Posts From August 2010

But this one’s a good one: Chromac. It enables Safari-like keyboard shortcuts for bookmarks in the bookmarks bar, and I’m using it right now.

(Huge thanks to Stuart Maxwell for this one.)

So you can’t define a keyboard shortcut for launching your bookmarklets in Chrome. But you can set a keyword shortcut for quick launching from the Omni Bar.

For example: I’ve added my MarsEdit bookmarklet as a “search engine” and defined its keyword as “m”. Now I can bring up a MarsEdit post linking to the webpage I’m on by: hitting CMD+L to go to the Omni Bar → typing “m” → pressing Return. Not as convenient as just hitting CMD+2 like I do in Safari, but it does beat using the mouse.

(Thanks for the tip, Dan.)

Safari has been acting quite buggy lately. Basic troubleshooting was to no avail, and so instead of fiddling further I thought I’d try Chrome for a while.

My three biggest speed bumps with Chrome so far have been: (a) My own muscle memory of invoking LaunchBar and typing “s” for Safari when I want to launch my web browser; (b) the lack of keyboard shortcuts for bookmarklets I want to launch from the bookmark bar (such as Instapaper and MarsEdit); and (c) the ability to screenshot a website and annotate it.

At least for one of these I found a solution: the Awesome Screenshot extension. And it works exactly like the one in Safari I linked to last week.

Lets developers upload a beta build of their app, and testers can install it directly with just one tap. It’s currently invite only, so check out Neven’s write up on his usage so far for more details. If you build or test iPhone apps, TestFlight looks like a dream.

John Carey has lately become one of my favorite writers. He writes from the heart — very honest, not contrived — and this article, “Form vs. Function”, is a great example of that.

And if you missed it, John’s setup was featured here just a couple Fridays ago.

All You Need is Simplenote

Simplenote is a note-taking app for your iPhone and iPad that syncs with the Web. It is the sort of app adored by those who pride themselves in their use of beautiful and uncomplicated software.

It is also an app for people with ideas. It’s for those who need some way to jot an idea down, build on it, and refine it until they’re sick and tired of it; regardless of where they are or if they brought their laptop.

As a writer, Simplenote could very well be your principal writing app. It has a straightforward design that makes it effortless to use. In Simplenote there is no text formatting, it’s just plain. There is no document titling — when you create a new note, the first line is the title. There is no saving a note — you just write and your note is backed up in real time, and even synced with any other other devices you use: iPad, iPhone, and Mac.

This humble application began a few years ago in response to two big needs of iPhone users: (1) the need for a notes app that synced over-the-air; and (2) the need for a notes app that didn’t use Marker Felt.

In some respects the app has barely changed since 2008. In fact, arguably the most obvious changes have been to the icon. The original icon was as a yellow sticky note taped to the front of a locker. That changed into a grey note card resembling a garage door, which then changed to a white notecard with a blue wi-fi bubble, which changed again to what you see today.

The Simplenote Icon Evolution

To say the app has barely changed since 2008 is, of course, not to say that Simplenote is the same as it was two years ago. It has been refined, polished, and updated with taste. Only a handful of new features and UI improvements have been added over the years, with many of the most notable changes just recently emerging in version 3.

Compare for a moment Simplenote to Apple’s two text and note-taking apps for the iPad, Pages and Notes. Pages was one of the first apps I bought for my iPad. It was touted as having most of the features of Pages for Mac, but on the iPad. For me, after a bit of use, Pages was quickly relegated to nothing but a full-screen typing app. It is a great showcase for what sort of apps the iPad is capable of running, and for those who need to edit Pages documents on their iPad it is a necessity. But it is somewhat difficult to get documents in and out, and the document syncing process is flat out ridiculous.

Notes is Apple’s other in-house note taking app. It ships with iOS and is quite simple (in fact, much of the foundational user experience that Simplenote has is parallel with the built-in Notes app). As it is with Pages, the biggest downfall with Apple’s built-in Notes app is, again, sync. Though the system for syncing in Notes is better than in Pages (your notes sync into your IMAP email account), nobody I know actually uses the IMAP sync.

The Simplenote developers actually beat Apple at their own game. They made an app with a better design (Helvetica!), better functionality (over-the-air sync), and they proved that less (compared to Pages) is, in fact, more.

Version 3

The latest update to Simplenote sports a slew of new toys. But, as Charlie Sorrel said in his review on Wired, “if you don’t want them, you won’t even notice.”

