How to write well

Just about everyone on the blogosphere has already linked to this, but just in case you’ve been in a coma for a couple of days, I present “Writing, Briefly”:http://www.paulgraham.com/writing44.html I’m printing it out and sticking it next to the monitor…

Coming to our senses

If you’re at all like me, and are looking for how to manage all the inputs in your life, I wholeheartedly recomment Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book *Coming to Our Senses*. I listened to the abridged version from audible over the weekend. What a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

Kabat-Zinn doesn’t say anything new. You’ve heard it before, yet he has a gift for helping draw little nuggets of knowledge and wisdom together. He doesn’t preach and doesn’t sell. There are no courses to take and no steps to follow. Simply listen, and *be*.

The audio version is quite abridged, as Kabat-Zinn explains at the outset. It left me wanting more. Despite that, I recomment it highly to anyone interested in learning to make the most of their days and themselves. Accomplished meditators may find the book frustratringly light in detail, but neophytes like me will find more than enough to sink into. *Highly* recommended.

The problem with HUGE beards

A while back, I wrote an entry called “The problem with weeny beards”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/index.php?id=44 Today, via “boingboing”:http://www.boingboing.net I find “this”:http://www.worldbeardchampionships.com/. Man, that is some serious commitment.

Comment form fixed

The comment form had recently been re-styled. In the process, I broke it, and didn’t notice until recently. It’s now working again, so if you feel like leaving a note, please do.

Does blog design matter, part 3

Well dear friends and readers, I’m baaaack. In “last week’s installments”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/index.php?id=55, we started to look at the state of design on the blogosphere today. We looked at numbers 10, 9, and 8 on “Technorati’s”:http://www.technorati.com top 100 most influential blogs list. Today’s trio makes this designer sigh a sigh of blessed relief after the shock of the first go around. Don’t relax too much though, as this group are the oddities of the whole bunch. Let’s continue, shall we?

*No 7 Penny Arcade.*

*Design*: Straight outta 1999! First things first – the guy is a cartoonist, so I suppose I’ve got to forgive his use of a comic font. The site goes way beyond just a blog, with a forum, game reviews, and more. The design is effective, if not particularly pleasing. Nothing gets in the way of the content, which is the point, after all. I really like the contributors comic avatars.

*Suggestions*: The comic has a sardonic wit and bite to it. I’d like to see that attitude reflected in the design. The colour scheme looks very dated to my eye, and would do with an update. The site is all table based – and I mean ALL. There’s no css used at all. Gasp!

*Predictions*: A move to web standards has to be coming. Think about this: I bet a whole bunch of this site’s target market has either bought or will soon buy a sony psp or equivalent portable device. These portables can be used for surfing the web from anywhere with a wi-fi hotspot. The mobile internet is almost here for real, and sites like this will have to change over to css so their users can view their sites with the appropriate sytlesheet.

*No 6 Talking Points Memo*

*Design*: _38 characters wide_. Bump the text size up one, and it’s down to 30. That’s really narrow. The content to ad size ratio is wonky on this site. The ads are not that big, but the content area is really small. There’s no reason for this, as far as I can tell. The header is really jammed up with content, with a list of links and a dateline competing for a narrow little spot. Also, a keyline running down the right side of the text is superfluous. It doesn’t do anything, and only adds to the smushy-ness of the elements.

*Suggestions*: Open it up. There’s a decent colour scheme in place, and decent typography to boot. Make the content area wider, make the margins on the blockquotes narrower, clean up the header, and you’ve got yourself a decent site. The code is a bit of a mess, but at least we’ve got some css at work here.

*Predictions*: Ad rates will go up, revenue will increase, and the number of ads on the site will decrease. I certainly can’t hold it against anyone for wanting to make a living, but I find the number of ads detract from the content. To be fair, I don’t follow the site on a regular basis, so I’m being exposed to a LOT of ads as I scroll down looking at old articles. Perhaps if I checked in daily I wouldn’t notice so many… I don’t think major design changes are needed here. A couple of tweaks will go a long way towards making this a pleasant site to read.

*No 5 Gizmodo*

*Design*: This article has taken considerably longer to write than I had intended. The reason? Gizmodo stole my brain! Gizmodo is part of Gawker Media, and is a professional site, with staff and the whole thing. We have a professionally designed site here folks, with designer colours and the whole she-bang. The design is table-less, which is a nice change. The text is nicely knocked back with a grey-blue colour, links are plainly underlined, the images are floated next to the body copy… Plus they have a picture of a toilet that can measure your fat percentage from your urine. How cool is that?

