Whiteboxer Blog

Dealing with the Website Monkey

I recently read The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, and lately started looking at just about everything as a monkey. One of the biggest ones has been this website. I’ve been wanting to redesign this site for years, and sketched multiple variations of design and wireframes. However, working full time, having a family with three very active children, and personal activities, there never seemed to be a good time to fully execute the different ideas for this site to the extent that I envisioned them in my head.

I got to the point where the previous version just wasn’t cutting it for me, and I needed to do something — anything. So I played with various templates — both free and paid — as a stopgap measure until I could prioritize the time to do a complete redesign that I could be happy with. The problem I kept running into was that none of the templates that looked appealing would not either allow me to do the customizing that I wanted, or the customization was so convoluted that I was spending more time than I wanted to to try and get it to work the way I wanted it to. The monkey was unruly and needed to be dealt with once and for all.

I finally decided to strip the monkey down to its bare essentials. I decided to use a base child theme and strip the site to its bare bones, and gradually add some meat as I can. So for now, I’m putting in place a basic structure with a few design elements (font, color, images, etc.) and plan to build this up the way I want to, and the way I should have a few years ago. I hope you’ll keep tabs and watch the progress develop. When I get to a point of completion (or at least near-completion), I hope to write about the process. In the meantime, come along for the ride.

Websites That Work: 20 Years Later Part 1

Websites that work cover
It’s been twenty years since Roger Black wrote Websites That Work. It was one of the first web design books I read and influenced my perspective of web design as I was first starting to learn the field. I want to explore how the points he makes throughout the book hold up two decades later. I plan to review each chapter as their own posts, bringing the total number of posts (including this one) to 15.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the introduction and pulling out select comments:

Web sites are even more dependent on good design than print is. After all, even a magazine with minimum design gets its information across. [p. 15]

But web sites are visual: one screen at a time…It is not enough to get people through the front door, to your home page. You have to bring them inside and, once they are in, try not to confuse or frustrate them. [p.15]

Web sites that work are sites that do what you want to do. They don’t insult your intelligence, but neither do they obfuscate. They must indicate the wealth of material that lies behind that first screen, but also allow you options and alternate means of approach. [p. 16]

Even after 20 years, I am amazed that many people, when wanting to plan their website, still have a hard time thinking past the home page as far and content and appearance. They focus on what initially appears, both visually and content-wise, and not about what they want and expect the user to do next. As a designer, I regularly need to challenge clients to think about the experience they want the user to have.

The design industry as a whole has taken this to heart and has grown over the last two decades, but I still see clients struggle with this area. We have come a long way with understanding the user and developing the experience, but we still have a long way to go as well. I’m looking forward to examining how this book holds up after 20 years.

Where You’ve Been, Marv?

Its hard to believe its been over two years since I posted an entry on this site. Time gets away from you when you’re having fun. Since then, I’ve gone back full time to a great company, I’m still teaching my web design class, and raising three kids.

I’ve had ambitions to get this site redone. It’s been stuck on its original theme since 2006. That’s downright ancient in web design. However, with everything else going on, there seemed to never be the time to do anything about it.

The time is now. I decided to follow Jeffrey Zeldman’s lead and design this site live. I’m hoping to have it complete by the new year. I then have some plans to write semi-regularly, which I will share about soon. Thanks for the patience.

Things Have Been Busy for Awhile

Over the past twelve months, things have been quite busy for me, both professionally and personally. During that time – and for me the most important – was becoming a father for the third time. I also began teaching a self-developed class at CCAD aimed toward helping professional print designers transition into web design. This fall will be my third time teaching the semester-long course. On top of those things, I’ve had plenty of work at my full time job building websites, and a few freelance projects thrown in there in case I considered taking a breather.

Because of that, things around these parts have been extremely quiet. I plan to change that soon. I have a backlog of blog ideas piling up that I want to thin out. Also, this site’s current design is about eight years old and long overdue for a makeover. When this current look – version 4 of this site for those that are counting – it was my first real venture into blogging, and first experience with WordPress (WP) and PHP. It didn’t go smoothly. I always felt the design was incomplete, but due to my newness with both WP and PHP, I wanted to get something in place, polished or not. I figured I would have time to come back and put the finishing touches on it.

Later has turned into several years, and my knowledge and skills have improved greatly. Plus web technology, especially CSS and HTML, and improved dramatically. So much has changed that tweaking this design is no longer time worth invested. Instead, I plan to roll out a new design for this site before the end of 2012. If you follow me on Dribbble, you’ve seen a few previews.

