Catch Up | October 30, 2003

Here are a bunch of links, some relatively new, and some I've been sitting on for a while.

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DVD Region Madness (or fixing the DVD player on a flat panel iMac) | October 29, 2003

I do quite a bit of traveling and when I'm away I often pick up DVD's to watch. I live in a region 2 area (Europe) but it happens that most the the DVD's I own are region 1. On my iMac, when you first play a DVD it asks you to choose a region, and once set, you can only change this region 5 times. Now to me this seems like madness. If I can legally buy DVD's overseas, I really don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to watch them on my iMac. After all I can go down to my local Sony shop and buy a region free DVD player, why can't I do the same on my computer? The whole region things just seems to pointless and arbitrary. If you can buy region free home DVD players from somebody like sony, what's the point in crippling the DVD player on a computer? Wanting to play a region 2 DVD of the Matrix Reloaded tonight, I decided to see if there was something I could do to "fix" my DVD player. I'd heard about "Firmware" patches before, but looking around on the net, it seemed that there weren't any for my flat panel iMac. However I did come across a utility called LG Reset X. It doesn't turn the DVD on my iMac into a region free DVD player. However it does allow you to reset the counter so you can have more than 5 changes, which means that I can now watch all the DVD's I own on my computer, something I feel really feel I should have been able to do anyway. So if you own a flat panel iMac and want to watch DVD's from different regions, LG Reset X may be worth checking out. **[UPDATE 26/3/06] LG Reset X is no longer availible for download, and unfortunatly I deleted my copy a while ago.**

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My Photographs | October 29, 2003

When I first launched my photography site, I got a rush of emails from people asking about the equipment and techniques I use. This has levelled off the last couple of months, but going thought my backlog of emails, Iíve had at least 4 people asking about my images. As such, instead of writing to everybody individually I thought it would make sense to write a short post.

On the equipment front, I use the fairly basic, consumer level Cannon EOS 300V. I used to use the EOS 3000N but upgraded to the 300V last month. There isnít much difference between the two. My new camera is a little smaller, a little lighter and a little more ergonomic. Itís slightly faster and handles low light a little better. The main difference (and the selling point to me) was the addition of a depth of field preview. The only negative thing about my new camera is it seems to have a slight tendency to overexpose, so Iíll probably start underexposing every roll by half a stop.

On the lens front, I used to use the lens that came with my 3000N kit. It was fine but I decided to upgrade to a slightly better (but still consumer level) lens and recently bought a Cannon EOS 28-105mm F3.5-4.5 lens.

I have a couple of filters. I keep an UV filter on my lens at most times. This is primarily to protect the lens from grubby fingers and in case it gets bashed or dropped. Much better to buy a new £5 filter, than a £200 lens.

I also travel with a circular polarising filter. This is great for adding colour to blue skies. Itís also good for removing reflections from glass, water etc. It also acts as a weak neutral density filter, useful if you want to reduce the amount of light by a stop.

Finally I recently bought a close-up filter. Iíd prefer to get a Macro lens, but at £350 I just canít afford it. The close up filter changes the focal length of the lens, letting you get closer to a subject. However itís not ideal as it causes some distortion in the image.

My last bit of kit is a tripod and a cable release. For any low light or landscape photography a good tripod is essential. Unfortunately Iíve got a rubbish tripod, which doesnít sit horizontally, so I really need to get a new one.

Film wise I generally use print film. Iíd like to try slide film but print film is just so flexible. Itís cheap, easy to get processed, you can buy it anywhere and itís very forgiving to over or under exposure.

I get my film processed at my local Jessopps. The people behind the counter are pretty unfriendly and unhelpful (to the point of being rude) but the results are generally OK. Iíd love to get all my film professionally processed, but I really canít afford that. However if I want to display my photos I do get them hand printed.

I scan the photos in and then use auto levels to level out the image. I also either use despeckle or dust and scratches to remove any little bits of dust on the print. This is the only digital manipulation I do and is only really intended to compensate for a rubbish scanner and not getting my photos hand printed.

Many people have asked how I manage to get such nice colours. Basically itís down the quality of the light. Generally the best time to shoot is the hour after sunrise or the hour before sunset. At this time the light is really good and bathes everything with a beautiful blue/gold light. However most people are out photographing at midday and this causes pictures to lack detail and look a little washed out. To get really strong saturation you need a defused light source, so a bright, but slightly cloudy day is best.