*Suggestions*: My one design been if that the design is very tight to the left margin. If you view the page at full screen, the body is waaaayyyyy over there. I’d double the padding. My bigger beef has to do with all the flashing advertising going on at the top of the page. I’ve got 3 different ads flashing their messages at me. It is very distracting, and has me scrolling down to get away from them as quickly as possible.

*Predictions*: Nothing. These guys are leading the world at the moment, and I don’t see that changing. While that sounds kind of like unabashed fandom, its not. Give me a couple of hours with their stylesheets, and I think I could make the site easier to read, and possibly a bit stickier (ie it will keep users around longer), but who am I kidding here? We read Gizmodo for the humour and tech updates. If I were making a pitch to a business to set up a blog, Gizmodo would certainly be part of my presentation. They pretty well define a blog business: they speak about a narrow topic that they are passionate about, they use the first person voice, they use humour, and they’ve hired a designer.

Well, that bunch was relatively painless. Not so for the top 5 I’m afraid. Stay tuned for more!

Does blog design matter? Part 2

I’m going to start getting down to the nitty gritty, and I’ve got to tell you, it ain’t pretty. Hey, that sounds like a great opening to a song…

First, a caveat or two. The sites I’m going to be looking at are the 10 most influential on _the entire internet_. Clearly they are doing something right. My thesis though, is not based on the state of the internet today, but on where its going in the very short term. Second, there’s the whole RSS issue. Yes, RSS is incredibly important, but it certainly doesn’t do away with the need for a well designed site. If anything, it makes typographically rich text even more important. Also, if I were to venture a guess, I’d say most first time readers find their way to blogs via links from another blog (ie from a blogroll) than they do from an rss feed. First impressions count. Like it or not.

For those not following along from the “beginning”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/index.php?id=55 I’m looking at the top 10 most influential blogs on the internet as listed on “Technorati”:http://www.technorati.com

Ok, let the fun begin.

*No.10 Common Dreams News Center*

*Design:* This is a tough one to start with. There’s obviously been some effort made here, but frankly, the design is, well, weak. This is a link blog, but it takes a bit of mousing around to even figure that out. Links are not differentiated from body type at all. The colour scheme seems totally random. For example, in the middle column, some titles are blue, some are red, some are green. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between colour and content. The text is small for its line height. The centre column doesn’t have a title at all. I’m not sure if the links are internal or external. Are they news clippings or original articles?

*Suggestions:* Indicate the links! Either with a rollover effect, underlines, background colours, something, anything, please! I’d like to see a background colour other than white in the margins in order to move the content forward (hypocritical? sure, why not). The lists in the left and right sidebars is really hard to read. I’d love to see some type of custom bullet that changes from the a:link to the a:visted state. The code is an absolute mess, is totally table based and inaccessible. That’s going to have to change. The first thing I’d do (after rewriting the code) is come up with a method of indicating a link’s subject with either a colour code, a rollover effect or an icon. Next, I’d break up the page into more discreet sections, making it easier to find what folks are after.

*What will change (my predictions):* Common Dreams is an agenda driven site (as opposed to financially or career driven). They have a mission to make certain news items and viewpoints available. I’m assuming that they would like to maintain or improve their position of influence. In order to do so, they are going to have to make their site more user friendly. Their competition is going to grow and grow, and it won’t be long before their influence wanes as readers move to other sources. I’m not suggesting their current readership will abandon them, but their future growth will be hampered unless they make the site easier to use and intuitive.

*No.9 Binary Bonsai:*

*Design:* well duh. It’s only one of the best looking sites on the internet. That girl is so hot…

*Suggestions:* I really hate to say it, but light blue and pink are starting to look a bit dated. The mouse over effect (mouse over a link, and a window pops up with more info) is cool, but gets annoying quickly. I’d rethink that so it’s used more sparingly.

*Predictions:* I was surprised to see this site listed in the top 10. It’s the only design related site there. I assume folks are linking in to see what’s up from the creator of the Kubrick template. Frankly, I’d be surprised to see Binary Bonsai in the top 10 six months from now. Nothing against Michael at all, but there are just a lot more of _them_ than there are of _us_.

