169. Type

Paul Boag

On this weeks show: Paul talks about the power of story telling and shares some tips for “getting in the zone” and Mark Boulton joins us to talk about web typography.

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Housekeeping: Jobs and Projects

Whether you are looking for a freelancer to build your latest web project or a permanent addition to your web team, the Boagworld forum is now the place to go.

We have added a new jobs category which lists web design projects and jobs free of charge. So, whether you are looking to post a job or pick up some work you should take a few minutes to check it out. Right now there are jobs for…

  • A web project manager
  • A joomla expert
  • ASP.net developers
  • PHP developers
  • And much more.

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Coding like its 1999

This week Cameron Moll has posted “Coding like it’s 1999“. The reason for this witty title is his decision to return to using HTML 4 and pixel font sizes, both of which were best practice in 1999.

The post is essentially a justification for these two decisions and he puts forward a very convincing argument for both. He credits his decision to move back to HTML 4 to Dave Shea who recently wrote a compelling argument to drop XHTML. Dave writes…

Six years ago, many of us thought XHTML would be the future of the web and we’d be living in an XML world by now. But in the intervening time it’s become fairly apparent to myself and others that XHTML2 really isn’t going anywhere, at least not in the realm that we care about…. I’m not ready to start working through the contortions needed to make my sites work with an HTML5 DOCTYPE yet, which leaves me with the most recent implemented version of the language…. [U]ntil I get a better sense that HTML5 has arrived, 4.01 will do me just fine for the next four or five years.

As for the decision to move back to pixel based typography, Cameron writes…

However, recent versions of every major browser — Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, and yes, Internet Explorer — now default to page zooming instead of text scaling… What does all this mean? It means px can again be considered a viable value for font-size. It means the difference between setting text with absolute units or setting text with relative units is negligible for users. For you and me, however, the the difference is substantial. The burden of calculating relative units throughout a CSS document is replaced by the convenience of absolute units — 14px is 14px anywhere in the document, independent of parent elements whose font-size may differ.

Although at Headscape we still work with XHTML, we have moved back to pixel base typography and I suspect will do the same with HTML. I do not think it will be long before most web designers follow suit.

The power of words

Problogger has published a post that demonstrates the importance of our words. It shows how the words we pick can have a real effect on how users act. Word your copy carefully and you could substantially increase conversion.

Interestingly the post does not demonstrate this through example of good website copy. Instead it looks at the language used by successful waiters. The article takes three phrases often used by waiters and explains why they are so powerful. The phrases are…

  • “Our chef recommends”
  • “Everyone else has ordered… and they love it”
  • “So gentlemen, is everything delicious?”
From these three phrases he raises the following points…
  • Invoking the power of a higher authority will influence decisions – For example using a testimonial from an influential figure.
  • People believe in safety in numbers – “If others like something then surely I will too”. For example highlight your most popular products or articles.
  • Positive wording generates a positive feeling – For example “Thanks for subscribing to my email feed! I hope you find every post as exciting as the one that made you subscribe”.

It is an excellent article and there is a lot more detail than I have covered here – make sure you check it out.

10 tips for creating a more usable web

The Web Designers Depot has published “10 Tips to Create a More Usable Web“. Its not exactly the most original post and we have seen similar posts from Smashing Magazine in the past. That said, it is still a worth while read.

The problem is that it is so easy to forget best practice when it comes to web design. There is just so much to take into account as we design a website that we can easily overlook things. Articles like this may not necessarily teach us anything new, but they do bring to the fore best practice that may have been pushed out by more recent issues such as WCAG 2 or web typography. We can never be reminded enough of the principles of usability.

This particular list includes…

  • Creating active navigation
  • Clickable labels & buttons
  • Linking your logo
  • Increasing the hit area on a link
  • Adding focus to form fields
  • Providing a useful 404 page
  • Using language to create a casual environment
  • Applying line height for readability
  • Utilizing white space to group elements
  • Being accessible

As with all good list posts, each point is accompanied by a brief explanation and some nice examples. Check it out.