A lot of people ask how I approach people to take their photograph. Occasionally Iíll steal a sneaky shot of somebody using a telephoto lens. However mostly I get peoples permission before hand. Unlike in the west, people in Asia really seem to like people taking their photos. I usually hang around a place (like a market) for a while so people get used to me. Most people find it slightly amusing seeing a westerner wandering a around a market taking pictures of vegetables (like donít they have vegetables at home?). Once people get used to me, I can usually tell who wonít mind having their pictures taken (they are the ones giggling and smiling at you) and who will mind (by waving their hands or shyly covering their faces with a newspaper). Usually a smile and a gesture with your camera is enough to find out if somebody minds their picture being taken or not.

As far as advice goes, the best thing to do is take lots and lots of pictures. On a two week holiday Iíll probably take between 10-20 rolls of film. A professional photographer would easily take this number in a single day. The more pics you take the more chance youíll have of getting a good one. I generally have a hit rate of 1/2. That is one good picture every two rolls of film. So the more rolls I take, the more descent pictures I end up with. If you see a subject you like, donít just take a single image. Try different exposures, different angles and different compositions to get that perfect shot. In travel photography itís usually pretty expensive to get to your destination and youíll probably not be back in a hurry, so why worry about shooting too much film.

Itís easy to say, but spend time on your composition. Iím generally far to quick at taking photos and when I get home notice small details in the photos that Iíd wished Iíd seen at the time. This is generally because Iím away with other people who donít take as many photos as me and Iím conscious of holding them up. In fact most of my best pictures have been taken when Iíve gone off on my own for an hour and donít have to worry about spending 20min getting one shot.

So at the end of the day itís not really about the kit you have or the film you use. Itís about spending time getting a good composition, understanding exposure (something Iím terrible at) and taking lotís and lotís of pictures.

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ReUSEIT! | October 29, 2003

Submissions to the ReUSEIT! competition close in two days, so if you want to enter a design, you'd better hurry.

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Some Black and White Pics from Angkor | October 28, 2003

I got my Pics back today. Unfortunately the Angkor ones didn't come out particularly well (as i'd suspected). However I did shoot one roll of black and white and a few of them came out OK.

Picture of person and stupa

Temple carvings

Angkor guard

Stone head 2

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Home Again! | October 25, 2003

Flew into Heathrow this morning at 5am to be greeted by a beautiful, crisp autumn morning. I have to say my initial immersion into the British climate was a bit of a shock, so I was glad to get home and put on my winter clothes. Suffice to say nothing much has happened in the last 2 weeks. Everything is still overpriced, the majority of British people are still insufferably rude, and the streets are still littered with rubbish (although luckily this time of year, most of it's obscured by fallen leaves).

Still, Brighton is a very cool place to come back to. After all, how many places in the world would you see Zoe Ball (d-list UK celeb) shopping at your local supermarket. I'd love to live overseas (Oz, NZ, HK etc), but if I have to live in the UK I cant think of a nicer spot than Brighton. Oh, and I even managed to score a couple of ticket to see Ed Burn at the last night (tonight) of the Brighton Comedy Festival.

So the holiday was very cool. Vietnam was great. Having spent a good deal of time traveling around different countries, I have to say that the Vietnamese are possible the most friendly people I've come across. My girlfriend fell over outside a shop on our last day and broke her shoe. The people from the shop came running out to see if she was OK (which she was), and somebody walking past fixed her shoe there and then for nothing. I'd like to see that happening outside your local branch of McDonalds.

Saigon is a very cool city. Like most big asian cities, it's pretty manic. People living their lives out on the streets rather than tucked away inside like people in the west. Hungry? Need your Honda Dream fixed? Need a haircut or want your ears cleaned? They'll be somebody sitting in a tiny plastic stall by the side of the road only too willing to help.

Most people think Saigon is a little dull, preferring the charm of Hanoi. To be honest Hanoi is a much prettier city and has everything that the decreeing backpacker could want. However Saigon is a very cool place if you know where to look. It's kind of short on tourist attractions, but makes up for it in nightlife.