A new design was been long in coming, but it seems every time I begin the process, either something more pressing enters the fray, or the direction I was going with the site wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to. However, I was determined this summer to get the ball rolling and not let it stop. The new design is progressing, although slowly. I’ve also been contemplating borrowing a page from Jeffrey Zeldman and launch a new design in an incomplete stage and finishing it live. I’m not decided on this yet, but will post something once I make a decision. Also, follow me on Dribbble and you will get some glimpses of the new design, as well as other projects I’m working on, before they land here.

How Jeopardy Ruined the Great Gatsby

I am a fairly avid reader, especially of early 20th Century period pieces, whether fiction or non. One classic I had meant for years to read was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but never got around to it. At the urging of my wife, I finally got around to reading it last fall.

I was about half way through the book when my wife happened to be watching Jeopardy one night with our two daughters. As fate would have it, I was in the room at the time when a particular “answer” came up on the program. Without getting into too many details, the answer, with the following “question” gave away the ending of The Great Gatsby as I happened to be reading the book at the time. I was pissed. Regardless, I finished the book and still consider it one of the great novels of the 20th Century, despite the ending being spoiled.

Why tell this story? Because I happened to come across this:

Needless to say, I’m excited about this movie. The trailer is awesome, and the cast is one of the best. I honestly can’t think of any movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio that I didn’t enjoy, and the same goes for Tobey Maguire. If you’re planning on seeing the movie, I highly recommend reading the book first.

The Importance of Service

Life, and especially the day job have been extremely busy lately, hence the non-posts for several months. But an interesting thing has happened with some new clients we’ve taken on lately that all center on the quality of service, which is one of the things we excel at at TCS.

Client one responded to a direct mail piece and signed on with us primarily because they couldn’t manage content on their current site themselves, had to pay the provider to do the most minor changes, and didn’t get prompt response.

Client two also responded to the same direct mail piece as client one. They were using a complex, outdated CMS and still couldn’t manage their content the way they wanted to. Their domain name was registered under their current provider, but luckily were able to get that changed to their name. They then suddenly received a bill from their current provider totaling several thousand dollars, saying that they inadvertently undercharged the client the last few years and were looking to now collect the difference. Then a week later, fortunately the day before we were scheduling to launch the new site, the provider turned off their site unannounced.

Client three’s site was hacked and hijacked by a porn site. Their provider was recently bought out by another company, and all but one person from the old staff was fired. They could not get the new company to respond to any customer service at all.

Finally, client four was using a Joomla site, got hacked and had all of their databases completely wiped out. The provider didn’t have  a backup anywhere, and basically told the client that its their problem. That was two months ago.

What do all four of these clients have in common? The problem that a lot of organizations and small businesses have — poor customer service from their provider. This is a strong suit of TCS. Not only do we have a great product and produce excellent, creative work, but our customer service is some of the best out there. It also shows that the cheapest price does not necessarily mean the best value.

I’ve also seen this with some of my freelance clients. I’ve worked on several projects where the initial provider/designer/developer dropped the ball, vanished from the face of the earth, or did a piss-poor job. All because the client was looking for the cheapest price instead of the best value. In the end it cost them more.

How can you avoid this painful experience? Here’s a few tips.

  1. Own your domain. This is one of the biggest headaches clients run into when switching providers. Provider A promises to take care of all the logistics, but registers the domain in their own name. Then, when the client wants to go to Provider B, they run into a legal mess trying to procure their domain, or pay through the nose. If you have your provider purchase your domain, get it in writing that its registered in your, or your company’s name, instead of the providers.
  2. Check references and seek referrals. There’s no better salesman than a satisfied customer. Check with other organizations and businesses who they use, and what they like and don’t like about their provider. If you scout out a potential provider from their site, look for a portfolio or a list of clients. Then contact a handful of those clients. Find out if they still use them, how long they’ve been a client, and what they like and don’t like about them. If you can’t find any recent and/or active clients, there’s a warning sign for you to avoid them.
  3. Compare prices. We compare prices when shopping for cars, computers, and even groceries. Do the same with a web provider/designer. Get a list of services and what you get for your money. Find out what’s one-time fees and what, if anything, is recurring.

