128. Details

Paul Boag

On this weeks show I’m accompanied by our Producer Ryan and Researcher Stanton. We Interview Dan Rubin on the Details of Design, and answer your questions on managing a bigger team and terms and conditions.

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News and events

Silverback Launches

This week has seen the release of Silverback, the highly anticipated app from the guys at Clear:Left. After months of speculations about what Silverback actually was, the “spontaneous, unobtrusive, usability testing software for web designers” is finally available for download.

We’re sure a majority of you know all about Silverback, but for those of you who don’t, Silverback, which is available exclusively for the Mac, is Clear:Left’s answer to convenient usability testing on the go. Utilising the iSight and screen capture facilities of the Mac, user’s experiences can be recorded and reviewed at a later date, taking away the costly and often difficult to setup up approach of using specialist equipment like multiple camcorders which can lead to hours of time spent trawling through video footage.


Whether you’re a designer or developer, there are many occasions where you go on the hunt for inspiration in interface design. Normal CSS Gallery sites give you great examples of full site design, but usually don’t focus on the small details of interface design. The only site i’ve ever been aware of is Christian Watsons “Elements of Design“, which is a great resource showing examples of elements like comment forms, calendars & date pickers, footers, image captions and so on.

There’s a new site I’ve come across this week called PatternTap.com which also wants to collect these design patterns and focus on specific elements of design and to help you to reference, collect and organise them for your own needs.

PatternTap is shaping up to be an absolute goldmine of inspiration, and looks like it will build into a large resource of design element exmples. There’s currently 46 collections, everything from 404 pages, audio players, pagination and search boxes. It let’s you create your own “lightbox” style user sets, so you can keep your favourite examples organised for future reference.

I’ll definitely be adding this to my toolbox of design inspiration links, and recommend you give it a look too.

Google App Engine Update

This week also sees the release of a small update to the Google Apps Engine. The Google Apps Engine allows developers to build applications on Googles own infrastructure. I have to admit that the Google Apps Engine is not something I’ve developed with personally however that doesn’t stop us talking about it so let’s run through the list:

  • Firstly you can now have up to 10 apps on your account as opposed to the previous limit of three 3, the Engine also limits developers to 1000 files per application, so the increase in the number of apps you can now have is a welcome addition.
  • Time windows for Dashboard graphs: Zoom in on the data in your dashboard to get a more accurate picture of whats going on. You can zoom in to see graphs for the last 24, 12, and 6 hour periods.
  • Log files can now be downloaded in plain text.
  • And finally you can send email as the logged in user: If you’re using the users API, you can now send email from the email address of the currently-logged-in user were as before it was only possible from the administrators account.


So some of you may be aware that Amazon’s S3 service suffered from some 6 hours of downtime recently, this echoes the issues of service availability that happened back in February.

For those of you who don’t know, the S3, or “Simple Storage Service” is a scalable and inexpensive data storage infrastructure, which allows you to store and retrieve any amount of data.

So this is a fantastic idea – in theory, it means that if you’re developing a large website or web app and need lots of storage, you don’t have to pay for huge webhosting plans with lots of physical diskspace, you store your assets “in the cloud” as it were, and you’re charged based on how much storage space you, and how much bandwidth you consume.

Lots of large sites rely on the S3 service for their storage needs, Twitter, BaseCamp and SlideShare to name but 3 and the recent downtime has raised the age old issue, “are we putting all our eggs in one basket?” Jonathan Boutelle put it best in a recent blog post, stating “When S3 goes down, the internet goes down”. Aral Balkan also wrote recently urging people to have contingency plans in case events like this happen again, stating that the Open Source Google App Engine SDK could be the answer.

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Interview: Dan Rubin The Details Of Design

Paul:Joining me today is Dan Rubin who I recently saw at the @media conference. Good to see you or speak to you again Dan should I say?

Dan Rubin:Good to speak to you Paul.

Paul:It was good to meet up with you at @media. It feels like a long time since we met up and it was great to hear you speaking there. That was a first for me.

Dan Rubin:Thanks. It was a privilege to be able to help out Patrick it being very last-minute.