*No.8 Eschaton*

*Design:* none. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time to 1995. This is a poli-blog. The purpose of the site is to inform and possibly sway opinion. I get that this is a personal site, but man, it sure doesn’t convey any sense of authority, nor does it draw me in in any way.

*Suggestions*: HIRE A DESIGNER. Quick! Your site doesn’t need to be designer-y, if you feel there’s something wrong with that, but come on! My eyes are bleeding.

*Predictions:* This is supposed to be a highly influential site. There are loads of ads, so I can only assume there’s some money being made. I know I’d take one look at this site, and click away as fast as I could. Sure, I’m a design snob and all, but this site just screams cheap. Why would I take the opinions seriously? Why would I read them at all? A site doesn’t need to be slick to work, but again, as the volume of blogs and blog readers increase, this site’s percentage of total readership is going to slip, as will his ad revenue. Design doesn’t make a site like this, content does. But design can (and will) break a site like this, very shortly.

Three down, seven to go. It’s a long weekend, and I’m going to be offline until Monday, hanging with my family. I’m taking Zoe, the 4 year old skiing for the first time. Yes, skiing, at the end of March. Man I sure miss the west coast… This is going to be my first time on skis since my back went ka-boom 18 months ago. YEEEEEEEHHHHAAWWWWWWWWWW!

Does blog design matter? Part 1

I believe with religious ferocity that design is going to become even more important in the coming years than it is today. We’re well into a world of parity products – competing items that basically all do the same thing, ie cell phones, blenders (ummm blender drinks…), cars, etc. How do you differentiate your product in this environment? Price, features, and design. Of these options, design makes the most sense from a bottom line standpoint. Obviously, lowering price only works so far. Same with adding features. Design can add value, and increase margins. One word proof? iPod.

How does that relate to the blogosphere? It’s early days, but I think the same will hold true, only more so. Let’s assume you are a business owner, and your blog, while personal, is related to your livelihood. You’re an accountant who wants to keep in touch with your clients about changes to tax law. Or a baker with a passion for special cakes, and you think your passion will help grow your business. Whatever.

Right now, I bet there aren’t that many bakery blogs (I know of at least “one”:http://www.bubbyrosesbakery.com, I built it!). But with the “blogosphere doubling in size every five months”:http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000299.html you don’t have to be a math wiz to know it won’t be long before bakery web sites are a dime a dozen (sorry, couldn’t avoid the pun). The example breaks down a bit here, as bakeries tend to be regional, but bare with me.

So how does our accountant/baker differentiate his site? Well, content of course. Content is king (say it 10 times, NOW). But content is only good if you can read it. And content will only be read if it can be found, and it engages the reader. Insert standard usability info here.

Design is important in the blogosphere now, but it is roughly 1% as important as it will be in a very short time.

What is the state of design in the greater blogosphere right now? I’m glad you asked. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be looking at the top 10 sites on “Technorati’s”:http://www.technorati.com Top 100 list, to analyze how well designed the sites are. I’ll note strong points, and where relevant point out areas that can be improved. Most importantly, I’ll note how I think the designs will change as competition increases. Stay tuned for more.

We vs They con't

This is kind of bad form, but I think it’s relevant. After writing the previous post this morning, I went out for lunch and had a further thought (right in the middle of a delicious panini). I posted this as a comment on “Corante”:http://www.corante.com/brandshift/archives/2005/03/22/behind_the_curtain.php and am cross posting it here too.

I think “we” or “they” is subjective at the individual level. If we turn the focus from the company to the consumer (of products, ideas, politics, etc), we get a better sense of what makes the we/they difference.

Blogs and other forms of self-publishing foretell the need to change the traditional one:many communication model to a one:one model. Relationships become vastly more important. Why? We’re marketing weary, and, as Ms Rice said “nothing pleases them [us] more than to see another talking head fall.” I’m happy to see an anonymous head roll, but far less thrilled when someone I respect or trust goes down. I’m willing to cut that person a fair bit of slack.

Relationships exist between PEOPLE. Blogs are inherently human; even GM’s blog has a lot of ‘touch’. People trust people much more than they trust organizations. If I trust you, I’ll let a mistake slip (once). Mistakes are human, after all…

Blogs will affect organizations in two major ways: they will (and do) affect opinions by directly competing with the org’s mindshare (see my blog, www.peterflaschner.com for a lovely little infograph), and by bringing a human face to the org. I wonder what this will do to brands? What will happen when my relationship is with Bob Lutz instead of GM? What happens when Lutz moves on?