The most notable for me is the full-screen writing environment on the iPad app. When writing on the iPad I prefer to use Simplenote. But at times, I may want to see just the page with no list of notes next to it. Up until now, I would copy my text out of Simplenote and paste it into Pages. But now there is a subtle, full-screen button at the bottom-right corner of your note — tap that and Pages on the iPad all but becomes obsolete.

The Simplenote fullscreen button

Perhaps the most clever of the new features is sharing notes with others. When in a note, tap the icon that resembles a phone with an arrow pointing out. From there you can enable note sharing and email the person whom you want to share with. This is a great way to empower team collaboration and keeping others in the loop with information and ideas.

One of the many thing I keep in Simplenote is meeting agendas — especially talking points for 1:1s. Now for my 1:1s I can share those talking points in a note with the other person I’m meeting. This way he or she can see what’s on the docket, and even add items of their own. Furthermore, with the addition of version history, we can drill down within the same note to see what last week’s agenda items were.

Additional cleverness comes in to play here: if my friend doesn’t have Simplenote installed then I’m going to bug him to get it. And I’m going to bug him to use it so that our collaborating is actually useful. Which means not only is sharing notes useful and helpful for users like me, it is indirectly word-of-mouth marketing for the Simplenote crew. Nicely done.

This is just one example of how the more you use Simplenote the more you find new ways you to use it. People are using it for recipes, ideas, lists, blog posts, chapters of books they’re writing, and more. And for all those power users who are finding themselves with a list of notes longer than there arm, a way to organize may be in order. But a folder structure could slightly hurt the simplicity of Simplenote. Tags on the other hand are a great way to add structuring to your notes if you want.

And one way that I see tags as coming in especially handy is in regard to the aforementioned shared notes feature. Since Simplenote does not label who is sharing a note with you, you can tag that note using their name. Which means someone you’re sharing a lot of docs with, you can see them all at once using a tag filter.

What’s in my Simplenote?

What's in my Simplenote

So what do I actually have in my Simplenote at this moment? All sorts of things. Some are notes of importance which I want synced on all my devices. Others are completely trivial and are in Simplenote by sheer virtue of it being my note taking app of choice.

  • Meeting agendas and talking points: mostly for upcoming 1:1s. These meetings are usually informal and quick. And, in fact, the very point of a 1:1 meeting is so the two of you only have to connect and meet once a week — saving all your conversation topics for that one meeting. Being able to jot down questions, ideas, and the like using Simplenote has long been my workflow.

  • Ideas for businesses, software projects, and other things.

  • A list of gift ideas for friends and family.

  • Blog posts in all stages: I usually write them in Simplenote or Notational Velocity, and finish them in MarsEdit.

  • Recipes: well, actually only one recipe: Grilled Artichoke with golden mustard dipping sauce.

  • Reminders of things to order next time I’m at a restaurant I don’t regularly visit.

  • And other simple notes: such as cool quotes, shopping lists, miscellaneous data, and the like.

For a wider look at what is in other people’s Simplenote, check out Patrick’s community listing on Minimal Mac.

Other Reviews

If you liked this review of Simplenote, there are more like it here.

Seth Godin:

Building your success on being more in sync than everyone else is a sharp edge to walk on. You’ll always be near the edge of perfect sync, but never there.

Related reading: Dave Pell’s “Pull Over Before You Read This

Awesome Screenshot is light-weight, straightforward, and very useful. You use it to take a screenshot of a site’s entire page, or just what you see in your browser window. And you can draw on your screenshot, add notes, crop it down, save it, share it, and more.

Although it doesn’t have some of the extra functionality and personality of Coda Notes, Awesome Screenshot seems snappier and more reliable (I’ve sent several Coda Notes that never made it to the recipients, though it may have been operator error because you have to type in recipient emails by hand.). And so this is one reason I like Awesome Screenshot — you can save your annotated screenshot to your computer and then email it using your own email client.

If you like getting updates to your favorite blogs via Twitter, you may also want to follow the Twitter account for shawnblanc.net and get updates on all the cool links and new articles.

Jonathan Christopher’s Sweet Mac Setup

Who are you, what do you do, etc…?

My name is Jonathan Christopher, and I’m a Web developer/designer from Albany, NY. I currently spend my days filling the role of Development Director, surrounding myself with writing code, discussing design, site evaluations, and a bit of managerial material along the way.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself at some point reading Monday By Noon, my weekly publication focusing on Web design and development? If not, we’ll need to have a talk.

I try to take photos as much as possible and I’ve got an obsessively long wish list full of gear I’ll never be able to afford, but enjoy thinking and talking about.

I’m recently married and loving every minute of it so far. I’m completely thrilled to be stepping into the next phase of life with my wife. I still get a kick out of saying ‘my wife’ — you can understand.