Paul:Oh was it?

Dan Rubin:He sent me an email about two weeks prior saying someone had dropped out and of course I wasn’t going to say no.

Paul: laughs

Dan Rubin:It’s been over 10 years since my last trip to the UK, so it was a great opportunity.

Paul:Cool. Well I have to say considering you only had two weeks to put together the presentation, it was truly phenomenal. It was an excellent presentation and I really enjoyed it. You were talking about ‘design is in the detail’ I guess was the kind of subject you were tackling?

Dan Rubin: I’ve been talking a lot lately about the level of detail, the attention to detail and the design and I’ve done a couple of presentations with Brian Veloso over the last year on that same kind of topic. This was an extension of that injecting some of my own little personal preferences into the talk and got to cover things like typography and some of the simple practical things that you can improve very easily that result in a big improvement and typography, and little tricks in using grids, not on how to make them but how to actually implement them and how they can help workflow and bring things together and make layouts tighter and better without
that much effort and the same thing with digital transformations in photography and a lot of pixel detail that a lot of people don’t notice and its all about the subtle level of design.

Paul:I got this vague feeling that as you were talking you were a little bit appologetic for some of these manushi that kind of individually you sit there and go ‘how is anyone going to notice that?’, but accumulatively they have this effect on the design don’t they?

Dan Rubin:Well that’s the thing. It comes down more to feeling than seeing but its about as a designer what you feel with your eyes more than anything else and how that translates to what users or viewers or readers also feel but since they don’t know it is there, they are likely to never actually see it, but as a designer you’ll know it is there, you can see it, and the trick is to get it to the point of you can still see it but it is not really visible it is just felt.

Paul:A subconscious expression?

Dan Rubin:Yes.

Paul:You covered loads of tips in your presentation and there was some excellent stuff in there but if you had to pick out one that has the biggest impact on a design, which of the many things you talked about would that be?

Dan Rubin:I think what it would be is to really underscore trusting your eyes and it seems a really simple concept and whenever I put that up on the screen you get giggles from the audience. The truth is many of us don’t actually take the time as designers to just step away and look at what we’re working on. It doesn’t matter whether it is for screen or print. The medium is a material at this point and it is just having faith in what you see and what you feel. That’s what being a visual creative is all about. It is trusting what you see. It is the same as being a good musician comes down to trusting what you hear and sometimes we forget that, and we start getting into designing based on the rules or how we think we are supposed to do things or designing on technical limitations alone. When we do that we stop using our eyes.

Paul:It’s interesting in the presentation you talk quite a lot about some of the details and the mechanics of design. You were talking about font sizes going incrementally up, your heading and your sub headings and there being a mathematical relationship in their sizes. You talked about being consistent in your margins and padding and how all those things inter-relate. Are we saying that design is something that can be learnt and it is a mathematical thing and it’s a set of rules that you just adhere to? Or is there some sort of underlying artistic thing, some people just know how to do it and it’s not something that can be learnt. What’s your opinion on it because I get mixed feelings from you? On one hand you talk about these rules and on the other hand you talk about stepping back and looking at your design and it feels more kind of arty-farty if that makes sense!

Dan Rubin:What a load of questions and rightfully so! It’s something I’ve written about before years ago and had a bit of back and forth on the topic with Paul Scrivvens of 9 Rules, with him arguing that you don’t need any natural artistic ability because he didn’t think he had any, yet he was clearly doing things that looked good. I was arguing the opposite but when it comes down to it it’s really not something that you can say definitively either way. Just as there are people who naturally seem to be good musicians or good athletes or good at math and programming, there are people who seem to naturally be good at design and any kind of creative endeavours. It is really difficult to tell whether that seeming innate ability has come from something that happened in very early childhood development or if they were born with it. I do think that however difficult it is to put a finger on it, once you get old enough, especially to the point w here probably most of your listeners are doing what your doing for a living already or you are thinking of changing from one thing to another, you’re past that point of subconscious development where you need to put conscious effort into something and you can. I think you can be trained to do most of the things designers do. You can even train yourself to see the way that creatives see. The older you get the harder it becomes to incorporate into the way you view the world. That is a big part of it. That comes down to sometimes the different personalities. How hard is it to put a finger on what makes you ‘you’. I would say as a teacher, and I spend a lot of time teaching high school students over here about music as well, since that’s my other passion, and it’s specifically not just playing music but it’s specifically singing which is one of those things that you can either carry a tune or you can’t. I’ve also seen kids who can’t carry a tune when they start singing learn how they train themselves. They learn the proper muscle memory, and it’s amazing to see what people can actually accomplish when they put their mind to it. If you are listening out there and you want to become a better designer or maybe you’re not a designer and you’re a programmer or a web standards junkie, and I can say that because I am one too, and there isn’t any reason that you can’t become a better designer, or become a designer from scratch if you realy really want to.

