secure Copy:
scp kadavy.tar firstname.lastname@example.org:/home
Then I decompressed the file on my Rackspace Cloud:
tar -xvf kadavy.tar
Setting it up
I then used PHPMyAdmin to export my database from Dreamhost, and import it onto my Rackspace Cloud instance. I had to change a few settings in the options table of my database to match the IP address of my server, rather than my domain, so that it would run properly before setting up my DNS. I also made a few changes to my wp-settings.php so the installation was pointed at the right database.
Using the easy instructions from the Ubuntu documentation, I set up the virtual host on Apache, and started up the server.
After I felt everything was right – and after messing around with optimization tricks below – I pointed the DNS to this new server. Rackspace has a DNS management tool, but I found that GoDaddy (my registrar) had more user-friendly DNS management.
Optimizing WordPress / The Front-End
Now that I was on a much faster server, there were a few other things I learned that made my pages load even faster. After learning these tricks, I found that there was one WordPress plugin that used many of these tricks. I used the YSlow Firefox plugin to benchmark the speed of page loads, and also to get tips on ways I could optimize my pages. Here’s some of the more important tactics I learned.
The most popular WordPress optimization advice I found was to cache the pages. Instead of having to hit the database every time a page is called, caching allows your server to serve up static HTML. The server doesn’t have to process all of that PHP and build the pages from the database. There are several plugins for WordPress which automate this, one of them being W3 Total Cache, which I’ll talk about more in a minute.
Using a CDN (Amazon Cloudfront)
Once you’ve signed up for Amazon, you can create a “bucket” on Cloudfront by clicking on the Cloudfront tab, then Create Distribution. Name your bucket, and you can set up CNAMEs (media1.mydomain.com, media2.mydomain.com). You’ll have to set these up in your DNS with your registrar as well. I’ll get to why you would even want to do this in a bit, but this gives you various subdomains you can use to access the same resources in your bucket. In addition to these subdomains, you’ll be able to access your resources at locations indicated under “Domain Name” and “Origin Bucket.”
You can get the Access Key ID and Secret Access Key required to upload resources via S3 Browser by creating an Access Key under Account > Security Credentials.
The most daunting thought about using Cloudfront was uploading all of my resources, and pointing my code to them, but there are a number of WordPress plugins that automate parts this process, including W3 Total Cache, which I’ll cover in a bit.
Using Multiple Domain Names
The workaround for this is to set up multiple subdomains that all point to your Cloudfront bucket (media1.mydomain.com, media2.mydomain.com, media3.mydomain.com, media4.mydomain.com), and rotate through them as you code URLs to various media assets. I’ve been advised that 4 subdomains is plenty, as this will allow any browser to download as many as 8 files at once.
Doing it all (almost) with W3 Total Cache
The caching component of the advice I found has been around long enough that not only is there a WordPress Plugin called WP-Cache, there is also another plugin called WP-Super Cache. Now, there is the amazing W3 Total Cache, which not only caches your pages, it also minifies (removes line breaks to save space), and uploads files in your media library to a CDN, such as Amazon Cloudfront.
Other Optimization Tricks
- CSS Sprites: This is the technique of putting all of your design graphics in one giant file, and selectively displaying parts of it through CSS. This reduces the number of HTTP requests, and the total size of graphics to be downloaded, this reducing load time by quite a bit. It’s also a bit of a pain in the ass, so I’m saving it for a future redesign.
- Gzip files: but Amazon Cloudfront does this automatically.
- Yahoo outlines some other best practices you may want to try, depending on how much effort you’d like to put in.
It still remains to be seen whether this performance enhancement will improve my Google rankings, but I hope this document helps some less technical publishers understand just how much impact they can expect from the choices they make in hosting platform and front-end development.
P.S. If you do decide to use The Rackspace Cloud, I sure would appreciate it if you signed up through this link. Clearly they’ve worked well for me, but I wouldn’t mind the referral bonus.
Elsewhere on the web: How to speed up your blog (the non technical guide)
Remember last week when I told you that Google Webmaster Tools was reporting faster page load time? Well, I found another interesting metric, under Diagnostics < Crawl stats. It looks like the Googlebot is also crawling my site much faster:
Google did say that their new speed standards will only affect about 1% of searches; but this graph makes me believe that portion will increase. If a site can be crawled faster – and requires less resources (clarification: time & money, not CPU) to index, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be rewarded with higher search rankings? Additionally, I’ve heard from a number of people that they’ve seen higher CTR on ads when they improved performance – since so many sites have Google AdSense, Google will make more money by directing users to these faster sites.
Cheaper indexing, higher revenues on visits = speed is good.
Here’s that beautiful page load time graph from last week’s WordPress performance optimization post again.
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This is week 3 of Creativity Bootcamp, based upon the Eight Life Hacks for Creative Thinking. Last week, I told you to Express Your Thoughts by doing some writing. This week, I want you to Use Your Senses.Often times in life, we see someone with great creative talent – or any talent for that matter, and marvel at how they are able to do what they do. The great chef, the talented artist, the magical basketball player – whatever their skill – you can be sure they all got to where they were through essentially the same means. They used their senses, and through trial-and-error, developed their unique approach that makes them special.
The most relatable medium I can think of for understanding this is cooking. Some people are great at it, but even more are absolutely paralyzed at the thought of trying to cook something. I personally used to not cook that much, relying mostly on frozen microwavables.