The city has some great places to eat, far too many to name here. However if you're a veggie I'd strongly recommend checking out Tib. Oh, and if you like your Thai food, Chao Thai is a must. As for Bars, there are plenty, from expat bars such as Sheridans (run by a friend of ours dad) to the ultra trendy Q Bar or the highly entertaining Carmen Bar.

However the Jewel of the trip was the 5 days we spent in Cambodia looking around Angkor. We were there in the middle of the rainy season, which had both it's benefits and also it's problems. On the positive side of things there were very few tourists. I'd imagine the place is a nightmare in high season, but luckily we had many of the smaller temples to ourselves and even the bigger ones like the Bayon weren't swamped and when we visited Angkor Wat you could have counted the other tourists on one hand.

However because of the gray skies it wasn't ideal photography weather. No beautiful light or glorious sunsets to speak of, so I'm not holding my breath with my photos. I bought over 20 rolls of film with me expecting to shoot most of them at Angkor, however in the end I think I only shot 5 or 6 rolls. I get the pics back on Mon/Tue but am not expecting much. Will definitely have to go back again when the light is better.

I don't know if any of you visited the link I posted in my last entry to the wonderful photography of John McDermott, however if you didn't I'd strongly recommend you give it a look. We were fortunate to meet up with the man himself, as he was running an exhibition of his work in the Grand Hotel. John Achieves such a distinctive look by using Infrared film, something I know very little about. He was kind enough to explain a little about his technique and how infrared film used to be used by the military. Apparently is was used to find camouflaged positions in densely forested areas because the foliage comes out almost white, allowing camouflaged targets to be easily spotted.

Used for artistic purposes it creates an amazingly distinctive look and is definitely something I'd like to play with. However it sounds like it could be pretty tricky to use so I probably need to master regular film first.

So anyway I'm now back. However It's probably going to take me a while to settle back into things. In 2 weeks I ended up getting over 600 emails. around 350 were picked up by my spam filter. Another 200 spams got though (now trashed), but that still leaves mw with around 50 emails to read and reply to. So if you happen to have sent me an email, I will get back to you if I can, but it'll take some time for me to clear my email backlog.

I had intended to blog while I was away. However I was enjoying not being near a computer so much that I decided to just give things a break for the duration. Sorry that people were greeted with a blank home page for a week or so. Next time I go away I'll have to remember to up the number of days posts I display.

I have to say that I was a little saddened seeing all the comment spam on my blog when I got back this morning. It was almost like going away on holiday and coming back to find your house vandalized. Really not very nice. So I just wanted to say a big thanks to all the Viagra and porn pushers abusing this site in my absence. Nothing like abusing somebody's hospitality and good nature for your own selfish ends. You'll get your comeuppance in the end. You'll just spoil it for others in the process.

So, on the whole I had a really good holiday. I visited Angkor, a place I've wanted to go for a good few years now, ate well, drank well, got a little colour and will hopefully have one or two nice pics to show for it all.

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Angkor What? | October 8, 2003

I'm jetting off to Vietnam tomorrow evening for a short, but much needed break. As part of this holiday i'll be taking a 5 day side trip to Visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Angkor is somewhere i've wanted to go for years, so i'm constantly surprised by the blank looks I get from people when I tell them about this trip.

For those of you who don't know, Angkor is an ancient Khmer city built around the 9th century AD. Containing around 100 temples, Angkor is now one of UNSECO's largest and most impressive world heritage sites. The site laid forgotten for thousands of years until it was rediscovered in the late 19h Century by european explorers. Many of the temples are still overgrown with jungle, giving the sites a real indiana jones feel. In fact the temple complex of Angkor Wat was used as a backdrop for the first Tomb Raider film.

In a last trawl through my RSS feeds today I was surprised and delighted to come across this posting on hebig.org. The article points to the world heritage tour site featuring, amongst other things, 13 amazing VR's from Angkor.

Suffice to say, this place is a big draw to photographers and has been the setting for some truly breathtaking work. So I've loaded up on film, packed my camera, lenses and tripod, and am hoping to get at least a few pictures to add to my photo site.

For more info about this amazing place, have a look at the Angkor page on the history channel site or read/download this guide.

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Usability Testing Article | October 7, 2003

I've just written this usability testing article for the message website. It's aimed more at potential clients than web designers/developers, but some people may find it interesting.