Paul:I think that’s really important to say because I think so many people are intimidated from getting involved in design because there’s almost a bit of snobbery. If you’re not artistic, you’re not artistic there’s nothing you can do about that. I personnaly don’t believe that that’s true. Like you say I think there are some people that are naturally inclined that way but I think a lot of the principles that you were talking about in your presentation pretty much anybody can pick up on and do, which is what encouraged me so much hearing you talk.

Dan Rubin:That is one of the reasons why one of the reasons I say one of the most important thing is to trust your eyes and that’s instinctual. These rules, as a good teacher you have to teach these rules. When you start learning any discipline the first things that you are taught are the basics.The basics are things that many people, once they learn enough, don’t conciously think about, but what you find if you deconstruct their work is that they are doing them, they have incorporated into their flow into their process so it’s second nature to them. What we think of as instinct is really just experience.

Paul:Yeah. One of the things you did mention in the presentation that grabbed my attention is you talked a lot about texture and adding more texture to your design and about how that creates a real feel. There seems to be a slight skism, I don’t know if that is the right word, but like 2 different camps in design at the moment. People like yourself, Elliot Jay Stock is another example that does very rich, very textured design. It’s absolutely gorgeous. At the other end of the extreme you’ve got people like 37signals doing this minimalistic functional design. How do you feel those two sides fit togeth
er? Is there a role for one or the other or have they both got their place

Dan Rubin:I really think that both have their place and more than that it’s popular to create divisions. Not just these days, if you look at any industry that spends a lot of its time looking at itself, like we do, you start to find reasons to create little clicks within it or factions or what have you. If you just ignore those splits that happen because we spend way too much time looking at what we do and try to deconstruct it and answer that question of ‘why’. What you find is that it’s all the same thing. When I talk about texture it is important to understand that it doesn’t just mean rough or ??bulap or brick. Texture can also mean smooth and polished and speaking directly about 37signals for instance. I’ve used their apps and I’ve loved them since the first time they came out. If you look at the first versions of Base Camp and Backpack, before their incremental re-design they’ve actually added the little drop shadow over time. If y ou look at it as a designer you see the flaws in the way they’ve done it because it doesn’t look real and it just ends at some edges, it has hard edges, but that’s not the point. The point is they added it because it created a separation, they added it because they felt it needed it. The rest of the interface doesn’t need any other texture because it isn’t supposed to have a feel to it. It’s actually supposed to totally get out of the way and there are different approaches to minimalism. You can use minimalism in subtle detail where you add in things like I was showing in my presentation, or you can use minimalism where you keep taking away and 37signals apps feel right, they always have felt right to me so as far as I’m concerned that means they’ve hit the nail on the head. It shows when you see people trying to recreate the application interface and theat style that 37signals uses and they get stuck in this pattern of adding things, like they feel ‘well, that’s 37siganls l ook so I think we have to add things to make it better, to make it better, and they never work as well because it’s not just about that. So the answer is, and I try to underscore this when I talk to people about this or present about it or even write about it, as much as these things can be presented as rules and definitive this is the way to do something. the fact is you have to do what works best for you and your particular project or circumstance or situation, and you also have to be open to the fact that what works for you right now might change. It might be different next year, next month or next week, and being able to adapt to your situation as a designer specially is really important, because you have to adapt if you’re doing client work, you have to adapt from project to project, because your style might work for one client but you might need to tweek your style to do what’s best for another client. If your working on your own applications, what works for your users now might not work for your users once they become users that have used your app for a year and they’re experts now.