Eventually I forced myself to start cooking. As someone who suffers from perfection paralysis, in the beginning, making a meal was an incredibly difficult undertaking for me. I would look up a recipe on my favorite recipe site, make a list of ingredients, and – hey, what is a beet anyway? (look up on Wikipedia). I’d finally make a list of all of the ingredients, buy the stuff at the grocery store, and check the recipe 3 dozen times to make sure I was getting everything right. Today, I can improvise a meal – with modest skill – out of whatever is available, and I don’t even own a microwave.
The valuable thing I learned after awhile is that cooking isn’t all that difficult. You get some food, and you heat it up. Wonder what two foods might taste like together? Just smell one, then smell the other, and imagine. If that doesn’t work, then simply try eating them together. The same thing works with spices. Sometimes, you fuck up and overcook, undercook, mis-match, or overspice. Then what? You do it differently next time, and eventually you learn. By Using Your Senses.
This week: cook a meal unlike any meal you have cooked before. That doesn’t mean it has to be extravagant, just something you don’t usually cook. Most of us cook the same couple of things over and over again. If you are in a habit of making hamburgers and pizzas, try making some Glazed Salmon. Always making Chicken? Make some Roasted Pheasant.
While you’re making the recipe, improvise a little bit. Maybe you don’t have some of the spices available, so smell and imagine the spices in your dish. How does it “taste?” If imagining isn’t enough, you might have to try it for real.
The important thing is that you get out of routine, and be forced to Use Your Senses.
PS Don’t forget to nomm your dish.
Fire photo by liber
Writing and drawing are extremely powerful activities for practicing your creativity. I often find that when I write or draw, I unlock ideas that I wasn’t even aware that I had. The main hurdle to overcome in this is just getting the motivation to do the expressing.
So, you need to do whatever you can to reduce the friction between your brain and a medium of expression (in this case, writing or drawing). For most of us, the problem is perfection paralysis. We become paralyzed by the fear that what we write, draw, speak, or dance will be just plain wrong. While you eventually have to create something lucid if you’re going to put it out into the world, this isn’t necessary at all in the creative process. All of these expressive functions are locked away from each other, and it isn’t until we exercise them that they can hone one another.
This week, write. Use whatever tool it is that makes it easiest for you to write. My favorites are a quality notebook with a quality pen, and a plain text document. Microsoft Word is your enemy. Too much friction.
Write about anything. If you can’t think of something to write about, then write about how you can’t think of anything to write about. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Make a nonsense string of words that pop into your head as you write, if that’s what you need to do to make it easy to write. What’s important is that you express your thoughts, and break down the barrier between the medium and your mind.
Do this for 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes this week is all you need. If you feel like continuing – then do! Do it every day if you can. But just do it at least once. For 10 minutes. That’s it!
Let us know how it goes!
For the next eight weeks – if I can keep my own self disciplined enough – I’m going to give you actionable creativity tips that relate to the Eight Life Hacks for Creative Thinking. This week: Move Your Body.
Moving Your Body is important for your creativity not only because it gets your heart pumping, making your brain work better, but also because of the connection between your body movements and your thoughts and feelings.
So, this week, do this thing for your creativity. You don’t have to worry about anything else. Just this one thing…
Do a physical activity or sport that you either have never done, or haven’t done in at least 6 months. I’ve been taking Salsa classes, and, in the past, I have taken improv and acting classes. When first doing these new-for-me activities, it was amazing to feel my brain light up as it discovered new movements and mind/body connections. If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, try one of these things:
- Sign up for a (physical) arts class: dance, improv, or acting. You can also find low-commitment drop-ins in your city, just Google “[yourcity] [activity] drop-in classes”
- Sports: play a racket sport such as tennis or racquetball, hit some golf balls at a driving range, go swimming, or go bowling. Have you tried Yoga yet? This week is the week to do it!
- Just goof off: play catch with a friend, do a handstand, or find a pull-up bar to swing around on.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do this week. One physical thing you’ve never done before (preferred), or haven’t done in more than 6 months. You don’t even have to think about it, and you’ll be on your way to being more creative. Let us all know what you did, and how it worked out for you!
The ultimate Chicago roommates finder just got better with a new name, and a new platform. Almost four years ago, I started Flatmate Meetup as I was looking for a place in San Francisco. I found sending literally dozens of e-mails – and getting no response – to be utterly frustrating. Persuaded by a friend, I hopped on Meetup.com, and set up a mixer at a bar. It was an instant hit with all of the attendees. I later went to a housewarming party for a group of roommates that met at that event.
Since then, I expanded the idea as I moved to Chicago. Now, Kadavy, Inc. is taking a big step with this new name, and dedicated social network. The San Francisco events will remain Flatmate Meetup for the time being, but here in Chicago, (as announced on our new blog) it will now be known as HeyRoommates. This new name will make it easier for us to bring in people who are looking for roommates in Chicago, and ultimately make it easier for them to find a place to live. Our dedicated social network (powered by Ning for now) will give us tools and data that will help us market the service more effectively.
Best of all, the roommate-mixers (like speed-dating, but if it goes well, you sleep in separate beds) will still be FREE, and tons of fun.
So, if you’re looking for a roommate in Chicago, sign up, and come to a HeyRoommates mixer.
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