Show 94: Flickr Features

On this week’s show: Paul uses flickr as an example of best practice, Marcus discusses the use of client references and Patrick McNeil from Design Meltdown examines emerging design trends.

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News and events | Using client references | What we can learn from flickr | Patrick McNeil talks about design trends

News and events

Developing your designs with the client

As I said on last week’s show I have started to reconsider the way we manage projects and I am considering a more Agile approach than we have used in the past. What I like about the principles of Agile development is the idea of getting the entire development team working together. Designer, developer, project manager, everybody.

From my limited understanding of Agile development it is also considered a good idea to engage with the client in this way too, by actively involving them in the development process. However I have to confess I find this concept hard to get my head around.

My problem is that Agile development is a very fluid process and I am not sure I am keen to expose the client to that level of internal workings. However, although I am still learning and have yet to draw my final conclusions I have to say I was impressed by an article on this subject that appeared this week on A List Apart.

The article talks about how you could include the client in a series of workshops so getting them more involved (and therefore more committed) to the project. What I found most reassuring about this article was that it proposed a semi-structured approach to the workshop thus addressing some of my concerns.

I am still not convinced that an Agile approach to development is always possible but I must admit I am warming to the idea and believe it is something we should all be considering.

Become a better illustrator

Its funny how you can be told something is great countless times and yet somehow you never get around to checking it out. Well up until this week that was true for me when it came to the video podcasts produced by Anton Peck.

I met Anton last year at SXSW and everybody told me what a great illustrator he was. We have been in contact on and off ever since thanks to twitter and IM but I have never really had much time to dig around his site. However, this week he launched a new version and it motivated me enough to have a look. While poking around I came across a series of video podcasts I had heard mention of before. They provide some excellent tips on how to be a better illustrator including working with colour, skin tones and custom photoshop brushes.

After talking to Anton I can say with some degree of certainty that there will be many more of this tutorials to come, so be sure to subscribe to the feed if you are a budding illustrator.

A new approach to stopping spam

There seems to be a never-ending torrent of spam these days not just in our inboxes but on any online form we create. There have been loads of solutions put forward but either they have accessibility problems or put the emphasis on the user to prove they are not a bot. Although there are also a few filtering services, they aren’t 100% effective and many have to be paid for.

Fortunately some clever spark has come up with a new approach to the problem. It relies on the fact that bots go crazy when they encounter a form and start randomly filling in every field. The technique involves creating an additional field with a particularly tempting name like “body”. The bots cannot resist completing the field while you can hide it entirely from users by moving it off screen with CSS or removing it with Javascript. The technique can be made accessible with a descriptive label for those using screen readers. This label asks them to leave the field blank. When the form is validated you can then simply delete any submissions that have content in the honeytrap field.

Photoshop secret shortcuts

We don’t seem to do many news stories for you hard core designers these days, so I thought I would end todays news segment with one for you. The Web Designers Wall has published a great list of photoshop secret shortcuts that are ludicrously useful.

I have been using Photoshop since its initial version and i wasn’t aware of half of these. For example did you know you could…

  • Navigate the document left or right using a key combination and a scroll wheel
  • That you could scale font size using arrow keys
  • That you can zoom with the scroll wheel
  • That you can drag to change numerical values
  • That you can use a keyboard shortcut to expand or collapse all layer groups
  • That you can easily hide or show multiple layers

Great stuff. Definitely worth checking out.

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Marcus’ bit: Using client references

This is quite a tricky subject to discuss because I know that some of the clients that Headscape often uses as referees listen to this show!
So, first up, how to judge if a client will be a good reference. Ask yourself the following:

  • Did I deliver on time and on budget?
  • Did I deliver a quality/cool/innovative/rockin’ site or product? In other words, did you exceed expectations?
  • Did you get on with the client?
  • Is the client web savvy? I.e. would you be happy for them to talk to another potential client about your capabilities?
  • Would the client’s company name/brand/reputation help yours?

If the answers to all of the above are generally ‘yes’, then you really should try to get them to act as a referee for you or, failing that, get a testimonial from them.

Of course, if the answers are generally ‘no’ but the client was Coca Cola then, chances are, you should try and use them anyway!

