Where's Durstan? | March 22, 2005

Can you see Durstan in this photo?

Find Durstan in this picture

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about, here’s the background story .

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SXSW - Final Day | March 21, 2005

Note - I wrote this the following morning sat at Newark Airport, but haven’t had chance to post it till now

After my first full nights sleep since getting here, I headed off to the Austin convention center for a talk on Typography by Joshua Darded, Mike Davidson and Shaun Inman. Web designers coming from a print background tend to have much more typographic experience than pure web designers like myself. As such I’m always keen to learn more about type, so was really looking forward to this panel. I’m glad to say the panel didn’t disappoint.

It was obvious from the outset that Mike and Joshua were very experienced public speakers, as both had a really warm, relaxed and natural tone. Joshua introduced the subject of typography and demonstrated a great technique for assessing legibility by blurring the text. Joshua was obviously extremely knowledgeable and passionate about typography and I’d love too see him to a full hour presentation some time. Mike discussed typography from a more general web design perspective and touched upon Flash replacement. Shaun started off a bit more nervously but quickly got into the flow of things and gave an excellent talk about practical typographic implementation on the web. All in all this was a great talk and definitely one of my favorite from the conference.

After that there really weren’t any other talks I fancied attending. Rather than hanging around, quite a large group of us went for food at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. It was still pretty early and I wasn’t particularly hungry. However the food took ages to come and by the time it arrived I was suitably famished. I ended up having a really good talk with Doug and Dave about consulting, freelancing and talking at conferences.

Back at the conference center we went to Bruce Sterling’s keynote. I wasn’t enjoying it that much but by the power of Rendezvous iChat, found out that the Accessibility shootout was looking more promising. We headed over and managed to catch the last half before assembling another posse and heading over the road for coffee at the Hilton. After a good wind down natter and lots of photo taking we all headed back to our hotels to dump our stuff before making our way to the Bitter End for dinner. I spent quite a bit of time teaching Shaun and Leslie British slang. By the end of it both of them had the British accent pretty well sussed and even started to pick up on our accents unintentionally. There was an local AIG meet-up next door and we’d all put our names in a hat to win a book. It seemed that luck was on our side as first Rob was called in, then myself, Shaun and finally Andy Clark. I ended up getting a copy of Web Redesign Workflow that Works 2.0 which was great as I was seriously thinking of buying the updated version only hours before.

After dinner we headed off on mass to Bruce Sterling’s SXSW closing party. It was held in this palatial building which was apparently the American Legion. The party was great, but it was a real shame that it finished at 11pm. Luckily Dunstan had heard of another party so we all headed off there. Me and Dunstan ended up buying 6 or 7 six packs of beer for the party, and packed the already well stocked fridge when we arrived. However 30 minutes later all the beer was gone so we jumped into a cab and shot into town. Me, Shaun, Leslie and Ethan managed to grab last orders at a bar on 6th holding some kind of SXSW film party before heading back to the hotel for the evening. After chatting for an hour or so, everybody crashed. It was about half three by this time and having to catch a six forty five flight to New York, I decided there was no point in sleeping. So I packed up my stuff and headed of to the Airport about an hour later to catch my flight to NYC.

Bye Austin, see you next year.

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SXSW - Day 4 | March 21, 2005

Note - I wrote this the following morning but haven’t had chance to post it till now

Another fun day at SXSW. The first panel I attended was Does Design Matter with Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Maria, Joe Clark and Kelly Goto. It was a very interesting and lively debate, with lots of feedback from Joe Clark. I wasn’t expecting this talk to be funny, but at one point Jeffrey bought up Virtual Stan while Jason “Stan” Santa Maria was talking, causing my side of the room to attempt – unsuccessfully –to stifle their giggles.

Staying in the same room the next talk was How to Inform Design. I really enjoyed this talk, primarily because Jeffrey Veen is such an accomplished speaker. I’m a huge fan of Jeffrey’s work and especially his book, The Art and Science of Web Design. While It’s now a good few years old, It’s still as relevant today as it was when it was published.

We then headed over to the bloggies in the hope that Jon Hicks would scoop best British blog. Unfortunately Tom Coates cleaned up again, but that’s understandable considering his huge reader base. I was quite looking forward to the bloggies, but they actually turned out to be quite an amateurish affair, so I was glad when they finished. Everybody headed off for BBQ but being a veggie it didn’t really appeal. Instead I grabbed a bit to eat on my own then hung out with Andy Clarke till the next session.