Hopefully those tips will save you a lot of headache, time and money.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

Its been over four months since I posted anything to this site. I have a nice long list of topics to blog about, but haven’t sat behind the keyboard and actually typed anything out. After several months, I finally got around to upgrading my database and WordPress to version 3. I’ve also been rough-sketching new designs for this site since the spring. I can use the excuse that I’ve been way too busy this summer, which is true, but excuses only go so far. I will, however vow to add more, abeit shorter, posts this fall, and possibly give some previews to the new design as I work through it. Keep an eye out.

Cleveland Browns 2001 Redraft Revisited

In the ten years of their return to the NFL, the Cleveland Browns have been nothing short of disappointing. The vast majority, if not all, of the blame rests with the front office for poor hirings of head coaches and pitiful drafting. Awhile ago a played retroactive fantasy General Manager and redid the first five years drafts of the returning Cleveland Browns (1999-2003). Now that the 2010 NFL draft is over (and the look of real promise for the first time for the Browns 2.0 version), I got the itch to revisit my redrafts. I decided to start at 2001 this time, thinking that’s when their first head coach, Chris Palmer, was fired after two years on the job and Butch Davis was hired to replace him.

Hiring Davis fit into a long line of mistakes of the Carmen Policy-Dwight Clark regime in Cleveland, and eventually led to Clark’s resignation. Before I even tackle the draft, the head coach situation needs to be addressed first. Back when I redid the 1999 draft, I suggested a list of candidates for the head coaching job over eventual hire Chris Palmer. I think revisiting that list has merit.

Two coaches from my list, Andy Reid and Jim Haslett, are NFL head coaches by 2001. The others, Marvin Lewis, Russ Grimm and Gary Kubiak, are still NFL assistants, and still the top candidates, in my opinion, for the head coaching position for the Browns. In fact, unless he would turn the job down, I would give it to Lewis, hands down.

With a head coach in place, the next step is to look at the roster. Quite frankly, after two years of high multiple draft picks, the Browns only picked one one quality player, wide receiver Kevin Johnson. The only thing Clark did well in two years was bring in some decent free agents early on (Jamir Miller, Corey Fuller, Chris Gardocki, and Phil Dawson). The rest have been a complete waste of roster space. With that in mind, this team is in need of help in just about every key position. Fortunately, there are a handful of quality free agents that will come at a fair price and make an immediate impact. Here’s the three I would go after:

QB Brad Johnson. Johnson spent two years as the Redskins starter after seven years in Minnesota. After a Pro Bowl season in 1999, Johnson’s production dropped off and Washington let him go in lieu of signing Jeff George. Johnson signed with Tampa Bay, where he led them to a Super Bowl victory in 2002.

RB Priest Holmes. Signed by the Ravens after being undrafted in 1997, Holmes lost his starting job to Jamal Lewis in 2000, making him expendable. He signed a modest contract with Kansas City for the 2001 season, and put together three Pro Bowl seasons. A series of injures the next couple of years eventually ended his career.

DE Simeon Rice. Drafted in 1996 by the Arizona Cardinals, Rice never lived up to expectations. He signed with Tampa Bay and produced five straight years of 11-plus sacks, and was a member of the 2002 Super Bowl team. He was a teammate of LB Jamir Miller in Arizona as well.

OLB Mike Vrabel. Vrabel had a decent four-year career with the Steelers, the team that drafted him in 1997. However, he couldn’t crack the starting lineup and signed with New England, where he not only became a key starter, but also won three Super Bowls. Being from Akron, OH and playing at Ohio State, Vrabel would jump at the chance to play for the Browns.

With those four free agents in place, some major holes are filled. There are also a couple of players I would make an attempt to trade for, assuming I would be able to trade existing players and/or low draft picks in exchange for them instead of high draft picks. The two players I think I would have the best shot of gaining are defensive tackle Pat Williams of Buffalo and quarterback Tom Brady of New England. To obtain Brady, I would also offer a swapping of first round picks with the Patriots, allowing them to move up from the sixth spot to the third. This now sets me up for the draft:

2001 Draft

I’m not going to review the actual 2001 picks of the Browns. You can read about that at my previous redraft. What I’m going to focus on is who I would take and when in this draft to rebuild the Browns into a competitive team. My draft-day trades are based on actual 2001 draft trades that were similar, or inferior to what I propose.