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Beautiful New Zen Garden Submission | October 7, 2003

John Hick's new Zen Garden Submission is possibly the best one yet.

John has managed to create a design that blends a clean, elegant layout with a strong visual identity. The colour scheme and considered use of whitespace give the design a beautiful calm sense of balance.

John's submission has definitely upped the ante, pushing the quality of design to the next level.

I'm just glad I managed to get my design in before this one.

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Blogging From the "Design Process" SkillSwap | October 6, 2003

I'm going to be blogging from tonights SkillSwap event entitled "Design Process - Evolution of the Wireframe". However I'm gonna try and keep this one concise as I spent more time blogging and less time actually listening to the last talk.

The talk is being given by Web Producer and local blogger, Richard Rutter of Multimap.com.

Any project will go through these 5 stages.

Websites can be one of two things, hypertext pages or web applications.

The user expirience is made up of the following parts

Because it's very difficult to specify everything at the start, you need to iterate through the design process.

Teams can be big. They can involve lot's of people from different backgrounds. What's needed is some way of communicating what's going on in a project to all these people.

Richard explains how he used to work as an engineer building oil plants and how everybody would refer to a PID diagram. This would be something that everybody could refer to, use and understand.

Jeffrey Zeldman defines a wireframe as:

Functional visual storyboards showing the proposed elements in relation to each other, but not in any way indicating how they will eventually look and feel.

Richard shows some examples of wireframes. Pages with blocks indication the position of various page elements like site logo's, global nav, content areas etc. Richard shows wireframes built using powerpoint, freehand and also a html wireframe.

The good thing about doing wireframes in html is that they are interactive. The links work and you can actually start to feel how the site is working. You can use them to run user tests and the wireframes then become a non-functioning prototype. You can even turn your wireframes into the final site.

On his html wireframes, Richard uses dhtml to show and hide various parts of the page to various parts of the page to various people.

The talk then opens up into a general discussion. Around 4-5 of the people present use wireframes on a regular basis and discuss the benefits of using them. They allow the clients to know exactly what they are getting up front. some people only use tec specs but many clients will not fully understand them. They can be difficult to read and it's easy to miss things out. Wireframes can be great discussion points and enable you to plan applications more effectively. Wireframes help create a more iterative process rather than a prescriptive one.

There is some concern that wireframing takes quite a bit of time and many people can't afford to do them. However a number of people feel that wireframing actually cut's down the time spent. You spend more time in the planning phase, but much less time in the execution phase. Clients know what their getting up front and it's much easier and cheaper to make changes to the wireframes than it is to change the completed application.

There is some discussion about the benefits of html wireframes over paper wireframes. It's easy for people to write comments on paper wireframes. Some people also feel that it's quicker to make paper wireframes. Also it's easier to create paper wireframes that cover all eventualities. However html wireframes can act as excellent non-functional prototypes and allow for easy testing. Also if done well, these wireframes can form the basis of the actual site.

Basically the type of wireframe you make depends on a number of things and is usually down to personal preference. However most people agreed that wireframing was an extremely useful tool and one that could bring tangible benefits to their web design process.

The session winds down and we all head to the pub.

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Brighton Comedy Festival | October 4, 2003

This years Brighton Comedy Festival starts soon. Unfortunately I'm not going to be around to see it. However if I were, these would be the acts I'd go and see.

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Margin:auto quirk in Netscape 6+ | October 3, 2003

Thanks to Gus Campbell for spotting this issue. When centering an div using margin:auto, in Netscape 6+, if you reduce the screen width to less than the width of the div, you get a negative margin on the left hand side of the screen. This renders your site unusable for people on small monitors as it's impossible to read the text falling off the left had side of the page.

Gus did some poking around and found that setting a minimum width on the body tag would combat this problem. He also believes that, rather than being a bug, this is actually the recommended behavior.

I must admit this is a new one on me. I did a bit of googling but couldn't find this mentioned anywhere. Is this a new issue or did I just forget to read the memo?

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Doing Work On Spec | October 1, 2003

In the world of advertising, it's fairly common for clients to ask to see some design concepts in order to help them choose an agency. Most ad agencies don't object. These commissions can be very lucrative, often running into the millions, so spending a small amount of time on sample creative is a reasonable move.