I also watch at least one episode of Seinfeld per day. Almost.

What is your current setup?

Jonathan Christopher Mac Cetup

I’m currently using a 15″ unibody 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7 MacBook Pro with 4GB RAM. At home I’m externally connected to a Samsung SyncMaster 205BW, but I wouldn’t mind a 27″ Apple Cinema Display.

  • I key with a full-sized wired Apple aluminum keyboard
  • I mouse with a Logitech MX Revolution
  • I back up to a series of 2TB Western Digital My Book Elites (photos and videos) and 640GB Western Digital Elements (Time Machine)
  • I shoot with a Canon 7D (50mm f/1.4, 35mm f/2, 17-85mm f/4-5.6)

Why this rig?

My first Mac was a black MacBook sometime around 2006, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve chosen strictly notebooks since then simply because I work in an office and I truly prefer to be in the same environment both at work and at home. I use external peripherals at both desks which I prefer, but having the ability to go mobile has come in handy on more than one occasion.

What software do you use and for what do you use it?

  • Mail.app for all things email.
  • iTunes all day every day.
  • OmniFocus (and on iPhone) for task management and getting things done.
  • 1Password for password management.
  • TextMate for every bit of text, code, markup, style, and script I write. I’m even writing this very content in it. I’ve tried everything and always come back to TextMate.
  • Fireworks CS5 when designing my own stuff, Photoshop when cutting up everyone else’s. Acorn when I don’t want to wait for Photoshop to start up.
  • Yummy FTP when moving sites and assets. Seriously great app; fastest FTP available. Promise.
  • ExpanDrive for wonderful network mounted TextMate projects.
  • Safari
  • Versions for SVN (source control)
  • XAMPP for my local development environment.
  • Skitch for taking and annotating screenshots. There are lots of apps but Skitch fits my workflow the best.
  • Aperture for photo management and post processing. FlickrExport for publishing straight to Flickr.

There’s a bit more but I’m honestly shuffling through these applications every day of my life.

How does this setup help you do your best creative work?

With the combination of mobile hardware along with a tried and tested arsenal of chosen applications, I’m able to focus on the work itself instead of figuring out how I’m going to do it. Not having to worry about software or hardware problems alone helps me get things done, and that can be attributed to being on a Mac running OS X and the software built for it.

The software environment itself also caters to a creative mind. The attention to detail Apple puts forth (as well as software developers) is truly inspirational and sets the bar quite high out of the box. When you’re staring at that in everything you do, you’re inspired subconsciously all day long.

I also try to keep my work environment inspirational as much as I know how. The referenced photo includes a shot of my home office, which I try to keep organized and a bit private. There’s always music playing and it’s always better when heard over speakers instead of headphones. There are two book cases flanking the desk full of not only Web related books but also other books great for leafing through from time to time. Banksy’s Wall and Piece for example is a great piece to revisit from time to time for me. The posters in the background are prints from Joshua Davis, an artist I’ve followed and looked up to for quite some time.

I hope to spend more time on the home office, specifically with my wife as she also has her workstation on the other side of the room. It’ll be a great project for the both of us as time goes on.

How would your ideal setup look and function?

My ideal setup would definitely be in my current home office space, but include a few more details I haven’t had the time (or finances) to pull off quite yet. My wife and I moved into the house (our first home) about a year ago and the office is the last to get attention. It was recently painted Elephant Skin gray and I really like the color, but if I were to change one thing about it I would have to start with the lighting. Lighting is a big deal in an office environment and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a set of lamps to replace the extras I’m currently using.

On a technical level, my ideal setup would include a 27″ LED Apple Cinema Display, completely wireless connections for everything, and wireless electricity. I don’t like wires. I’m supremely happy with my current MacBook Pro and wouldn’t trade that in, but I’d love to see it house a speedy SSD drive should the option come up.

Last, I’d love to have a new series of applications in which to work. Don’t get me wrong, aside from all the quirks here and there I totally love working in Fireworks and TextMate. If I absolutely had to choose two applications to use while stranded on a desert island, they would be it. The issue though, is that the industry has outpaced their development.

TextMate is an open and shut case. The application is truly fantastic but it’s now the job of another publisher to take the torch and continue on. So far, no one has stepped up to the plate as a major player; I’m anxiously awaiting that.

Design software, though, is a different story altogether. Beyond the heated battles surrounding which existing app is better than another, the truth is that no application in existence has been designed to meet the needs of modern Web design. Without getting too philosophical, I’m hoping over the next number of years we see a change in the thought process behind facilitating Web design from the ground up.