Don’t just assume

Always ask people if they mind doing it. It quite often involves some work on their part, for example filling in a form.
I have asked clients in the past if I can just include their details in an ongoing fashion and most agree to this. However, I have made a point of checking back again with them, usually after 6 months or so, to see if it’s still ok. The last thing you want is someone getting tired of you asking for a reference because they’ll end up sounding weary of the process with the prospective client.

Also, try and read between the lines when you’re asking someone. If they agree, but you really think that they would rather not, then save them up for a particularly big tender you’re after.

Sometimes, tenders ask for a very large amount of references. In these cases, I include all the contact details but I ask that I am contacted, to ask permission, prior to any communication.

Vary the list

Not all tenders ask for references and, if that is the case, don’t include any. I simply add in a line saying that references can be supplied on request.

For those that do ask, don’t roll out the same old names for every proposal. They will end up getting hacked off with you continually including them. But, the main reason for not doing this is that you should try to include appropriate references for that particular prospective client. Obviously, similar organisations should be used but you may also want to consider whether the two people would get on well.

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Paul’s corner: What we can learn from flickr

This years dconstruct really inspired me especially the talk by Tom Coates. It challenged my perception that web design is all about the website. Instead, as website owners, we need to start thinking about what content we hold rather than the method by which it is delivered.

These days the web is becoming less about websites and more about content delivery in all of its various forms. Once we wrap our heads around the fact that we should be focusing on our content rather than our website it offers some interesting new opportunities. However, instead of talking in theoretical terms lets look at a real world example; the photo sharing site flickr.

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Ask the expert: Patrick McNeil from Design Meltdown talks about design trends

Paul:
So joining me today is Patrick McNeil who is probably best known for Design Meltdown although you seem to be running a whole plethora of sites at the moment Patrick.

Patrick:
Yeah, I keep busy for sure.

Paul:
That’s good. I wanted you on the show because from Design Meltdown it’s very apparent that you follow what’s going on as far design trends online. I though it would be good to get you in to discuss current design trends and that kind of thing. But before we get into that, tell us a bit about how Design Meltdown came about.

Patrick:
Well it started in school actually. I had a teacher on my design classes and we were using this book called Genius Moves by Steven Heller. In the book he catalogs design over the last hundred years by these totally random things like “big text” and “big hands”. Strange little things that you would never thing to classify design on. So it got me thinking about web stuff. I started snapshotting sites and starting building a folder structure of stuff. Then I realised “Hey, I can make a little website out of this” and that’s pretty much how it got started.

Paul:
It’s probably worth saying that’s it a lot more than the normal kind of screenshot sites that you see. It’s more of a blog organised in categories. Is that a fair way to describe it?

Patrick:
Yeah, I can of view it as a catalog of web sites. It’s almost like a library of stuff. As opposed to a showcase of beautiful sites it’s more of a showcase of sites in particular classifications where they make sense to go together.

Paul:
Yeah. You seem to give a bit of a commentary about what you are seeing in these different things which it looks like it has lead onto a regular column in .Net Magazine I noticed.

Patrick:
Yeah. I’ve been writing for .Net for about a year and a half now. Basically it’s the same thing there too. I pick some kind strange category and comment on it. It seemed to me that when I started it not only did I want to catalog the sites and show them in a new way from the other catalogs but I thought the commentary felt kinda weird writing about stuff at first. It felt so egotistical or something. Just the commentary seemed to be something that was new to that area. It was normally just “Here’s a bunch of cool sites to look at” instead of allowing me to write my thoughts on the topic.

Paul:
Definitely. You’ve been doing this for a while now. The site’s been up and running for a while. Tell us a little but about what you feel you’ve learnt through the process in regards to design and web design in particular.