Paul:You talk about tweaking your style. How easy is that, do you think, to do in reality? I mean I’ve got a very strong style in my design, and I really struggle and I look at someone like Cameron Moll’s style and I just love it. I love the light-handed feel, he’s very delicate, beautiful design, and I wish I was more like that, but there is no way I can make myself become like that, or can I? Is there a way of changing your style?

Dan Rubin:I think we’re all naturally mimics. I’m not going to dig into my opinions on human adapability too much. I spend a lot of time thinking about that as far as evaluating how people use things, whether it’s interfaces or products and it’s interesting to start to see those patterns but you can see it on a global scale too. Historically human beings are species very, very adaptable and that happens on macro and micro levels. If you want to adapt your style you can. You look for the inflences you want to model yourself after. This is just how people learn to be designers when they’re starting out, or learn to be artists. When I took my first watercolour and oil painting classes when I was 11 or 12, the way we learnt was to recreate examples that were painted by masters. So learn how to use the brush strokes they use, to learn how to mix colours the way that they use them, to learn how to use the tools the way that they use them becau se you only discover your preferences and your style by mimicing, copying others. You find out what works and you decide what works for you and what doesn’t. So changing how you design and how you see is not necessarily easy, because at a certain point you’re reprogramming muscle memory and from my experience with singing I know how difficult that is to do. Once muscle memory has been built up to the point where you don’t think about it and you just react, it’s very difficult to break that down and re-build it. Difficult does not mean impossible.

Paul:That’s really interesting that you say that because I’ve always very much struggled to design in any other way than I already do, but I obviously need to push myself in this area. Talking of 37signals, I’m sure you have been following their recent post and various reactions to it about skipping Photoshop, and how they move straight into building with HTML and CSS and I just wondered what your opinion was on that.

Dan Rubin:I know I’d get roped into this discussion somehow. There has already been some great responses from people like Jeff Croft and Mark Boulten to the 37signals post on that, and even interestingly enough a follow-up post sourced by 37signals announcing that they were looking for an additional designer for their team that can push them into different directions that they havent been going naturally. That comes back to the whole adaptability and willing us to change and being open to it. In the argument itself I can’t say I always start in Photoshop or Fireworks or some sort of visual tool. I think Jeff said 37signals starts with a visual tool, it’s pencil and paper. I think even if your tool is a marker on a whiteboard to a certain extent everybody tends to start there, even if you don’t start there you start with a picture in your mind. So there’s some level in the process where a visualisation is occuring, if that’s fair to say. When it comes down to it why does the tool that you’re using to visualise really matter? It starts in your head if you’re a primarily visual person you can either realise that vision by programming it and seeing it in the browser or using Photoshop as a tool. All of these are just tools when it comes down to it, they’re not the end result. They’re just part of the process. I’ve done both. I’ve built straight from XHTML and CSS many times and I do tend to find that most visual designers that have weighed in on this conversation also find that in my opinion the result ends up being more simplistic. that’s not necessarily to say bad. It’s just different and you’ll find that the tools that you use as a visual creative influsence the end result because that comes down to constraints. 37signals of course is huge on constraints and you do save time when you’re doing straight HTML and CSS, you skip a lot of the temptation to play around like I know I do with layers and layer setting s and percentages of opacity. I spend a lot of time playing when I’m in Photoshop, I don’t think that’s bad. That’s part of the creative process when using that tool. When I used to paint which I havent done in way too long. I would play with my
palatte, when I was doing oils my palatte and my palatte knife was tool before I got to the canvas, and I would play with mixing my colours ‘and that’s not quite right’ and ‘wait and go over here’ and sometimes you get it onto the canvas and it doesn’t look the way you want it to and have to wait for it to dry and then you paint over it because that’s what you do with that tool. When you’re doing watercolours you don’t have that forgiveness of the tool, you have extra constraints, so you don’t experiment as much putting it on the paper, putting the paint to paper because you know once it’s dried and there you can’t go back. you can’t paint over it. So you adjust your style depending on the tools and the workflow and it’s all good, it ‘s just all different and you have to I think do yourself a favour and experiment to find which works best for you and don’t be afraid if you’re working on a project and you think ‘this doesn’t feel like it needs a lot of subtle gradients and lines and shadows and Photoshop work. I might just be able to build this without using Photoshop at all’. So do it if it feels like that will work best go that route. If you feel the opposite go the other route. If you feel like it should involve a lot more natural media pull out your watercolour pad and paint something and scan it in and incorporate that

Paul:It really down to the right tool for the job thought process.

