107. Running to keep up

Paul Boag

On show 107: What should you be learning about in 2008, Jason Beaird on web design basics and how to deal with portfolio pages.

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News and events | Where to focus in 08 | Jason Beaird on design basics | Listener emails

News and events

Setting expectations

Our first news story today is an article on working with your clients. Specifically it focuses on the subject of setting your clients expectations and clearly communicating with them.

We all work for somebody. We all have clients in some form. Whether our clients are other companies or simply our boss we all know the feeling when they seem to expect something which we believed we never promised.

This article looks at two ways of managing this kind of scenario. First be diligent up front. As the article says…

Setting expectations isn’t difficult, or mysterious, but it does take time and you have to be diligent about it.

Second it suggests being consistent. That doesn’t mean you are inflexible. It means that you need to be consistent in your communications throughout a project. If goal posts move, it is important that you explain the ramifications.

The principles of this article are universally applicable. So whoever you are take a few minutes to check it out.

Great websites do, not say

The next post I found falls into the category of “it’s funny because it’s true”. It’s a post by one of my favourite bloggers Gerry McGovern who seems to rant against websites that spend more time talking about user experience rather than offering it. He begins his rant by focusing on welcome copy…

I don’t want to pass meaningless pleasantries with your website. I don’t want to shake its hand. Or talk about the weather. I’m at your website for a reason. I’m in a hurry. I’m impatient. So kill the welcome, please.

He goes on to criticise sites that waste valuable copy explaining how easy their sites are…

If it’s really easy, why are you telling me it’s really easy and quick? For starters, you’ve wasted my time by making me read your meaningless sentence.

If you ever write copy for websites then you should read this post. If you don’t then check it out anyway if only for the pure entertainment value.

CSS: The All-Expandable Box

My final suggestion for your reading pleasure is a post on the Web Designers Wall entitled The All-Expandable Box. This solves a problem which I encounter all the time.

As you will know if you listen to this show regularly I am a great fan of using ems for typography. I like the idea users can resize their text to suit their own requirements.

The downside of this approach is that it can quickly break designs especially when text is contained within a box. The box will naturally expand vertically but not horizontally. The result is that you loose control of line length. Enabling the whole interface to expand including the box itself is very useful. This article shows you how.

Its a nice clean technique that should act as a building block for much more complex things. So if you are considering doing more ems based design then this should be a nice starting point.

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Feature: Where to focus in 08

As web designers we are all busy people. We are in such a fast moving sector that it can be hard to know what is worthy of our attention. Should we be focusing on Silverlight or brushing up on Javascript? Learning Rails or grappling with mobile devices? This week I want to share my thoughts of where you should be focusing your energies in 2008.

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Expert interview: Jason Beaird on design basics

Paul Boag: Joining me today is Jason beard author of an incredibly useful and wonderful book that I’ve really come to love. That’s – How would you describe it? Is it a basic introduction to designing?

Jason Beaird: It’s a basic introduction to graphic design principles. The book was really first intended for web developers in fact the initial working title was web design for developers and it kind of expanded into just a introduction to graphic design principles for anybody not just for developers, not people already creating websites. But anybody interested in design really.

Paul Boag: Mmm what’s so great about it is that you’ve kind of really taken time to go over the basic principle of creating a beautiful website. Which I guess is the title of the book, “The Principles of beautiful of web design” that’s the title isn’t it?

Jason Beaird: That’s correct.

Paul Boag: I really should have it in front of me shouldn’t I [Jason laughs] Oh but you’ve got to be fairly impressed that I knew that of the top of my head.

Jason Beaird: I’m just impressed that you have a copy yourself.

Paul Boag: Well yes I do. And it’s good because a lot of people that listen to this show are not necessarily professional designers we have a lot of people who listen to the show who are website owners but have to do a bit of design in order to maintain their site. We’ve got Developers that developing applications and having to do some design as part of that and we’ve also got people who probably are designers but not full time so are interested in how the professionals go about doing these things. So it’s a really good book for the boagworld listeners and why I’ve been so desperate to get you on the show for so long Jason, so it’s good to have you Jason.

Jason Beaird: So everybody laughs along.

