The amazing similarity between poetry and design

Recently, I bought a book of poetry by the Canadian poet Irving Layton. I was hanging out at the magazine rack of our local book store, perusing the design mags, whining to my wife that every magazine had the *exact same content*: the same reviews, the same commentary, the same design examples, the same ads… I had a crisp $20 burning a hole in my pocket, and was completely disillusioned by the thought of rewarding an editor for his or her commitment to mediocrity.

I’m pretty well stocked up on audio books, so I wasn’t even looking for a book. Besides, the tower of Babel I’m building beside my bed wouldn’t stand up to another addition without some serious seismic upgrading. I was headed out the door, when I realized She was still panting heavily into a british house porn glossy. Sigh…. Reaching blindly for the closest thing at hand (actually a lie. That should read “reaching for whatever it was that really hot girl just put back on the shelf”), my hand fell upon a book of poetry – _A Wild Peculiar Joy_ by Irving Layton.

Confession time: I have a really hard time reading poetry. I skip it in the New Yorker, finding it too hard to concentrate. My eyes flit all over the page, never really making it from one line to the next, despite my intention to _try to make it through this time_. I’ve never read, never mind owned a book of poetry. Yet I was completely and immediately drawn into Layton’s world. I bought the book.

I’ve only had it a couple of days now, and have only skimmed its surface. *I’ve read enough though to be completely amazed at the similarities between poetry and design*. Both poetry and design are exercises in distilling thought to its purest form. Each element fretted over and placed with care, or thrown down with fiery emotion.

In both cases the decor serves to draw you in – like a flower to a flittering hummingbird – to hold you still for long enough to deliver the message. Both are a balancing act of head and heart, with rhythm or format defining the constraints and colour and language filling the space.

In both cases the sum is greater than the parts, for the parts taken together or in smaller groups each can speak their own message, reinforcing the central theme. There’s something to this, and lessons to be learned. “Cameron Moll”: wrote something along these lines a while back. But his article focussed on a particular type of poetry, as opposed to poetry as a whole. I’m going to think about this for a bit, and get back to you.

Design 2.5

The _”Don’t like the style, don’t worry it will probably be different in 10 minutes”_ version. I was getting pretty tired of looking at that flat design, and decided to add a bit of dimension.

All the info I’d recently added on the sidebar was making the page really unbalanced. The initial design was really spare (see the “initial comp”: with no sidebar at all. My focus has changed a bit since then – it was all of a month ago, after all. I have plans for adding more content to the sidebar, so something needed to be done.

I knew I wanted to use dimension to break the page up a bit. I was going through iphoto just now, and came across a photo I’d taken of a torn page for a long lost project. A ha! Solution in hand, I whipped this up in a couple of minutes. Good god I love css. I changed two urls, changed one margin, and changed one colour. From concept to finished in literally 10 minutes.

I’ll probably continue to tinker with the style sheet for, oh, the next 100 years. Don’t like what you see? Don’t worry, it’ll change in a few minutes…

Why Blog?

I just had an interesting IM conversation with a friend, that I thought I’d share:

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. I just sent an email asking what’s up with ****

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. I’ll see what I get back…

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. I’m anxious to get moving on it

Fred says:

bq. same here

Fred says:

bq. im anxious to see it live

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. I almost have enough time to think, and that just won’t do

Fred says:

bq. can’t wait to add my first web job to my portfolio

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. I’m going to blog about you

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. “I know this guy, he’s a really good print designer. He’s not satisfied at his current place of employment, and is finding that his lack of web skills are limiting his job potential”…

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. something about how setting up a blog is a terrific way to get into web design

Fred says:

bq. how do people come across your blog?

Fred says:

bq. and how does it transcend into freelance work?

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. since it’s simple to get up and running, but is quite complex

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. traffic comes from 3 sources:

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. 1. google. Google indexes my site, and depending on a variety of factors, my site shows up if you search for something that I write about. For example, I’ve written a couple of articles about OmniOutliner, if you search for that software, my site comes up on the first page (how fucking cool is that?)

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. 2. links from other blogs. Blogs link to blogs. A few people like what I’ve got to say, and they link to me. Not many do, but the number is growing

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. 3. posts I make on other blogs. Everytime you leave a comment on someone’s site, you have the opportunity to leave your url. If you say something smart or funny, people may click on your name and get to your site.

