Van Damme, that’s good design

Gowalla is a location-based social networking game. Site redesign by Tim Van Damme.

Web designer Tim Van Damme, founder of Made by Elephant and blogger at Max Voltar, has skyrocketed from relative oblivion to comparative fame in little over a year. Before you succumb to jealousy, consider the man’s work. Consider, for example, his spanking new redesign of Gowalla, Austin-headquartered AlamoFire’s nifty, location-based social networking game for iPhone, Android, and even newer Blackberry devices (kind of).

Launched as a public beta in March 2009, Gowalla “uses a large catalog of virtual goods to encourage its users to go places and meet people.”

Seven years ago I was a cigarette smoker. Today I’m a compulsive Gowalla user. I check in at the corner deli, at the library, and at the movies. I check in when I get to my studio in the morning and first thing when I get home at night. (Well, maybe eighth thing when I get home—I have an active five-year-old and a sick dog to take care of first.)

I love Gowalla and now I love its website just as much as I love the application, thanks to the stylish skinning of young Master Van Damme.

Note that I haven’t mentioned content strategy, labels, user flow, error handling, and all the other things that go into most good redesigns. I haven’t mentioned those things because this redesign is mainly a skin job. Alamofire designed a great brand and crafted a fine piece of user experience (not to mention a host of kick-ass icons) well before involving Tim Van Damme. So the challenge here was to take a strongly branded, well-thought-out, existing site with a fanatical user base and an already super-strong visual identity, and to make it that much better.

He met the challenge, and then some. I wish I possessed before and after screen shots to show how and why the redesign trumps its predecessor without scrapping what users like me loved about the old look and feel. Aside from the one big change (a light green background that feels like a translucent overlay over the previous background), it’s all about the details here, and the details are primarily tiny enhancements to the user experience—from subtle glows that make the interface feel more responsive (more alive), to WordPress- and Mail-style numeric indicators that cue users when there’s new content behind a tab.

This is good design, the test of which, for me, is always that I wish I’d done it.

A List Apart 300

Issue 300 of A List Apart for people who make websites solves password-related usability problems with a dash of JavaScript, and employs content strategy to help your site do the right thing at the right time:

The Problem with Passwords


Abandoning password masking as Jakob Nielsen suggests could present serious problems, undermining a user’s trust by failing to meet a basic expectation. But with design patterns gleaned from offline applications, plus a dash of JavaScript, we can provide feedback and reduce password errors without compromising the basic user experience or losing our visitors’ trust.

Words that Zing


When someone consults a website, there is a precious opportunity not only to provide useful information but also to influence their decision. To make the most of this opportune moment, we must ensure that the site says or does precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. Understanding the rhetorical concept of kairos can help us craft a context for the opportune moment and hit the mark with appropriately zingy text.

Mandy Brown

Our 300th issue also marks the debut of contributing editor Mandy Brown. Mandy is a Creative Director at Etsy. She worked for nearly a decade at the venerable publishing house W. W. Norton & Company, where her work involved everything from book design to web design to writing about design. She writes about the reading experience at A Working Library. We are thrilled to add Mandy to our creative team.

Illustration: Kevin Cornell for A List Apart

Laying Pipe

The Pipeline inaugural podcast

Dan Benjamin and yours truly discuss the secret history of blogging, transitioning from freelance to agency, the story behind the web standards movement, the launch of A Book Apart and its first title, HTML5 For Web Designers by Jeremy Keith, the trajectory of content management systems, managing the growth of a design business, and more in the inaugural episode of the Pipeline.

On Self-Promotion


You are a shameless self promoter!” he said.

I can’t speak to the “shame” part, but for the rest: guilty as charged.

Self-promotion may appear revolting, but it’s the only promotion that’s guaranteed in this business. Do it right, and only haters will hate you for it. To get, you must give.

Love your work

If you write or design, you must believe in what you do. If you don’t believe you have something to express, there are plenty of other jobs out there. If you believe in what you do, and if you’re doing it for real, you must find ways to let people know about it.

Sometimes this takes the direct form of a case study. The assumption in publishing such a study is that someone out there might be interested in the service your team provided, the thinking you brought to the problem, and so on.

There is a difference between being arrogant about yourself as a person and being confident that your work has some value. The first is unattractive, the second is healthy and natural. Some people respond to the one as if it were the other. Don’t confuse them. Marketing is not bragging, and touting one’s wares is not evil. The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townfolk.

The love you make

But direct self-promotion is ineffective and will go unnoticed unless it is backed by a more indirect (and more valuable) form of marketing: namely, sharing information and promoting others.

Is your Twitter feed mostly about your own work, or do you mainly link to interesting work by others? Link blogs with occasional opinions (or occasional techniques, or both) get read. The more you find and promote other people’s good work, the more in-the-know and “expert” you are perceived to be—and the more you (or your brand, if you must) are liked.

You can’t fake this. If you’re linking to other people’s work as a ploy to make others link back, it’s obvious, and you’ll fail. If you’re sharing half-baked information half-heartedly, nobody will stick around.

This may sound Jedi-mind-trick-ish, but never create a blog or a Twitter feed with the explicit idea of promoting yourself. Create for the joy of creating. Share for the joy of the sharing, and because the information you’re sharing genuinely excites you. Do that, and the rest will follow.

Vote for best of web

Whereas awards for graphic design, art direction, and advertising routinely honor the finest work in their respective fields each year, awards for web work disappoint.

Your typical web awards are a commercial enterprise first, last, and always. Companies pay to enter work, pay to attend, and pay for their awards. The same thing happens in graphic design, art direction, and advertising shows, of course, but those shows mean something because they are juried by the top practitioners, and everyone in those fields who does great work submits it.

By contrast, people writing and designing the most important websites and applications tend to ignore web competitions. They neither judge nor submit. This has a distorting effect in two directions. And that is why, if you view the results of a typical juried web awards show, you may see work you’ve never heard of, and that doesn’t strike you as particularly good, carrying the day.

The .net magazine awards 2009 are a rare exception, put together by people who actually live and breathe the web. I’m honored to be one of this year’s judges. I’m even more delighted to see who I rub shoulders with in that capacity. Most of all, I applaud the list of worthy nominees. Voting for the .net “best of the web” closes 12 October 2009, but why wait? Vote today.