Web Design Conferences | September 30, 2005

I have been to a several conferences this year and have enjoyed every one of them. It is so much fun meeting like minded people who share the same interests and passions as I do. I have been to some great, eye-opening sessions and have been enthused by speakers I’ve admired for years. However it is the snatched conversations over lunch or between sessions that have provided me with the most inspiration.

I will be attending SXSW again next year, and am already looking forward to it. I’m planning to give a presentation with Andy Clarke which should be a lot of fun.

I’m keen to attend more conferences so would love to find out what your favourite conferences are and what conferences or events you are planning to attend in the next 18 months.

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The New Face of Flash | September 26, 2005

Some of you may be surprised that prior to developing an interest in web standards, I was actually an ActionScript programmer. I used to really enjoy building flash based games and application, although I tried to steer clear of the ubiquitous “skip intro”. However I became increasing frustrated with the Flash development environment. By the time Flash MX came out, ActionScript was a fairly reasonably formed object oriented programming language. However all of your development happened in an environment designed for visual animation. Frustrating to say the least.

By the time Flash MX 2004 came out I was so fed up with Flash, I threw in the towel and never looked back. Since then my view of Flash has been locked in 2003. Flash to me meant sites opening up in full sized windows, user interfaces taking 10 seconds to build as elements would fly in from one side, fade in and assemble themselves, only to fly apart when you clicked on a navigation element and rebuild again on the next screen. Flash 99% bad indeed.

The other day I popped into Borders coffee shop for a much needed break from writing and bumped into friend and Flash supremo, Aral Flash Ant Balkan. We got chatting and in the space of half an hour Aral changed my view of Flash for ever.

Aral was working on a Flash application and we got talking about developing applications in flash. The first thing that really shocked was when Aral started talking about running user tests for his applications. A Flash developer knowing what user testing was, let along running one? Never heard anything like that before!

We started taking about why you would choose Flash over a more tradition approach and one of the main things was obviously the ability to maintain state. We briefly talked about the ability to do this in regular HTML pages now, using AJAX. However Aral quite rightly mentioned that what people are starting to do now using AJAX, Flash developers were doing 3-4 years ago. As such, the Flash developer community had learnt a lot from their early mistakes, the same mistakes AJAX developers are making now. Also the Flash client and server technology is a good few years ahead of the AJAX community.

Hmm, interesting, but I needed more convincing. Flash still seemed like a very clunky way to build applications. This is when Aral introduced me to MXML, an XML user interface language much like XUL. Rather than building his interface in Flash, Aral was editing XML files. Adding a <mx:TextInput /> tag would create an input box, adding a <mx:Button /> would create a button element. Aral explained that the MXML file was really intended for presentation only, and all the data and logic were dealt with elsewhere. Hmm I thought, separating presentation from data sounds familiar, I wonder where I’ve heard that before?

Aral then started walking me though his ActionScript framework. No longer did you need to embed ActionScript in your Flash files. It could all be held externally as .as files, the logic and behaviour being separated from the display. The framework really did look like any other object oriented framework except this was written in ActionScript and not PHP or Java.

It struck me that Aral was coming at things from exactly the same angle as me, wanting to build more usable applications, separating data from presentation and behaviour etc. He was just using a different tool to achieve the same goals.

It really made me think about how much Flash has developed in the last few years. What the standards and open source community have been talking about for years –turning the web into an application platform using technologies such as XUL and AJAX- flash developers have been doing for a while now. Obviously I’d prefer to be using open technologies rather than expensive and proprietary ones. However it does make you think and give you a possible glimpse of what Web 2.0 really could be like.

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More on Web Design Publications | September 24, 2005

A couple of weeks ago I bemoaned the lack of a good publication in the UK aimed at people in the interactive sector. While there are a lot of hobbyist magazines packed full of software reviews and “how to build a website for under £100” articles, there is very little aimed at the professional sector.

I guess Digit is probably the best Industry magazine around at the moment. While it does have its share of software reviews, you are more likely to see reviews of pro packages such as Softimage than hobbyist applications such as Freeway. It has a good good mix of news, articles and showcases, focused more towards the professional user. My main complaint is that the magazine has a big 3D bias, so you don’t often get that much web based info. However its worth a read on a Sunday morning if you happen to be in the coffee shop in Borders.