Four quick tools

I conclude today with a quick round up of various tools that have been released this week. Its a bit of an eclectic mix but they are all worthy of note…

  • Google Page Speed – Page Speed is an open-source Firefox/Firebug Add-on. Webmasters and web developers can use Page Speed to evaluate the performance of their web pages and to get suggestions on how to improve them.
  • EntityCode – HTML entities are HTML code that is used to display special characters such as the £ sign. However, remembering them all can be tricky. EntityCode is a useful reference that lists some of the most commonly used HTML entities in a very swish AJAX driven format.
  • Google Web Elements – Google Web Elements allow you to easily add your favorite Google products onto your own website. Widgets include calendar, conversations, custom search, maps, news, presentations, spreadsheets and Youtube news. All of these widgets existed previously but have now been brought together on a single site.
  • Adobe BrowserLab – Adobe BrowserLab is a browser compatibility service that provides designers screenshots of their pages on leading browsers. There has been a lot of excitement around this one, but I was not overly impressed. Sure the interface is nice and Adobe are a big name. However, the service only offers screengrabs (not interactive sites) and only for a limited number of browsers. In my opinion there are better services out there such as Litmus’ Alkaline.

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Interview: Mark Boulton on web typography

Paul: So, the next in our series of interviews from the Future of Web Design is with Mark Boulton. Hello, Mark.

Mark: Hello there.

Paul: So… we interviewed you on boagworld, didn’t we, about… quite a while ago.

Mark: It was a while now, January?

Paul: Yeah

Mark: Something like that.

Paul: Something like that, yeah.

Marcus: What, that long ago?

Paul: Well, in internet terms, that’s forever.

Mark: That’s forty years ago.

Paul: So, at the time, you were just embarking on this odyssey of doing a redesign with Drupal, or you were part-way through it. And we were talking about this very unusual approach of ‘Hey’, you know, we normally discourage people, don’t we, from doing any kind of, don’t show your design to a group and you were showing it to thousands of people.

Mark: Yes, yes.

Paul: And you talked about how great it was going to be and there was this slight fear and trepidation in your voice at various times. How’s it gone?

Mark: It’s gone really well.

Paul: Has it?

Mark: It has. It’s gone really well. It’s been terrifying on a daily basis. Posting comments for… you know, registered users on drupal.org are about 400-500 thousand.

Paul: Right.

Mark: A fairly active, passionate community; a lost of these people have invested time, money and have businesses riding on Drupal. So, however, the vast majority are really in favour of what we’re doing.

Paul: So what, how did it work in practice? You know, were you uploading designs to a blog and just saying: ‘Hey, have your say’ or was it more structured than that?

Mark: It was more structured than that; it wasn’t initially, I mean we’ve learned some painful lessons along the way. But it was a very distributed approach, so we’d have a Twitter group, we have, sorry a Twitter account, we’d have a flickr group, YouTube groups, our own blogs – mine and Leisa Reichelt’s.

Paul: Right.

Mark: We’d have drupal.org, which is the main kind of Drupal page, but we’d also have groups.drupal.org where you can create your own little groups and we’d have a group there.

Paul: OK.

Mark: The view is that, so if we just posted things to Drupal, if we just spoke to the Drupal audience, we’d get a very slanted feedback on what we were doing.

Paul: Of course.

Mark: So, the idea was that we would touch on all sectors of the, kind of all bits of the audience. And then we’d, we were working weekly iterations on a 12-week schedule.

Paul: Right.

Mark: Which was killer.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: We would not do that again and we would release material, whatever that would be; mostly it was HTML prototypes, fairly lo-fi, and we’d release them on a Thursday and then we’d sit on our hands

Paul: And watch.

Mark: And watch, yeah, with trepidation.

Marcus: Dealing with hundreds of thousands of comments.

Paul: How did you deal with that?

Mark: Yeah, we, we…

Marcus: Ignore them!

Mark: At first, I mean, there’d be the odd occasion where you’d get flamed and things could get personal and nasty and the&helllip; of course, the natural, human reaction would be to get in there and defend yourself and, but we, after a couple of times of trying that, which didn’t work, we didn’t, we really had to walk away from the computer and…

Paul: Yeah, I think that…s a good lesson for anybody running a community or interacting with people.

Mark: Absolutely, I mean the first lot, you know, if you post something up to a community, your first day’s worth of comments are setting the scene and then the following days from that trends will start to emerge &endash; repeated themes &endash; and that’s what we were watching for. So, we’d spend maybe four days, through till the Monday, just watching, you know, over the weekend, which was quite nice because we could do other&emdash;have a life…

Paul: Which is always good.