Patrick:
Well certainly by moderating the sites that are coming in and then cataloguing them I’m forced to look at hundreds of sites. Inevitably you’re a little more exposed to what’s going on. A lot of times I feel I kind of have a feel of what’s popular at any given time. It’s really weird to feel that in touch. I know we all surf a lot but it seems kind of excessive because I have all these people submitting their latest and greatest sites. It puts you in touch with what’s going on. I think the biggest design lesson I’ve learned is, and we should know this because we go to school for it, that everything has meaning. Even the most trivial, insignificant-seemly things have abundant meaning to them. One of the perfect examples is when I commented on the badge at BoagWorld and that is how you first found me I think. With the badge, I would have used it flippantly and I think my comment on it initially was poking fun at it almost. Then you realise there’s actual power in that tool. Everything is a tool and potentially everything can have meaning right down to the smallest thing. There’s a pattern to fold over a corner to make it look like the page has been turned over like you would do in a real book. Things like that I might have initially thought were meaningless and after doing this for a while and you see enough sites that did the same thing, you’re like “Well there is actually some thought process that can go into that”. You can put some meaning into just about anything. It’s kind of fascinating. Makes me think more about the design elements that I would choose to use seeing that they have more meaning.

Paul:
So how has it influenced the designs that you’re producing these days?

Patrick:
I don’t a lot of design ironically. I tend to be more of a developer but I definitely do get to do a mix of things. I think it just makes me more aware of what I am doing and a little bit more aware of exactly what I’m doing and a little more conscientious when I go to implement something that I don’t just say “Well I think these shiny sites look cool lately so I’ll make a shiny site” or “I want a badge on my site”. It just makes me think things through a little better and not do things so flippantly. I try to consider what the real purpose of the site is, what the message is and that sort of thing before trying to come up with design elements that follow that need.

Paul:
You said a minute ago that you’ve been forced by doing this to become very aware of what design trends are around. What do you think is going on at the moment? What are the emerging trends you see going around at the minute?

Patrick:
Certainly there’s one that seems pretty obvious, everybody has made a shiny website by now. One where everything is all glossy. I think that that’s gone through some interesting patterns. It seems that lately, and this is probably true of almost any trend, at first it’s used just randomly and not very well and then over time it becomes more integrated into how designers work. So the results now are sites that are just absolutely beautiful. They completely use the style as opposed to just saying “I’m going to make a shiny logo”. It really is used throughout the entire design and creates a unified feel to it if that makes sense. It seems like patterns like that you see it more effectively used. The other one which I think has been going on for a little while now but it’s certainly a big trend, is the idea of more rapid communications. I’m sure you’re aware of how short attention spans are on the web. You go to a lot of sites now where they’ll have, and it’s sometimes bigger than the logo, a bold statement in ten words or less about what this company actually does. It used to be you’d go to some sites, even now if you find an older site, you’d be confused what the product is. You can’t even tell by the home page what the heck this company sells. So nowadays it seems like the utmost importance where there’s so many applications doing this, that and the other to clearly say this is some online accounting software, this is a to-do list manager, this software will help you track you Windows network, that sort of thing. It becomes the whole banner across the top quickly communicating what the heck the product is and then quite often it’s associated with an action item to sign up for an evaluation, getting a free account, something like that. That’s not so much a design pattern as it is a marketing pattern I guess. That certainly seems to be one of the more popular formulas to follow.

Paul:
There seems to be a bit of a skizzum in some ways in design where you’ve got that kind of design where it’s very functional based, very much orientated around meeting users needs and then on the other side of it you’re seeing some really beautiful, very ornate websites. There seems to be a lot of art deco stuff around. Very flowery or that kind of thing.

Patrick:
Yeah, definitely. Ornate has always been popular. That’s followed the same pattern I think as the whole shiny style in that it’s become a whole lot more refined and that you see people implementing it in a whole lot of different ways. It’s not “I’m going to throw a flourish on here and there” and that’ll be it. But now it’s become more that they have worked it into the entire design and almost makes designs that revolve around it. It makes a much more cleaner approach I guess.

Paul:
There’s some really stunningly beautiful stuff about. What about you personally? What kind of design styles appeal most to you and why?

Patrick:
On Design Meltdown I have a category called Super Clean. You’ll see sites like one I’m looking at now http://www.id-confirm.com. They have these network identification deals. If you just look at it, it’s just so clean and easy to consume. It’s simple and yet it has enough design and pizzazz to it where it feels like a really refined and high quality site. I love those and then ironically on the complete flip end, I love sites more like http://green.yahoo.com/18seconds. Sites like this are more inline with what you are referring to. I really love these visually intense sites where it becomes more about the experience of what you’re about to consume as opposed to just the content. Sites like this have to sell you on the whole idea of what they are doing before they let you get the content so to speak. I think I really like this approach even better probably because I’m not up to making designs like this to be completely honest. It feels a little beyond me and you always feel attracted to the things that you find most difficult. It’s kinda fascinating.

