Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

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Learning Web Design: 6 Blogs, 3 Cheat Sheets and 1 Degree

Over the past few months, I’ve been picking up quite a bit of freelance work. Most of it has been on the technical side of building Web sites. For the most part, I’ve been working with WordPress, so I can send a client a list of appropriate themes and let them decide.

In the scenario that I’m not using an easily theme-able framework, I’m stuck.

So, I’ve been spending some more time looking at design elements on various blogs, how colors and typography and borders are used to make even a simple layout look amazing. I’ve also been collecting resources to keep in mind when working on Web sites.

Six Blogs

  1. Authentic Boredom: Cameron Moll’s design blog.
  2. 24 Ways: 24 ways is the advent calendar for web geeks. Each day throughout December we publish a daily dose of web design and development goodness to bring you all a little Christmas cheer.
  3. Designm.ag: DesignM.ag is a new site that is aimed at providing a wide variety of resources for web designers and developers. The purpose of the site is to keep many useful elements, such as a blog, community news, design gallery, and job board all at one place.
  4. i love typography: iLT is designed to inspire its readers, to make people more aware of the typography that’s around them. We really cannot escape type; it’s everywhere: on road signs, shampoo bottles, toothpaste, and even on billboard posters, in books and magazines, online … the list is endless, and the possibilities equally so.
  5. Jason Santa Maria: This site represents an experiment in art direction online. Rather than allowing the content to flow from a content management system into the same page layout every time, I’ve created a system for fast design direction based on the needs of the content.
  6. Mark Boulton: This is primarily designed to be a portfolio presence for Mark but it also acts as a notebook, journal, experimental space and general dumping ground for designs, commentary and ideas.

Three Cheat Sheets

  1. How a Simple Layout Can Be Mixed ‘n’ Matched with Patterns, Photos and Backgrounds:It’s pretty amazing how much color and background can change the look and feel of a website. In this tutorial we’re going to put together a quick, simple but effective layout and then create variations using backgrounds, photos and patterns. We’ll also look at how to make seamless tiled backgrounds out of a photo, methods for ending a single photo and simple ways to create pixel patterns. In short it’s a jam packed tutorial!
  2. 8 Simple Ways to Improve Typography In Your Designs:Many people, designers included, think that typography consists of only selecting a typeface, choosing a font size and whether it should be regular or bold. For most people it ends there. But there is much more to achieving good typography and it’s in the details that designers often neglect.
  3. 10 Simple and Impressive Design Techniques: Simple effects and techniques are the building blocks of today’s designs. With a “less is more” mentality, we’ve selected 10 very simple and impressive design techniques that can drastically improve the performance and appearance of your designs.

One Web Design Degree

  1. The Personal Web Design Degree: The personal web design degree is the response of one designer to the question “What do I need to study to become a web designer?” The truth is that all the information needed to obtain a functional knowledge of web design is out there just waiting to be read. The only thing stopping most designers from doing so is sifting through all the information and knowing what is worth reading.

What are your favorite design resources? Where do you get inspiration?

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First Look at a (new) News Interface

Over the weekend I discovered The New York TimesFirst Look” blog.

I’d never seen this before, although the blog has been around since 2006, when the Times was experimenting with “My Times.”

How did I find it now?

Because the Times is testing a browsing prototype, “the article skimmer.”

Article Skimmer by The New York Times

Article Skimmer by The New York Times

While “First Look” wants to compare the article skimmer to “Reading the Sunday Times, spreading out the paper on a table while eating brunch,” I simply find it an interesting — Ad-free — interface.

In fact, if Dave Winer hadn’t put together this alternative for free, I might have found myself willing to pay up to $25 a year for that slick interface. Here’s Winer’s podcast on what he would pay for from the Times.

Of course, now I can just take Winer’s river of news and spice it up with some CSS.

Don’t worry, Rex Hammock will pay for it.

Happy, Pat?

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Actionscript and Javascript

A few weeks ago I started following a NY listserve for Flash. I’ve gathered a good number of snippets and learned a lot so far, although I’m still just a lurker. I’m hoping to make it to a meet-up soon.

In any case, an item came in about the relationship between Actionscript and Javascript, which really inspired me to finish up my formal education in Javascript so that I can jump head-first into heavier Actionscript.

The e-mail was about a series of lectures hosted on the Yahoo Developer Network by Douglas Crockford. Crockford is Yahoo’s Javascript Architect and author of “Javascript: The Good Parts.”

Because Actionscript 1 was based heavily on Javascript, and AS3 hasn’t changed that much, these lectures are applicable to both languages.