Mark: Yeah. And then we’d go back over the comments on the Monday and try and establish some themes that we agreed with and we put forward into the next iteration.

Paul: Right.

Mark: But it’s probably worth saying at this point that it was not a design by demo… it was not a, kind of, a democratic process.

Paul: No.

Mark: Because you just end up with mediocrity, I mean, kind of a little bit of a dissing WordPress here, but what WordPress are doing with the voting.

Paul: Right.

Mark: That’s not really our approach. Our approach was… we had a clear design vision.

Paul: Right.

Mark: And we pretty much stuck to that, but it was the way that you presented the material and gathered the feedback, that’s kind of steering that vision.

Paul: Yeah, so did you learn lessons about presenting the material and how to do that?

Mark: Yeah, we’re still doing that, we’re still on a kind of weekly basis.

Paul: Because that’s always the big thing isn’t it? You know, you can’t just take a design, show it to people and say: “What do you think?”

Mark: No, just go: “Here you go” No, which we did early on and it was a disaster.

Paul: Yeah, I can imagine.

Mark: Yeah, it was. It was like: “What do you think of this? I’ve got some ideas for the logotype.” “It’s rubbish!” You know, hundreds of comments.

Marcus: And they all start arguing with each other, no doubt?

Mark: Yeah, and it was… so, you have to put something in place to ask for specific feedback; that’s where we got to. So, it was, if you’re posting up an iteration which involved heave change to the masthead design, we’d steer it like: “What are your thoughts on the navigation? You know, do you think this works, do you think that works?” And wherever possible, we’d validate our design direction with testing and research anyway.

Paul: OK.

Mark: But, recently we’ve been starting doing videos.

Paul: Right. Which is quicker, I’m guessing.

Mark: Kind of, a little, er… yeah, it is. It’s been good.

Paul: I guess, I mean, the videos, did you, so you’re talking over the top of the videos and…

Mark: No, no. I mean, it’s literally we’d… so, I’d come up to London and I’d work with Leisa in the British Museum, or whatever, and after a morning, we’d have a Flip and I’d just video the two of us talking about stuff.

Paul: See, I think that’s really good, because it makes people think twice before criticising, because there are real people behind them.

Mark: They see you as a real person. Absolutely.

Paul: So, there’s probably a benefit to that.

Mark: I think there is, I think… a lot of people hated it. And a lot of people hate the…

Paul: Yeah, but a lot of people hate everything.

Mark: Yeah [All laugh] A lot of people hated the distributed approach because they couldn’t keep track of everything, but i’s not…

Paul: Which I can kind of understand.

Mark: It’s not really their job to keep track of it, they can if they want, they know where everything is and, sorry if it’s difficult, but that’s the way it is. So, this time around we set up a bunch of Yahoo pipes, and things like that to aggregate everything from all over the place and just pop it in a WordPress blog.

Paul: Right.

Mark: That’s the approach that we’re doing for redesigning the back-end, and that’s working pretty well, because people have a framework in which to feedback, they’re not going hunting for everything all over the place.

Paul: I’m guessing that people are even more opinionated about the back-end than the front-end?

Mark: Oh, massively! A lot of people don’t really care about the drupal.org website, I mean it’s looked terrible for years and it’s not done them any harm, so a lot of people are saying like: “Well, why bother?” But Drupal’s almost, kind of, on a tipping point, I think; there’s a lot of big commercial companies using it and it’s important, but the back-end is been developed by developers for developers.

Paul: Ooh, painful.

Mark: Yeah, so to go in there and say that the user experience is broken, which is what we have said, has been interesting.

Paul: Right.

Marcus: Because they know it backwards, I guess.

Mark: Well, they know it backwards and they’re comfortable with it. THe thing with the Drupal, as a system is that you download it and you install it and then you hit this brick wall really hard and then you have to spend six months of a pretty steep learning curve to even get a rudimentary site online. And that’s, we’re trying to flatten the curve. But a lot of developers don’t really understand the need for it.

Paul: That’s developers for you!

Mark: That’s fine. [All laugh] I’m fine with that.

Paul: So, I mean, this is quite an unusual approach that you’ve taken here and it makes a lot of sense because, you know, Open Source software, it has to be an open and collaborative process and all the rest of it. Do you, would you ever do this again and if so, would you only do it with Open Source stuff, or do you think there’s a value in doing it with non-Open Source stuff?