Dan Rubin:Exactly. The thing that 37signals does really well is stick to their guns. They state their opinion so firmly that people can easily interpret it as law and I think that’s very important. In any industry it’s very important to have people who do that, who can stick to what they believe so strongly and apply it so universally that it creates this set of rules, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be followed or cant be partially followed or bent or broken and you find just as much as 37signals is enfatic about skipping Photoshop. There are other people who would never in a million years go straight to HTML and CSS, doesn’t mean that either camp is right.

Paul:OK. One last question just to wrap this up. We’re running out of time but there’s something I wanted to ask you which is: We’ve been already talking about that there are people that may be want to learn to be better designers, to find their style and to move into this area, perhaps they’ve been a developer background and they’ve been previously put off exploring design because they have been made to feel inadequate. What kind of resources would you encourage people to look for or look at in order to get going I guess?

Dan Rubin:Whether you’re starting from scratch or just trying to improve what you already have it’s important to touch on a couple of specific areas, and those are typography, layout and working with colour. This applies just to design because it’s worked whether you’re designing on the web or designing in print or branding or whatever you’re doing. Typography is kind of my first love with design and if you want to learn about typography you have to go out and buy ‘The Elements of Typographic Style’ by Robert Bringhurst. It’s the bible for typographers. It’s really easy to read too because he’s a well respected Canadian poet as well. He just happens to be an excellent typographer and book designer, so if you are in a rush, you cant get to the book store or Amazon right away Mark Boulton’s series ‘Five Simple Steps To Better Typography’ is a great place to start as well and he references a ton of other good resources. Start there if you a re going to start online but no matter what buy ‘The Elements of Typographic Style’. When it comes to layout there are a lot of things that you can learn about layout but you’ve got to learn about grids, even if you never use them. Do yourself a favour of learning and I’ll reference Mark again, actually I’ll reference Mark in all three of these. He’s got great starter tutorials about this stuff so ‘Five Simple Steps To Designing Grid Systems’ is really a great place to start. Cameron Moll has written about Griding The 960 and read up over on Khoi Vinh’s site about grids. ‘Grids Are Good’ is a great demonstration as well, and if you want to get a physical book to hold ‘Grid Systems In Graphic Design’ is a great, great phyisical book and I think it’s important to as web designers to also reference ‘Print’, because Print is where all these design rules come from and typography rules and colour rules, so learn from these different implem entations and you’ll figure out things that you can do that you didn’t think about, because you haven’t seen them on the web. So ‘Grid Systems In Graphic Design’ is by Josef Müller Brockmann I believe would be the pronounciation, look that up. Colour, and this is something that’s very preferential maybe but read up again Mark Boulton’s ‘Five Simple Steps To Designing With Colour’. He’s great at teaching, he’s great at communicating all these things. Also play around with some of the online tools like Adobe Kuler, is fun. Look at what other people are putting together, look at combinations, again feel is important. Whatever feels right for what you’re trying to do. Another cool tool is Colorjack. You got a couple of ways of mixing colours and it’s really, really cool to look at. Finally on the topic of colour whenever using colours in an interface please be aware of the different types of colourbl indness that exist, and there are lots of tools online. Photoshop CS4 will have some tools built in as well but there are plug-ins that you can get right now for all sorts of tools and online tools as well that allow you to see what you’re designing, or even just a colour palatte. See them through the eyes of someone that has these various colourblindness afflictions and make sure that whatever you do doesn’t render something unuseable to what ends up being a large percentage of the viewing public when it comes down to it.

