Category Archives: The Essentials

Blue Beanie Day is Coming!

A sea of blue hats

ALL IT TAKES is a toque and a dream.

Join your fellow web designers and developers around the world on Saturday, 30 November 2013, as we march in virtual solidarity in support of web standards.

The countdown to this worldwide celebration begins today, with the opening of the Blue Beanie Day 2013 photo pool on good old Flickr.com. Read more at the new official home of Blue Beanie Day online, bluebeanieday.tumblr.com.

The Lords of Vendorbation

Vendorbation
ven·dor·ba·tion
/ˈvendər-ˈbā-shən/

noun : Unusable web-based intranet software foisted on large populations of users who have no say in the matter. For example, the “dynamic” website for your kid’s school, on which you can never find anything remotely useful—like her classroom or the names and email addresses of her teachers. Merely setting up an account can be a Borgesian ordeal minus the aesthetics.

Tried updating a driver’s license, registering a name change after a marriage, or accomplishing pretty much any task on a local, state, or federal website? Congratulations! You’ve been vendorbated. In ad sales? In publishing? Travel agent? Work in retail? Y’all get vendorbated a hundred times a day. Corporate America runs, not very well, on a diet of dysfunctional intranets sold by the lords of vendorbation.

Terrible food kills a restaurant. Terrible music ends a band’s career. But unspeakably terrible software begets imperial monopolies.

Wholesale contractual vendor lock-in between vendors of artless (but artfully initially priced) web software and the technologically unknowing who are their prey (for instance, your local school board) creates a mafia of mediocrity. Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down.

Vendorbation takes no heed of a user’s mental model; indeed, the very concept of a user’s mental model (or user’s needs) never enters the minds of those who create vendorbatory software. I say “create” rather than “design,” because design has less than nothing to do with how this genre of software gets slapped together (“developed”) and bloated over time (“updated”).

Vendorbatory product “design” decisions stem purely from contingencies and conveniences in the code framework, which itself is almost always an undocumented archipelago of spaghetti, spit, and duct tape started by one team and continued by others, with no guiding principle other than to “get it done” by an arbitrary deadline, such as the start of a new school year or the business cycle’s next quarter.

Masturbation, or so I have read, can be fun. Not so, vendorbation. It is a nightmare for everyone—from the beleaguered underpaid lumpen developers who toil in high-pressure silos; to the hapless bureaucrats who deserve partners but get predators instead; from the end users (parents, in our example) who can never do what they came to do or find what they want, and who most often feel stupid and blame themselves; to the constituents those users wish to serve—in our example, the children. Will no one think of the children?

Cha-ching! Like a zombie-driven un-merry-go-round spinning faster and faster as the innocents strapped to its hideous horses shriek silently, the vendorbation cycle rolls on and on, season after bloody season, dollar after undeserved dollar, error after error after error after error in saecula saeculorum.

Think it’s bad now? Wait till the lords of vendorbation start making their monstrosities “mobile.”


Doff of the neologist’s toque to Eric A. Meyer, whose cornpensation helped crystalize what to do with the bad feelings.

My mind and welcome to it

IN MY DREAM I was designing sublime new publishing and social platforms, incandescent with features no one had ever thought of, but everybody wanted.

One of my platforms generated pages that were like a strangely compelling cross between sophisticated magazine layouts and De Stijl paintings. Only, unlike De Stijl, with its kindergarten primary colors, my platform synthesized subtle color patterns that reminded you of sky and water. Anyone – a plumber, a fishmonger – could use the tool to immediately create pages that made love to your eyes. In the hands of a designer, the output was even richer. Nothing on the web had ever touched it.

Then the dream changed, and I was no longer the creator. I was a sap who’d been off sniffing my own armpits while the internet grew up without me. A woman I know was using the platform to create magazines about herself. These weren’t just web magazines, they were paper. And they weren’t just paper. In the middle of one of her magazines was a beautiful carpet sample. The platform had designed the carpet and woven it into the binding of the printed magazine. I marveled at her output and wished I had invented the platform that allowed her to do these things. Not only was I no longer the creator, I seemed to be the last sap on earth to even hear about all these dazzling new platforms.