Mark: I think there’s a value doing this with communities, where communities have a vested interest, either financially or with time spent in the community to take that community on board and redesign it for them; I think it’s pretty disrespectful. So, I think it would work for communities, you know, the social side of the web is ever increasing and I think this approach would work for the majority of that, but it takes a certain type of thick-skinned designer to take it on the chin, because it goes completely contrary to the way that designers are schooled and the way that we practice our craft every day, is that we’re the problem solvers with the years of experience and we’re the experts and here’s our solution, it doesn’t work in this sense.

Marcus: Can I ask a sales-y question?

Mark: Yeah.

Marcus: Because I don’t know how you won this work. Was that the differentiation that gave you the… this is what we’re proposing to do?

Mark: Er, yeah, I believe so, yeah. It was the kind of the loose, almost by the seat of our pants agile approach and the fact that we were not ingrained in a process and we were quite happy and willing to break it apart and completely.

Marcus: Because it’s going to take a long time, isn’t, and most clients want it, you know, can you do it in a week?

Mark: Oh yeah, the drupal.org redesign isn’t due to go live for another few months and our involvement was four months.

Marcus: Sure.

Paul: Right.

Mark: So, yeah, it takes a long time, it’s a lot of effort but, from a sales point of view, we’ve now taken on more of a, so we use to work pretty strict waterfall, like a lot of agencies did, and now we don’t, we work, I wouldn’t say we were agile because agile can be as restrictive as waterfall, just a different name. But we work a very iterative design process now and are finding that our clients are loving it because they’re getting involved right away, there’s no time wasting on functional specifications and weeks and weeks and weeks of scoping; it’s getting in and solving the problem, and from a financial and a business point of view, it’s a very scalable model, so you have x number of days at a certain price on a sprint and you can expand and contract that process according to scope and budget. It does require quite a leap of faith by the client, to say: “what, you mean you’re not giving me a fixed price?”

Paul: Yeah, that’s the hard sell.

Mark: I’m like: “No” And that is hard but I’ve found that a lot of clients you sit down and you talk them through it; they can see the advantages.

Paul: Because we’re not at that point, are we?

Marcus: Er, not with new clients. Old, you know, existing clients will accept it because they trust you, but it’s always this… I mean, I don’t know, would I… say, if I owned a business and I was going to hire someone I didn’t know, even if I could see that they’d done a lot of good work etc. etc. it would be like: “Ooh, I don’t know if I could do that” You know.

Paul: Difficult.

Mark: So, a lot, so, in those instances and there have been a few, then phasing comes into it, you know and let’s see how a few sprints go and if you like how it’s going at this price, let’s expand it out and…

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: Interesting stuff.

Mark: So, yeah, it’s interesting.

Paul: So, you like to do things different, don’t you [all laugh] you know.

Mark: Wherever possible.

Paul: Yeah, and talking of which, you’ve just given an interesting talk about web typography that’s got a bit of a different slant on the whole subject of web typography. Talk us through a little bit, you know, give us a potted version of your talk.

Mark: A potted version is 20-25 minutes. So, this week there’s been a lot of discussion online, based on Comic Sans.

Paul: Right.

Marcus: Right.

Mark: Comic Sans is evil, apparently.

Paul: Yes.

Mark: I don’t think it is evil.

Paul: OK.

Mark: I think it’s the victim of being used in the wrong context for years and years. And I think that, so there’s also been a lot of talk about font embedding, you know people are crying out for it, it’s why sIFR exists, and all of that. The technicalities of how it’s going to work with browsers and manufacturers and the font foundries aside, is it actually a good idea?

Paul: OK. [all laugh]

Mark: And I mean that from the point that the majority, the vast majority of typefaces have been designed for a particular reason and they are primarily designed for print usage first and screen usage doesn’t get a look in beyond the preview of the screen font. Now, Georgia and Verdana and a bunch of the Microsoft ‘c’ fonts have been designed the other way around. They’ve been designed for screen first and print second. Now, we’re constrained by those typefaces and that’s actually a good thing.

Paul: Because it makes sure you’re using typefaces designed for the purpose.

