Hope is the daughter of dawn

Awake at 4:30 AM at the end of a four-day heat wave. Sweating, but not from the weather. Running a business during a recession gets you out of bed with the chickens.

I have always moved counter to my time. I started Happy Cog as the dot-com boom went bust. We bought our first home in December 2007, as the U.S. mortgage crisis flared to full incandescence. And as the U.S. falls into economic narcolepsy, Happy Cog New York and Happy Cog Philadelphia are moving to newer, bigger, better, more beautiful, more perfectly located, and more expensive offices.

By daylight I hustle and count my blessings. We retire early, tired and contented. But at the first pale light of dawn, I’m awake and wired and already on the mental treadmill.

This morning as I lay there fretting over design and personnel questions, I heard our daughter cry out. I was at her side a moment later. She was dreaming; dreaming about bath time. Talking in her sleep, she gave voice to her nightmare:

“No, Mama, no hair wash. Let me skip it, Mama.”

I put my hand on her shoulder and told her she could skip the hair wash, and she instantly subsided to calm sleep.

[tags]glamorous, myglamorouslife, recession, work, sleeplessness[/tags]

Where do you begin?

Q. I’m searching for your archive. Whenever I find a really good blog, I like to start at the beginning so I can understand better some of what you’re talking about. And I can’t find any link to your archives.

A. Thanks for writing. I started my site in 1995. There weren’t blogging tools back then, hence there aren’t archives in the sense you are describing. I published via hand-coded HTML until around 2004, when I began using WordPress. All my pre-WordPress content is still online; you just have to keep hitting the “PREVIOUS” button to get to it. Sorry about that.

[tags]writing, blogging, wordpress, archive, archives, site, data, organization, structure, dailyreport, zeldman, zeldman.com[/tags]

Stick out your tongue

While employed at a famous New York advertising agency twenty years ago, a partner and I created a TV commercial touting an over-the-counter medicine client’s revolutionary new cold and flu remedy for young children.

Only when the shooting and shouting was over did we learn that the product did not, in fact, exist.

The commercial whose every creative detail we’d had to fight for was never going to run.

The client—the marketing side of a product development group—had a budget of $60,000 to spend. So they spent it, even though the R&D side of the product development group had not been able to deliver the product.

It was not a liquid medicine that needed to be measured. It was not a pill that needed to be chewed or swallowed. It was a pill that dissolved instantly on the tongue. Or would have been, if the engineers had been able to create it.

During weeks of presentation, the client rejected campaigns that would have caught the attention of the nation’s parents. The client bought a safe campaign that called less attention to itself, then set about systematically softening its edges. My partner and I wanted to cast like Fellini or Woody Allen. We brought in amazing children of various backgrounds, their faces rich in character. But the client picked cute blonde girls instead.

And so on. Every decision, however small, required approval. Everything was a fight. A ladies-and-gentlemanly fight. A fight that sounded like polite, mutually respectful discussion. A fight with invisible knives.

We won some and we lost some. For all the back-and-forth with the client, the resulting commercial wasn’t bad at all. The first few times anyone—even the guy delivering sandwiches—saw it, they laughed. Afterwards, they smiled. It could have been okay. It could have gotten my partner and me out of that agency and to a better one.

After the shoot was completed, the client told our account executive that the product did not exist and the commercial was never going to run.

The client had known this going in. So why didn’t they let us win more creative battles? Because they wanted something soft and safe to show the boss who had the power of life and death over their budget.

Why did the boss give them $60,000 to produce a commercial for a product that didn’t exist? Because that’s how corporations work. If they didn’t spend advertising dollars in 1988, they wouldn’t get ad dollars in 1989, when (in theory) they would finally have a product to advertise.

Governments, at least the ones I know of, work the same way. Since last night, the city of New York has been paving 34th Street in places it doesn’t need to be paved. Why do they do this? To justify the budget. In a better world, money set aside to pave streets that don’t need paving would be reassigned to something the city actually needs—like affordable housing, or medical care for poor or homeless people. But cities are corporations—that Mike Bloomberg is New York’s mayor merely confirms this—and few corporations are agile enough to rethink budgetary distributions on the basis of changing needs.

Last week, in an airport, on one of the inescapable widescreen TVs set to CNN (and always set to the wrong resolution) I saw a commercial for a revolutionary children’s medicine product that melts instantly on the tongue.

I guess they finally made it.

