119. Fluid Elastic

Paul Boag

On this week’s show Ed Merritt joins us to discuss fluid, elastic layouts and we take a look at PHP Designer, a feature rich code editor.

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News and events

Harness the power of "frilly bits"

I love watching design trends come and go on the web which maybe why I love Patrick McNeil’s Design Meltdown so much. One trend that has caught my eye is the move away from the Web 2.0. look to something more ornate.

This style makes use of what can only be called "frilly bits". You know the kind of things, those swirls and ornaments buried in typeface sets but rarely used. They have been around for years, used by blacksmiths and typesetters alike. They turn up on everything from wedding invitations to architecture, and now it would appear, the web.

One of the first sites I saw them was Cameron Molls blog. He is an amazing designer with a very ornate and delicate style (about as far away from my own as possible).

Recently one of Cameron’s readers asked him where he sourced such beautiful ornaments and he has been kind enough to share 25 different sources of similar frippery.

Unfortunately, simply knowing Cameron’s sources will not grant us the ability to design as well as him. However, it is an extremely useful list and definitely worth perusing at your leisure.

The cure for content-delay syndrome

Returning from the world of creativity to the realities of project management, our next post tackles the frustrating subject of clients failing to deliver content on time.

Entitled the cure for content-delay syndrome this article addresses once again the subject of copy-writing.

We have talked about the need for a copywriter many times before. I have encouraged you of the need to engage a professional to craft your sites copy, while at the same time struggling to convince my own clients of the need.

The problem is that ultimately many clients believe they can write their own copy. After all they are experts in their field and know their own audience. Some argue that it takes as long to brief somebody as to do it themselves. When budgets are tight, these sound like convincing arguments and are hard to dispute.

This post suggests that the answer in not to promote the use of a copywriter but an editor. An editor refines the clients text rather than writes it from scratch. This is considerably cheaper but still brings improvements in continuity, accessibility, usability and SEO. What is more, the client no longer needs to worry about the quality of his writing. Instead he can concentrate on "bashing it out" and let the editor improve its readability later.

Its a persuasive argument and gives me hope that I might soon be able to encourage my clients to engage a professional to work on their copy.

The roles of a web entrepreneur

From the role of an editor to the many roles of a buddying web entrepreneur.

We haven’t spoken much about developing web applications on the show (this is definitely something we should try to do soon). Traditionally web design has been a service industry and for the vast majority that is still the case. However, a growing number are looking to add a product line to their offering or make the switch entirely. Certainly this is something we are doing with getsignoff.com

But what does it take to be a web entrepreneur and build web applications? Well, unless you have a lot of venture capital it requires you to wear a lot of hats as explained in this post on Think Vitamin.

From marketeer to customer service representative, you are required to fulfil many more roles than you are used to. Its a challenging undertaking but the benefits are substantial. Get it right and you have a regular income without the overheads associated with a service based business.

Intranets revisited

Another subject that we have neglected on the show is intranets. They continue to grow in importance and yet have fundamental unresolved problems.

In two great posts Gerry McGovern exposes these flaws including the tendency for intranets to become dumping grounds for information and their lack of decent search.

Both posts in their own way focus on the fact that intranets should be about "getting things done". They should provide tangible productivity benefits but often fail to do so. Each post identifies a reason for this being the case.

The first points to the way intranets are perceived. Many see them as an information repository. This appears to be a fancy way of saying "where information goes to die". Viewing an intranet in this way, McGovern argues, is to miss the point. We should only be distributing information if it aids productivity or encourages collaboration.

The second post argues that intranets fail to aid productivity because information is just downright hard to find. In particular Gerry targets search but he also argues there is a wider problem of find-ability. Why is it he asks, that even in the largest of organisations nobody is dedicated to ensuring employees can quickly access the information they need to do their jobs?

If you have an intranet or are involved in developing them, then these are an excellent read.

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Feature: Fluid Elastic Design

When it comes to planning the layout of your new website there are just three commonly used website layout structures to choose from: Fixed; Fluid & Elastic width layouts. None of these are perfect; each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages and in this weeks feature we have Ed Merritt with us to disuss them.

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Review: PHP Designer 2008

This week’s review is on PHP Designer 2008 has actually been submitted by Simon Jones of Zako Media. He writes…

As a web business, I needed stable coding platform or IDE which would allow me to be as productive as possible. Money was no object so I researched everything available from open-source packages to expensive commericial software. I discovered phpDesigner from www.mpsoftware.dk and was blown away. It’s much quicker than Zend and has most of the same features. phpDesigner has all the usual code highlighting and auto-completion for PHP, CSS, HTML, Perl, XML, Javascript, along with easy buttons to tidy this code on the fly. We all know how hard it is to keep code tidy… now we don’t have to. phpDesigner also allows you to arrange files by project without disrupting the standard windows folder system. If you ever want to transfer away from this software, you don’t need to worry about compatibility.