Mentioned specifically were “The Javascript Programming Language” and “Advanced Javascript.”

I haven’t worked my way through all the lectures yet (they are segmented into three and four parts) but what I’ve seen so far is really helping me wrap my head around some of the language theory.

I haven’t decided yet whether I like learning programming from a video. In some cases, it’s the best option for a clean, class-style experience. Otherwise I’d be reading a bunch of articles all over the place with no real connection, and missing out on important information in the process. But I’ve been watching Lynda.com videos on Javascript and it’s kind of tedious. I can read a lot faster, and I feel like I assimilate information better by reading.

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NOT Another Resolution: Learn Design

I deliberately left something out of my resolutions post last week.

I left out my recent efforts to defeat my greatest weakness: Design.

Forget about when I started building Web sites (age 11), my relationship with design didn’t start until I got into online journalism.

And I learned that I couldn’t design my way out of a keg. ::shudder::

For a while I thought I could get away without being able to design visual elements. I could shoot photos and video, I could program in Flash and code a site from a .pdf. After all, there’s a reason for having designers, right?

I was wrong. I learned that sometimes, there just isn’t enough designer to go around, and you have to be able to make your own decisions. Things move faster and more smoothly if I don’t have to go ask the designer about an element.

Also, there are design elements to everything else I do online, from customizing a Twitter page to visualizing data. I was going to have to learn.

But how do you learn design?

I didn’t take a class, or sign up for a workshop. I just started reading design blogs. Following designers on Twitter. Paying attention to what I liked about certain Web sites and what made them ugly.

And I’ve made progress. I’m not good at details, but I can spec an overall design that doesn’t make people wish for blindness. I’d say I’ve reached paper bag status (as in can design my way out of), but anything more is beyond me.

I want to get better, because I hate not being able to do things. And because Web deisgn is important. I know I’ll never be a designer, but it would be nice to have a touch of the craft.

So if you’ve got resources, blogs, Web sites, or people that I should be paying attention to, please let me know in the comments.

Edit: I decided to add in a list of what I’m reading.

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Mobile News: Problems, Examples, & Real World Use

(Note: I wrote this a few months ago and forgot about it. I found it while cleaning off my hard drive today. Oops!)

I got a Blackberry Pearl about a year ago, and while I have access to Google Reader and Twitter, (my main sources of news) I just haven’t gotten out of the habit of reading off the larger screen of my laptop.

Many media outlets are pursuing the possibilities of mobile news, having learned from their mistake with the Internet. As mobile phones get more advanced and more people use them, there is an opportunity to capture an audience.

Problems

One issue to address when setting out to get news on mobile phones is the variation in technologies used by different phones. Many phones can play video or view websites. All phones can receive text messages, but that can be costly to the user.

Viewing websites on a non-iPhone is a ghastly business. Tiny screens, poor rendering of CSS, graphic-heavy or Flash-based websites, they all make information harder to get at. One solution here is to create a mobile stylesheet that the phone browser will detect.

Another problem is content. Just as people don’t read off a computer screen the way they read a print product, no one wants to read a lengthy feature article on a 2-inch screen.

What kind of content might one want to see on a phone?

Weather and traffic alerts, events, and big, huge, breaking news. Seriously, the feature article can wait till I get home. But if a criminal is running around my neighborhood with a gun, I’d like to know, ASAP.

What about multimedia? I don’t see myself using my phone to go through a complex multimedia package. A video or slideshow, maybe, if I’m really interested. But phones are about “right now” communication. That should be reflected in how news companies approach them.

It may be that the only real solution for phones is better phone software. It doesn’t have to be iPhone quality, but the ability to add “news” to your basic menu would change everything. You could do any kind of feed you want then, while not having to go three steps in just to open a browser.

Examples

The Associated Press launched the Mobile News Network. The view on a phone is pretty nice, with a top news home screen, categorized story feeds (you can pick the general topics, and a “saved” category for custom searches). You can set preferences for location and the types of news you want to see. They also do video pretty well, providing various formats. They have applications for Blackberry/iPhone/iPod Touch users.

CNN’s mobile offerings include a Java application, SMS alerts, live TV (for certain providers), and downloadable videos.


The BBC actually explains
how they set up several different versions of their mobile site and let your browser choose the best one.

The New York Times offers a mobile site where you can read the NYT blogs, see most e-mailed articles, get alerts for topics or keywords, and browse real estate listings, stocks and weather forecasts. You can also choose to have news sent to your phone via text message. Customers of certain providers can also get access to crossword puzzles.

Fox News provides live video, streaming video clips, the requisite mobile site, and text alerts. Something a little different: they also offer an audio version of FNC, for a monthly fee.

