Time Management

I’ve started realizing I feel my time is slipping away.  I let tasks go unfinished, and I put my emphasis in the wrong targets. Since like most I don’t have a personal secretary, it is up to me to start tracking my time.  This week I am going to venture into discovering exactly where my time goes, and try to get ahead of it.

Similar to effectively managing money, my goals are going to be to find the smallest tasks and get them out of the way first. I believe the feeling of being overwhelmed is purely psychological, fueled by an ever growing list of unfinished tasks. As I evaluate my time, I hope to find where I can best use it.

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IE6 or HTML5

How far backward should we still design for?

To answer this question you also need to examine how far forward you need to design for.  In a day when HTML5 has taken a few stumbles, and people still use IE6, it is often hard to determine the middle-ground.

The real answer is to consider your audience.  When determining browser compatibility, the use of analytic software is vital.  I am a data junky, so I find analytic software to been geekishly fun.

You can install a great tool called Google Analytics for free.  (http://analytics.google.com)  It is as simple as signing up your website and pasting a code on the individual pages.  Now the data harvest begins!

From Google Analytics you can determine traffic sources, operating systems, and more importantly browser version.  On most of my sites Internet Explorer seems to be king.   This poses multiple problems.  IE versions have very different abilities.  The lower the version, the less the compatibility with coding standards.   While HTML5 is not considered a W3C web standard yet, older coding elements, such as advance placement DIVs, do not work in anything lower than IE7.  Worse yet, their usability in IE7 and up is questionable.

When you have a lot of outdated IE users, you have to cannibalize a lot of your coding ambitions.  A year ago I tracked a site that was primarily receiving users of IE6.  It required a lot of old school setup, including designing with tables.  One thing I do, because the clients rarely notice, is install a script from Browser Update (http://www.browser-update.org).  It is a lightweight script you can install on one or all of your pages, which reminds people when they have an outdated browser.  It sets a cookie, so the users are only notified when the cookie expires.

Beyond IE6, I also have qualms with Apple.  While learning jQuery is fun, I really am perturbed by the lack of Flash compatibility in Apple products.  In a day and age when machines, bandwidth, and design styles could all incredibly utilize/benefit from Flash, it is simply not supported.  The new rule of Flash video is this: If you can’t interact with it, pre render it as a video. What worsens this is there is no one video codec which is accepted by all browsers.  In order to ensure your animation/video is viewable on all platforms you have to upload three separate versions of the file.

When creating interactive design elements, UI, you need to make a choice between Flash and jQuery.  While Apple products do not work at all with Flash, Internet Explorer does not work with heavy use of jQuery.  I’ve seen entire pages broken in IE due to its inability to fully process multiple jQuery scripts.

With the (quasi) recent advent and stumblings of HTML5, it is hard to recommend as a primary language.  I use HTML5 elements where I can, but I always ensure there is a catch.  HTML5 introduces lighter scripts, faster page processing, and more standardization of elements.  Unfortunately, it is not cross browser compatible; for that matter, there are NO browsers that fully support it.  It’s a designer’s pipe dream and a good look at where the web is going, but far from practical.

What can you do to incorporate the new with the old?  Well one new feature that is fairly well supported is CSS3.  A year ago I would have said to stay away, but it has really developed a browser following.  While CSS3 doesn’t work the same on all browsers, when it fails it does not break the page.   CSS3 allows you to add some interesting effects and animations to your site, including 3-d button rotate.  A good tutorial can be found over W3Schools.com (http://www.w3schools.com/css3/).

This is going to be one of my shorter entries, but I hope it was at least somewhat helpful.  The main point I am trying to make is to think before you code.  Don’t just design blindly, but take into consideration how it will work on multiple browsers. For more information on any of these codes visit (http://www.w3schools.com).  To test your own site on multiple browsers sign up for Adobe BrowserLab (https://browserlab.adobe.com/).  Good designing to you all!

RE:Search

All creative professionals have, at one point or another, taken on a project they did not know much about.  In my last post I talked about getting more information out of clients, but sometimes the bulk of the findings are put onto you.  While this seems like a chore for most people who are wired for the design side of the spectrum, it can actually be quite fun.

In today’s age we are filled with information.  Access to some of the most challenging questions can be found in our pocket.  While you should never solely rely on the internet for answers, you can get a good start there.