Design Eye for the Information Guy was the big hit of the day for me. Andrei organized an excellent session based on the Design Eye posts on his site. Utilizing the talents of Keith Robinson, Cameron Moll, Ryan Sims and Paul Nixon, the panel walked us through the process they used to makeover Dirk Kynmer’s website. Unlike some of the panel sessions I’ve been to, there was a great dynamic between the panelists and it really felt they were enjoying giving their talk. It was especially interesting seeing how each person tackled their part of the project and how it all fitted together. Of course it helped that they ended up producing a fantastic looking design. The concept of this panel was great and I fully expect to see more “Design Eye” talks at future events.

That was basically it for the day. A large group of us headed over to the Hilton for dinner. However it was pretty pricey and not very good for vegetarians, so me and Ian Lloyd did a runner and walked up to 20/2. For those of you not familiar with 20/2 (which included me up until yesterday) the idea is that 20 people will get up on stage and perform for 2 minutes on a pre decided subject. This years subject was “What’s the word” and people did a variety of things from poetry and prose to music and multi media presentations. Pretty much all of the acts were good, although one of the funniest in my book was Shaun Inman’s name dropping song about catching up on his RSS feeds.

It happened to be Nick Finck’s birthday bash so we all jumped into taxi’s and headed to 6th street. Derek, Rob, Stan and myself were all hungry so went to grab a bite to eat before hand. The idea was to get takeaway but we couldn’t find anything so ended up in PF Chang’s. We had a great meal and this was one of the first opportunities I had to have a proper chat with people, one that lasted more than 5 minutes before getting interrupted or side tracked. It was midnight by the time we finished, and feeling pretty shattered we all decided to call it an early night. It’s a shame as Nicks party sounded great but I don’t think I could have handled another late night.

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SXSW - Day 3 | March 14, 2005

It was a big day of talks today, starting with Eric’s emergent semantics talk. I wasn’t initially planning to go to this talk, thinking that there probably wasn’t anything I could learn about the subject. How wrong could I be? Eric talked about the emergence of MicroFormats and really got me thinking about how extensible XHTML can actually be. In the afternoon, Tantek’s presentation entitled The Elements of Meaningful XHTML built on Eric’s talk by dissecting various microformats such as nCalendars and VoteLinks. The combined talks were really inspiring and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few new microformats come out of this conference.

The Hi-Fi design panel was very interesting and it was great to see so many excellent designers in one place. It was almost like a presentation design shootout, with each speaker competing for the best looking presentation template. Dave Shea would probably get my prize for the most creative execution, using Jeremy’s slideshow script to animate each slide.

The evening took the usual path of drinking, meeting up with cool people, eating, and more drinking. Definitely going to need a holiday after this.

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SXSW - Day 2 | March 14, 2005

Despite going to sleep at around 2am, I woke up again at 6am on the dot. Damn jet lag! After a leisurely breakfast we headed out to watch the kickball game. The game was vaguely entertaining but the funniest thing was Paul Scrivens doing a victory dance when he scored a run. I’d have loved to have gotten an MPEG of that!

I ended up chatting to this local journalist who said that 3,500 people had bought tickets to the Interactive section of SXSW. I’d assumed that most of the people registering were there for the film track, but it seems like the interactive track is going to very big this year. I finally met up with Dave Shea and Cameron Moll, both of whom were really cool.

Our talk was later that day so me and Jeremy decided to cruise by the room to check it out. Happy that we knew where we were going, Jeremy, Rich, Ian and myself went to grab some lunch. After some more great Texan cooking we headed off to Jeffrey’s keynote speech which was packed. Jeffrey was very entertaining and his tone really helped set the scene for our talk.

After the keynote me and Jeremy headed off to the green room. I have to admit that having to wait around in the green room for 45min before speaking did more to make me nervous than anything else. I decided to go for a quick walk and poked my nose into our room. It was a good half hour before our talk, but the room was already filling up. This was a sign of things to come as by the time our talk started, the room was full. People were standing at the back and sitting on the floor, and they even stopped people coming in. I even found out later that Jeffrey tried to get in but it was too full!