[tags]advertising, design, artdirection, writing, copywriting, TV, production, commercials, adverts, wisdom, work, experience, budgets, business, waste, government, medicine, OTC, overthecounter, newyork, nyc[/tags]

The vanishing personal site

OUR PERSONAL SITES, once our primary points of online presence, are becoming sock drawers for displaced first-person content. We are witnessing the disappearance of the all-in-one, carefully designed personal site containing professional information, links, and brief bursts of frequently updated content to which others respond via comments. Did I say we are witnessing the traditional personal site’s disappearance? That is inaccurate. We are the ones making our own sites disappear.

The vanishing personal site.

Obliterating our own readership and page views may not be a bad thing, but let’s be sure we are making conscious choices.

Interactive art director Jody Ferry’s site is a perfect example of the deeply decentralized personal page. I use the term “page” advisedly, as Jody’s site consists of a single page. It’s a fun, punchy page, bursting with personality, as intriguing for what it hides as what it reveals. Its clarity, simplicity, and liquidity demonstrate that Jody Ferry does indeed practice what the site’s title element claims: Interactive Art Direction and User Experience Design. All very good.

It could almost be the freshened-up splash page of a late 1990s personal site, except that the navigation, instead of pointing inward to a contact page, resume, blog, link list, and photos, points outward to external web services containing those same things. Mentally insert interactive diagram here: at left is a 1990s site whose splash page links to sub-pages. Structurally, its site map is indistinguishable from an org chart, with the CEO at the top, and everyone else below. At right, to re-use the org chart analogy, a site like Jody’s is akin to a single-owner company with only virtual (freelance) employees. There is nothing below the CEO. All arrows point outward.

Most personal sites are not yet as radically personal-content-outsourced as Jody’s, and certainly not every personal site will go this way. (Jody’s site might not even be this way tomorrow, and, lest it be misunderstood, I think Jody’s site is great.) But many personal sites are leaning this way. Many so inclined are currently in an interim state not unlike what’s going on here at zeldman.com:

  • There are blog posts here, but I post Tweets far more frequently than I write posts. (For obvious reasons: when you’re stuck in an airport, it’s easier to send a 140-character post via mobile phone and Twitter than it is to write an essay from that same airport. Or really from anywhere. Writing is hard, like design.) To connect the dots, I insert my latest Tweet in my sidebar. I have more readers here than followers at Twitter, but that could change. Are they the same readers? Increasingly, to the best of my knowledge, there are people who follow me on Twitter but do not read zeldman.com (and vice-versa). This is good (I’m getting new readers) and arguably maybe not so good (my site, no longer the core of my brand, is becoming just another piece of it).
  • Like nearly everyone, I outsource discoverable, commentable photography to Flickr.com instead of designing my own photo gallery like my gifted colleagues Douglas Bowman and Todd Dominey. Many bloggers now embed mini-bits of their Flickr feeds in their site’s sidebars. I may get around to that. (One reason I haven’t rushed to do it is that most of my Flickr photos are hidden behind a “friends and family” gateway, as I mainly take pictures of our kid.) Photography was never what this site was about, so for me, using Flickr is not the same as outsourcing the publication of some of my content.
  • As I’ve recently mentioned, links, once a primary source of content (and page views) here, got offloaded to Ma.gnolia a while back. From 1995 until a few years ago, every time I found a good link, an angel got his wings and I got page views. My page views weren’t, brace yourself for an ugly word, monetized, so all I got out of them was a warm feeling—and that was enough. Now my site is, brace yourself again, monetized, but I send my readers to Ma.gnolia every time I find a link. Go figure.

I’m not trying to get rid of my readers, nor are you trying to shake off yours. In the short term, including Flickr, Twitter, and Ma.gnolia or De.licio.us feeds sends traffic both ways—out to those services, but also back to your site. (Remember when some of us were afraid RSS would cost us our readers? It did and it didn’t. With RSS, good writers gain readers while often losing traditional page views. But that’s another story.) I’ve certainly found new websites by going to the Twitter profile pages of people who write funny or poignant Tweets. Behind a great Flickr photo may be a great designer whose site you might not have found if not for first seeing that photo.

Site of André Gonçalves

But outsourcing the publication of our own content has long-term implications that point to more traffic for the web services we rely on, and less traffic and fewer readers for ourselves.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not every person who designs websites needs to run a personal magazine on top of all their other responsibilities. If your goal in creating a personal site way back when was to establish an online presence, meet other people who create websites, have fun chatting with virtual friends, and maybe get a better job, well, you don’t need a deep personal site to achieve those goals any more.