The other Industry magazine I occasionally read is Computer Arts. While it has its fare share of beginner tutorials, it does sometimes have interesting articles, interviews and portfolio pieces. However like Digit with its 3D bias, Computer Arts has a very strong Illustration and Photoshop Bias.

The magazine I most read is Mac User. Despite being a Mac magazine, it actually gives me a better overview of what is going on in the digital world than either of the previous magazines. The same is true of the Guardians excellent and recently re-branded technology supplement.

And it struck me, I don’t want a web design magazine at all, what I want is a good digital lifestyle and technology magazine. Magazines based on professions are always too niche and never really get the balance right. Sure web designers want to know about the latest software or techniques, but that’s not all they want to read about.

I want to read about the latest gadgets like the release of the iPod nano, about new technologies such as WiMax and about how industry is using blogging in new and interesting ways. I want to read interviews with people from flickr and google and articles about top web design and development teams. I want to read about the latest computer games, virtual currency and how some have a higher GDP than Singapore. I want to read reviews of the conferences and hear peoples thoughts on web 2.0. I’d like to see reviews of new sites, weblogs and podcasts as well as books and software.

Basically what I want is a professional and well written version of a blog, preferably in paper format. A periodical that covers all the week or months top digital lifestyle and tech stories in an intelligent and well written fashion.

Why not just read blogs? Well to be honest I do, but with around 1000 unread posts in my RSS reader, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find the time. What I’d like is a group of professional writers with the time that only a commercial enterprise can give, to filter all this information and provide me with only the information I really need to know. Being a commercial operation they would have more time than the average blogger so could report from conferences, visit design firms and interview interesting people. More time could be spent on crafting and researching articles, taking to the people that matter, rather than shooting off a quick blog post in 10 minutes of dead space. Also sometimes its just nicer to sit down with a cup of tea, away from your computer and read a nicely designed piece of print.

Traditional media probably aren’t going to do this, so maybe it is time for a group of talented bloggers to move from personal publishing to professional publishing. A few bloggers like Ben Hammersley have made the jump and the world of tech journalism is much better for it.

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Introducing Clearleft | September 21, 2005

It has been a long time coming, but today I’m pleased to announce the launch of my new company website, clearleft.com.

clearleft-homepage.png

Clearleft is a web design consultancy founded in Brighton, England by myself, Jeremy Keith and Richard Rutter. All having very similar interests and outlooks, we decided that it was time to pool our resources and start working on the kinds of projects we wanted to work on.

We have been hinting at the existence of Clearleft for a while now. The logo made its first public appearance on me and Jeremy’s SXSW05 slides six months ago, albeit without the company name and tag line.

Clearleft Logo

The company itself was soft launched during @media 2005. We didn’t want to make a huge song and dance about our launch, preferring simply to introduce ourselves as Clearleft directors, and adding a link to our holding page on our slides.

We did however hand out a number of our newly printed (ink still wet) business cards, which got a very favourable response. Mostly as it gave people something to read on the train home.

Clearleft business cards

We started building our company site several months ago, however what with client work and book writing commitments, the site has taken a while to perfect. The design actually came about very quickly, but honing the content took the time.

The site is very much in the first stage of development. I actually wanted to add a permanent beta tag to the logo like so many other sites,. However Rich and Jeremy wisely vetoed the idea. Once things have settled down we will be adding case studies, articles, press releases and a new blog.

In the meantime, I’d like to invite you all over to check out our new home. We’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to wander around, check inside the cupboards and let us know what you think of the decor. Just remember to wipe your feet on the way in.

If you like what you see and want to work with us, please feel free to get in touch.

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Three Books by Andy Budd | September 19, 2005

As Michael Heilemann quite rightly said, its not every day you can go to amazon.com and find your name listed as an author on a book. Its even less common to find your name listed on three, one of which you didn’t even write!

As Michael mentioned, myself, Richard Rutter, Simon Collison, John Oxton, Phil Sherry and Chris J Davis have all contributed a chapter to the forthcoming book, Blog Design Solutions. Each chapter tackles a single blog design, from graphic creation, through XHTML/CSS production, to implementation into a specific blogging application. My chapter covers the old grandaddy of blogging applications, MovableType, while the other chapters cover Expression Engine, Textpattern, Wordpress and rolling your own using PHP. Each chapter comes with it’s own set of ready to use templates and should be great for people wanting to sample different blogging applications to find the one that suits them best.