I have become an expert google’r.  I like to watch other non-professionals type grammatically correct questions or statements into a search engine, only to be flooded by a list of unrelated hits.  When searching google you must first become in tune with your primal ape.  Do not search for, “What is the average cost of a banana in Juneau, AK?”, but rather break it down to mighty grunts, “Cost banana ‘Juneau,  AK’ .”  (important: when using a search engine, put quotes around words that are grouped)

Just as with ad copy writing, search engines require you to ‘expunge the crap.’  Adding words like “what is” or “how much” means you are searching for the question and not the answer.  While search engines are getting better about understanding when you are asking a question, they are primarily searching for parts of the internet where your words are used.  When searching for a question, you are far more likely to just find forum based sites where the question is asked.   In fact, some sites boost their SEO to look for when someone writes ‘what’ or ‘how’.   They then want you to sign up for their site, so you can ask their “experts.”

Google is full of information.  I repeat, Google is full of information.  When someone sends me an article about politics, I first consider the source.  All it takes to become a writer for the Huffington Post or the Associated Press is to be able to click a submit button.   The same is true with Google; all it takes to show up on their search is to have a website.  Information and fact are not synonymous.

It is up to you to verify the information you obtain with further research.  Finding lots of websites with the same information doesn’t make it fact.  Often times, people will write something that was based on misinformation from another site.  This creates multiple instances of erroneous information.  Now there are two “sources” stating the same thing, but it is still not necessarily true.  Dogmatic views of one writer do not translate to solid facts.

There is this ancient building down the road from my house.  I visit it every so often, but it always seems quiet and unused.  There is a hint of mildew to the air, which emphasizes its overwhelming staleness.  I hesitantly walk in in search of answers.   I go with hopes of checking facts, but at great risk.  For if I am discovered by the keeper of this place, I may have to finally pay off my fines!

Maybe I’m over playing it a bit, but the library is a great source of information.  I am lucky enough to live within an hour’s drive of three large public libraries, four college libraries, and the numerous Carnegie libraries established in my area by Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  Carnegie believed in giving to the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.”  I spent many summer days of my childhood in the local Carnegie library of my hometown.  From this I learned improvement starts with self.

Research can be broken down to mean “to search again.”  While not all projects take a great amount of research, some do.   In some cases, you may discover an oversight your client may have made.  When doing research on a project for a recent client, I discovered a series of tests required by a government agency for the product.  When I brought these findings to my client to learn about their results, I found out they had no idea about the test.  It put a slight delay in the process, but they were very appreciative as now they are able to apply for grants based on testing results.

Research can also lead you to learn how to effectively market a product.  One thing I try to do when researching is keep documentation of the process.  When I am researching something I know nothing about, I am at the same state of knowledge as a typical consumer.   By tracking how I personally go about discovering more information, I can later translate the journey into an ad campaign.

In brief conclusion, the key to research is to search then search again.  Never publish anything you haven’t fact-checked first.  Through out any misleading information.  Finally, make a habit of it.

Speaking From the Heart (of someone else)

Ad copy can be tricky.  It’s not enough there are multiple rules you must follow to enhance readability and understanding, but you have to do this with something you generally have little experience or understanding of.

In my personal experience, reference material you are handed when writing ad copy for a newspaper, magazines, or even a whole website can vary from data overload to basically non-existent.  Just last year I was told to build a website based on a scanned sheet of pictures and a barely legible (and highly inconsistent) timeline of the company’s existence.

How do you do it?  Probing. (and not THAT kind)

Whether you have no information or way too much information, you need to first locate KEY information.  Whenever I talk to a client I will constantly be taking notes.  I don’t copy everything they say, but I do write down key words or points they feel are important enough to mention.  This helps beyond ad copy too.  These key words will eventually have a large influence for my design style.

What if I got a mute?  You’d be surprised how many salesmen have nothing to say when you aren’t buying.  There are two tricks I will address to establishing a good word flow from a hesitant speaker.

1) Be on their level.  Do not try to impress or grovel, but be on their level.  Interpret their attitude and be empathetic to it.

2) Show genuine interest in their product.  Don’t try to simply ask what they want to say, but give them genuine reason to sell it to you.  The audience fuels the speaker, and if you show interest you will get more out of them.