Mark: It makes sure you’re using the right tool for the job. Font embeddign could be opening the floodgates to a whole world of pain, I think, in terms of type, and it’s not the designers that will be at fault, it will be, you know, the people who are going to suffer are the users of the sites.

Paul: So, is there a… I mean, surely that shouldn’t preclude font embedding, but perhaps there is an opportunity here, I don’t know, to limit font embedding to fonts that are enabled for the web, and open up a whole new business.

Mark: Could be, exactly, could be. I haven’t really thought beyond my twitchiness of this being a good idea. I haven’t really, I would like to think: “I don’t think this is good” but, I think the crux of my point is moving beyond font embedding, is to actually, the reason why fonts in other tools, which has led to the usage of Comic Sans is because the tools that people can use don’t allow them to make good design decisions.

Paul: Right. While some constraints do.

Mark: So, with some constraints and some steering, can help, so why not as designers, why don’t we get our heads together and think about how we can, kind of, scaffold that experience for people. How can we make, because every one’s a designer now.

Paul: Yes, for better or worse.

Marcus: Even me.

Paul: Yes, Anna wants to talk to you about your design for your band website, we won’t dwell on that now, in the middle of an interview.

Mark: Everybody’s a designer and everybody’s, you know, someone who uses Comic Sans because they think it’s fun and quirky is right in doing so, but what they’re not considering is their audience, and the context that it’s used and all of that. So, that’s pretty much the, my talk in 3 minutes.

Paul: The crux of the argument. I mean you did in your talk go on and discuss the role of typography more generally, which I thought was quite interesting as well, share a few of your thoughts about that.

Mark: About how I see typography as a craft and that kind of thing?

Paul: Yeah, and how it fits into the whole process and the relationship between design and content and that kind of thing.

Mark: So, it was split down into 4 really. This talk was quite good, it was quite therapeutic, in a way, because it made me really answer a lot of tough, ask a lot of tough questions of myself as to what do I think typography is, on the web, to me, what is it personally. With that is type as kind of structure, which, you know, is a lot of information architecture, really, that to me that is typography; it is type as language, how typography is married with content and how the, we’re in a world on the web where designers are designing systems for content to go into.

Paul: Yeah, template-based design.

Mark: Exactly, and they’re divorced from the content, you know, divorced from the language, in that sense, typography’s quite hard to do, good typography anyway; then there was, what else was there? Type as process, so the Jesse James Garrett’s levels of user experience, with the idea that typography in that instance is relegated to the surface plane, which is the visual plane, you know, it’s: “make this look nice” typography; to me that isn’t typography.

Paul: So, what is typography?

Mark: Typography goes deeper, typography goes deeper than how something looks, it is how information is structured, it is how information in understood, it is how words and language is conveyed.

Paul: Can you give some examples of that, because that’s quite, you know, it sounds very good, but it’s quite hard to get your head around maybe.

Mark: Yeah, OK, so it’s, what’s that quote: “You cannot not communicate”

Paul: Right.

Mark: No matter what you do, you’re saying something to somebody, so your choice of typeface says something about the words that you’re writing.

Paul: Yes, it does.

Mark: If, as a designer, you don’t know what those words are, how can you communicate the message?

Paul: Yeah, I mean it goes back to Comic Sans.

Mark: To Comic Sans, exactly, and that’s one of the difficulties, there’s been a lot of talk about art direction on the web, and I see that as the biggest barrier to art direction is that designers are divorced from the content.

Paul: I mean, this is almost quite depressing.

Mark: Yes, really I…

Paul: It’s not really happening.

Mark: Sleepless nights!

Paul: It’s not happy idea, because, I mean, fundamentally, that isn’t going to change, we’re not going to get into a situation, you know, because rightly want to be able to change and update and alter content on their own website and that makes a lot of sense, which means even if you have the content up-front, it may change further down the line. I guess maybe the tone doesn’t.

Marcus: I was going to say you’re looking at tone here.

Mark: The tone, you’re looking at branding and you’re looking at designers being involved right at the offset.

Marcus: And I think that is better now than it was even two years ago.

Mark: Oh, it is, yeah, it is, yeah, absolutely.

Marcus: I mean, we are looking now at involving copywriters, we are pulling copywriters, we’re talking to our clients about employing copywriters through us, that’s new.

Paul: And from the start of the process as well.