But if world domination is your goal, think twice before offloading every scrap of you.


Translations

[tags]personal sites, blogs, blogging, de.licio.us, ma.gnolia, flickr, twitter, jodyferry, outsourcing, content, readers, readership[/tags]

The feed is gone

Over the weekend, I added my Ma.gnolia bookmarks feed to my blog post template, such that every post would be followed by links to and descriptions of the last five external web pages to have caught my fancy. Inserting the feed into the template was easy and took all of three minutes.

This morning, I removed the feed.

Why I inserted the feed

From 1995 until around the time Happy Cog worked on the Ma.gnolia design project, one of the things I wrote about here was other people’s websites. I did it because I was passionate about web design, and so were the people who read this site. And of course, writing about other people’s sites also provided a ready form and steady stream of content. From 1995 until about 2001, I wrote here several times a day, and had millions of readers.

Then married life, and a business that grew in spite of my lifelong effort to avoid commercial success, ate into my blogging time. Today I write less frequently and have fewer readers. In an effort to provide linkage even when I don’t have time to write posts, I added my Ma.gnolia feed to my site’s sidebar in 2006. (It’s still there, on my front page. You may need to scroll down to see it.)

A flaw in the design

Not everyone notices the Ma.gnolia feed in my sidebar, due to a flaw—one of many—in the way I redesigned zeldman.com in 2004. (I used to redesign this site several times a year, but haven’t touched it since Spring of 2004.)

When I redesigned zeldman.com in 2004, I thought it would be “neat” to make my sidebar’s linked text almost the same color as the background until you hovered over it. The idea being that the focus was on the site’s content, not all the little crap in the sidebar. The sidebar was like sand, and you, the reader, were like a beachcomber with a metal detector. Hover the metal detector over the sand, and you might find a quarter. Hover over my sidebar, and you might find additional content.

Like most “neat” ideas that aren’t entirely practical, this one required compromise in the execution. The result is a conventional sidebar with low-contrast text. Because of the low contrast, lots of people (including people with certain kinds of dyslexia) pay little attention to the sidebar’s content. So I need to redesign.

But meantime, slipping the Ma.gnolia feed out of the sidebar (on blog posts) and into the body of posts itself seemed like another neat idea. People who’d ignored the Ma.gnolia feed in the sidebar would now, finally, bask in its glory. Every post would end with the last five third-party links I’d reviewed. Neat, neat, neat.

Why I removed the feed

This morning I removed the feed from the body of the blog posts for a technical reason and a design/usability reason.

Technically, as we all know, it’s not a great idea to pull content from a third-party site. The third-party site can be slow. It can get hacked. It can even go down, causing one’s own pages not to finish rendering. (As I write this, Ma.gnolia’s server appears to be taking a little nap—an infrequent occurrence, although the server is often slow. As for my embedded Twitter feed, like yours, it suffers from near-constant narcolepsy.)

And from a design usability perspective, the idea just didn’t gel. For one thing, people would dig up old posts and write comments on them about sites newly added to the Ma.gnolia feed. Owing to the age of the posts, those comments were unlikely to be found by other readers. And as soon as the feed updated, the comments would become nonsensical, because they discussed content no longer found in the post.

So the feed is gone.

[tags]design, usability, ma.gnolia, zeldman.com, happycog, links[/tags]

Zeldman on Talk Radio Today

Live today from 3:00 to 4:00 pm Eastern Time, I’m this week’s guest on “Design Matters with Debbie Millman,” the leading internet talk radio show on the “challenging and compelling canvas of today’s design world.”

If you listen live today at 3:00 pm ET, you can use a call-in number to participate in the show.

Voted “Most Popular Podcast” by the readers of if! Magazine, “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” is an opinionated internet talk radio show with over 150,000 listeners. Previous guests have included Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister, and Ellen Lupton.

The show is produced in the Empire State Building in NYC.

[tags]design, webdesign, talkradio, podcast, debbiemillman, zeldman, jeffreyzeldman, internet, internettalkradio[/tags]

Podcast news

Crisply produced Voices That Matter Podcast video interviews with your humble narrator and a host of design and web luminaries—people like Nathan Shedroff, Dori Smith and Tom Negrino, Stephanie Sullivan, Robert Hoekman, Jr., Aarron Walter, DL Byron and many more—are now available for your listening and viewing pleasure in the iTunes Music Store and at Peachpit.