The smaller features I find most useful are: bracket matching, code explorer (to jump to functions, variables and arrays), code snippet library to store your most commonly used functions from project to project. Tooltip syntax reminders for PHP and rightclick to view PHP.net help page for that function. Finally it validates your syntax on the fly, without affecting performance… all other editors stalled, slowed and chugged away as they scanned the whole file every time a character was added. phpDesigner offers the same ability with very little processor time, as soon as you’ve finished a line, it hilights unobtrusively to show missing semi-colons, brackets etc. A more detailed error message can be accessed. This saves valuable Alt-Tab, Control-F5 time. (or for apple users, switch task and refresh browser) as you know the code is error free before you start.

The software offers links to internal ‘browsers’ for phpmyadmin and php help, has an inbuilt ftp client or allows you to call an external one like filezilla. It helps integrate nicely with Smarty templates and works with phpDocumentor for instant php documentation.

On the longer term projects, it has built in bug tracking information, project and global todo lists.

One of the most important and major strengths with this software is it’s stability. It has a few issues sometimes closing down if it’s travelled through a laptop’s standby mode, but otherwise it has never crashed or lost data in the years I’ve been using it. mpsoftware is obviously passionate about this product as updates are available very regularly offering additional functionality and fixing minor bugs.

This is by no means the full feature list, but more information can be found at www.mpsoftware.dk where they have a free cut down non-commercial version and sell the full version. Compare to other available software and it sounds expensive, but mpsoftware.dk is charging a ridiculously low €39 for a single license with further discounts for groups of 10.

Thanks to Simon for that review.

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Listeners feedback:

Can you set up a web design company in the evenings

John Bullock asks: Hello boagworld team, my name’s John and I’ve got a question for you. Basically I’m starting up my own web design company and I’m in what I think is an unusual situation of trying to do it along side my 9 to 5 job which has absolutely nothing to do with computers, it’s actually an engineering job so I actually have no chance at all to work with computers in my normal job. Now I know trying to set up a company alongside your 9 to 5, while obviously tiring, is a very sensible and safe way to do it, is it actually possible? Do you think it’s a realistic way of setting up a company or do you think I would have been better going with the freelance option? It’s great to have the show back after what seemed like a decade and keep up the good work.

Yes it is definitely possible. In fact it is the way the vast majority of freelancers begin. That is not to say it is easy. However, it is the most sensible approach. If you don’t your options are fairly limited…

  1. Wait to be made redundant and hope you get a payoff
  2. Live off the kindness of friends and family (a guaranteed way of losing friends)
  3. Borrow money from the bank

Personally, I am very much against borrowing money. It substantially increases the risk. If you setup loan free then you can get another job if things go wrong. With a loan you are left in debt and struggling to pay the rent.

Build up a freelance business on the side and save the money to pay for the first few months. Also if you are able, land some regular customers. This will give you an existing client base to bring in much needed cash. At the very least you will have a portfolio of client work to show off.

We were fortunate. The web design company we worked for folded. Although we didn’t get any redundancy payment we were able to take several of the clients with us. These not only provided valuable income in the first few months but also allowed us to attract other clients.

Domain names

Robert Prior asks: Hello Paul and Marcus, my name is Robert Prior and I am from Waco Texas, i’m currently a beginner web designer but in the future I would like to set up a small web design agency here where I live and my question is, when you’re trying to get the URL for your company name, how important is it to get different extensions like .net, .info, .tv are those important at all? Or do you just need to get the one main one like the .com name? Really enjoy the show, appreciate all the hard work you guys put into it and looking forward to future episodes. Thank you.

In my opinion your domain name is incredibly important. You should definitely try to get the domain extension for your country and .com as well. We have never managed to get headscape.com but as the vast majority of our business is in the United Kingdom headscape.co.uk has been adequate.

However a good domain is about a lot more than the extension. Personally I am not a fan of these new web 2.0. urls (flickr, del.icio.us, digg). They are hard to spell and hard to remember. In my opinion a good url should be a well known word (or words) even if not directly associated with your product. Headscape for example sounds more like a hair dressers than a web design agency, but at least it is memorable and easy to spell.

Another common mistake is to go for a domain name with hyphens. This never works well as it is hard to tell somebody. For example "headscape dot co dot uk" is much easier then "head hyphen scape dot co dot uk". Also users often later forget that it contained a hyphen.

The ideal domain is also descriptive of the site. For example we were blown away to discover getsignoff.com was available. It describes exactly what we do and is memorable too. That said more recent studies suggest that a brand name (Amazon.com) is more valuable than a generic name (books.com), so if you are forced to choose pick the former.

Finally, be careful to avoid words with multiple spellings especially if working internationally. For example don’t choice a domain like colorTheory.com because it could equally be spelt colourTheory.com.

Many claim that there are no good domain names left. Although it is harder these days getsignoff proves they are still out there. With a bit of lateral thinking (or using one of the domain suggestion tools) they can be found. There is no reason to start randomly start dropping vowels.