Cleveland had eight picks in 2001, one in each of the first six rounds and two in the seventh. The 2001 draft class ended up being a very talented crop of players, so my goal is to amass some additional picks. We’ll break this down round-by-round:

Round 1: Pick 3

If I’m going to gain additional picks this draft, it will have to come about by either trading additional players or by moving down. Not knowing the trade value of the roster at the time, let’s go down the path of sliding back in the draft. Depending if the trade with New England happened, I would slide down from third to sixth in the first round, and also gain my quarterback of the future in Tom Brady.

I would try to slide down even further. San Francisco moved up from nine to seven in  a trade with Seattle. I would offer to swap instead (either from the 3 or 6 spot), gaining a third round pick (number 82) in the process. Because of the big jump, I would also ask for a seventh round pick as well (number 205).

Tampa also moved up from 21 to 14 in a trade with Buffalo. I would swap instead, moving from 9 to 21, and gaining a second round pick in the process (number 51).

Finally, The Giants jumped from 30 to 22 and also giving up third (number 91) and sixth (number 193) round picks. I’ll swap, putting them one spot higher, and gaining third and sixth round picks.

That would put me in the next to last spot in the first round, while gaining five additional picks. Here’s where the trade with New England for Tom Brady plays out. If I do gain Brady, I select DT Kris Jenkins. If not, I pick QB Drew Brees.

Round 2: Picks 33 and 51 (from Tampa)

Round two is where things get complicated depending on what transpired with player trades before the draft. The defensive line is in serious need of help. Signing DE Rice is one part of it. Trading for DT Williams is another. Drafting Jenkins is a third. Where he gets drafted is the question. It all depends if I trade for Brady and select Jenkins with the 30th overall pick. Here are the two scenarios:

1. Trade for Brady and select Jenkins in the first round

This frees me up to move down even further in the second round and still get the players I want. First I trade the 33rd pick to Indianapolis for their 2nd round pick (number 52) and 3rd round pick (number 81). I would trade down further with Miami, giving them the 52nd pick I got from the Colts for the 56th pick in the second round and the 122th pick in the fourth round.

I would also trade down with Denver, giving them the 51th pick I obtained from Tampa for the Bronco’s second round pick (number 58) and fourth round pick (number 110).

With the 56th and 58th picks in the second round, I would select DE Derrick Burgess and SS Adrian Wilson.

2. Select Drew Brees in the first round

Brees solves my long-term quarterback problem the same way trading for Tom Brady would. However, to get Kris Jenkins, I need to use the 33rd pick to select him instead of trading down. That leaves me with only the 51st selection in the second, so I need to choose either Burgess or Wilson, or somehow acquire another second round pick. I would still make the trade with Denver as stated in option one, put I don’t gain the additional third and fourth round selections from the earlier trades with the 33rd pick.

I do, however, have three picks in the third round (76, 82, 91), with the latter two coming in trades from the first round. Detroit moved back into the second round by gaining the Giants pick (61) for their third (78) and fourth (114). I would beat them to the punch in giving up both additional third rounders (82 and 91) for the Giants pick at 61. Then with the 58th and 61st picks, I can still grab Burgess and Wilson.

Round 3: 65 (and possibly 82 and 91)

With the 65th pick, I would select WR Steve Smith.

If I still have the 82nd and 91st picks from the first scenario in round two, I use the 82nd pick on CB Anthony Henry and trade the 91st to the Patriots for their fourth (number 112) and fifth (number 139) round picks.

Round 4: 97 and 110 (from Denver)

Regardless of the two scenarios at the beginning of the draft, I would have at least two picks in the fourth. Those picks would go to rebuild an aging and fragile offensive line. With the 97th pick, I would take OT Ryan Diem, and with the 110th pick, OT/OG Floyd Womack.

If I also have the 112th and 122nd picks from scenario one, I would draft RB Correll Buckhalter and OG Russ Hochstein.

Round 5: 134

I would select OLB Jason Glenn. Simple.

Round 6: 165 and 193 (from San Francisco)

With the 165th pick, I would take WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and with the 193th, ILB/MLB Antonio Pierce.

Round 7: 203, 205 (from Tampa Bay), 235

With three picks in the seventh round, these would all go toward previously undrafted players: CB Nick Harper, OG Stephen Neal, and SS Ifeanyi Ohalete.