Real World Use

The people most likely to have a compulsion to check the news every few hours, no matter where they are, are journalists. So I rounded up a few and asked about their mobile news habits.

Greg Linch sent me an e-mail after I asked for responses on Twitter.

I check Gmail on my smart phone (an AT&T Tilt), where I might have a New York Times, Washington Post or Miami Herald breaking news e-mail. After checking Gmail, I look at Twitter for other news and any interesting conversations. I also get Miami Herald breaking news text alerts, which include big national and local news.

If I’m away from the computer for an extended period of time — or if I’m bored somewhere — I’ll check Google Reader on my phone. If I just want a quick peek at the latest headlines, I’ll go to the mobile version of a site such as CNN, NYT or the Herald.

Kyle Mitchell is a music writer. He carries an iPod Touch. In an IM conversation, Kyle told me about his news habits.

NYT is one that keeps going down all the time. AP Mobile News is absolutely fantastic: runs fast as hell and top news never contains any bullshit like celebrity news. I check that a few times a day. Google News has a similar setup, but it’s much more clunky.

Brett Roegiers associate producer at CNN.com said

On my phone, I consume the news via Google Reader and Twitter.

Brett volunteered some advice to media outlets:

I’ll tell you what news organizations should pay attention to: location-based web apps. I click ‘restaurants’ or ‘bars’ and it shows me what’s in my area without me having to input where I am. I guess I’d say try to take advantage of the platform in some way and not just show the latest headlines.


Lyndsey Lewis
has an older Nokia, but checks the news on her iPod Touch.

I don’t use my phone, because I have a shitty Nokia phone and it’s hard to read stuff on it. But, I also own an iPod Touch, which I bring with me everywhere and use for news. I have the New York Times app on it and use that almost every day.

So what applications are you using to get the news on your phone? What do you think media outlets should be doing to get people’s attention? What can manufacturers do to make phones easier to use in this context?

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Bandwagon of the summer: News APIs

In May announced its intention to build an Application Programming Interface for its data. MediaBistro quoted Aron Pilhofer:

The goal, according to Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news, is to “make the NYT programmable. Everything we produce should be organized data.”

More details, if they can be called that:

Once the API is complete, the Times’ internal developers will use it to build platforms to organize all the structured data such as events listings, restaurants reviews, recipes, etc. They will offer a key to programmers, developers and others who are interested in mashing-up various data sets on the site. “The plan is definitely to open [the code] up,” Frons said. “How far we don’t know.”

I haven’t heard anything since then, although the article mentioned that something would be ready “in a matter of weeks.”

Today I spent some time reading the API documentation for National Public Radio.

That’s right, NPR has an API. (mmm, I love my alphabet soup.)

NPR’s API provides a flexible, powerful way to access your favorite NPR content, including audio from most NPR programs dating back to 1995 as well as text, images and other web-only content from NPR and NPR member stations. This archive consists of over 250,000 stories that are grouped into more than 5,000 different aggregations.

You can get results from Topics, Music Genres, Programs, Bios, Music Artists, Columns and Series in XML, RSS, MediaRSS, JSON, and Atom or through HTML and JavaScript widgets.

Now, I’m a bit of an NPR junkie, so I’m thinking of ways to access all this information for my personal use. And I can see how it could be useful as an internal product for NPR.

But how would another news organization use this? Oh wait, they can’t:

The API is for personal, non-commercial use, or for noncommercial online use by a nonprofit corporation which is exempt from federal income taxes under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

This one doesn’t make sense either:

Content from the API must be used for non-promotional, internet-based purposes only. Uses can include desktop gadgets, blog posts and widgets, but must not include e-newsletters.

And way down at the bottom of the page is a huge block of text describing excluded content. Boooo.

Check out these blog posts from Inside NPR.org, where they explain some of their decisions.

I think this was a great first step, but if you’re gonna jump on the bandwagon, make sure you don’t miss and land on the hitch.

cat

Further, really understand what purpose this bandwagon has. If you’re going to free your data, free it! Let people and news organizations use it (always with a link back) for all kinds of crazy things. Remember kids, sharing is caring!

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Falling in love with blogging again

Zac Echola reminded me yesterday what this blog is about and why I started it.

  • 1. A networking blog should be a living document of your professional self. You should stay focused on topics that matter to people who may hire you. You should start reading blogs from people in your field.
  • 2. When someone makes you think, you should think out loud on your site. Have a conversation with others. Email people questions. Chat with them on twitter. Get to know people. Working a blog isn’t much different than working a room at a conference. Stay focused.
  • 3. Show off your work. When you do something good, show it off. Don’t be bashful.
  • 4. SEO the crap out of yourself.
  • 5. Seize every opportunity you can.
  • 6. Always remember that there’s a real human being on the other side of the machine.