Paul Boag: Well you’re a busy man; you’ve got a lot to do. So I thought what we would basically do is take the chapters from the book and maybe pick out some of the basic principles from each of those chapter and get you to talk about them little bit. So the chapters in your book are layout and composition, colour, texture, typography and imagery and that for a start made me very enthusiastic. Because it’s like really obvious, basic stuff that here are the main issues you are going to come across from a design prospective and you know we’re going to do a chapter on each which I just thought very refreshing and very logical and that’s good. So let’s kick off with layout and composition so tell us a bit about some of the stuff you cover in that chapter maybe and some of the basic principles that non-designers need to know about.

Jason Beaird: Well the entire book is really just basics, in my opinion. It’s just stuff that a lot of people think designers have as intuition and really it’s just stuff you can learn and learning these principle is like learning how to hand code. Really you can a website using a WYSIWYG but understanding the tags and selectors allows you to see inside and know what’s going on. And these are just basic. But really this is going to be the fire hose version of the book.

Paul Boag: Yeah, I’m asking you to compress the entire book into about 20-30 minutes. [Both laugh]

Jason Beaird: I’ll give it a shot. We’ll start out with layout, some of the main principles of graphic design theory is balance, unity and emphasis and learning how to take all three of those and use them effectively in a layout is a pretty good place to start, from a layout prospective. By balance I mean symmetry. Is it divided right down the middle, or does it still feel balanced even though it’s divided into columns? By unity I mean do the elements of the website feel like they are one cohesive thing. You know does it feel like it’s a singular unit rather than a bunch of different bits. Then emphasis obviously is about creating a focal point on the page. And keeping that focal point and understanding where people are going to look and why they are going to look there and so there there’s different ways to create all three of those things. One thing I talked about in the first chapter about balance and creating balance is design proportion which some people call the golden mean or the golden ratio. Really it’s just a rule that if you divide a width by 1.62 just a number called Phi** you get a pleasing proportionate division. And so to make that simpler it can also be known as the rule of thirds. If you divide something by thirds it’s pretty close to the 1/ 1.62 ratio and you can come up with a pleasing kind of division for a navigation column and content area by using that kind of division. But really that’s sort of an overview.

Paul Boag: Yeah, I wonder why the rule of thirds works, did you find out anything in your research about why that is pleasing?

Jason Beaird: I didn’t really find out a whole lot of solid information about it. But there is some out there, pythagorans noticed that it was a very common division in nature things like with leaves and shells had the same division and ratio and then started to develop the concept that anything designed around that is designing around nature so is therefore designing around gods design so you know. So the Romans and the Greeks built there some of their architecture on the golden ratio, the golden mean it’s a stable of graphic design since those times.

Paul Boag: Yeah and it really does work. I remember even back in Art College when I was being taught photography the same principles apply to photography composition you know or really anything you do, whether its print design or web design. So yeah the rule of thirds I think is a good one to take away.

Jason Beaird: Yep.

Paul Boag: Ok, what about colour tells us a little bit about colour because that’s a huge subject that people have written entire books on and you had one chapter so what did you chose to pick out on the subject of colour?

Jason Beaird: That’s the important thing to remember about these chapters is that there are entire books dedicated to each. I feel like was already trying to squeeze it already into the book. But with colour I think the most important thing to remember is that people’s perception of colour depend on their own personal experiences and cultural like right now, red and green means Christmas, for most Americans and most people around the globe whether they believe in that or not it’s just something that we’ve been exposed to so much that that’s the way we see it.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Jason Beaird: But beyond those personal perceptions and traditional perceptions it’s good to know that there are ways to align colours where you really can’t make too big a mistake. [Laughs] and that are using a colour wheel and to rely on colour schemes that exist. With any rule it can be broken for whatever purpose you want but it’s good to know what the good colour choices look like before you start making your own and relying on color schemes or a colour wheel is a good way to get started.

Paul Boag: I think when you talk about these rules exist to be broken, ok that’s true but the kind of audience you are trying to reach, maybe a non-designer audience kind of playing safe is kind of always a good way to go.

Jason Beaird: That’s true.