I try to get as much out of a person in my first interrogation, but I never stop there.  Long after they have talked to you, their mind will keep thinking about the conversation.  Write a first draft of the ad copy using their provided information, but stick primarily with their key points.  While you are writing drafts of ad copy you will inevitably come up with questions.

An easy way to set up a second interview with them is to tell them you want to go over the preliminary ad copy.  Just come up with something that works, but you and I will know this isn’t the final draft.

Begin by showing them the ad copy. Ask any questions you have (and always have at least one). Then ask for input from them.   This input will be key in determining you final draft.  If they don’t have input, make a suggestion.  The trick is to talk until words start flowing.

If probing doesn’t work take this quote to heart: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

I’m not talking about completely making something up, but rather filling copy with generic information about their industry written in an intriguing way.  Elongate bulleted lists, draw out simple features, or at least in some way FILL the page.   This isn’t hard.  Turn “25 years experience” into “Proudly serving the fish stick industry with quality products for over 25 years.” Or change a bullet like “-Cheap Fancy Socks” into “Our elegant variety of socks match value with quality.”  You can cut out/change all the BS in subsequent interviews, but you need something to present them.

One of the hard to follow, and often broken, rules of ad copy is to always write in the present or future tense.  Their business is still around and offering fish sticks at a booming rate.  Their increase in business now is only topped by their future potential.  Writing anything at all in past tense seems like they missed the boat or are now dead.  “Children enjoy every bite of our tasty Squirrel Bits” or “Your Grandma will go wild over new Grandma Snacks” sound better than “Fluffy really liked playing in their park,” because it generates this idea in our head of “…until.” Never write anything giving potential customers a reason to think it is no longer valid.

One final key to good ad copy.  Maintain a good vocabulary.  Also, if you aren’t good with changing up words, find a good thesaurus.    Also, a good way to bore people is not maintaining good structure with variable text.  Also, I’ve seen what would have been good ad copy ruined by using the same adjective over 7 times in one paragraph.

Any paragraph can become a marvelous example of the English language by utilizing exceptional linguistic skills. Do you see what I mean? Good.

re: Blogging

For the few readers of my blog, you may have noticed I am not quick to publish. I try to update it when I can, but rarely find the time. After looking over my posts I’ve noticed a pattern emerging of two posts every three months or so. This offers little value to the typical blog reader.

So here is what is going to change. I will start adding more regular blog post (hopefully once a week). I have been working on more of a pick and choose strategy with my design work, so I now have more time to focus on what works in design rather than just paying bills. No longer am I pushing 80 hour weeks to stay ahead.

This may create a disconnect between my old style of blogging and my new focus, but I hope it will be for the better. I am also hoping to find more about external influences in design. This blog will serve as a catalyst for my own designs and hopefully for my readers.

One issue I briefly touched in a previous blog was drinking. Now that I have lessened my drinking, I will take more of a hindsight approach. After talking to others about my drinking “problem”, I realized I never had one. It was more of a jealousy of social opportunities “problem.” Drinking was just one way I had found to get out, be social, and make contacts. I’ve learned you can make a better impressions over a beer than over a meeting. I’ve also learned you can make worse impressions over a few beers than over a meeting as well.

I’ve started to engage in more social events that don’t require alcohol. I am joining local clubs and councils. I have started to invite myself to sit with people I didn’t know, because of the confidence and clearheadedness I have developed from not drinking.

While I still do not advocate abstaining from total use of alcohol, I now have a new look on life through simply drinking less. The same can be said about anything. Drinking takes time out of your day. Television takes time out of your day. Social engagements take time out of your day. Time taken from your day is never given back to the life you have.

Designers, programmers, basket weavers, and everyone else have to take a look at how much time they can devote to any one thing, and ultimately decide what is worth more to them. Enter new marketing strategy. Sell people time.

I often miscalculated this aspect when I was selling my services. I would calculate the costs of potential clients, the ease of use, and the quality of service, but I never focused on time saving. The irony is my services save people an incredible amount of it. I create easy to use content management systems, so people can quickly get there information out on multiple platforms. I do the research to determine their market status and strategies, while allowing them time to focus on growing their business. Furthermore, time can trickle down into advertising their product. “Install in just 5 minutes!”, “Highly detailed work to prevent delays!” or “Let us do the work for you!” these are all about time saving, not ease of use.