More Sweet Setups

Jonathan’s setup is just one in a series of sweet Mac Setups.

Canned is a pitch-perfect iPhone app from Sky Balloon that lets you pre-write the text messages you send often, and even pre-assign those to the individuals and groups whom you often send that same text to.

I used to have a folder in Pastebot for these types of texts, but Canned is the perfect solution — it is simple and oh so fast. You can get it in the App Store for the price of a soda.

The iWork 9.0.4 update “adds export compatibility to Pages with the standard ePub file format (for use with iBooks).”

What Most Writers Do at Their Beginnings

“I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”

— Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction

Something I don’t often write about on shawnblanc.net is what I do when I’m not writing here. For those who may not know, I am the director of marketing for the International House of Prayer in Kansas City (IHOP–KC). We are a Christian ministry with a 24/7 prayer room that has live prayer, worship, and music. I’ve been on full-time staff with IHOP–KC for almost 10 years and have been working with the marketing, design, and Web team for three.

In early 2009 our in-house design team began a massive project: rebranding.

At the time we served about 30 different internal clients (sub-ministries, events, and product development). Each one had their own icon, typeface, and branding style. Our aim was to clean out those unique brands and consolidate everyone into a single, strong brand which could ebb and flow within several contexts and be attractive to a myriad of demographics.

Our in-house team did all the research, use-case studies, mock-ups, and presentations. We worked on the side as we were able, and it took us nearly a year to land the new typefaces and branding guidelines. Moreover, as anyone who has worked for an in-house design team knows, projects of this magnitude are not just about research and implementation. My team and I worked hard to educate our peer departments, internal customers, and the senior leadership all along the way. This naturally made the process longer, but it was enjoyable as well. I work with some of the most wonderful people on the planet, and it was an honor to serve them and the ministry in this project.

Once the new branding was landed it took several more months to implement it into our website, printed material, videos, signage, and more. There are still bits which need to be shored up, but this first step was a big one, and I could not be more proud of my team nor our progress so far.

Great article on Leo’s site, mnmlist, on how to read a lot without getting distracted. In short, it’s not simply a matter of managing all the new articles, tweets, emails, and more which are constantly coming. It is also learning tricks to avoid the unending spiral of new things to be read which are found in those articles, tweets, and emails.

Nice review by Ben Brooks on what’s new in the new Simplenote.

Because when are we not on the lookout for new, worthwhile iPhone wallpapers? (Via Chuck.)

Keeping Mint’s Unique Referrers List Clean and Useful

When I check this site’s new unique referrers list in Mint, I’m looking for referrals from genuine websites written by real people. What I usually get is a muddled list of every search result from every country.

In Mint’s prefrences, there’s a list you can add domains to which you don’t want to show up in the Unique Referrers List. So now you can block images.google.com. But if you block imgaes.google.com you’ll still referrals from other sites images.google.fr and others. And so the easiest way to solve the litter would be to block the all of main offender’s various URLs by using a single wildcard: *.google.*

However, due to the fundamental way Mint works you are unable to use wildcards to remove certain domains from your new unique referrers list. Therefore you have to list each domain separately, and you have to know them all.

I did a bit of research and compiled a list of 286 unique Google domains, many of which send traffic via search results, Google Reader, and translating. Additionally, it’s not that helpful to see all the unique visits coming from the Tumblr Dashboard, someone’s Facebook wall, or an Instapaper/Read it Later/Pinboard account.

Altogether the list includes 291 domains.

There are two things worth noting:

  1. Adding tumblr.com removes the referrals from the Tumblr dashboard (such as tumblr.com/dashboard/2/982869026), but does not block referrals from sub-domained Tumblr blogs (such as example.tumblr.com).

  2. This list only affects your Unique Referrers List (and its RSS feed if you use it, and you should if you don’t). It will not remove any domains from showing up in the Most Recent Referrers list, nor will it affect the SERPs Pepper.

Instructions

  • View the list of domains here

  • Select all and copy

  • Go to your site’s Mint install → Preferences → Default Pepper → paste the list into the text field for Referrers → click Done

  • Enjoy

Fantastic updates to the iPhone, iPad, and Web apps for Simplenote. Beneath that new icon lies the ability to publish your notes to the Web for sharing and collaborating, view a note’s version history, add tags, and more. My favorite new feature: the iPad / iPhone app now offers full-screen writing mode.

Simplenote is free and tastefully supported by the classy ads found on the Fusion Network. If you own an iPhone or iPad I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t use Simplenote.

This service is new to me, but it’s been baked in to OS X for years. And it’s accurate. (If you don’t see it in the Services menu, you may have to check the box for “Summarize” under System Prefrences → Keyboard → Services → Text.)

