And the saga continues. I took a few days off from the redesign project while in Seattle. Today I designed and quickly prototyped a simple masthead. Have a look. I’m going to live with it for a while.
AEA Seattle after-report
Armed with nothing more than a keen eye, a good seat, a fine camera, and the ability to use it, An Event Apart Seattle attendee Warren Parsons captured the entire two-day show in crisp and loving detail. Presenting, for your viewing pleasure, An Event Apart Seattle 2009 – a set on Flickr.
When you’ve paged your way through those, have a gander at Think Brownstone’s extraordinary sketches of AEA Seattle.
There’s a new aneventapart.com in town, featuring a 2009 schedule and a reformulated design. I designed the new site and Eric Meyer coded. (Validation freaks, only validator.nu is up to the task of recognizing the HTML 5 DOCTYPE used and validating against it; the validator.w3.org and htmlhelp.com validators can’t do this yet. Eric chose HTML 5 because it permits any element to be an HREF, and this empowered him to solve complex layout problems with simple, semantic markup. Eric, I know, will have loads more to say about this.)
Family branding concerns drove the previous design. Quite simply, the original An Event Apart site launched simultaneously with the 2005 redesign of A List Apart. Jason Santa Maria‘s stripped-down visual rethink was perfect for the magazine and is imitated, written about, and stolen outright to this day. It was a great design for our web magazine because it was created in response to the magazine’s content. It didn’t work as well for the conference because its design wasn’t driven by the kind of content a conference site publishes. But it was the right conference design for 2005 because the goal at that time was to create a strong brand uniting the long-running web design magazine with the new web design conference that sprang from it.
New goals for a new environment
In 2009, it’s less important to bolt the conference to the magazine by using the same layout for both: by now, most people who attend or have thought about attending An Event Apart know it is the A List Apart web design conference. What’s important in 2009 is to provide plenty of information about the show, since decisions about conference-going are being made in a financially (and psychologically) constricted environment. In 2005, it was enough to say “A List Apart has a conference.” Today more is needed. Today you need plenty of content to explain to the person who controls the purse strings just what you will learn and why a different conference wouldn’t be the same or “just as good.”
The redesign therefore began with a content strategy. The new design and new architecture fell out of that.
Action photos and high contrast
The other thing I went for—again, in conscious opposition to the beautifully understated previous design—was impact. I wanted this design to feel big and spacious (even on an iPhone’s screen) and to wow you with, for lack of a better word, a sense of eventfulness. And I think the big beautiful location images and the unafraid use of high contrast help achieve that.
Reinforcing the high contrast and helping to paint an event-focused picture, wherever possible I used action shots of our amazing speakers holding forth from the stage, rather than the more typical friendly backyard amateur head shot used on every other conference site (including the previous version of ours). I wanted to create excitement about the presentations these brilliant people will be making, and live action stage photos seemed like the way to do that. After all, if I’m going to see Elvis Costello perform, I want to see a picture of him onstage with his guitar—not a friendly down-to-earth shot of him taking out the garbage or hugging his nephews.
Apple.com has never lacked for panache. It has always looked more stylish, more elegant, more beautifully designed than most business sites. The site’s combination of utility, seduction, and understated beauty is practically unique—in keeping with the company’s primary point of product differentiation.
But while its beauty and usability have always run ahead of the pack, its underlying source code has not always kept pace. Now the online Apple Store’s inside is as beautiful as its exterior—and as far ahead of the mainstream in web development as a company like Apple needs to be.
One day, all sites will be built like this. View Source for an inspiring glimpse of how semantic and accessible even a grid-based, image-intensive, pixel-perfect site can be.
And next time your boss, client, or IT director annoyingly proclaims that you can’t have great looks and good markup, point them at store.apple.com. Who knows? They might buy you an iPhone or MacBook as a token of thanks.
Opinions are no longer being solicited, but you can read the 101 comments that were shared before we closed the iron door.