Unfortunately web design clients have started asking for design concepts, and not just on big, 6 figure jobs either. People commissioning even the smallest jobs have started to expect to see design concepts.

This is a big problem for a number of reasons.

Spec work is dangerous

Visual design should start some way down the line after you've had chance to get to know the client, their business, their users and their competition. It's not something that should be done right at the start of a project, before you've even been awarded the job.

Unfortunately many clients hear the term "Web Design" and think the most critical part of the job is "Visual Design". Most people don't get the technical side of our jobs. They don't really understand about usability, information architecture, web standards etc. Why should they.

That's why clients generally ask to see creative. They have difficulty determining who would be best for the job based on all the technical jargon flying around so settle on design. Everybody feels qualified to make decisions about visual design.

However if a client is basing their decision on the spec work you create for them, a pitch ends up turning into a visual design competition. Visual design is so subjective, it's not usually the best company for the job who wins the pitch, or even the "best" or most appropriate design. It's the design that most appeals to the key decision makers in the room. Not really a good way to make an important, strategic decision.

If you end up getting the job, the main decision makers will already be wedded to your design concepts (after all that's why they chose you isn't it?). You'll end up being stuck with a design concept that the MD loves, but one that is likely to be inappropriate to the users goals and the business objectives of the site.

Spec work is not a good ROI

Pitching for work is time consuming at the best of times. Talking to the client, getting an idea of their needs, analyzing their RFP, meeting with the design team to discuss the response and putting together a proposal all take a considerable amount of time. For a small project this could be a couple of person days, for a large project it could take weeks or even months.

This is already a very large resource drain to secure a potential client and something that needs to be done in a considered and managed fashion.

If you're going to produce spec work, be prepared to be judged on that alone. This means the sample creative you produce has to be top quality. It's not something you can knock up in a few hours. It's something you'll need to spend days/weeks on. If you insist on creating spec work, you'll need to put in the hours, ask the right questions know the client, their product/brand and their customers inside out. You'll also need to be emotionally prepared in case you don't get the account.

This all takes time and effort, but is it a good ROI?

If the jobs big, the competition small (1-3 other design firms) and the clients are only wanting a feel of what you can produce (not what you will produce), then it's possibly worth it. However it's still worth asking to be paid for creative. It's not often people will pay you to pitch, but it does happen.

Unfortunately in this day and age, there are clients out there that will send a RFP to large numbers of design agencies. These clients tend to have the smallest budgets but the largest demands. They'll want to see designs from the largest number of people possible and will pick an agency based on the design, not the company's merits. These kind of clients are tire kickers, wanting the maximum return for the minimum risk. Who can blame them?. The ROI of creating spec work may be justifiable on a big job and low competition. If the job is small and the client has 6 other designers also producing work, walk away. It's just not an effective use of your time.

Spec work devalues the role of the designer

The job of a web design agency is to plan, design and build websites. It's as simple as that. We do have to spend time getting new business, but new business development is not what people pay us for, it's just something we have to do in order to secure work.

So if people pay us to design, why give this way for free? If it stops being a commodity people have to pay for, and starts becoming part of the standard business development practice, this greatly decreases the value of design.

Fundamentally people put value on something the have to pay for. If you charge £500 per day you're probably good, if you charge £1,000 you're probably better. What do you expect people will think if you're giving away design to anybody who asks? If something is being given away for free, most people put little value on it.

Personally I feel that doing work on spec sends the wrong signals about the value you put on your time. It also sends the wrong signals about the value of design as a whole.

Summary

When pitching for work, show the client you understand the brief. Explain to them how your process works. Give them examples of your previous work so they can see your creative skills. If they want to see creative fine, but they should pay for it and you should explain that the ideas you're showing are just ideas and the final work will need to be based on a whole raft of things that you'll only find out in the discovery phase.

If a client insists on seeing creative, you'll need to way up the pros and cons. However personally I believe only the largest jobs really warrant producing creative for a pitch, and even then, you have to set the parameters.

If you choose to stand your ground, politely explain your position. Explain that it's not possible to produce design ideas at this early stage as a large part of the design process is the discovery phase. Some clients will respect you for this, others won't.

However I know that the clients I want to work with are the ones who understand the value of design and respect me as a professional.

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