The talk we had prepared was entitled How to Bluff Your Way in CSS and was very tongue in cheek. The idea was to show people where they needed to go and what they needed to do to learn CSS. However rather than just listing out a bunch of dry resources we wanted to have a little fun with the topic. So we talked about all this stuff under the pretext that it would help people pretend to be CSS experts. We also wanted to poke a bit of fun at ourselves and the web standards community as a whole, as we do tend to take ourselves a little seriously.

We were a bit concerned that people wouldn’t get the joke and think we were idiots. However after five or ten minutes people realized that we weren’t being serious and got into the whole thing. As people started enjoying the talk I really relaxed into things and started having fun. Quite a few people came up to us afterwards to say they enjoyed the talk, which was great. All in all it was an excellent experience and all the hard work was worth the while.

I ran off to Jason Fried’s talk about small team development. The basic theme of the talk seemed to be that it was better to start building as soon as possible rather than wasting time on planning and documenting. Jason rightly pointed out that many clients don’t read, don’t understand or misinterpret specs. It’s only when they get a chance to see something working that they really know if that’s what they wanted or not. Jason suggested that an iterative process comprising of lots of small steps was the best way to solve this problem.

While I could identify with most of the issues Jason talked about, it did seem that he was advocating trial and error over intelligent design. His approach would really decrease the initial overhead and speed time-to-market. However if a fundamental problem crept in at the start of the process, it could result in a large part of the project needing to be redesigned or recoded. Jason did push the point that the application should be as simple as possible, which would minimize the overhead of change. However that could still mean quite a bit of reprogramming depending on the site.

After the conference I headed down to the CSS-Discuss meet-up at Buffalo Billiards before having dinner with a bunch of cool people at the Iron Cactus. We spent ages having dinner so managed to miss the opening party. However we did get to the after party where I finally got chance to say hi to Jeffrey which was cool.

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SXSW Day 1 | March 12, 2005

Or maybe this should be day zero as today was registration day and the festival proper doesn’t start till tomorrow. Despite being knackered, I work up at 6am on the dot and couldn’t get back to sleep. Coming down for breakfast I sat outside in the morning heat and wrote up the previous days adventures. Once the others were up and suitiblty fed and watered, we went for a morning stroll around downtown Austin and then down to the lake.

Austin seems like a very cool and friendly place. However despite being twice the size of Brighton, the downtown area feels extremely quiet. Walking around town, there was hardly anybody around. There were bars and restaurants aplenty but I couldn’t quite figure out where people bought stuff. In Brighton there is a shop on every street corner and I was expecting 6th street to be full of shops as well as bars. However apart from the odd drug store and tattoo parlor, the shopping opportunities were conspicuous in their absence.

The lake area was nice and peaceful. People were rowing on the lake, riding their bikes and jogging. After strolling around for a couple of hours we headed off to a coffee shop by the convention center to meet up with Dunstan. Dunstan was having coffe with Molly Holzschlag and Tantek Çelik amongst other people and this was our first of many introductions of the day.

After tea and a chat our enlarged party headed off to register. Getting into the convention centre and seeing everybody milling around suddenly bought home the fact that I was going to be speaking in front of some of these people the following day. Blimey!

Jon Hicks and Andy Clarke finally showed up after having various travel dramas, and our steadily increasing party headed off to grab some lunch. Tantek lead us to a local Mexican restaurant, although at one point I wondered where the hell we were going as we were walking right through the kitchen. The food was good and we spent the majority of lunch teaching our American hosts British slang and trying to explain our compulsion for not making a fuss.

Back to the convention center we met a bunch more people and then checked out where we would be speaking the following day. After more coffee and chatting we decided to head back to the hotel to test our talk out on Rich, Andy and Jon who probably wouldn’t be making it to the real thing.

With that out of the way it was time to grab some food. Along with Ethan, we hit 4th street and ended up in a micro brewery and restaurant called The Bitter End. After much eating and drinking it was time to do some socializing, so Jeremy suggested going to Break bread with Brad which is apparently the tradition pre SXSW.

The place was packed and everywhere I looked there were well known web celebrities. We were joined by two more Brit Packers, Ian Lloyd and Simon Willison almost completing the scheduled British invasion. I chatted to lots of cool people although I’m gonna avoid the temptation to name drop as it could get very tedious very quickly. I successfully managed to talk myself horse, something I’m really going to regret in my talk the following day. Despite my good intentions, we ended up leaving pretty late and didn’t crash till gone 2am. So that’s me gonna be well prepared for my first SXSW talk!