15 Minutes (interviews with movie stars and “cyber stars,” 1996–1999)
Ask Dr Web (an early guide to designing websites; taken offline because the presentational HTML techniques it advocated have long since become outdated thanks to web standards)
Mr Jenkins’s Last Martini (1996, the web’s first alcoholic haiku contest)
… and all the other juicy Web 1.0 Goodness™. Not to mention a couple dozen discarded designs, legions of obsolete splash pages, and a certain Daily Report that was initially dumped onto a page called coming.html and maintained daily and steadily for years before it became conscious of itself, acquired a title, and moved to the site’s front page.
The web found me and claimed me. Everything else followed. Maybe you feel that way, too. Thank you for what you bring to the web, and thank you for twelve years or your part of it.
If you develop green technologies, you dream of selling your idea to Al Gore. If you run a design agency, you fantasize about winning AIGA as a client. Originally founded as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA sets the agenda for design as a profession, an art, and a political and cultural phenomenon. In the world of design, at least in the U.S., there is nothing higher.
When AIGA approached Happy Cog to redesign their site, we figured we had no chance at all. With nothing to lose, we spoke bluntly.
We told them they had fifteen years of great content that nobody could find. We suggested that an emerging class of designers who needed what AIGA had to offer did not know AIGA and could not connect with its web presence. The site could do more, and had to do more, to reach these users. We said AIGA’s site above all others should make brilliant use of typography. It should be a joy to read—and it was not.
I reckoned AIGA would hire a more obviously design-focused shop. “Designy design” agencies is how I think of such places, and I mean no disrespect by it. AIGA would, I figured, shrug off our fairly harsh words and choose someone more agreeable. Instead, they hired us.
Months of intense collaboration later, Happy Cog’s redesign of AIGA has launched. We junked the old structure, flattened the hierarchy, and surfaced the content. We gave the site’s years of brilliant writing by the likes of Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller an appropriately readable home—one that demonstrates what web typography can achieve.
And to make the site as inspirational as it is educational, we introduced a second narrative to the user experience: dynamically chosen selections from AIGA’s design archives visually intrude at the top of every page, inviting designers to dive into the archives whenever they seek refreshment.
AIGA’s Ric Grefé, Denise Wood, Liz Danzico, and Kelly McLaughlin guided us throughout the process. They are brilliant collaborators. Chicago’s Thirdwave created the robust and sophisticated back-end architecture required to support our detailed and unusual design requirements.
Thousands of pages of old content, none of it semantically marked up, and none of it structured to match our new requirements, have been fairly seamlessly integrated into the new design. Naturally there are still some bugs (not to mention validation hiccups) to work out. AIGA, Thirdwave, and Happy Cog will be working to patch these little bumps in the days ahead.
I creative directed the project, but its quality is purely due to the incredible team that worked on it:
Mr Mancini, my high school science teacher, grew a mustache when he began to dye his grey hair black. The dye job progressed by degrees. He was a little grey, then less grey. Nobody noticed; his mustache mesmerized us.
On the day Mr Mancini went all black, he shaved his mustache. All we noticed when he bounced into the classroom was his big, smooth-shaven face. He had to tell us that he’d changed his hair. As a man, he wanted to protect the secret of his vanity, but as a science teacher he felt morally obliged to explain the psychological trick he’d played on us.
Good redesigns work like my teacher’s hair. They are always an opportunity to fix or change a lot of things that aren’t obvious on the pretty new surface. Happy Cog has just redesigned.
It started with a sentence
The new version of Happy Cog’s website had to better convey how our agency’s business has diversified. We are first and always designers for hire. We are also publishers, whose micro-empire is expanding. And we have lately co-founded a high-profile event series.
The old site told the “design for hire” story. The redesign had to tell all three stories.
Usually this would be done by creating a navigation bar with labels like “We design,” “We publish,” and “We present.” But labels don’t connect; they separate. Navigation labels could point to three separate story-lines, but they would not make the case that ours was a holistic enterprise—that our conference, our publications, and our client services business were one.
For some time, I’ve been thinking about the primacy of words in the user interface. A sentence, I felt, could present our three businesses, and by its very nature, connect them in the reader’s mind.