Then I was wandering down an endless boardwalk, ocean on my right, a parade of dreary seaside apartment buildings on my left. Each building had its own fabulous content magazine. (“Here’s what’s happening at 2171 Oceanfront Walk.”) The magazines appeared on invisible kiosks which revealed themselves as you passed in front of each building. The content, created by landlords and realtors, was so indifferent as to be unreadable. But this did not matter a bit, because the pages so dazzled in their unholy beauty that you could not look away. Every fool in the world had a meaningless publication which nobody read, but which everyone oohed and ahed at as they passed. And I — I had nothing to do with any of it. I was merely a spectator, a chump on a tiresome promenade.


For Tim and Max. You are the future.

Divorce never sleeps

SO THE EX just moved to Manhattan’s most iconic private housing community. It is a large residential complex of oversized, renovated apartments set in an 80-acre private park. The sprawling collection of red brick buildings abuts the East River and the neighborhoods of Gramercy Park, the East Village, Alphabet City, and Kips Bay. It is a minute’s walk from anywhere you’d want to be on New York’s East Side. Yet it feels nothing like the grid-bound island of Manhattan. It is more like a dream suburb set in a manicured woodland.

I’ve been to the development twice since my ex moved there about a week ago. The first time I experienced a mild vertigo as I entered the maze of circling paths and identical red brick apartment towers. It was as if gravity itself could disappear without Manhattan’s rigid street grid.

The second visit was tonight. An early, handmade father’s day present and a quick goodnight kiss for my daughter before leaving on a business trip tomorrow. Then the girl got on her new bicycle — her first real bike, complete with training wheels — and the three of us began strolling the development’s safe, sprawling grounds. I noted fountains, a library, a huge green filled with picnicking families, a play center for young children, a study center for older children, and a basketball court before I stopped ticking off, and feeling slightly overwhelmed by, the development’s endless parade of private amenities.

“They’re going to put a coffee shop over there,” my ex said, pointing beyond a grove of hydrangeas.

Within a few minutes, we had run into one of Ava’s favorite school friends and her parents and were strolling with them while the girls biked in tandem, chased fireflies, and played tag with some younger kids. In my Manhattan, play dates must be arranged with the skill of a social director and the finesse of an event planner. Fail, and your kid has no one to play with that day. But this strange pocket of the city is like a small town: simply by going out the door of their apartment building, kids find each other and play in complete safety. No scheduling necessary. For adults, too, apparently, constant, pleasant social interactions are available simply by walking out your front door. No need for Foursquare, Twitter, or even a phone.

My ex introduced me to my daughter’s friend’s father. “This is a great place to raise kids,” he said — not knowing who I was, not realizing I was the father of the kid his kid was playing with, not knowing the lady his wife was talking to used to be my wife.

Divorce keeps breaking your heart.

You think you’re past it. You no longer sit bolt upright at 2:00 AM, asking yourself what you could have done to save the marriage. You no longer worry that your kid will become a junkie because her parents divorced. You no longer imagine the neighbors finding your dead, naked body in a room full of flies, cats, and pizza boxes. You no longer dread your lawyer’s call.

You enjoy your ex as a friend. You and she are equally committed to your child’s well-being, and that is all that matters. You take care of yourself, you’ve learned life lessons, you’re a better dad, a better man, a better worker than you were three years ago. Life is an adventure again.

And then, bang. Your kid is laughing ecstatically in a seemingly utopian environment you did not provide for her and you are not part of. The easy adult social interactions that are unfolding belong to your ex’s new life, not yours. You are watching your family move on without you, you are discovering all over again, as if for the first time, that your family has exploded, your wife does not love you, does not need you, the world goes on without you, this is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife.

Readlists: behind the scenes

FROM THE HOME PAGE of today’s newly announced, totally disruptive, completely free product powered by Readability: “What’s a Readlist? A group of web pages—articles, recipes, course materials, anything—bundled into an e-book you can send to your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone.”