I’ve been really bad at updating lately, and I’m going to work hard to fix that, starting with a bunch of updates on what I’ve been doing lately. I think short posts are preferred, so I’ll split things up. Keep an eye out for stuff on Twitter, Google Maps, Django and more.

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Project updates

I know I haven’t been posting much lately, but I’ve been completely swamped.

Thanks to Matt Waite’s brilliance and patience, I got Django installed on my MacBook. I haven’t actually done much more than order the book and start reading through the tutorial and documentation, but I’m really excited to start learning. Right now I’m stuck trying to get MySQL onto the laptop. I’m Terminal-retarded, so this is getting frustrating. Once I get that up and running, I’ll be diving into a Django-driven class project.

My independent study project has advanced to the data cleaning stage. I’m still gathering the last bits in, but I started cleaning and organizing and staring blankly at numbers.

Life at The Alligator isn’t particularly impressive lately. We’re still mostly fixing. I slapped this little map of upcoming Gainesville shows together last week. Then I had to spend 3 hours trying to get it to work with the publishing system. It’s still kind of broken. But on the bright side, Ken Schwencke, a journalism student who is several levels beyond my programming abilities, has joined my staff.

I’ve written about editing before, in terms of design, importance, and my advanced editing class. But I’d like to dig back down through some of my notes on diversity, ageism, sexism, bias, ethics, taste etc.

One of the first things that we discussed was verifying stories.

An editor hears about a great story for the next days’ paper. There is only one source for the story and no names, no way to double-check the facts. But oh, god, it’s a good story. And there’s no real reason for your source to lie to you, is there?

But man, does your paper look dumb when readers start calling in. My view on the issue:

There is a risk to be taken if the story is important enough. Otherwise, sit on it.
One way to handle this might be to take advantage of the casual atmosphere of the Internet. Maybe you paper has a blog or a forum. Post your unverified story there, and let the community help you verify or deny it. Or make a space especially for rumors.

Next up: hyper local journalism. This is especially topical with the recent breakdown of Backfence.

One of the things that seems to be left out of journalism classes is basic business sense. While it is important to learn as many different ways to tell stories as possible, the trend of this transition to the Internet suggests that journalists also need to know how to monetize their stories, perhaps how to survive as a freelancer.

Hyper local news sites are breaking down the barrier between “journalist” and “reader”, but dealing with the same problems as every other news site: monetization, advertising, ethics and quality.

The best advice to take from the hyper local trend is “Think like a user, not a publisher.” This is something that must be considered at every stage: from building the site to writing articles, to allowing users to post comments, articles and pictures.

Tomorrow: Stories that don’t get told, journalism and math.

Classes in Review Series
Preview

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Editing is not just proofreading

Last semester, I took Editing as part of my course load. It was less demanding than some of my other classes, and time limitations meant that I didn’t give the subject the attention it deserves. I tried to make up for that by taking Advanced Editing during this first half of the summer.

In the Editing class, the emphasis is on grammar, punctuation and word choice. The professor gave us articles to “fix.” Many of the errors were inconsistencies, fact errors, awkward wording and the like. We also did a little bit of page layout on dummy sheets, and cutting down AP wire stories. Less integral to the class, but more interesting, were topics of diversity, ageism, sexism, bias, ethics and taste.

These are the issues that we have discussed in the Advanced Editing class.

The advantage of this class is that it is very small, (at least in the summer, we had only 11 students) which allows for greater freedom of class discussion. The professor would hand out an article or case study and we would discuss the issues as a group. We talked about verifying sources, making up information, copying press releases, critical thinking and journalists and math.

Recognizing these issues and grasping the “big picture” behind a story is what being an editor is all about. But it’s also what being a reporter should be about.

Being an “online” kinda gal, I’d rather be out shooting video, making Flash presentations or putting together a database than managing people and editing articles. But the chance to discuss the issues that editors face everyday has been invaluable, and I think that my future work will be better because of it. These problems are not unique to print journalism. They need to be addressed in other forms of media as well.

Advanced Editing wasn’t a required course, it was a choice I made because every puzzle piece counts. If I could stay in school long enough to take courses in layout, photography and business, I would. Sadly, I’ve only got one year left. But until they kick me outta here, I’m going to scrape together as many puzzle pieces as I can. They will make me a better journalist, but even more importantly, I think they will make me a better person.