Paul:
Yeah, it is. Obviously sites like yours and there are other similar types out there, a lot of people go to these sites for inspiration when they are doing they own design work. I was just interested what your opinion was on that, whether you felt that was healthy or whether you’d encourage people to look further a field? And what other places you look for inspiration? There’s a couple of questions in there. [laughs]

Patrick:
[Laughing] Yeah, there’s three of four I think. I find that at my work my co-workers come to me all the time and ask “What do you have on this?”. I’ll point them to some articles and stuff to get inspired by and I think it’s incredibly healthy. I think if you’re going to design a site and you know the client… I think the key is to not to come to Design Meltdown to find out what you’re going to design but to decide the elements ahead of time and then come here to find resources that match that. Say you have a client and you know the site’s going to be blue. You have no choice, that’s the client’s colours or whatever. So it’s going to be a blue site. You could come here and start going through blue sites and see how other people have implemented the same style.

Paul:
I think that’s what is quite nice about your site. Because it’s organised in that way where you can go in and look at just blue sites or can look at sites that use a particularly clean style. You can do it that way round in preference to looking at hundreds of screenshots and thinking “I’m going to rip that one off”.

Patrick:
[Laughing] Yeah, exactly.

Paul:
A much more healthy way of thinking at it. Do you look for inspiration beyond the web? Are you one of those people that looks at architecture and print magazines, stuff like that? Or are you more interested in just the web?

Patrick:
I would say I’m mostly interested in on the web I guess. Primarily because just to keep up on Design Meltdown I have to go through 100 sites to find 10 good ones it kinda forces that. But I certainly get inspired by anything offline. I love going to an old library and looking through old books because the typography is amazing. They’re not limited by the whole computer and everything’s got to line up so easily and whatever. Getting into older things, going to museums and looking at old paintings, it’s amazing the design skills that you can see in work in those things. I think there’s certainly more than enough inspiration offline. Another thing I think people and I get tempted to do is to make a fake paint splatter on the computer instead of getting a can of paint spray, spraying some paper and scanning it. I think there’s this real tendency to think that you’ve got to do it on the computer whereas you can certainly unplug and do a lot of stuff to get a much more realistic feel.

Paul:
Yeah, I know. I think that’s great. So one last question before I let you get on with looking at several more hundred sites. I have to ask you about this thing of sites like yours where people just go along to them and basically rip off the content they are seeing. That’s always a hard line for people. I don’t think anybody necessarily goes along to this site going “I’m going to rip this off in it’s entirety” but you end up doing that. Where’s the line do you think between being inspired but somebody’s site and actually overstepping that kind of line and ripping them off so to speak.

Patrick:
Oh well, that’s kinda tough isn’t it. Most normal designs, most normal down to earth design, can have some similarities to almost any other kind of site that you’ve never seen before. I think it’s really on the designer. If they are unethical and choose to steal designs… I think it’s a mindset. I think as a young designer people might be more tempted to base more heavily on somebody’s design and as long you are honest about it or you do it in cases where it’s a student project, something where you’re learning from this experience, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But as a professional designer you certainly just have to know you can’t do that. I think the big key is to before you even go looking for inspiration to think about how to solve a certain clients problem. You listen to the client and find out what their needs are, what they are trying to sell, all these things. You form ideas on what that might mean in terms of the design. Then you can just use these are tools to make you think along these lines.

Paul:
Yeah I would agree with that. I think the real danger comes when you start having Photoshop open in one window and the web browser open in another. If you’re looking at one site in one window and then you’re design it in Photoshop, then you’ve gone to far. I tell you something that I did hear once that I think works very well is that if you see a website that you really like instead of doing a screen grab and keeping that just pick out individual sections of it, little bits of it, and screen capture just the buttons or the links or the navigation. That works quite well.

Patrick:
Certainly.

Paul:
Interesting. Thank you very much for coming on the show Patrick. It was good to hear from you.

Patrick:
No problem. Thanks for having me.

Paul:
Hopefully we’ll have you back in the future.

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