For some time now, people who miss the point have seen Readability as an app that competes in the read-it-later space. That’s like viewing Andy Warhol as a failed advertising art director. Readability is a platform that radically rethinks how we consume, and who pays for, web content. It monetizes content for authors and its technology is available to all via the API. It scares designers, angers some advertisers. Its transformative potential is huge. Readlists are the latest free product to manifest some of that potential.

With Readlist, anyone can create ebooks out of existing web content. It’s easy. Sign in with your Readability account or sign up for one, and start making books of your favorite web articles.

There are still some bugs being worked out, but hey.

I was honored to beta test the product and create one of the first Readlists, along with Erin Kissane, Anil Dash, Aaron Lammer, David Sleight, and Chris Dary.

Disclaimer: I am on the advisory board of Readability and cofounded The Deck advertising network with Jim Coudal and Jason Fried. Readability removes clutter (including ads) from the reading experience; The Deck sells ads. Conflict of interest? Here’s another: I design content websites so as to make Readability unnecessary (because I design for readers); yet I strongly support Readability as a platform and above all as a web idea that is at least 15 years overdue. Either designers will design for their end-users, or third-party apps will remove designers from the transaction. As a designer, I’m not afraid of that. Rather, it inspires me.

Enjoy Readlists.

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.


My Glamorous Life: The Power Compels You

I DREAMED that my friend Jason Santa Maria took a job at a popular new startup that had exploded onto the world scene seemingly overnight. A fascinating visual interface was largely responsible for the popularity of the company’s new social software product. It was like a Hypercard stack that came toward you. A post full of exciting social significance just for you would appear in a self-contained deck with rounded corners. The next post would pop up on top of the first. The next, on top of that one. And so on. In my dream, people found this back-to-front pop-up effect thrilling for some reason.

Having imagined the interface, I next dreamed that I went to visit the startup. There were so many cubicles, so many shiny people running around, holding morning standups and singing a strange company song, that I could not locate my friend Jason’s desk. Someone grabbed me and told me the founder wanted to see me.


THE FOUNDER was an ordinary looking white guy in his late twenties. I was surprised that he wore beige chinos with a permapress crease. With all the TV and newspaper hubub around his product, I guess I’d expected a more stylish and charismatic presence.

The founder told me he was concerned because his mother, apparently a cofounder or at least an officer of the company, was of the belief that I had contempt for their product and disliked her personally. I assured him that I liked the product. Further, I had never met his mother, never read or heard a word about her, and felt only goodwill toward her, as I bear toward all people in the abstract. I don’t hate people I don’t know.

“It would be cool if you told mom that yourself,” he said. And suddenly two assistants were whisking me off to speak to her directly.


THE AUDITORIUM-SIZED waiting room outside the founder’s mother’s office was filled with at least a thousand people who had come to talk to her before me. They seemed to have been waiting for hours. There was an air of boredom and rapidly thinning patience, mixed with excitement and the kind of carnival atmosphere that surrounds things that blow up suddenly in the press. It felt like the jury selection room for a celebrity murder case. Only much, much bigger.

The two assistants escorted me to the very front of the auditorium, to an empty row of seats abutting the door to the founder’s mother’s private office. “Special treatment,” I thought. I was thrilled to be cutting to the front of the line, apparently as a result of the founder’s directive to his assistants. The front row chairs were reversed, facing back to the rest of the auditorium, so I was put in the somewhat uneasy position of staring out at the mass of people who had been waiting to see the founder’s mother since long before I arrived.

After a while, Ian Jacobs of the W3C was brought to the front of the room and seated near me.

We waited as other people were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence.


AFTER FIVE or six hours of drowsy waiting, I realized that the room was set up to mirror the software’s interface: people from the very back of the auditorium were first in line, and were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence first. Gradually, the hall of applicants emptied from the back to the front. Those of us in the very front of the line were actually the last people of all who would be admitted to the holy presence. It was a smart marketing touch that apparently permeated the company: everything real people did in the building in some way echoed the characteristics of the software interface — from the end of the line coming first, to the way the rounded conference tables echoed the shapes of individual news posts in the software’s back-to-front news deck.