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. I have about 70 people a day coming to the site, and another 70 or so reading the rss feed in their newsreader. The number is growing pretty rapidly as I post more, and become a bit more targeted in what I write about

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. as for your other question: how does it translate into freelance work?

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. The answer is it doesn’t, not yet. That’s not really the point of it at this point, although it is very much in the back of my mind.

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. My purpose with the site is to establish myself as an expert in a particular field, in this case, blog design for busineses.

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. Perhaps at somepoint I’ll earn a high ranking on google for those search words, but that’s a long way off

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. in the meanwhile, I can point to my blog if I’m calling on a potential client and say “look, I have a couple of hundred people a day reading my site to see what I have to say about this stuff. Read my site yourself, and see that I’ve thought about this, analyzed the benefits, and generally know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. How’s that for an answer?

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. damn good thing I know how to type fast…

Fred says:

bq. good answer

Fred says:

bq. long..but good

Fred says:

bq. brb

Peter Flaschner says:

bq. k

Fred says:

bq. i have to pee from that

I love the internet

I mean, I get to make self-important artistic statements and people will actually look at it!

These images are taken from a book I made a while back. A friend and I had been drinking a bit, and decided to pull out our sketchbooks. The rules of the game were 1. pick a word 2. draw whatever pops into mind related to that word for 1 minute 3. switch.

The drawings looked pretty cool, so I scanned them into pshop. I used the magic wand to select the pencil lines, then converted the selection to a path. Next, I used pshop cs’s export paths to illustrator function (under file). Once in illustrator, I started deleting paths, adding colour, and generally mucking about.

I quickly wrote some blabber according to the mood each image struck. The point of the words were to give me something to play with typographically, as opposed to having any particular meaning or insight. In retrospect though, they’re kind of cool little things – more like lyrics than poems.

I have more like these. Wanna see them?

Click here (or on the image) to see the stuff. Opens in a new window

Does blog design matter, part 3

Well dear friends and readers, I’m baaaack. In “last week’s installments”:, we started to look at the state of design on the blogosphere today. We looked at numbers 10, 9, and 8 on “Technorati’s”: 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”: I’m looking at the top 10 most influential blogs on the internet as listed on “Technorati”:

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”:, I built it!). But with the “blogosphere doubling in size every five months”: 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”: 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.

When and How Businesses Should Use Blogs

Forrester Research has an excellent free article titled “Blogging: Bubble Or Big Deal? When And How Businesses Should Use Blogs”:,7211,35000,00.html Registration is required, but it is, as mentioned, blessedly free.

This is an excellent sales tool for the designer or marketer interested in pitching a blog to your clients. Coming from “Forrester Research”: this longish scholarly piece has the benefit of instant crediblity with your likely less than techy audience.

The bottom line is that blogs are good, blogs are here to stay, and your company should probably have one. Needless to say, this is not earth-shattering news. I believe pretty strongly that blogs will (and have) changed the way many of us gather information. They have also begun to dramatically flatten the corporate structure, giving joe-schmoes like you and me access to the inner workings of large corporations (see “GM’s”: blog as an example).

Even more importantly, I believe blogs will force companies, both large and small, to be more accountable for their statements and actions. How? Let’s take the example of the “Wikipedia”: This open-source project is *self-healing*. That is, if incorrect info is posted, the user base can correct it. In the same way, blogs, through comments, trackbacks and quotes in posts, offer their own form of self-healing information.

From a social standpoint, this has me very excited. In truth, an orgainization doesn’t need to participate in the blogosphere to suffer to consequences of self-healing information. Witness Rather, Lott, et al. By taking a pre-emptive position, and embracing the blog, organizations open themselves up to scrutiny (albeit in a narrow way), and ultimately gain trust.

This is a rather fractured post I’m afraid; there are about 5 really good ideas here I’d like to explore in more detail, but the coffee flowing through my blood stream (or is that blood flowing through my coffee stream?) is preventing me from sitting still for long enough to string a cohesive argument together.

More on this soon…

omniOutliner + iCal = my wicked work flow.

I’m a recent “GTD”: convert – all in the name of getting more done, and possibly even seeing my kids. I’ve tried a bunch of systems and methods; pretty well everything short of tatooing to-dos on my forehead (hmmm….). I’ve found that “OmniOutliner3”: best suits my ‘brain dump’ approach to managing both workflow and idea generation. I use OO3 in conjunction with “iCal”: to keep track of a) what I’m supposed to be doing, and b) when tasks are due.