The primary navigation interface had to be a sentence. And so it is.
The drawing board
One sentence led to another. I found it easy to write the new Happy Cog and easy to spin an organic architecture out of the opening sentence. But hell if I could design the thing.
I’d always designed Happy Cog; it was my baby; but every time I opened Photoshop or took crayon to paper, the results were a muddle. Maybe it was because my brain was barreling along on architecture and copy. Or maybe there are only so many times a single designer can take a new look at the same site.
I tapped Jason Santa Maria (or maybe he tapped me). Jason has one of the keenest minds and two of the freshest eyes in the business. He makes legibility beautiful. What the Ramones did with three chords, he does with two system fonts. His designs always spring from the user and the brand proposition.
His first effort sucked. (I was secretly relieved.)
A month later, Jason came back with pretty much the design you now see at happycog.com. (I rejoiced.) The painting at the top, which makes the design, is by A List Apart illustrator Kevin Cornell.
Dan is as good as anyone I’ve worked with. He is super-fast yet also deeply thoughtful. We spent many a mini-session debating such things as whether the About page and its subsidiaries should include microformats. We decided not.
Mark Huot migrated the new site, a job that involved considerable strategy as well as expertise. Rob Weychert contributed additional art direction and Jon Aldinger offered additional programming.
The redesign tells our story and gives us room to breathe and grow. It is also (I think) quite pretty and thoroughly appropriate. We hope you like it, and we invite you to subscribe to Happy Cog’s RSS feed to stay abreast of all matters Coggish.
Jason Santa Maria and Daniel Mall have written their perspectives on the Happy Cog redesign. They’re swell! Jason’s writeup includes information about the Happy Cog Philadelphia Open House, featuring the live music of Comhaltas. If you’re around, please visit.
Registration is now open for An Event Apart Boston 2007. Enjoy two amazing days of design and code plus meals, a party, and a bag of swag for a mere $795 (reg. $895) while early bird savings last. Attend for as little as $745 with a discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers.
Learn by day, party by night
On An Event Apart’s website, you’ll now find a detailed schedule describing the presentations with which our superstar speakers hope to entertain and enlighten you. From “Web Standards Stole My Truck!” to “Redesigning Your Way out of a Paper Bag,” it’s two stimulating days of best practices and fresh ideas in design, usability, accessibility, markup and code.
Lest you be overwhelmed by learning too much too soon, we’ll help you unwind (and do a little networking) at the Opening Night Party sponsored by Media Temple. You might even win a prize, courtesy of Adobe, New Riders, or Media Temple.
Our Boston Events page also includes notes to help you book your hotel room at a specially negotiated discount price.
Located in beautiful and historic Back Bay, the Boston Marriott Copley Place provides in-room, high-speed internet access; laptop safes and coolers; 27-inch color TV with cable movies; luxurious bedding and linens, and more. Best of all, it’s the site of the conference. You can walk out of your room and into the show!
Save more with discount code
During the early bird period, the price for this two-day event is $795. But you can nab an extra $50 off with this discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers:
Just enter AEAZELD in An Event Apart’s shopping cart to enjoy those savings immediately. During our early bird period, you’ll pay just $745 for the two days and everything that comes with them.
After February 26, 2007, when the early bird savings ends, the price goes up to $895, and you’ll pay $845 with the discount. Still pretty good for two days with some of the sharpest minds and greatest talents in web design. But why pay more? Book An Event Apart Boston as soon as you can.
Unlimited creativity, limited seating
An Event Apart Boston will be the best conference Eric Meyer and I have yet put together. It will also be this year’s only East Coast Event Apart. Don’t miss it.
Join Eric and me, along with Steve Krug, Andrew Kirkpatrick, Molly Holzschlag, Cameron Moll, Dan Cederholm, Ethan Marcotte, and Jason Santa Maria, for what we modestly believe may be the most exciting and enlightening show in modern web design.
Hurry! Seating is limited and early bird savings end Feb. 26, 2007.