(Via Ben Brooks.)

These look cool. They’re handmade, custom iPad cases. You get to pick the design and color of your case’s material as well as which type of pockets you want. You could make a very fun case for your iPad.

I asked Simon Barker, who runs Slotzz, if he was running any deals and he set up the coupon code “sblanc10″ so you can get 10% off.

An Interview with Neven Mrgan

Neven Mrgan is a designer, developer, and writer. He works at Panic, Inc., writes a popular weblog (or two), draws video game graphics in his spare time, and his last name is a bit of a mystery.

In this interview Neven and I discuss graphic design, life at Panic, and other miscellany.

The Interview

  • Shawn Blanc: Until you joined Panic in 2008 you mostly did freelance work building web apps, correct?

  • Neven Mrgan: I did freelance design and development work — mostly on the web — for a few years, and I had more or less interesting day jobs that time as well. I worked as an engineer on very straight-laced business web apps until 2007. This wasn’t terribly fun, and to be honest, I wasn’t too good at it either. Early in 2007 I decided to start sticking to graphic design and UI design, since I was never going to be a kung-fu-grade developer.

  • Shawn: Your job with Panic seems like a perfect match in the sense that you fit right in as another clever, funny, nerd. But on the flip side, now you work in a team setting with a company that builds desktop software as opposed working solo on web projects. What led you to take the job with Panic?

  • Neven: Regarding desktop software, it was somewhat new to me indeed. Sorry to bring up iPhone this early in the conversation, but it was a big catalyst for me in several ways; it was the first time I was doing non-web UI design. That was the roundabout route I took to designing desktop software.

    As for Panic, the fit was just ridiculously good. They build excellent software, and they do so in a genuinely friendly, likable way. That combination is very uncommon. I was a recently married and ready-to-settle-down old fogie of near 30, and was big on leading a comfortable, quality lifestyle, and working on solid, long-term projects. Panic has those same goals.

    Working on a team was a change after a year of clicking around in our home office. It’s hard to complain about the freedom of that arrangement, but I’ll do my best: a chair in your own house can be a pretty inert environment. It’s a bit of a bummer on a purely social level, and it can make your creative muscle slack as well. That’s been my experience, anyway. I’m happy to be surrounded by really smart folk as I click around now.

  • Shawn: Do you ever miss working from home?

  • Neven: I have that option currently and I don’t believe I’ve taken advantage of it more than three times (and even then, only because I had to be home for some reason). I can’t emphasize enough how much I like the vibe at my office. It reminds me of how I’d go to my high school’s super-awesome computer lab on the weekend, in the evening, and whenever else I could. I love what I do, projects and people and desk and all — it’s my job and my hobby.

  • Shawn: You’ve got a lot of projects running — your couple cool weblogs, The Incident, your full-time job at Panic, and more. What does a day in your life look like?

  • Neven: I half-wake up around 7:30 and remain in a hazy, floating, brain-puree state for about half an hour. This is when I get all of my stupidest ideas (like you know how some restaurants menus have a little V next to vegetarian items and maybe a clipart chili for “spicy”; what if they put an F next to “foodie” items? “Can the salad be made foodie?” -“Certainly; we can make it with Pouligny-Saint-Pierre and shave a black truffle onto it.”). Stupid ideas are excellent springboards, boosters for your thought and your daily mood.

    I then check my email and RSS in bed; if it takes longer than five minutes, I save it for after I’m dressed. To do that I pick a Panic t-shirt from the stack I was given when I started (“your employee uniform”) and put my socks on in front of the computer. I briefly chat with whoever is online – usually only Matt Comi, my partner on The Incident. I take the bus to work; twenty minutes of book-reading on the ride, ten minutes of iPod while I walk.

    I work ten to six. The morning is usually time for catch-up, unfinished business from the previous day, or quick production of ideas pickled overnight. Lunch is important because it brings the office together. It’s our most regular team meeting. The afternoon means serious work — Photoshop and Coda — and a snack break around four. I drink Coke Zero and endorse Nuvrei pastries.

    Most days, I try to cook at least one meal; if there’s time to make dinner after work, I’ll give it a shot. If not, Portland has an embarrassment of excellent restaurants. Either way, I eat early and spend the evening working on whatever side projects I have going on. I go to sleep disgustingly late —midnight or 1 am.

    This isn’t a schedule I make it a point to stick to. It’s just how things typically play out.

  • Shawn: What are your favorite pieces of software?

  • Neven: Photoshop, Coda, and Birdhouse.

    I know, I know — give me a chance to explain.