Paul Boag: And you know using a colour wheels and stuff. Don’t you also mention in the book about finding a photograph that you like and or is that somewhere else, that might be somewhere else but it’s a nice idea anyway, taking a photograph and extracting the colours from that. I think is quite a nice way of doing it as well. Have you ever tried that?

Jason Beaird:I have tried that, I use that quite often. I don’t know if I mentioned that in the book or not. I mention a few other software based colour chooses and one that come out around the time I was writing the book that I didn’t get a chance to include was adobe kuler, at

Paul Boag: Yeah I think using a tool like that is very handy indeed. Because let’s face it we perceive colour in slightly different ways and what is it one in ten or is it one in 20 men are colour blind anyway.

Jason Beaird: I believe it’s 1 in 10 have slight colour blindness where they can’t tell, usually a red green; where they can’t tell the difference between red and green. Yeah so I mean yes, using a tool is a good idea if you are not a designer who’s really confident in colour.

Paul Boag: Now what about the subject of texture that was an interesting one I was quite interested that that was included in the chapter listings. And I, I intuitively do stuff with texture but I’ve never really thought about it that much so tell us a little bit about why you decided to include that and what advice would you give?

Jason Beaird: That for me was probably one of the hardest chapters to write because it was a lot of intuition and I like to use texture a lot in my own designs and I think that where truly the design begins. But there is not much principle wise to it. You can talk about points and lines and shape and that’s where all visual effects begin. But texture is really about creating a tactile quality and a theme for you website. Whether that is a smooth shape like apple computer with rounded corners and glossy buttons or whether that is a wicked worn look with a brick texture or something that makes it look nostalgia or old or whatever feel you want to create you can do that with texture. And I was trying to just convey that in that chapter.

Paul Boag: Yeah I mean texture kind a gives character to the site in many ways doesn’t it from the kind of grunge look you get through to the highly reflective look, or like what you say, sites like Apple. So what kind of, you talked about points and lines and perhaps you could explain some of those concepts to us.

Jason Beaird: Right you can create any kind of visual effect with just points. I showed an example; a picture of my cat, abbie, created with a dot matrix printer kind of effect on it. It’s just points. And then you can move in and use lines and shapes. It’s just important to remember that lines can create movement, horizontal line doesn’t have as much movement as say a diagonal line or vertical lines lead you up and down the page. It’s important to remember eye movement when you are creating textures. But really it’s just like what I said about creating a tactile quality and theme for the website.

Paul Boag: So as far as people may be, say a developer who has just developed an application and he needs it to look kind of half decent but doesn’t want to do anything too risky incase he screws it up and he’s not a designer. I mean what kind of advice do you give a person like that? Do you encourage them, probably best to stay away from doing too much textual stuff or is that something you should get into?

Jason Beaird: I think it’s something you should think about. Texture can easily be overdone and it can become goofy and silly rather than being professional. And I think it’s just in moderation. The thing to remember is to not leave your website backgrounds on div’s, backgrounds colors on div’s. Create some kind of texture, feel to it, whether that’s rounded corners or whether to go for the minimal stick where you don’t really use background images but rely on negative space. It’s just the fact of going beyond the standard HTML look. I mean obviously with style sheets you can’t just leave it un-styled because it’s styled content has no structure to it any more because, we’ve taken out the tables we’ve taken out the design in HTML and now we are relying on style sheets, so now you really have to build something up. That’s good I think, it makes people think about texture and all these typography, colour all these elements of design. But to think about it and just go beyond the basics. Just try to recreate something that you already like, picture wise, that doesn’t mean stealing the design but looking at another website you think captures the professional look and feel that you are going for and try to recreate that in your website.

Paul Boag: Yeah, it’s interesting that you talk about looking for inspiration. What kind of advice do you give people for a good place to look, should they just be looking at other websites or should they be looking beyond the web a bit?

Jason Beaird: I really believe that people need to look beyond the web. One of the tags for this book is that you don’t need to go to art school to design great looking websites and well I was kind scared of that headline, that professors from collage would hate me for it. [Paul laugh] It’s really true because if you have a passion for it, it will draw an inspiration from all sorts of sources whether it is architecture, or goofy things like traffic patterns or a door that you see, anything really can really inspire a look and feel to a website. Jonathan Stickler wrote an article about how he was inspired by an art deco building and that’s what gave him the design idea for his current website design.