What a smart company, I thought. And what a good joke on me, as I continued to sit there forever, waiting to see someone I’d never met, who held a baseless grudge against me, which it would one day be my task to talk her out of.

A plane crash in slow-mo

I WAS SOBER SIX MONTHS when my Uncle George took me to lunch and told me he believed his sister, my mother, had Alzheimers. She was 60. Via frequent short visits to Pittsburgh and more phone calls than we’d shared in decades, I helped my dad accept that he needed to take her to the doctor for tests. Then I helped him accept the results.

She declined over ten years. It was like a plane crash in slow motion.

At my Aunt Ruth’s funeral, my mother cried and cried, with no clue who she was crying for. When I joined my parents at the grave site, my mother turned excitedly to my father and pointed at me. “I know that man!” she said.

When she couldn’t talk any longer; after all the in-home nurses had quit; after the cousin who’d come to care for her committed credit card fraud while my mother wandered the house unwashed and raving; after that, I helped my dad accept that mom could no longer live at home.

Oh, and I stayed sober.

The final two years she spent in a facility. It was like visiting a statue. My dad would get her an ice cream and wheel her around the nursing home garden. She ate the ice cream. I’m not sure she saw the trees.

She had a little CD player in her room, and when we visited, we would put on music she liked – that is, music she had liked when she liked anything. Once, I swear I saw her shiver at the melancholy sax riff on a Frank Sinatra ballad. As if someone was there.

Then there was the day her hair turned white. I suppose it had probably turned gradually during the few weeks since I’d last seen her. My career was taking off and I couldn’t visit Pittsburgh as often. For that matter, maybe her hair had turned white a decade before, and the attendants at the nursing facility had just one day decided it wasn’t worth coloring her hair any more.

Alzheimer’s can only be proved via autopsy; it can’t be diagnosed with 100% certainty while the patient lives. My dad’s insurance company used that loophole to avoid covering a dime of the cost of the last ten year’s of my mother’s care.

After she died, after months had elapsed and my dad was still living among all her old things, my then-girlfriend and I volunteered to weed through my mother’s possessions, giving nearly everything to charity. In my mother’s desk drawer, we discovered a note she had written to herself at the onset of the disease, acknowledging that her mind was going. She feared the passage into darkness.

April 24th would have been my mother’s birthday. I think of her with some regularity. Sometimes I wish my mother could have lived to know my daughter, who is now seven. And sometimes I indulge the thought that somewhere, somehow, she does.

Why I am letting my Google IO invitation expire

HI, [REDACTED]. Thanks for writing to express your concern about my failure to redeem my Google IO promo code. It’s kind of a funny story.

I received a Google IO invitation (copied and pasted below) but didn’t follow up on it because the invitation did not say anything about what Google IO is, who it is for, or why I would want to attend it (if it is an event) or use it (if it is software) or do something else with it (if it is something else).

The Google IO invitation merely gave me complicated directions to sign up for Google IO, no doubt on the assumption that I would gladly attend, download, or sign up for anything that comes from Google, even without knowing what it is; and that, as an unemployed millionaire, I would have plenty of free time to decipher and obey complicated sign-up directions without knowing anything about the product, service, or event.

One of the complexities Google mentions in their invitation letter which fails to explain anything about the product or service they want me to sign up for is that, to qualify for Google IO, I must start a Google+ account. They don’t explain what Google+ is, either, but as it happens, I already have a Google+ account.

My Google+ account is assigned to my Gmail address. But instead of writing to me there, Google wrote to me at my zeldman.com address. My zeldman.com address is actually managed via Gmail, so I should be able to log into my Google+ account whether I am signed in as my Gmail identity or my zeldman.com identity, but Google+ doesn’t work that way. Google+ only works for free Gmail accounts. It does not work for paid corporate accounts like mine. That has always seemed an odd decision to me: if you can only provide services to a subgroup of your users, why not choose the subgroup that pays? But I am not Google.