    I complain about Photoshop. Lord, do I. But it’s not only the essential tool for what I do, it’s a great tool also. I’ve done my best to give the competition a shot, and the truth is just that they don’t allow me to make the things I want to make (yet). Photoshop is internally and externally inconsistent, it’s bloated, it’s slow, and it crashes. But I use it more than I use my pants, and for that I love it.

    Coda is an app I work on, so feel free to consider this a shameless advertisement. You’ll have to take my word for it: I used it before I started at Panic, and if I found a better app for web development, I’d promptly switch to it. Life is too short and the web too demanding to be a slave to cheap loyalty. It’s a great app.

    Birdhouse is the only not-preinstalled app on my iPhone about which I have zero complaints. I use it regularly, and I don’t remember it crashing, slowing down, or confusing me once. You could argue that it does a tiny thing, but it does it well.

    Sometimes I think that if this whole computer thing turns sour — if Apple becomes monstrously evil, if the Internet collapses, if I get old and stop grokking new technologies — I’ll switch to farming or cooking or poster design and be just as happy. Maybe that’s true. Some not-so-small part of me would, however, miss the wizardry I discovered some time in 1985 or so as I typed BASIC into my C-64: I can make a screen do things, and do things that do other things, and do different things depending on the things I do back to it. It’s a wonderful game.

  • Shawn: Other than for your lack of development skills, why did you begin doing work as a designer and developer?

  • Neven: Two beliefs: 1) Things should look good, and 2) Computers are cool. For the rest of my life I’ll be coming up with complicated explanations which boil down to those motivating principles.

    So, I’ve really always wanted to be doing this or something like this. This or drawing comics, which I quickly learned was kind of not so hot.

  • Shawn: Was it a lack of drawing skills that led you to computer-based design? (And do you have any old comic book drawings you’re willing to share?)

  • Neven: I’m very happy with my drawing skills!

    I decided to stick with computers because they could do things the real world couldn’t. I’m all in favor of creative restrictions — yay Twitter — but pen and ink’s lack of an Undo function doesn’t challenge me to do better work. It just makes me frustrated.

    Now here’s a really out-of-context panel done some time in… 1998 or so, maybe?

    Neven Mrgan Comic Panel circa 1998 or so.
  • Shawn: If I ever want a future in art and design it will have to be with a computer. I can never get pen and ink to translate into what I want.

    You’re not alone in with the belief that things should look good and computers are cool. But everyone has their own definition of what looks good and what the best tools for the job are. How do you define when a design looks good? Has that definition changed since seriously began sticking to graphic design and UI design?

  • Neven: One thing I’m learning quickly is to evaluate designs and design ideas in terms of interaction: how they behave under what circumstances, how they work with other elements. That’s sort of new to me, though designing for the web has always been about flexible, unpredictable layouts and such.

    A thing looks good to me when I fall in love with it; that’s test #1. Test #2 is, ok, that’s sweet – what is it? Does it say something, mean something, is it an “it” or an “It”? Test #3 is the more ponderous goatee-rubbing over how the design scales and translates, whether it’s too trendy or too dated, etc.

    Sometimes I learn to eventually accept designs as excellent solutions even if they didn’t hit me right away. And sometimes designs I greet with a WOW bore me very quickly. But it’s very rare that I will love and cherish a design if it has to be “explained”.

    It’s not important that I love everything I design. But hopefully it happens pretty often.

  • Shawn: How would you recommend someone with no facial hair go about completing test #3 as a part of their own design critiques?

  • Neven: There are a number of question you can ask about a design once it’s grabbed you.

    • Will it scale, not just physically, but across cultures, age groups, platforms, ideas? Will your icon idea make sense to a busy person working in a dark room?
    • Can any part of your design be abstracted and used elsewhere? Would anyone want to steal it? (You better wish they would!)
    • If you’re breaking an established pattern or convention, are you doing so with good reason? With what are you replacing what you’re destroying?
    • What if the things you, yourself, like to use were designed in this way? Remember Kant’s categorical imperative, “Act only on that maxim which you at the same time wish to be a universal law.”

    You will add more questions to your list over time; you will also drop some as times change and as you develop your own priorities (the point is not to be able to answer “yes” to every question on the list).

    Now here’s the important thing: DO NOT write down the list. Don’t put checkboxes next to questions and save it all as a file. Don’t print it out. Don’t ask people you work with to start using it. This way lies madness; or at least boredom, burn-out, and blandness.