Paul Boag:Yeah, and I thinks that particularly true when it comes to texture and colour as well as you can see textures and colors around you in everything from a plant pot through to a magazine so yeah.

Jason Beaird: One of the other big things from going through a collage art programs is that if you go to school for graphic design you’re not just going to school for graphic design you actually have to take all the traditional art classes, painting, drawing, pottery sometimes, a lot of history and really the reason for that is to create a foundation to a visual exposure to art. So you have this vocabulary and this experience pool to draw from when you are creating other designs.

Paul Boag: You mentioned earlier, negative space when you were talking about texture as another kind of approach to things. Negative space is something I think designers always throw around; it’s a term that we like to use quite a lot. But it’s not something we ever kind of explain. Just spend a couple of minutes explaining how negative space works and why it’s so important, if you would.

Jason Beaird: Negative space is important because it allows you eye to move around things if you had a page completely crammed with text you wouldn’t have any focal point to start with apart from the top of the page. Our eyes usually gravitate towards the center of the composition, so if you think about that you can have an element something around the center of the composition that can lead you to another element. Negative space is really a tool for moving the eye around.

Paul Boag: Right.

Jason Beaird: If you have, like I said before diagonal lines create movement. If you have diagonal lines that move you up towards something else. I gave a few examples in the book; it’s hard to talk about it with having any visuals.

Paul Boag: Yeah I know. It’s frustrating isn’t it? I really sometimes, I really regret doing an audio podcast, it’s a bad choice. [laughs] Ok, let’s look at the subject of typography. I’m guessing it must have been a hard chapter to write because A) typography is a massive subject and B) typography on the web is quite a tricky area. It’s kind of easy to almost easy, as a non-designer, to dismiss typography by going; well there are only about 4 fonts I’m allowed to use anyway so therefore typography on the web doesn’t exist. Why is that wrong, why is that not the truth and how did you squeeze a chapter out of this.

Jason Beaird: Well just like a lot of the chapters there are a lot of books on the subject of typography that go way beyond our experience with web or even print graphic design that go way back to the roots of communication and that’s really what typography is about. Its communication and all websites you’re trying to communicate something so if you can’t do that with pictures and ideas you have to do that with words so the way those words appear to people should become part of your design. It’s on hard with the state that it’s in with the web, having a limited palette of fonts to choose from. But at the same time it’s a good thing, I think for the novice because even though we are limited to this certain number of fonts that everybody has in their computers. Most of those fonts aside from comic sans are decent [laughs] for body text and things like that. The most important thing to remember is that there are other fonts out there and to have sensitivity towards things like spacing between lines and the vertical rhythm. Vertical rhythm isn’t something I talked about in my book because I thought it was an advanced subject but right after the book was published it sort of exploded into a big topic in web design and there’s a lot great articles out there written by other great web designers about vertical rhythm and how that affects your typography.

Paul Boag: So what is vertical rhythm for those that don’t know?

Jason Beaird: Vertical rhythm is just creating a space between your lines that kind of matches up throughout the website so that the spacing in the lines in your navigation area and the spacing in your lines in the content area kind of line up and their not just randomly spaced apart so you get weird alignments between things. It’s creating vertical rhythm, it itself is a good description; you’re creating a rhythm or pattern for your eye to follow down the page.

Paul Boag: So it’s all about basically making sure multiple typographic elements across columns have some kind of relationship to one another and that they are not just higaty pigaty all over the place.

Jason Beaird: That s the way I understand it, that’s the way I think of it is it’s really about creating a pattern and paying attention to the way the text lines up.

Paul Boag: So whatever, bearing in mind that we are limited to such a small set of fonts. What sort of basic advice would you give to someone starting on in web typography. You mentioned line spacing, what are you getting at there?

Jason Beaird: The default line spacing for HTML is very tight. And with tight text like that it’s kind of hard to read And also thinking about the width of the text you are reading . When you are reading a newspaper article or a magazine article the reason the columns are so narrow is because it’s easy, or a book even, it’s easy for your eye to scan a certain width of text and it’s easy for your eye to move to the next line if there is a little bit of space between it. And if you kind of know those basic concepts you can make it a little more pleasing to read that the default set up for typography on the web.