I wrote my chapter just after SXSWi, so it has actually been quite a while since I was involved. However one of the best things about this book was working with such a talented group of people, many of them proud, pant wearing Brit Packers.

So that is book one dealt with. How about book two?

Well book two is the one I’m really excited about as its my first full CSS book. Entitled CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions, this book is scheduled for release on December 19. Probably too late to buy as a Christmas present, but a perfect way to spend those Amazon book vouchers your auntie Dorris got you.

As the title suggests, the aim of this book is to help intermediate CSS developers push their knowledge to the next level. The book will cover some of the most useful CSS techniques around, brining them together in one neat and easy to reference package. With the basic techniques covered, Cameron Moll and Simon Collison will be putting them into action with two great case studies.

So if I’ve been a little quite the last few months, that is one of the reasons. The other reason I’ll explain tomorrow.

OK, Andy, so that is two books you have written, what about the one you haven’t written. Well, I was supposed to be writing a small CSS book 18 months ago, but for various reasons, had to back out. Russ Weakly picked up the mantle and the book, CSS in 10 minutes is going to be published in November. Rather unfortunately, somebody must have forgotten to tell the book cover designers about the change of authorship, as they have left my name on the cover by mistake. I’m sure this will get sorted soon, but I thought it was rather amusing that the first book I see with my name on the cover actually had nothing to do with me.

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iPod Nano | September 15, 2005

I bought my girlfriend an iPod a couple of Christmases ago to make her commute up to London a bit more pleasant. I though about getting an iPod myself, but I never really listened to that much music on the go, so felt it would be a bit of a waste.

I thought about getting an iPod mini, but the same thing applied. It looked good but probably wouldn’t get that much use. By the time the iPod shuffle came out, Apple had wore me down. It was the perfect size and weight to have in my pocket all the time, and was great for the occasional trip to London, or the increasingly occasional trip to the gym. Perfect for filling up dead space.

I’ve been doing a lot more travelling the last couple of months, going up to London for meetings, training sessions and events. The last few trips I’ve started to feel the limits of the iPod shuffle. First off my shuffle is limited to about 150 songs, so you do end up getting repeats over the course of a day, especially if you skip over songs you don’t fancy listening to. Secondly there is no way to tell what a song is, so if a song comes on that you like, you can’t find out what it is or rate it.

The iPod shuffle is an excellent entry product. You get a very cheap product that shows you the benefits of having a portable mp3 player, but is limited so that after 6 months, you want to upgrade. Very smart. And what happens around 6 months after the iPod shuffle is launched?

That’s right, the iPod Nano.

ipod nano

The pictures of the iPod Nano look pretty impressive, but you honestly can’t get a feel for how small and compact these things are unless you see them. I went up to the Apple store on Sunday to have a look and I have to say I was blown away. Now the iPod classics are by no means bulky and the mini’s are, as their name suggests, pretty small. However the iPod Nano is tiny. Just like the Shuffle, the Nano is an MP3 player that you’ll just slip into your jacket pocket or bag and carry everywhere with you. However unlike the Shuffle, it has all the features, and more, of the iPod classic.

The visual styling is fantastic, looking like you’ve left your iPod classic in the washing machine and it’s shrunk. The colour screen is crisp and clear, making me wonder how people ever managed with a black and white screen. They just look so dated in comparison. The only problem is that it looks so small you feel it would snap in half if you forgot to take it out of your back pocket when you sat down. Not to fear however because the new Nano’s have been thoroughly stress tested and seem to be pretty robust. Just don’t expect them to work properly after you’ve dropped them out of your car at 50mph and then driven over them.

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Aeron Chair by Herman Miller | September 10, 2005

Aeron office chair

A few of weeks ago I talked about wanting an Aeron chair. Richard Rutter pointed out an auction on ebay and a couple of days later we are both the proud owners of new (well slightly used) Aerons. They really are very nice, providing an excellent combination of comfort and style. So if your in the market for a new chair, I can highly recommend them.