Mark: Yes, right. So, we’re doing the same, we’re looking at employing content strategists rather than actually writers, more from a branding perspective, because that kind of stuff, you know, doesn’t really change, depending on the words that you, the values of the client are still communicated and it’s aligning, it’s the designer’s job to align the typography, not just the font, but the way the information is structured and working with a copywriter to make sure the typeface matches the tone of voice. and all of that is a package. So, that’s what I mean about the surface plane; typography shouldn’t be relegated to: “choose a typeface and away you go”

Marcus: Yeah, I mean, that’s the big thing isn’t it, that’s for me, what I’ve taken from this is your, is the font, the typeface has to match the message, basically.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely.

Marcus: It has to fit with the branding.

Paul: OK, good stuff. I mean, that’s yeah, you’re doing some really interesting stuff. I love the way you’re pushing, kind of, what is the conceived wisdom in lots of areas, which I don’t suppose you think you’re doing, you just stumble into these things, obviously.

Mark: Yeah, I did. Getting together this talk was one thing, this talk did not pan out the way I thought it would and to question the very notion of font embedding is quite a…

Paul: Because our whole culture really is built around the idea of choice, more choice is better, but actually that’s not always the case.

Mark: Yep, so I mentioned that in my talk.

Paul: Oh, did you?

Mark: About the jam stall, have you seen this?

Paul: Yeah, yeah. That classic, tell that story, that’s a good one.

Mark: So, there’s a couple of psychologists, a few years ago did a study where they had a jam stall and they had 26 varieties of jam and nobody bought any and then they reduced the jam varieties down to six and sales increased by 10 and it’s just the choice.

Paul: You could almost be overwhelmed.

Mark: Well, yeah.

Paul: Even as a designer you can, you can open up Photoshop, look down that font list and go “crap!”

Mark: So, this is where I showed a screengrab of TinyMCE and that, out of the bag, has 82 choices for a user, so WYSIWYG isn’t great in those terms, but there’s something within there which is, as designers and the design community could build on, which is this notion of styles and how you can use the styles to create a cascade, through your typography, through your design, so we’d limit the end-user’s choices, but not in a bad way, constraints are good.

Paul: No, I mean, the way we now work, because we use our own content management system with our own adapted WYSIWYG editor it, we’ve taken a third party’s and messed it around, that basically we only allow, by default, obviosuly sometimes clients disagree, but we only allow them to mark up the content semantically, so they’re not at any stage picking fonts, because that’s the designer’s job, they’re just describing what the content is, whether it’s a heading or a sub-heading or whatever else, which, you know, obviously, you know, ensures that design style goes through, but also makes it much easier to use for the user as well, they’re not having, you know, a plethora of options and buttons to deal with, so…

Mark: But it goes beyond the web, I think, and this is what I was thinking as I was going through this, the reason why Comic Sans is all over the place is because Word makes it easy for you to make those bad design decisions, so it goes beyond that and content management systems in 10-20 year’s time could look nothing like what we’ve got now and if we don’t think very carefully about this notion of choice, then we could be in a real mess.

Paul: Yeah. Well, certainly we’ll be in a real mess anyway.

Mark: But, you know, a lot of people would push back on that and say: “What’s your problem? That’s fine. Mess is fine.” I don’t agree.

Paul: A little bit of mess is alright. No, I see where you’re coming from and, you know, I think there is a lot of value in that. I think I would personally still like to see font embedding, but I wouldn’t object to that being limited. I mean, one of the big problems to font embedding, as I understand it, and I’m not as knowledgeable on it as you, but is a licensing problem. So, if we have a new generation, I just look at the font industry, you know, the people that produce fonts and go: “Look, you’re missing a trick here, you know, you could create a whole new range of fonts, designed for screen, licensed for the web, and there we go.” So, if that’s what we end up with, I mean, that’s great.

Mark: That would be great, you know, if we got the calibre of typefaces like the new Microsoft ‘c’ fonts, and we got, you know, a library of 40 of those to use, 50, that would be awesome. If we ended up with a way of embedding up to, you know, Bitstream’s library’s what 28000 fonts, you can choose what you like, I don’t see that as…

Paul: Not so good.

Mark: Not a good thing.