Paul Boag: Yeah, because especially if you’ve got a fluid site you can end up with ridiculously long line lengths if you don’t.

Jason Beaird: Right and I think that’s a lot of the beef people have with fluid layouts is that not only are you taking power from the graphic designer but you’ll also making line widths that are incredibly hard to read. But in my opinion if the user is comfortable expanding the site out to that width, and it’s readable having the line width that long, then obviously they don’t have a problem with it. But you should sort of leave that up to the user if you can. But it’s been proven that it’s easier to read text that’s been set to a certain width.

Paul Boag: Are there certain type faces that are better suited to kind of headings in preference to body’s and vice versa?

Jason Beaird: Well with body text, traditionally it use to be that body text for books and that were set to times or serif fonts because the serifs sort of lead your eye to the next character, but because of the resolution we have with the monitors and the way the text is being presented it’s actually been proven that sans serif fonts are better, fonts like Arial and Helvetica, are easier to read in smaller sizes because you don’t get the kind of resolution, the kind of detail that you get with printed type. And now that’s changing, we’re getting higher and higher resolutions in displays so maybe that will change in the future. But it’s just important to know those kinds of idea when choosing the body type for your website. But when you are choosing a heading, when you’ve got something that is very large it really just matters how the text displays and because you can use images and because you can use things like (scalable Inman Flash Replacement) sIFR to display another font besides the standard 6 or 7 fonts that are available – I call it the ok 5 9 [laughs] that are available across the Mac and web computers, Mac and PC computers sorry. You can choose other fonts that are outside those fonts to use for headers or areas where you want to give a little more design appeal. So there is a world of fonts out there, some good, some corny, that are available, some free and some very expensive that you can use for the headline on your website and it’s just important to be aware of those other fonts. I gave a few resources for free fonts I like www.1001 fonts.com is a good place to go for licensed fonts is a great font boundary, there is just a lot of fonts makers that make excellent fonts, not just for printed material like books but for web designers and people working on the web should be aware as well.

Paul Boag: Cool. So the last chapter in your book talks about imagery and I’m fascinated, and I have to confess that I haven’t read that chapter yet, so I’m kind of fascinated to know what you cover in that chapter as far as using imagery on the web. What kind of advice do you give?

Jason Beaird: Well the imagery. The graphic design doesn’t stop creating the frame around the website. It’s also about formatting the inside which is kind of difficult when you give the power to the user, give them content management. But choosing supporting content imagery is one thing that can really enhance the user experience of the web site. And finding and creating supporting imagery for awebsite content can be very difficult if you don’t know where to look or if you’re not a good illustrator or if you are not good at Photoshop. So I just try to give a basic primer on finding this type of supporting imagery and if you find an image that might work, how to tweak it to work for your needs. I just wanted to give a basic intro to using stock photo sites like iPhoto or stock photo exchange which is sxc.hu is a free stock photography site that is really great it has a lot of images. Finding images and then using them in your site is one way to really enhance the experience for your user, beyond that also I try to warn people from stealing images from Google and stop using the stock images and stock photography that we are all use to seeing in most free publication. I mean really here are a lot of stock images that have been created; the guy with the light bulb over his head, the hands holding the tree that’s growing in the soil in the persons hands. These are clique in the stock photography world you have to be aware when choosing images, to enhance the user experience.

Paul Boag: Yeah, yeah, defiantly , did you cover any of the technical aspects of compressing images or whether to go gif or jpeg and that kind of thing.

Jason Beaird: Yeah I did give a quick primer on jpegs, gifs and pings. And just a quick for everybody, if you are using a photo you obviously want to use a jpeg because usually with photos you usually have a lot of different tones and images. And gifs and pings the file space is based on the number of colours in the image. If you are using an icon type thing or a colour field where you have a limited number of colours then gif or pings are the way to go. And choosing between gifs and pings is really all about choosing between the types of transparency you want to have. Internet explorer 6 and below doesn’t support alpha transparency where you have a sort of gradient from opaque to transparent it just supports on an off. So with pings if you have transparency then you get a pink halo around them. Areas where there is transparency you can’t see it, now there are fixes for that but it’s kind of hacky still and for that reason people still hang onto the good old gif format which has transparency and unfortunately also has animation. [Both laugh]

Paul Boag: So is that one of your rules? Never ever use animated gifs?