Additional Happy-Cog-related SXSW video, coming soon, includes:

  • A discussion on user interface design between Michael Lopp and me
  • Video of the Everyone’s a Design Critic presentation featuring Jason Santa Maria and Rob Weychert
  • Video of the Respect! panel featuring Google’s Douglas Bowman and Happy Cog’s Erin Kissane, Liz Danzico, and Jason Santa Maria (and moderated by your humble)

Watch for announcements!

[tags]podcast, video, interview, zeldman, sxsw, voicesthatmatter, peachpit, authors[/tags]

The SXSW Diet

Last year, a month or two before SXSW, I went on a movie star diet, all tiny portions of unseasoned unsucculent nothingness. I lost five pounds and wanted to murder the world.

This year I decided to skip desserts instead of dieting.

It’s amazing how many sweets you’re exposed to as the parent of a young child. Even if you don’t stuff your own larders with sugary treats, every weekend it’s some kid’s birthday party, where the cakes and ice cream flow like apple juice. In an environment where all that sugar and flour is normal, you partake without thinking.

So I started thinking.

Rejecting dessert soon became second nature. No birthday cake at little Johnny’s birthday bash. No fabulous pear thing when Grandma visited. No red velvet cake at the place in our neighborhood where it’s to die for. No exquisite little French pastries at the business lunch bistro. No little tin bowl of mango raisin coconut whatever at the best little vegetarian Indian place in Curry Hill. None for me, thanks. Not having any. It looks delicious, but no.

Man is a fallen creature and the devil weaves endless snares. I stuck to my no-dessert program through an onslaught of spectacular temptations. And then, like a fool, I succumbed.

Yesterday, the mother of the tot celebrating his third birthday came around with cupcakes baked into ice cream cones. Sugary vanilla frosting, M&M crumble topping, ordinary packaged cake batter, stock stubby cone—not even a sugar cone.

“No thanks,” I said, waving her away, but smiling to show that I appreciated the offer and did not judge anyone.

A minute later she came back, revolving them a few inches from my lips. “I made extras,” she said perkily.

“No thanks—well, okay,” I said, grabbing one of the things.

I wolfed it down. It was entirely as expected: an initial burst of pleasure followed by disappointment and regret. An absolutely ordinary child’s treat. Nothing special. No depth. Dutifully, no longer enjoying, I finished it all, even the dry, frostingless part deep in the little cone’s bottom.

It was like throwing away a marriage over a one-night stand with someone you met at a bus station.

[tags]sxsw, sxswi, parenting, dieting, food, treats[/tags]

Dear anonymous

Dear “New Yorker:”

It is snowing again in New York City. I’ll wait while you verify.

Presently the precipitation is recorded as 0.11 inches. But if you venture out, you may notice snow piles that are several inches high. How can we account for this discrepancy between the recorded height of snowfall and the actual height of some snow piles?

People shovel.

In this city, custodians and superintendents salted and shoveled sidewalks before 7:00 AM.

When people shovel, they push the snow into curbside banks that reach inches or even feet higher than the recorded snowfall level.

To see this, walk outside and look. The fresh air may do you good.

Sometimes after a snowfall, the temperature drops. Then those high banks of snow stick around.

Sometimes it warms just enough to rain into those frozen banks of snow. Then you get cold wetness that can reach into a toddler’s shoes (if she’s not wearing boots). And banks of old snow at the edges of curbs that, combined with freezing rain, can wet a small, bootless child halfway to the knees.

If you spent less time fact-checking other people’s blog posts and more time living, you would know these things about snow, and children, and weather reports.

And even if “halfway up to A—’s knees” were off by an inch or more, a person who is alive would say to themselves, “A father, worried about his child’s exposure to weather, sees conditions as somewhat worse than they are.”

A person who understands people might seek further evidence of hyperbole, and would find it: “My kid looked like she had been swimming in the East River.”

A parent, or a non-parent alive enough to imagine the anxieties of parenting, would recognize that this an exaggeration, intended to convey (and through the catharsis or writing, alleviate) parental guilt and anxiety.

Trying to prove strangers liars is no substitute for lived experience. You missed the point of what I shared, and attacked the reality of my story on petty (and false) grounds.

Let me tell you how your anonymous attack made me feel:

Blessed.

Blessed to have a meaningful life.

Blessed not to have to fill my hours poking around, looking for inaccuracies in other people’s websites, hoping to embarrass strangers.

Whoever you are, I hope your life grows richer than it is today.