Paul: I mean, even as somebody, I mean, I went to art college and, you know, obviously I had to study typography as part of that, I still feel overwhelmed. When I, I know some people absolutely love, you know, going to some of these foundries with all these different fonts and they spend hours picking through and it’s like buying shoes for, no I won’t say women because that will be sexist but, you know it’s almost like an addiction. For me, it just overwhelms me.

Mark: Yeah, no, I’m the same, I’m never, and this is one of the great things about the web is the restrictions in the typeface you can use because it makes you think more about typography beyond the font choice.

Paul: Yeah, which is only a tiny part of typography.

Mark: Exactly, and it makes you really push typography, and people are still pushing Georgia and Verdana and there’re still pushing it and they’re still making great looking sites. Font embedding can only confuse all that, unless it’s done in a pretty structured way, but like you say, the licensing is one big hurdle to get over.

Paul: Well, that was probably the most eclectic interview we’ve ever done, covering lot’s of random subjects,but very good, thank you for coming on the show, Mark.

Mark: No, thank you very much for having me.

Thanks goes to Simon Douglas for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback


Mark from Taunton writes:

I run a rather dull corporate website for a company who builds and sells pre-fabricated timber houses. It is a competitive market and although a lot of users visit hardly anybody contacts us for a quote. To be honest, I have lost any enthusiasm for the site. Can you help!?

I could answer this question by focusing on the importance of repeat traffic on conversion rates. We could look at generating repeat traffic through the use of articles, newsletters and offers. However, we have covered nurturing repeat traffic before. Instead I want to look at the power of story telling as a way to engage with users.

Users considering purchasing high value products and services have a number of generic questions…

  • Can I work with these people?
  • Are they experts at what they produce?
  • Can I trust them?
  • Is the product or service of sufficient quality?
In short any corporate website that sells a product or service should be about the product and the people. One way of focusing on these two things is to tell the story of the product/service. In Mark’s case this would progress through the process of designing, manufacturing and building a pre-fabricated timber house. At each stage you would introduce key people involved in the process – the account manager who deals with the customer, the architect, the project manager, the builder etc. The story could even be the experience of one particular customer and so end with a testimonial from that customer. These people could be interviewed on video or profiled in the copy. Either way it gives the user the chance to see the expertise and personalities behind the business. It builds trust and demonstrates the quality of your product and people.
Finally, the story based approach helps the user imagine themselves going through the process and therefore helps them picture working with your organization.

Getting into the zone

Paul wrote a question aimed at Elliott Jay Stocks in our forum that I would like to respond to as well. Paul wrote…

As a designer, I feel times when I am very creative, others when I know an hour infront of Photoshop will be useless. So, fellow designers how do you make yourself get into the zone. I imagine this is even harder for freelancers, or maybe easier actually, as you can pick and choose hours to work.

Like most people I find it very hard to artificially force myself to be ‘in the zone’. However, I have learn’t over the years that there are some things you can do that increase the chance of it happening. These are…

  • Change your environment – If inspiration is hard to come by I often find that a change of scenery can be a massive stimulus. Go and work in a different room, a local coffee shop or even in the middle of a field. Anything to kick start your creative juices. In my younger days I was even known to work under my desk or on top of a wardrobe.
  • Use a different approach – Another similar approach to changing your environment is to change the way you are tackling the task. If you are trying to design a site in Photoshop move to pen and paper. Try designing just in black and white or reduce your design to simple boxes. Often approaching a problem from a different angle sparks inspiration.
  • Create distractions – Everybody always advices that you remove distractions to ‘get into the zone’. However, personally I find this leaves me staring at a blank page until my eyes bleed. An opposite approach that has worked for me is to actually add distraction. For example I will set an alarm for 10 minutes. After that 10 minutes I force myself to take a 2 minute break. These short spurts of creativity seem to work for me and the breaks are a frustration that make me hungry to get back to work.
  • Take a break – Proper breaks are important too. Sometimes you need to walk away from a problem before the solution comes to you. It has taken me a long time to accept that some of my best work on a problem is done when I am not consciously thinking about it. If I get stuck I find that watching some TV or going for a walk is a very effective way of putting me ‘in the zone’ when I return.
  • Go with the flow – Finally, it is important that when inspiration strikes  you run with it until it has been drained dried. Even if you find yourself in the zone at the end of the business day, do not stop working. Cancel meetings if you need to but make sure you keep going. This is the time when you need to remove distractions and just go with the flow.

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