Jason Beaird: Actually no it’s not, because I’ve used animated gifs even on my own site if you go to my site jasongraphics.com and hover over the logo it was sort of an experiment toy to play with I was designing my current layout, it was a sliding door type image where I’ve got the still part of the Jason graphics logo and then when you move over it jumps up, the position of the image jumps up so you see the animated moving, like sunrays over the logo. So that’s an animated gif and I’m not ashamed of that. But I think that animated gifs in a lot of ways degrade the professionalism of a lot of websites.

Paul Boag: It sounds a superb book, for anyone that’s not from a design background. Where can they get a hold of a copy, where can they find out more about it, how can they buy it I guess is the next question?

Jason Beaird: Well I’d love you to buy it.

Paul Boag: Obviously.

Jason Beaird: I set a little promo site for the book at www.principlesofbeautifulwebdesign.com were you can kind of hover over, I did a fun little thing where if you hover over each of the chapter names it sort of point s out in the website design itself how the things play a part of the design I made for the promo site.

Paul Boag: Oh cool.

Jason Beaird: Beyond that amazon.com has a good price for the book usually and you can go of course to site point.com to buy directly from them, and most people prefer to do is buy directly from Sitepoint. They sent you lots of emails about books that are coming out and specials. A lot of people are big fans of Sitepoint. I really like them a lot too.

Paul Boag: Yeah if you haven’t checked out Sitepoint before, then it’s worth saying that they are a lot more than a book publisher they have got a huge site with tons of great articles of all aspects of web design and a really active forum as well.

Jason Beaird: The forums are a great place to get involved and a great place to learn new things.

Paul Boag: Thank you so much for coming on the show I can’t say I normally get people on the show to pimp their book and to be honest that wasn’t what I originally ask you to do either. But the more I think about it the more I’ll looked at it, the more I think it’s a perfect book for a lot people that listen to this show if you are starting out in any form of design and don’t come from a design background then I can highly recommend this is a book to check out. Jason, we’ll get you back again in the future no doubt and make you cover some of these things in more depth. But for now thanks you very much for being on the show.

Jason Beaird: I appreciate it, it’s like being on the Dave Letterman show or the Conon O’Brien [Paul laughs] it’s like a status symbol. But I’m glad to be here and thanks for having me on the show.

Paul Boag: Thanks very much.

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Listeners email:

A excellent wire-framing tool

Robin:I’m a part-time web developer, committed to web standards, one day I’d like to make it my job. I’m a regular listener of boagworld in my car (traffic jam) going to work.

Remembering your discussion with Marcus about wire-framing (Powerpoint or Visio) i just came across this product: http://www.axure.com/demo.aspx. Looks spectacular although much to expensive for me (still).

Keep up the good work.

Building an online portfolio

Sultan:On the Headscape website I notice you have “related links” and “related pages”. What is the logic of that?

Also in your portfolio section when I click on a thumbnail why don’t you guys link to the actual sites rather than to a screen shot?

First of all let me say there is a lot about the Headscape website which I don’t like. It was built a while ago and our thinking has moved on.

One example of this is related pages and links. The logic was that related pages referred to other pages on the same website. Related links where external links to third parties. However in hindsight I don’t think that is a very clear distinction and should probably be changed.

I am however more happy with what we have done in our portfolio section. We have several reasons for the decision to link to screen shots rather than live sites. These include…

  • Some of the sites are intranets and not available to the public
  • Some sites had limited shelf life and are no longer available
  • We wanted the user to be able to click through multiples sites in quick succession

However, the primary reason is that clients often make significant alternations to the sites we deliver. After the end of the project we simply cannot guarantee that the quality of design and code will be maintained and so prefer not to directly link to the sites.

I am not suggesting that this is the right decision however it is the course of action we have chosen for Headscape.

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