    My feeling is that many creative endeavors are like this; you should learn specific techniques and aesthetic guidelines, but ultimately you will want to simply do a lot of work and let the aesthetic judgment become a second nature. A good musician can, for the most part, “let their fingers play” instead of focusing on translating each sound-idea into a specific finger movement. A good baker will measure things, but they will only make consistently awesome bread when the dough “feels” right under their fingers. There’s no magic, destiny, or talent at work here, just a gradual process of practicing until the back of your head can do most of the work, not the front.

    So, long answer short, learn as much as you can about the principles of design, about its history, and about other people’s work. But try to let it all soak into your brain through constant creative and functional use, not through cramming or some sort of workflow standardization.

  • Shawn: How much, then, do you suppose good design sense boils down to talent versus practice?

    Can tools and rules, in and of themselves, produce a quality designed product?

  • Neven: I just realized I’ve been harping on the 90%-perspiration thing without going into why the remaining 10% — “the squishy bit” — is important. It’s frustrating to even think about it because it leads me to a mildly fatalistic state where I just throw my hands up and decide that if good design is a matter of talent and destiny, then it isn’t worth doing since most people won’t even know it when they see it. Which is true, in many ways. Why does a designer spend any time deciding between Helvetica and Univers? Most people won’t know or care either way. Or maybe they will, on some unreachable level — maybe Helvetica will appear more generic (at least today it will), Univers more technical; the former, more “design-y”, the latter, more “informative”.

    A designer will obviously have far more opinions of this sort about the minutiae of design. Now, partially these will be a product of the designer’s education and work experience. Maybe they once read Univers was a good choice for signage, or a teacher told them it was a modern classic. Maybe they’re sick of Helvetica.

    But given enough time, these opinions will become more than restatements of other people’s attitudes. Different aesthetic prejudices — sometimes clashing ones — will come together in one head to create a unique taste and signature.

    A great trick I learned from the science writer Matt Ridley: in debates over nature vs. nurture, remember that one is a function of the other, so it doesn’t make sense to say talent “contributes 30%” or some such thing. They’re linked in a much more complicated way.

    To answer the second question a little more directly: no [tools and rules, in and of themselves, cannot produce a quality designed product].

  • Shawn: You’re right that most people won’t know good design when they see it. But in the context of UI design, that’s the point.

    Jeffrey Zeldman wrote a great definition of Web design in an article, “Understanding Web Design“. He said:

    “Great web designs are like great typefaces: some, like Rosewood, impose a personality on whatever content is applied to them. Others, like Helvetica, fade into the background (or try to), magically supporting whatever tone the content provides.”

    Like you said, Neven, the vast majority of people won’t even notice your design. But the very act of them not noticing is (usually) the proof of a good design. On the flip side, of course, are times when the people should notice the design. It’s the Form Versus Function debate that UI designers are faced with every day. The mark of a great designer is one who knows when to chose which side of the issue and how find the balance between both sides.

    The reputation for Panic when they come to a form-versus-function hurdle is to find a simply stellar solution (like Cabel’s 3-Pixel Conundrum). Has Panic developed any official guidelines for working on UI design? Have they ever conflicted with your personal preference?

  • Neven: I work under surprisingly few constraints as far as what must or mustn’t be done. We’re pretty aggressive about staying ahead of the curve, so we insist on certain not-yet-widespread widespread technologies (resolution-independent graphics, for one). We love a good visual metaphor — Coda’s taped pages in the Sites view — but it has to make sense, and it can’t be realistic at the expense of usability, or to the point of sickening cuteness.

    If we’re adding a feature, we almost never go “ah, there’s already a standard control for that, we’re set.” We might just end up using the existing design, but not before we poke it within an inch of its life. Why does this menu look like this? What if we had never seen it before — how would we build it?

    As Cabel has mentioned, we’re big on weenies: elements that make a design stand out immediately. There’s nothing wrong with a simple metal window, but there’s nothing great about it either, and more things should be great!

    This is the designer’s nastiest temptation — over-designed, needlessly custom chrome which neither fits nor improves the platform. This is the land of Windows Media Player skins. Often we try to “fit the OS better than it fits itself”, if that makes sense; if we think an Apple widget betrays the hand of an intern, we’ll draw our own, better one. This is the thing people notice the least, but it’s a great personal victory.

    To get back to rules and guidelines, nothing is off the table, really. I realize that when I say that I’m excluding things obviously off the table: round windows, animated toolbars, blue chrome, scripty type. Part of this intangible, complex, wavelength-syncing soup we as a team live in is the baseline of quality and aesthetic we all appear to share: let’s not do Thing X, ever.

