Category Archives: design

Tags may include css, html, Wordpress, Movable Type, and even things that have nothing to do with the Internet.

Necessary Distractions

Dr. Drang is fun to read for a lot of reasons and should especially appeal to my fellow nerds in the world. In a recent post titled A Free Distraction about writing and the onslaught of “distraction free writing” apps, this bit about his habits hit close to home.

I’ve tried to change my writing habits. I’ve tried to turn my brain’s internal editor off and just let the words come out, trusting myself to fix them later on. It would make writing much easier, regardless of the text editor I use. But I can’t do it.

Yep. That. I am a fiddly writer and have tried the distraction-free environments. The more designers and developers try to strip away, the harder they are for me to work in. Apps like Byword provide a happy medium, but I most often find myself doing all of my writing in a full-blown text editor (Sublime Text these days, dabbling in MultiMarkdown Composer, never a word processor a la Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages).

Drop Dr. Drang’s news feed in your reader of choice for a few weeks and give it a shot. I think he’ll make the cut.

Life Work Joy

Life. Work. Joy. The three shouldn't be mutually exclusive and the third should be omnipresent. Some seek a sharp divide between life and work and hope joy plays at least a small part in both.

Love what you do, and you will never work a day in your life.

Perks and challenges of being an introvert

Being an introvert does not have to mean living a hermit's life, though that is my tendency. I don't like big groups of people. Crowds don't make me nervous or scared; the din and sea of motion overwhelms my brain. Football games, concerts, and bars are great examples of places where I struggle. What may come across as shyness is probably just my flight instinct kicking in. Because I can't stop trying to focus on everything at once, I struggle to focus on anything at all. I can't understand the person talking right next to me and either nod my head wearing a goofy affirmative look on my face or wave them off with a look that says I can't hear you, which is frustrating for me and the person doing the talking.1

My hearing is fine, too fine at times. In a fairly quiet place my brain picks up the tiny sounds: bumps of someone moving around in adjacent rooms, beeps of random electronics, voices in other parts of the house. Televisions, like crowds, produce a constant flicker of motion. Even if I try to ignore it, the peripheral flashes of noise and sound are like a hynotic narcotic reducing me from creative worker to mindless consumer.

Does that mean I'm cranky when it's loud and cranky when it's nearly quiet? Mostly, yes. Am I sometimes hard to live with? Family members vote "yes." I'm glad we all love each other.

So far this sounds like a bleak existence, but I don't write off my challenges as complete flaws. Given the right environment, I can focus intently on the task at hand and churn out some great work.

Down to brass tacks

My ideal work environment is quiet and flicker-free. Music helps me focus, especially when wearing headphones. I prefer something with a bit of a drone and few to no lyrics. Aphex Twin fits the bill, providing everything from atmospheric soundscapes to intricate digital beats.2 Both have their own place depending on the work I am doing. What I struggle with now is trying to figure out what work I want to do.

My life was challenging from the ages of 17 to 25, that period when people are becoming who they will be. My dad died suddenly when I was in high school. I chose to be a young dad married (the first time) at 22. A poor sense of direction in my first year of college made the remainder more challenging. I shifted from engineering to English and spent much of my time after year one digging myself out of an academic hole. I had no direction, no distinct future in mind, and was just attending college because that's where I was supposed to be. Right?

After years of part-time courses and bumming around a series of low-skill jobs (waiting tables, washing cars, warehouse work, etc.) I landed a job writing for a weekly newspaper. After about seven years of journalism, much of it focused on writing about education, a public school superintendent offered me a job. Growing as a communications specialist helped me shed aspects of newspaper work I didn't like. Covering police and courts is a depressing beat for someone with no stomach for it. In this new role, I get to focus on telling stories, writing to bring clarity and a touch of style to the world of education in spite of its jargon and acronyms. My work also opened doors to discover areas I never knew I would love. Now, happily married (third time's the charm) with four kids and equipped with the budding wisdom of middle age, I am beginning to look at my options again.

Do we ever really figure out what we want to be when we grow up?

Everything comes with a price

With a broad job description, I have been able to define my role as as communications specialist with a focus on designing for print and the web. Like a twist in a fairy tale, my curse was working with the media.3. I can be happily chugging away on the web, working to build relationships through our sites, helping schools, promoting students, and tending to social media, when a discipline issue captures the media's attention and everything else screeches to a halt.