Summary

In comparing it to my original 2001 redraft, a lot of the same player show up (Jenkins, Burgess, Smith, Womack, Houshmandzadeh, Pierce, etc.). What is interestingly different is that I don’t stay put to select Tomlinson with the first pick like I did previously. The reason for this is that after the 1999 and 2000 drafts, I had some key pieces in place on the offensive line, quarterback, and defensive front seven. Those needed to be addressed in this draft, especially the offensive line. I was also able to deal with the running game issue by getting Priest Holmes in free agency, which I could likely do in my other draft scenario as well.

Without the luxury of having two solid drafts to build on, this time I’m basically starting with the cupboard bare. I am able to address on offense the quarterback situation, both short-term (Johnson) and long-term (Brady or Brees), the running game (Holmes), receivers (Smith and Houshmandzadeh), and offensive line (Diem, Womack, Neal and possibly Hochstein). That’s a major makeover (and major improvement) to the offense that the Browns fielded in 2001.

One defense, I turned every area from a weakness to a strength. The front line now has Jenkins, Rice and Burgess, and possibly Williams. The linebacking corp gains Vrabel and Pierce, and the secondary gains Wilson and Harper, with some help from Ohalete and possibly Henry.

Its amazing how one draft can completely remake a team from a joke to a potential contender.

More blatant rip-offs

Shawn Inman was asked to comment on the services of a web design company, Sprincy. Upon reviewing their work, he came across an interesting observation, his Mint site was apparently designed and built by Sprincy. Apparently, this was news to him, since he was sure he designed and built that site himself.
Its also noted that apparently Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain’s design work for the City Church was not his either, but Sprincy. The same with Cameron Moll’s redesign of Vivabit. Funny how so many designers are getting their work confused with a incredible work done by one group.
Looks like Sony was inspired by Sprincy as well (via Daniel Mall). A double wammy. They not only rip off the Sony site, but claim some of the best known work of some of the best known designers are their own. When will it end?

Logo review: Detroit Lions redesign

Detroit Lions new logo and wordmark for the 2009 NFL seasonThe Detroit Lions unveiled their modified logo and uniforms for the 2009 NFL season. Paul Lukas of Uniwatch fame recently gave his opinion of the redesign. Paul, for the most part, really didn’t care for the changes, mainly due to the black accent the Lions adopted this century. I usually agree with Paul’s views of uniforms, but in this case I differ quite a bit.

Personally, I don’t mind the black accent. Teams have been setting a trend the last decade or so in adding a third accent color — mainly to develop new uniforms to sell more of the stuff to the public. Black has become the most common accent teams have added. Its a smart move since black works with almost any combination, if done intelligently. For Detroit, there’s not many other options to go with their Honolulu blue and silver staples. A navy blue or indigo would probably work, but not much else. The major mistake the Lions made was the black alternate jersey, which was absolutely hideous. Other than that, it works in my opinion. Here’s my thoughts on the areas Paul broke down in his blog post:

Colors: I’m fine with the black accent as long as its not overdone. Paul completely hates it.

Logo: I think its an improvement, not that I thought the old one was that bad. It definitely has a more ferocious look, and I like the added detail that the old logo didn’t have. Again, I don’t mind the black accent.

Wordmark: I don’t think the new workmark is as bad as Paul feels. It is a little soft, but I’ll give points in trying to come up with something unique. I do agree with Paul that the logo and workmark should be consistent with the black accent (or in Paul’s opinion, not have one at all).

Helmet, shirt and pants stripes: I grouped these all together because its virtually the same change — the stripes. I like the new stripes because the old with the black accents just didn’t work.

Jersey color and chest wordmark: A definite improvement. I’m glad they used the silver in there instead of the older blue/black look.

Uni numbers: This is the one thing I thing is an utter failure. The wave cut looks horrible and makes the numbers difficult to read. They should have stopped and rounding the corners and been done with it. This is a case of overdesigning that backfired.

Socks: I don’t like them. I personally miss the old striped socks that every team had. It tied the uniforms together by mimicking the shirt and pants striping. I have no idea why everyone went to solid socks, but this was a real missed opportunity.

Overall, I think the new logo and uniforms are an improvement. I really hope they burn the old black alternates, but I have a feeling those damn things will taint the field again. Its definitely a better modification than what we’ve seen from the NFL in recent seasons. I expected much worse.

Update: Speaking of much worse, the Jacksonville Jaguars unveiled new uniforms as well. Complete disaster. I am in complete agreement with Paul’s review. In fact, I hate it more than he does. This fits right in with the garbage uniforms that the NFL has puked out in recent years (Minnesota, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Seattle … need I go on).