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SXSW – Day 0 | March 11, 2005

Yesterday was a pretty long and tiring day all told. I got up at 6am, meeting Jeremy and Richard at the station. A short train ride later and we were deposited at Gatwick airport. After the usual check-in rigmarole we hooked up with our other traveling companion of the day – Dunstan and caught our transatlantic flight to Houston. The flight went pretty smoothly. I watched The Incredibles, caught up with a bit of work and even managed to get a couple of hours of sleep. About 15 hours later we arrived in Austin to be greeted by a beautiful sunny Texan afternoon.

The Taxi ride to the hotel was possibly one of the most entertaining cab rides I’ve ever had, and a real introduction to Texan hospitality. The cab driver was my stereotypical image of a Texan – honest, friendly and with an authentic southern drawl. During the Cab ride we chatted about Texas BBQ, The Rodeo, Horse Riding, Texas BBQ, SXSW, Bush and oh, Texas BBQ.

Getting to the Hotel we immediately hooked up with Dunstan’s room mate – Ethan and headed to the lounge for free beer. After knocking back a couple of cold ones we wandered along 6th street and ended up at the Iron Cactus for Frozen Margaritas and Tex Mex food. After a meal fit for three, we ran over the road for another beer at Maggie Mae’s before moving onto Buffalo Billiards for more beer and table football. As the jet lag started to kick in, we hit 4th street, and our last stop for the evening, Halcyon Coffeehouse.

Halcyon is a really nice coffeehouse-come-bar dripping in WiFi, and the kind of place Brighton really needs. I’d been having connectivity problems all evening so lightly drunk and bleary eyed, we had an impromptu hardware hacking session which prompted Ethan to describe us as the special needs A-Team. After this many beers back home I’d be well and truly hammered. Luckily American beer is like making love in a canoe, so I wasn’t feeling too worse for ware.

With the jet lag firmly washing over us, it was time to head back to the hotel for some well deserved rest. Jeremy was in charge of booking the accommodation and I was under the impression we were getting a twin room with an extra bed. However it turned out that the twin rooms wouldn’t fit an extra bed so I drew the short straw and crashed on the floor! Luckily, having been awake now for 24hrs it wasn’t too difficult to get to sleep.

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Life is About to Get a Lot More Random | March 1, 2005

I’ve really enjoyed working with Message over the last 5 years. Working for a small agency means that you’re intimately involved with every aspect of a project, from the initial pitch to the final roll out. Rather than being another cog in the machine, you’re a valued member of the team and have the ability to shape every project you work on.

However the downside is that you develop a broad but shallow set of Skills. You’ll be a visual designer in the morning and a front end developer in the afternoon. One day you’ll be running a usability test, the next you’ll be making the tea. You get to experience lots of things but rarely get chance to focus on one thing for long. This tends to make you a bit schizophrenic and I still have problems defining exactly what my job is (saving that one for a future post).

Working with the same company for so long, you start to take things for granted. Over the last 5 years I’ve helped develop the way Message do business and manage projects. Projects get completed on time and on budget, clients are happy, as are users. However it’s difficult to gauge what’s good and what’s bad about your process without seeing how other companies tackle the same problems.

Over the last year I’ve been finding it really difficult to keep on top of all my personal projects like running SkillSwap and publishing this site. I’ll come home from a hard days work, and have to start all over again. At times It’s like having a second (and third and fourth) job, except this one doesn’t pay. I’ve been wanting to redesign this site for over a year now and have a folder on my desktop that contains 27 things to blog about, yet I never manage to find the time. There have been at least two really cool personal projects I missed out on doing just for the lack of time.

So I’ve decided it’s time for pastures new. I handed my notice in at the beginning of February and start work as a freelancer when I get back from SXSW at the end of March.

I’ve not got anything lined up yet, but I’m hoping to spend part of my time working as an on-site contractor for other new media companies. I’m really keen to experience working for different agencies to see how they do things differently. Also – after having worked in the same small company for so long – I’m looking forward to meeting and working with new people.

I’m also looking to build up my own list of private clients. Either other web design firms needing to outsource user experience design and front end development work, or direct clients requiring more general web design services.

I’ve no idea how this is all going to pan out. Part of me is really excited about the possibility of working for myself while another part is slightly more apprehensive.

If you work for a company looking for a freelance user experience designer or front end developer, or if you know of somebody who is, I’d love to hear from you.

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