Nota bene: Like medicine and law, much of our work in education is confidential and protected by law. FERPA4 leads the charge in reasons we cannot tell all even when we want to, which leads to much frustrations on both sides of the street.

What now?

With time to focus and a renewed appreciation for clear design, I fell in love with structured text, the code underneath the spit and polish of the web that binds everything together. Code is an endless puzzle I find satisfying because it keeps me engaged as I continue to learn. I get to play5 with CSS, HTML, and a little javascript. Along the way I've picked up some perl and shell scripting skills and look forward to learning python and ruby.

I'm running out of steam on this topic, but I think it boils down to this:

  • I want to continue working with Mac OS X and iOS.
  • I want to teach people how to get the most out of their computers and mobile devices (which are converging quickly).
  • I enjoy researching complex data sets, picking them apart and putting them back together in a way that makes sense to everyone who sees it.

  1. My beautiful wife (bless her heart) is the one who suffers the most from this aspect of my affliction.
  2. As I write, I'm listening to Polynomial-C via Rdio.
  3. Curse is a strong word, but I enjoy the metaphor. Most reporters I work with are good people; most of them.
  4. FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
  5. I chose the word "play," though I could just as easily have chosen "work." This is kind of the point I am trying to make.

Maximize UI for Rdio & Simplify

When I’m in my Fortress of Solitude working on my Mac, it’s a safe bet Rdio (I’m ELBeavers in Rdioland) is feeding my brain a steady stream of rhythms and beats. Brett Terpstra made Sidecar13, a skin for a third-party Rdio controller called Simplify.

Sidecar13desktop

Sidecar13 provides a nice visual interface, but I can’t stand to have anything floating above all windows so I can’t see it in the background.

Then I thought about my shortcut to maximize windows, Keyboard Maestro macro that’s always a quick keystroke away.

First I considered created a Macro Group, but as far as I can tell that only makes actions available based on a selected apps availability. Knowing there had to be a way, I looked at the Maximize Window script again and added an if then else statement.

If Rdio is running, the Maximize… script zooms the front window to 1,116 × 786 (on my MacBook Air) ((This macro’s utility is limited to my screen’s dimensions, but with a little more work someone could tweak the macro to see what size screen it’s dealing with and act accordingly.)) and scoots the window 250 pixels from the left edge of the screen. This fills the space to the right while Brett’s beautiful Sidecar13 languishes gorgeous on the left.

Maximize window macro

Another couple of macros watch Rdio’s status. If it’s active, then Simplify is launched (if it wasn’t already). When Rdio quits, Simplify quits too. When those apps aren’t running, the Maximize Windows macro zooms to fill the entire screen.

2013 10 20 simplify

Check out the macros on Github or just go ahead and download them to use with Keyboard Maestro. Let me know if they’re as helpful for you as they are to me.

Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style

Robert Bringhurst’s 20th anniversary edition of The Elements of Typographic Style (version 4.0) is a pleasure to read, breathing life into letterforms with his rumination on typography design principles. The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, describes Bringhurst as one of Canada’s most revered poets, as well as a typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist.

On designing a title page:

“Think of the blank page as alpine meadow, or as the purity of undifferentiated being. The typographer enters this space and must change it. The reader will enter it later, to see what the typographer has done. The underlying truth of the blank page must be infringed, but it must never altogether disappear – and whatever displaces it might well aim to be as lively and peaceful as that original blank page. It is not enough, when building a title page, to merely unload some big, prefabricated letters into the center of the space, nor to dig a few holes in the silence with typographic heavy machinery and then move on. Big type, even huge type, can be beautiful and useful. But poise is usually far more important than size – and poise consists primarily of emptiness. Typographically, poise is made of white space. Many fine title pages consist of a modest line or two near the top, and a line or two near the bottom, with little or nothing more than taut, balanced white space in between.” (p 61)

On automation versus the pleasure of kerning by hand:

“Binomial kerning tables are powerful and useful typographic tools, but they eliminate neither the need nor the pleasure of making final adjustments by hand.” (p 34)

And one more quote on bringing a book to life for human readers:

“A book is a flexible mirror of the mind and the body. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all lend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made. If the book appears to be only a paper machine, produced at their own convenience by other machines, only machines will want to read it.” (p 143)

For a book about visual elements, the physical features of the book itself are a joy to any reader’s sense of touch. The archival quality pages are free of acid, produced from sustainable materials, and smooth velvet to the fingertips. The cover, likewise. Bringhurst’s book is a treasure to see, a pleasure to touch, and a joy to read.