I don’t mind rolling up my sleeves or learning something new if it saves me money. So I don’t get sold on ease of use. When I learn something will save me an exponential amount of time however, it’s hard to justify not buying into it.

The old saying “time is money” seems to get it wrong. Time is worth money, but time itself is the measurement of our lives. How much would you spend on more life?

Good Jorb!

As a primarily solo designer it is often hard to measure the quality of my work. A large amount of the people I work for have little to no design sense. If I have worked for you and you are reading this I apologize, however the truth remains you probably hired me for that very reason.

So how do I gauge the quality of my work? Client reactions are usually a good measure, but someone misleading. By rule of thumb, if a client comes back to me with more than three major changes I generally decide to overhaul the project and start over. I’ve found, through hours of tedious work, a client usually wants major changes because they just don’t like the design, but are afraid of being charged for a new one.

A client who says, “Good job!” is usually satisfied with the work, but it doesn’t exceed their expectations.

In some occasions a client will become almost emotional about a design. In multiple cases I have had a client actually give me a bonus for exceeding the quality they had expected. At one point I had a client cry at a video presentation I had created for them. That is something I will never forget.

Unfortunately, you cannot rest solely on client reactions. As I mentioned before, clients generally have little to no design sense. That is where colleagues come in.

I have a small list of graphic designers, and other people with design sense, I usually contact prior to submitting a work for client approval. I contact different people depending on the subject, but in general they are usually the ones who provide usable feedback.

When you work on your own it is hard to really trust your design. Sometimes you become emotionally attached, or even emotionally detached. When a client gives you changes you can sometimes become angry and sabotage the design.

I generally try to stay fairly detached from individual designs, but I develop attachments to campaigns or series projects. I try to keep a purity or flow to the design, that clients sometimes don’t understand or see.

The best gauge for quality is whether or not a client calls you back. If you maintain a good relationship with your client, it is generally due to your quality of work. Clients want bang for their buck, and if you don’t offer that bang, you won’t get their buck.

So how do you know which works are portfolio worthy? Just look back at which ones got an emotional or overwhelming response from a mixed group of people. I try not to trust my own judgement when it comes to portfolio work. I can develop emotional investments in designs which don’t showcase my best talents. Think about work you put the most effort into, decide which areas of design you want to focus your portfolio, and then have a few people look over your selection to see which ones they like the best.

Stickiness and Situations

So in the last year I have learned how much I enjoy working out. In the last two months I’ve learned how much I equally enjoy binge eating and watching Netflix. That means it must be mid-winter.

It’s hard to stay active and diet in the winter. It is a time to cook, to warm up, and to relax between shoveling.

I have never been a good dieter in the first place. I hate eating “diet” food strictly. My preference is to eat small portions of good food. When I cook however, I make big portions. Big accessible portions calling me from the refrigerator.

My solution. Occupy my eating time with working out indoors. Unfortunately the bulk of my exercise equipment is stored in my unheated garage. So I’ve been looking for smaller things that I can store easily in my house.

I recently found a game called EA Sports Active that creates a 9 week work out routine. Great, 9 weeks until Spring… It works out!

So after purchasing the game at the reasonable price tag of $40 I popped it in. I feel sort of weird wearing all the motion tracking equipment, but it seems fancy and hight tech also.

After about 30 minutes of jumping and running in place in front of a CGI landscape I was hooked. That was until I turned around and saw the squatter watching my imaginary work out.

Let me back track a bit. A year ago, my friend lost his job. In a drunken moment I talked my girlfriend into giving him a job at her bakery. (http://www.backalleybakery.com) Problem was he lived in a town 30 miles away and would have to drive. NOT A PROBLEM I HAVE A GUEST ROOM! Alcohol is not a good situation to invite guests to stay at your house for indefinite periods of time.

In any case, 4 months later he moved … to another apartment in the same town he lived in before. You see, there was no need to move to the town where his job was, because he had my place to stay at. A year of rentless staying later, he has coined the name “the Squatter”.

So the squatter says, “that looked like a pretty good workout.” Which sealed the deal of me no longer working out while he was around. It wasn’t a sexual thing, we are both straight men. It was mostly just an awkward remark and the fact that he stood there watching as I worked out. The problem is the workout program requires you to use it 4 days a week, and I only have 3 squatterless days and they are in a row. Needless to says, I’ve been neglecting my workouts.

I need to grow up and kick him out.