Web Stuff


To mark the 100th post on this blog, I want to note another recent milestone – the big site at work went live this week. I have too many thoughts about that redesign project to share here on this blog – I’ll save those lessons for my students.

I learned a lot sitting in the creative director’s chair – selling design to an ever shifting committee, building consensus and learning how to handle criticism like “my wife doesn’t like it,” which, yes, really happened.

Sir Alec Issigonis said “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”  Everyone is a designer, and everyone is creative. Building consensus and solving complex visual and technical problems within a diverse group of  smart, ambitious people felt a bit like trying to pass a stimulus package in, say, congress. But, I did it. And the camel has been set loose in the wild.

Web Stuff

The Hybrid Designer

A fine kettle of fish

Recently, Johns Hopkins University enacted an “IT Reclassification Process” on its technology employees. The idea was to examine what technical industries outside the university system are doing, and to try and match some of the “real world” salaries and position titles and job descriptions. When done correctly, this helps with attract talent and keeps employee turnover low.

As near as I can tell, someone whom I’ve never met or spoken with, and with little understanding of what I do, looked at my job description and decided that I am a “web site designer,” perhaps because the word DreamWeaver appeared in the description. I logged into the time keeping system one day last October, and I had been magically transformed from my department’s “web development coordinator” to a “web site designer.”

Which got me thinking about the roles web professionals play.

At a conference I recently attended, one of the speakers polled the audience:
“Who is a web designer?”
“Who is a web developer?”
“Who are the hardware and LAN administrators?”
“Who writes content?”

I never raised my hand – I was waiting for him to ask “Who designs AND writes code?” But, he didn’t.

He was making the point that the above mentioned groups fall under the purview of an IT department – there usually isn’t a web department separate from IT – and that designers/developers are often responsible for writing content. That’s an accurate assessment, to be sure.

I read something on Jeremy Keith‘s blog recently where he mentioned a group called “hybrid designers,” which would encompass people like myself, I suppose. Sometimes programmers back into interface design, or designers become interested in scripting and coding – either by choice or necessity. I’m not sure I like the term “hybrid designer,” although I understand what Mr. Keith was talking about.

Web development is exciting because it is all encompassing. We are designing experiences, and as such, benefit from having an understanding of how all the parts work together to achieve our goal. Volumes have been written on all the separate parts. What excites me is the act of creation from a holistic approach. To combine a beautiful, effective interface with accessible coding – to have a logical, clean site organization and to understand its impact on hardware resources – to determine the best schema for a database and create it accordingly – all this is thrilling. Flash, web standards, database design, typography and GUI design, information architecture – it’s a big tasty stew.

In my current role, I wear many hats. I have to gather and document requirements from doctors, nurses, administrative assistants and people from all walks of life. I have to advocate for patients and the end user of my work – I advocate for web accessibility. I design layouts. I communicate ideas and sell new approaches and technologies. I have to learn and understand these technologies. I live in the worlds of Microsoft, Linux and Apple. I program with ColdFusion, PHP, JavaScript and ActionScript. I use Access, SQL Server, Visual Basic and Mumps. I create animation with Flash and encode video. I produce design comps with PhotoShop and take digital photos whenever needed. I am asked to think about security and understand search engine algorithms. And that’s all before my second cup of coffee. It’s a great job – my favorites are always ones that are multifaceted.

Here’s the predicament. Those of us who are web Swiss Army knives, who engage our fields on many levels – what do we call ourselves? In my case, Coordinator wasn’t quite hands on enough – but designer is too limiting. Sure, we are developers – but we are more, too. Hybrid designers? Comprehensive developers? Web Generalists? Integration Architects? Web Experience Facilitators? InterAction Figures?

Is it not written, “This is a fine kettle of fish?”

Web Stuff

Icons: web design influencing print

On my way to work yesterday, I noticed three instances where, it seemed to me, that print design is being informed by web design. Specifically, the prominent use of icons. I had my camera and took a few pictures. I’ll post more as I notice them.

Icons are used all over the place on the web. They offer visual references in navigation, content identification and add a little jazz to a page for little bandwidth cost. Sites like Icon Buffet offer people the chance to download free icons and trade with other community users.

Icons from Icon Buffett

So it makes sense, I suppose, that icons are creeping into packaging and branding. Drop shadows, curved corners and sequential numbering make me want to click on the box of this dishwasher soap:

dishwasher soap packaging

I want to click the “links” in the “header” of the box shown below:

Whole grain makes the whole day go better

They work just as well in signage, and this isn’t new of course. A look tells me quickly that I can get coffee, money and snacks here.

Put a tiger in your tank

I went to the web sites for these products and found that the branding there (which looks a little corporate and dated to my eyes) did not reflect the packaging.

I’ve also noticed web like layouts in some magazines. Paper versions of mail-order catalogs are closely coordinated with the web counterparts, and the visual similarities are easy to identify.

Web Stuff

Accessible Rich Text

I have been looking for a rich text editor that I could drop onto a PHP form and that would not break my XHTML strict mark-up. I downloaded a handful of them, and tried various combinations within custom content management widgets that I’ve put together.

What I noticed is that a lot of them still use the <FONT> tag with various formatting attributes. Or worse – they weren’t free. This became something of a pet project.

I found two worth mentioning:

I like this one, and it made a good start with it. It’s based on the Mozilla Rich Text editing API included with Mozilla 1.3+. I spent some time figuring out how to get a MSSQL recordset into the form field via all the document.write gak, and then had to attend to other things. Some time went by before I could pick this up again.

I then discovered the FCKeditor, and was able to implement it within 20 minutes. I chose a simple format, meaning that I didn’t want to give my CMS users a lot of extraneousness options:

FCK Options

The extra option are mostly *not* accessible, but that’s ok. I don’t need them. The site CSS handles the styling – I want my user to be able to quickly input text and have it show up correctly when published. POW!

I did spend a little time looking how to format text myself, thinking it would be easy to use custom CSS classes, since that’s something I usually have full control over and do consistently – I could build them into the editor. I managed to get the several of the buttons done, and started on the text color picker when it was time to move on once again. I hope to return to it, and when I do, I’ll post the code up here. In the meantime, maybe give FCK a spin.