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Blogging in Government | September 7, 2005

Today I had the pleasure of giving a talk to members of the governments e-communications network, part of the larger Government Communication Network. In the first of a series of events, the group invited a number of people from the web design community to discuss the subjects of accessibility and blogging. Along with Joe Clark, Alastair Campbell, Patrick Lauke and Tom Coates, I was given the honour of being asked to speak.

I headed up to London this morning and met up with Tom in Starbucks to go through our slides. Joe, Patrick and Alastair were talking about web accessibility, while myself and Tom were discussing how blogging could be used in government. We had divided our subjects evenly, with me talking about the history and culture of weblogging, as well as possible internal application, and Tom discussing external applications and how to handle staff with blogs.

After running though our notes and realising we had far too much material, we wandered through Westminster and met up with the other speakers. First up were Joe, Alastair and Patrick on the accessibility panel. Joe gave an excellent introduction to the topic of web accessibility, focussing heavily on the use of standards complaint code. Alastair then talked about the WCAG and touched on content management systems. Lastly Patrick discussed how organisations needed to see accessibility in terms of people as opposed to simply another series of checkpoint and guidelines to meet.

There was some lively discussion afterward, particularly on the subject of accessible content management systems. One of the audience members was currently trying to procure an off the shelf CMS and none of the vendors were able to provide one that met the double-A standard. Tom quite rightly pointed out that there is a huge market for good, accessible and standards based CMS systems out there.

We broke for a brief buffet lunch and a chance to chat with some of the attendees. After a suitable break we reconvened with mine and Toms’ part of the presentation. Our topic was on blogging and how it could be used in government. I started off by canvassing the audience about their knowledge and experience of blogs. Most people knew what a blog was and about half said that they read blogs on a regular basis. Unlike most conferences I attend, only three people in the audience actually had a personal blog and none used a blog for work. When asked if anybody knew of any governmental blogs, only one person did, and apparently that blog got abandoned after only a couple of weeks due to lack of time and commitment from the author.

I began by discussing what blogs were, how they came about and how they were currently being used and perceived by people and organisations. I then discussed how blogs could be used internally as a communication tool, a way of knowledge sharing and a project management platform. I ended on some of the institutional issues that large organisations face when trying to use blogs such as relaxing the inherent control culture. If you are interested, my note are available online.

Tom then picked up where I left off, discussing how blogging culture was impacting the world and how you were either part of the conversation on not. Tom discussed how blogs could be used just for their technical abilities such as using RSS for press releases or for more B2B style communications. However the main benefit of governmental weblogging was the ability to communicate directly with the community, bypassing both internal and news based editorial control. Tom talked about how governmental weblogs could give a human face to often monolithic organisations and mentioned how Robert Scoble had helped change the public perception of Microsoft. Tom wrapped up by discussing how large organisations should treat the personal weblogs of staff. Tom suggested that rather than taking a draconian standpoint, organisations should have clear usage policies in place and treat staff weblogs like any other public conversation.

Tom Coates presenting at the Home Office

The post talk discussion was very interesting and ranged from questions about possible internal applications through to comments about the cultural barriers within government that could possibly inhibit the use of external weblogs, such as editorial control or legal accountability. I think people were genuinely interested and enthused by the idea of governmental weblogs, especially for internal communication management. I personally don’t expect to see a rush of publicly facing weblogs in the near future for organisational culture reasons. However I do think the seed has been planted and as the internal culture starts to change over the next few years I see the potential for some very interesting and useful weblogs to develop.

[Updated] I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about blogging in government? Do you think it is a good idea and if so, how would you utilise it? What do you think the benefits are and also what are the pitfalls? Is your government beginning to utilise blogs, and if so, are they doing a good job?

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Web Design Publications | September 2, 2005

In the UK, there are a reasonable number of magazines dealing with the web. Unfortunately most of them are aimed at the hobbyist rather than the professional market. As such, they are full of website reviews and “How to” tutorials. Of the magazines available, the only ones I occasionally dip into are Computer Arts Magazine and Digit. Sometimes I’ll glance through New Media Age but it pretty much reads like any other industry trade journal. Company X wins contract from company Y. Creative Director from Company A moves to company B. You know the sort.

So I was wondering what the state of web magazine publishing was like in your country? Do you have any great web design magazines that you read every month? If your work was to be featured in one design or technology magazine, which one would it be?

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