We vs They

Jennifer Rice has posted a piece at “Corante”:http://www.corante.com/brandshift/archives/2005/03/22/behind_the_curtain.php that nicely summarizes the move towards organizational transparency that the blog phenomenon is pushing. In it, she quotes an article from “A VC”:http://avc.blogs.com/a_vc/2005/03/apple_becomes_a.html that describes the differences between a “we” company and a “they” company.

This concept was first put forward by Dave Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The idea, to quote from A VC:

bq. Microsoft is the poster child for a “they” company.
Craigs List is the poster child for a “we” company.

Ms Rice says “Transparency will happen to your company whether you like it or not.” I rather happen to agree. What blogs have done is allow consumers to gain an foothold in the general mindshare an organization holds.

mindshare graphic

The premise here is that an org has a public image. This image has largely been self-created; that is, through advertising, marketing, and PR, the org has shaped an idea in the public mind. I’m calling this image *mindshare*.

What has suddenly happened is that the public has gained a way to affect _any_ org’s mindshare. How? Blogs. Let’s look at an example.

I’m shopping for a new digital camera. I’ve got my search narrowed down to a couple of models. I google “canon sd-300”:http://www.google.ca/search?q=canon+sd-300&sourceid=mozilla-search&start=0&start=0&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official and the second site on the list is a blog! (note: I’m stretching the term blog a bit here to include pretty well any single-consumer driven site). In this particular case, my decision has been reinforced. But it could just as easily have been swayed the other way. Here’s the kicker: *there is nothing Canon can do to affect those search results.*

How many of us make buying decisions without consulting the web nowadays? Of course, this applies to ideas and opinions as well as consumer goods. Being a “we” company becomes incredibly important in the face of this new paradigm. It also becomes increasingly difficult. Read the comments at the two sites mentioned at the top of this article, and you’ll find a great deal of debate as to whether or not Apple (the “we” poster boy) is in fact a “we”, or just a cleverly disguised “they”.

I predict that the slice of mindshare the blogosphere holds will grow at an exponential rate. Earning the respect of trusted bloggers will (and is) tantamount to positive mindshare. So how does an org go about doing that?

For that, dear reader, you’ll have to wait! Work beckons…

Why I'm not as dumb as I used to be.

I remember being about 8 years old, going on a long road trip to our favorite campsite up near Sudbury. It was my first encounter with an audio book. It was _Eye of the Needle_ by Ken Follett. I was gripped. The usual never ending drive flew by; too quickly as it turned out. The drive ended before the story. We were going canoeing into the back country for a couple of weeks, so it would be a long, impatient wait to find out how it all came together.

About 4 months ago, I started commuting to work again. I’ve been working close to home for about 10 years, so this spending a couple of hours a day in my car is kind of new to me. It does indeed suck, but not nearly as much as I had feared. The reason? Audio books.

I joined audible as a premium listener right off the bat. For $24 a month, I get my choice of any two books in their collection of 20 odd thousand titles. So far, I’ve ‘read’

* Blog (Unabridged) by Hugh Hewitt
* On Intelligence (Unabridged) by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee
* Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn
* The Dream of Reason (Unabridged) by Anthony Gottlieb
* Getting Things Done by David Allen
* Mind Wide Open (Unabridged) by Steven Johnson
* The Fabric of the Cosmos (Unabridged) by Brian Greene
* A Short History of Nearly Everything (Unabridged) by Bill Bryson
* Autobiography of a Yogi (Unabridged) by Paramahansa Yogananda
* The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra
* Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das

Not a bad use of my time. Especially considering that I get *no* time to read in my “regular” life. I’ve been surprised to find that my recall on the subject matter is really good – better even than if I’d read the book the usual way. I’m especially fond of books narrated by the author. I’m (obviously) a fan of the printed word. But there’s something about the emphasis and pacing that an author can give to his own words that punctuation just can’t replicate.

I plan on reviewing all of the books above in the next couple of days, and adding to the library of reviews as the months progress. You’ll note there’s a new ad down there on the sidebar. If you feel like checking out any of my suggestions, please do me the favor of clicking on the ad to go directly to audible. There’s no catch for you, and a small kickback for me. My hope is to cover my very modest hosting costs, and maybe even buy a book or two.

I’ll leave off with this one final thought: damn that’s a list of serious looking books. Time to lighten up!