So Google wrote to my zeldman.com address, which they won’t allow me to associate with my Google+ address, to invite me to start a Google+ account (which I already have) on my zeldman.com account, which they won’t support. And if I do that (which I can’t), and some other complicated stuff, they promise that I will then be able to participate in Google IO, whatever that is.

And now they have written to warn me that my Google IO, whatever it is, will stop being offered if I don’t sign up (which I can’t) right away. And they even convinced you, my friend, to send a personal note ensuring that I don’t miss the opportunity to sign up for their unspecified product or service with the account they don’t support before the unexplained offer is terminated.

While I should be curious about Google IO and what I will miss if I fail to take advantage of the cumbersome offer, what I’m actually far more curious about is how an organization that can’t write an effective direct marketing email message has managed to become one of the most powerful corporations of the 21st century.


Hello,

We recently sent you an invitation to register for Google I/O 2012 and noticed that you have not redeemed your promo code, which will expire at midnight PDT on March 25.

[ How to register ]
1. Make sure you have a Google+ account as it is required to register. Get Google+ at http://www.google.com/+
2. Visit the registration page at

https://developers.google.com/events/register/promocode?code=[REDACTED]

3. Use Promo Code: [REDACTED]. This code can only be used once.

[ Tips to Ensure Successful Payment With Google Wallet ]

1. Make sure your Google Wallet account is tied to the same Google+ account you use to register.

2. In case your bank declines your purchase through Google Wallet, you may need to call the bank that issued your credit card and let them know that you want to make a large purchase. Some banks may decline large purchases that appear to be out of your normal purchase behavior.

3. If Google Wallet is not available in your country, please email [email protected] to have our support team process your payment.

[ Tips to Ensure Successful Registration With Google+ ]

1. Sign into your Google+ account before you try to redeem your code.

2. To ensure you have created a Google+ account, log into your Google account and go to https://plus.google.com/. If you land on a page asking you “To join, create a public Google profile.” then you don’t yet have a Google+ account and follow the instructions to create one.

3. If you have multiple Google accounts, be sure to sign out of all Google accounts and sign in with only your Google+ enabled account.

4. You can use a personal or company managed Google+ enabled account to complete your registration.

If you have any questions, please email [email protected]

Sincerely,
The Google I/O Team

Replacing the -9999px hack (new image replacement)

IN THE BEGINNING was FIR, AKA Fahrner Image Replacement (note that one of the following links returns a 404):

The Daily Report’s 2003 redesign uses (and our book explained) an image replacement technique intended to combine the benefits of accessibility with the power of graphic design. We christened this method Fahrner Image Replacement (FIR) in honor of Todd Fahrner, who first suggested it to us. Douglas Bowman’s tutorial popularized the technique, which was first developed by C. Z. Robertson in 1999. (Robertson, Fahrner, and Bowman each developed the idea independently.)

Preceding web type by a decade, Fahrner gave us the ability to use fonts other than Verdana and Georgia on web pages (i.e. to set type in Photoshop and export it as an image—an ancient web design practice) but to conjure these images of text via semantic HTML markup (the words the text pictured, set in appropriately structural HTML elements).

Then came Phark’s Accessible Image Replacement, which improved on the Fahrner method by avoiding edge case failures and accessibility problems inherent in FIR. The principal aspect of the Phark method—the part of it all of us remember and use to this day—was this little piece of code:

-9999px

So popular was this method, we made a tee shirt out of it, and it sold, baby, it sold.

But despite its enduring popularity, Phark has drawbacks of its own: chiefly, a performance hit caused by the need to draw a giant 9999px box offscreen. (Yes, the browser really does this.)

My friend Scott Kellum, design director at Treesaver, has now sent me this refactored code for hiding text, which I hereby christen the Kellum Method:

.hide-text {
text-indent: 100%;
white-space: nowrap;
overflow: hidden;
}

  • Really long strings of text will never flow into the container because they always flow away from the container.
  • Performance is dramatically improved because a 9999px box is not drawn. Noticeably so in animations on the iPad 1.

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