    As for my personal preferences, I’m probably more conservative than the team as a whole. I’m seeing that (slight) difference as a learning opportunity, so I’m happy to report there have been no freak-out arguments over shades of green. You’ll just have to take my word for it, our tastes are creepily aligned — if we weren’t such motormouths, we’d get along fine with an occasional nod or frown.

  • Shawn: Has the process of completing a design project changed for since joining Panic? Is there a boss or an Art Director who signs off on your work?

  • Neven: “Sign-off” is, like most things with us, a matter of conversation and feeling out people’s reactions more than a structured process. I’m the sort of person who has to get total agreement from others before I’m fully happy, so I usually gauge everyone’s feedback as I work, and this hopefully results in a universally accepted design by the time I’m done.
  • Shawn: I have done freelance work from my home as well as being a designer working with a team in an office environment. When I freelanced I had a handful of creative friends whom I could send drafts of my work to and ask for their feedback. Ultimately if my client liked it and I liked it, then it was a done deal.

    In the team dynamic, I enjoy having the ability to tap a friendly co-worker or two on the shoulder to get instant feedback and dialog about the project I’m working on. But there can, at times, be a downside to that setting insofar that more people need to sign off on the finished piece — it’s not just me and the client anymore.

    I prefer the team setting significantly more because it helps me stay more productive, more creative, and more dynamic in approaching problems. But (and maybe it’s just me. But) it can be frustrating when there is not universal head-nodding approval for every project I’m working on or leading.

  • Neven: I find that a team of our size — about a dozen — is a really good middle ground between the isolation of working alone and the tar-pit indecisiveness and slowness of focus groups, market research, surveys, and gigantic corporate meeting fests. I am constantly getting new ideas from the team (while bouncing them off everyone). At the same time, I don’t have to sit and wait for a design to make the rounds and get approved by a chain of people.

    Other than company size, a few other things about Panic help make this possible. We’re close in age, interests, and general attitude about life and work. Everyone is great at their job, and this makes it very different from working for clients. The client’s preference and criticism may or may not come from actual knowledge of the product, the audience, and the technology we’re talking about.

    Here at Panic, I know I’m getting feedback from a tech-savvy person smarter than me who is also a regular user of the product. If they have a complaint — and I should also mention they’re good at knowing what matters how much when it comes to design — it means there’s likely a real problem I should solve. Maybe there’s something I forgot; maybe the design should be a little more polished. Or maybe my idea was crap to begin with. I am far less likely to defend the design by simply saying “I think it’s good”. Keep in mind that this often happens when working for outside clients, and it’s not good for the designer. Not letting yourself get challenged will keep you from exploring new ideas. The trick is to be challenged by knowledgeable people you like and respect.

    I don’t know of any online resource for those, though, so… Your parents/karate instructors were right: there are no shortcuts, it’s going to take time!

The End…

Thank you, Neven.

For more interviews with extraordinary designers, developers, writers, and web nerds, visit here.

Want to know how Instapaper grew into such a wildly popular app for so many iPhone and iPad users? Read this article from Marco Arment, written two years ago, just after the release of Instapaper Pro in the App Store:

Right now, I face a fork in the road: do I continue iterating and improving Instapaper.app, or do I start making other applications and hope for multiple income streams? Instapaper.app is at a relatively stable point. I can stop here and be proud of where I’ve taken such a simple idea. And, theoretically, I’d keep making some money with Instapaper Pro while I work on something else.

But I’m not going to stop here. [...]

I want Instapaper to be the essential app for every iPhone and iPod Touch user. I want it to be on every Apple geek’s short list when their friends and family ask them what apps to install. I want it to be one of your bottom four icons.

Birdhouse was quietly updated on Thursday to support the Retina Display and fast app switching. So now it’s pretty much perfect.

A new “visual news” app that cycles through hi-res photos and headlines while playing music in the background. The app has a ton of personality, and a lot of the UI elements are pretty fun. But unfortunately, it looks like they put more energy into promoting the app than they did to build it. It is brand new yet not optimized for the Retina Display. If you try to buy one of the cool songs that the app comes with, an in-app browser opens up and sends you to the iTunes website.

But shortcomings aside, how could I not link to this app?

A scintillating smartphone retrospective by Marco Arment.

I’ve had one of these book study stands for years. And though I usually have my iPad in its Apple case, this stand works fine for propping my iPad up when it’s not in a case.

There are nothing but great reviews for Twelve South’s Compass. And feature-for-feature the Compass is a better stand. It’s built better, too.

But if price is a factor, this book study stand is a quarter the cost shipped. Which means if portability is a factor, you could buy four of these study stands for the price of one Compass and keep one in each room. (And if you buy one using this Amazon link, I’ll get a small kickback.)