I’ve got a couple of OO3 docs open in the background at any one moment:

!/images/56.gif (omniOutliner screen shot)!

*Projects* is a list of all the various things going on. This has columns for status (in progress, pending, finished, invoiced… OO3 allows you to assign predefined phrases to a column that can be chosen from a drop down menu), priority (most important to least important – this column is kept sorted so the hot items appear at the top), and owner (me, a team member, etc).

!/images/55.gif (omniOutliner screen shot)!

[project name] Brain Dump is for the particular project I’m working on at the moment. This contains all my thoughts about the project, from estimate to due dates to brainstorming notes, meeting notes, etc. The expandable/collapsable folders in OO make this doc very easy to manage. OO3 also allows you to link files directly into your document, making the brain dump doc a launcher of sorts as well.

You can see in the screen shot above that I’ve added a column for *hours*. This is how I go about estimating a project and setting milestones and due dates. The key here is knowing how long it will take you to perform a certain task. I’ve learned that I always estimate low, so I’ve gotten into the habit of adding a couple of hours at the bottom as a slush-fund.

My next step is to fire up iCal. I’ve used a bunch of calendar programs to varying degrees of success. I was using the Palm desktop, since I’ve got a palm device, but the program is just so damned ugly, that I didn’t like to even look at it. iCal to the rescue.

The beauty of iCal is its multiple calendar function. With a single click, you can create a new calendar. I use one calendar for each active project. Each calendar uses a specific colour, and can be turned on or off in the main view window by clicking its check box.

!/images/57.jpg (iCal screen shot)!

This allows me to get both a global view of my work week, which is crucial in the next phase. At this point, I’ve got iCal open on half my screen, and OO3 on the other. Going back and forth between the two, I go through my time estimate and set up events on the calendar, setting aside blocks of time for each task. I’m working at max capacity at the moment, so this allows me to make realistic deadlines.

This is an incredibly simple and powerful system. iCal has a handy to-do list feature, and you can assign to-dos to a particluar calendar. OmniOutliner is ridiculously configurable. It feels more like an extension of my brain than a piece of software (not sure if that speaks well for OO, or poorly for me).

You can get a free 30 day demo of OO3, but it’s limited to the number of items you can add to your list. If you bought an apple in the past year, OO2 may have come pre-installed. It’s very handy, but lacks some of the features that make OO3 the killer app that it is.

Changes at Almost Cool

Dear reader,

The times they are a changin’. Almost Cool is about to tap into its potential, and become, well, Almost Cooler. There are ideas afoot. Ideas that require a proper home. One unsullied by the theoretical quasi-existential rantings of an overly enthusiastic man-boy.

*Aside*: I do love my adjectives, don’t I?

In order to facilitate this change, I’ve created a new personal site. It’s an _anonymous_ personal site. One totally unconnected to my name and potential reputation. Since it is an _anonymous_ site, I will not be sharing the url with you. Sorry.

So, if I strip Almost Cool of the personal, what does that leave? Not much, dear reader, not much. But that will change. Effective now.

The orginal Almost Cool concept can best be summed up with this graphic:

I inhabit the power position on this chart. Not due to skill. Not due to ability. Due only to luck, personal interests, and a desire to keep my eyes open.

It’s this eyes open approach that leads me to _appreciate_ being in the power position. There is a massive change coming. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re part of that change. The ideas I’ll be writing about in the coming days and weeks are not new. You will have read about them before. What I will be attempting to do with this site is explain my efforts to take the one-to-one, intimate nature of blogs and expand that relationship to a broader market for the sake of increasing profits, increasing social accountability, and increasing loyalty.

My goal is to approach this subject from a wholistic standpoint. To talk about the technology, the strategy, and the personal. Blogging is about the heart _at least as much as the head_, and this is *exactly* why I think it is such a powerful force.

As I said, there’s nothing new here; at least its not new if you’re one of the first hundred monkees. My gut tells me that this is the next insanely great thing. If you’re reading this, like me, you’re in the right place at the right time. Let’s talk about how we’re going to explore this opportunity, and how we’re going to help reshape the business world.

As a final note, I’ll be taking some of the “fluff” articles from earlier offline. This is not in an attempt to avoid current or future embarassment (things said online live forever, after all). Rather it’s an attempt to focus the scope and quallity of the site.