Paul:WOW !! That’s a good set of resources !! My word.

Dan Rubin:You didn’t think I’d be that prepared did you?

Paul:That’s a superb list. I certainly didn’t know about all those posts from Mark Boulton. there was some great stuff in there – Thank you very much Dan. Just to say that Dan’s talk at @media will be no doubt going live at some point and you’ll be able to download it and listen to it. Definitely do that, it was superb. So check that out. You will be able to go the shownotes for this episode for all those links that will be useful as well. No doubt you won’t be able to remember them all. Dan thanks for coming on the show, it’s very much appreciated and we will get you back on in the future.

Dan Rubin:Thanks very much for having me Paul. It was a pleasure.

Thanks to Sarah Galley for transcribing this interview.


You can find Dan Rubins site, Superfluous Banter here.


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Listeners feedback:

Managing a Bigger Team

Jon asks: We are a company of 4 people – myself (owner, design lead and general business development/project management person), one designer, and 2 developers.

We are hopefully about to merge with a slightly larger company in a neighbouring town who have slightly more staff than we do (7 in all), and who have more of a project management structure – 2 project managers, using the services of 1 designer, 3 developers, and 1 designer/developer. I would end up as owner/MD of the enlarged company.

My question is really about project management? What do you think is the best organizational structure for a company of 11 people? I was feeling pushed on the project management side before this merger came along, and the merger will bring 2 project managers with it. How does Headscape do it for example – I think you have project managers there – do the designers and developers report to project managers, or do the project managers pick from a pool of design and development resource as required? What are your thoughts generally on the whole project management side of things.

A-ha… this is part two to a question I answered a few weeks back relating to pricing work after two companies merge. I wanted more detail at the time and now I have it!

Comparing to Headscape, we have 4 designers, 4 developers, 3 project managers, 2 business development/analysts and 1 lazy good-for-nothing called Paul … seriously though, Paul effectively markets Headscape and I have to say he’s rather good at it (ungrits teeth…)

Following the merger Jon will have a team of 11. As he is new MD, I think it is imperative that he much reduces the design and PM aspects of his role and concentrates on bringing in business as there are quite a few more mouths to feed.

That leaves roughly 3 designers, 5 developers and 2 PMs. Depending on the work you’re doing I think that is ok especially considering Jon can bolster both the design and PM groups if needed.

Regarding the allocation of work, project managers should rule the roost. Full stop.

It is their job to manage resources. Delivering projects effectively and on time means that they must know that they are in charge regarding who does what and when they need to do it by. A certain amount of fitting the right person to the job should be done but generally, the rule should be that the next piece of work goes to the next available person. This would be particularly useful advice in a merged company where it would much easier to keep going back to ‘your’ guys because you trust them.

One thing that has worked really well for us is to set invoicing targets for the project managers. We don’t operate performance related targets but it still really helps to focus minds on hitting milestones at the end of months.

Terms and Conditions

Adam writes: I am developing my own web application. In summary, it’s a site with user submission of content in a social networking format with video uploads. Anyone can register an account.

I of course have to try and write Terms of Service for this and I am getting stuck. I am wondering what Headscape uses, especially for Getsignoff, and whether you found a pre-written terms of service, or had a specialist write one.

What’s your solution to the problem, and what should / should not be included.

I have to confess to conferring with Headscape’s fount of all legalese knowledge on this – our MD Chris Scott. I tried to get him on the show but he’s still a little jittery after the last time all those years ago… anyway, Chris put together the TOS for Getsignoff and these are his thoughts on it:

For Getsignoff I looked at the TOS of other online services like Harvest, Basecamp, Youtube and Flickr. I’m not a legal person, but this gave me enough material to be able to identify the key issues that I thought we needed to cover in our TOS.

I assembled this into a brief for our legal adviser that was part overview of what we wanted to achieve and part draft TOS using adapted clauses from other TOSs.

Our legal adviser pretty much re-wrote what I had given him but this was from a position where he had a good understanding of how we wanted Getsignoff to work.

The bottom line with this sort of thing is that you really need to get a professional legal person to assist.

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