Autoflow Nightmare

August 23, 2012

Once upon a time, in a world before “pre-flight”… Back when PD and F were just three letters that had no meaning together (unless they were someone’s initials, or that kooky idea about portable files structures Adobe was talking about but not making available)… In this time long, long ago when Macs were run by extension, there was a nightmare that put fear in every designer’s gut: getting your huge PageMaker file to be print-ready (these were the days before QuarkXpress reached stability with fonts). And while the ulcer-causing uncertainty of “going to film”, and the nerve-wracking learning curve of reading bluelines were each enough to drive a designer back to waitressing, it was draft proofing that began the nightmare.

Even in a studio that boasted the faster of the Mac Quadra models, running page proofs could take hours (and hours and hours). Each page had to be sent individually for fear of printer overload, and with text-wrapping (new! fancy!) and duotone photos, the process crashed more than it succeeded. More than once I slept at the studio where I was a junior designer, setting my alarm clock (picture provided below for all of you who are too young to know a world before the smartphone clock app), so I could send pages to the laser printer every 40 minutes.

Incidentally, that was that project that killed the joy of being on salary. I wanted overtime for that BS. But I digress.

Lack of sleep will get to a person. And delirium set in after staying late early in the week to produce page proofs necessary to create a mocked-up version of the newsletter to deliver to the client (via human messenger), then repeating the process a few days later to run separations before being able to load the files and linked images (no embedding) onto six or so  floppies and drive them to the pre-press imaging house a town over. And then, during the tense tense 24-hour period we had to wait while film was being pulled, I had a true, sweating in my sleep nightmare.

It was a Pagemaker nightmare. I was caught between two words in the layout file, and autoflow was carrying me from one line to the next, squishing me as the image I was wrapping around was made bigger and then smaller.  Except that this wasn’t happening in the friendly colors of the corporate all-employee newsletter that had taken over 2/3 of my job. In my nightmare, I was trapped in a Tron-like color scheme, and the lines that the text was flowing through were 3D and cavernous, like the glowing red chasms of the movie. I was marked with glowing red lines, too, which really stressed me out. Fear mounted as I kept getting to the end of a line and swung to the next line, then the next, then WHOOSH!  I was swept to page 3 for the continued in column and I woke with a heart-racing start, bolted up in bed and yelled as if my child was going over the edge: “THE FILE!”

And that was my autoflow nightmare. When Tron: Legacy came out a few years ago, I didn’t go. And back in the mid-90s, once I moved into web design, I never kept my skills up with PageMaker (even after Adobe bought it so they could kill it, like they did with FreeHand), or its successors. We use InDesign in the Wax studio, but I myself am not agile with it. As an art director, however, I still catch more little page layout nits than the designers do. Muscle memory from the days of yore.

And every year, around annual report time, I am a little haunted.

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Awesome and Interesting

May 16, 2012

My dad, whom I think is both awesome and interesting, has visited over 80 schools this year, bringing his Cheesie Mack presentation to thousands of kids. I’ve talked about him a bunch on this blog — his name is Steve Cotler. And yesterday his Facebook update read:

Sandwiched between four presentations, I had working lunch with a dozen fifth-grade, future authors at Bach Elementary. We spoke about avoiding clichés and discussed why adjectives like “awesome” and “interesting” are neither awesome nor interesting.

I am going to respectfully differ with him on this: I think awesome and interesting are awesomely appropriate adjectives to describe how interesting a character like Cheesie Mack is. Cheesie is inquisitive without being a sap, honorable without being unbelievable, loyal, smart, determined, funny and —yes— interesting. He’s an excellent character for any kid to emulate which, as a parent, I appreciate. And his narrative contains both varied sentence structure and layered plots which—as an adult stranded in the the world of Magic Treehouse, Little House, and American Girl—I think is awesome.

To see an example of how awesome my dad’s interesting school visits are, merely click play below. To see how awesomely interesting the Cheesie Mack experience is, I invite you to find out a bit more about what makes Cheesie so perfectly written for today’s kids, then head over to Cheesie’s site (he has his own), and read an excerpt and see how the reading experience is interestingly extended. Awesome.

To find out more about all the prestigious awards and accolades Cheesie has garnered you will have to wait. My dad is awesome about so many things, but delivering content to his web-designing daughter is not one of them. So alas, there is no spot on his website for such stuff (yet), but he does announce it on Facebook.

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O, Powerful Photoshop

January 15, 2012

In an accidental extension of the topic of queens, here is a fantastic Photoshop project to put a face on Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Amazing.

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We Love Bookmarks: Reason #5

October 5, 2011

For the writer: It lets you send your fans home with your brand.

When you give someone your bookmark, you’re making a connection. Even if the interested party doesn’t buy your book, and even if that person isn’t even your fan (yet) and just dropped by your table for a piece of the chocolate you have out, or perhaps the roll of shiny gold Autographed by the Author stickers sitting in front of you caught her eye, or maybe she was just walking by but you said “Hi” — even then, if you hand that person a bookmark, you’re sending her (or him) home with something with your name on it. Even better, it’s something that will get used, or at least seen again, even if just by getting tucked into a book on the nightstand’s to-read stack, or simply by looking too pretty to throw away immediately (as so many do), it might get tossed in with a pile of mail, or onto a desk, or into a purse — some place where it will be seen again.

Also, think of all the times you have met someone in line at a supermarket, or on the plane, or in a restaurant where the tables are quite close together and the kids are spilling over. When you carry some bookmarks on you, you can hand this newly-met person a bookmark. Now you know that this branded reminder of you and your book has gone home with this potential reader.

And when they visit your website they’ll already feel comfortable because it’s in the same design as the bookmark you gave them. Hopefully that comfort will carry them through clicking on your order links!

Check out some other reasons to love bookmarks!

  1. It does everything a business card does, but better.
  2. Remember the preschool adage: “Books are our friends”? Well, that’s still true, even now that we are all grown up. Be nice to your book. A bookmark can help.
  3. They’re cheaply printed and easily changeable.
  4. Bookmarks actually help you read.

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Another Way to Trick Facebook into Working for You

September 14, 2011

Facebook is filled with quirks — any online presence is, massive like Facebook or comparatively small, like, well, anyone else. There will be hiccups that frustrate to no end that are a function of internet hardware realities or of competing/conflicting business goals.

Picture-4One such issue we encountered yesterday has to do with one of the most basic functions: sharing a link with your fans. Facebook helpfully expands it for you, with a picture and an excerpt or a summary from the page you want to share. But for better performance (the official word), or for cheaper operations on their end (the more probable reason), Facebook caches any page you’ve already shared. With blog posts and other newly posted URLs, this will usually be no problem, but with regularly changed static-IP pages, such as an author’s Contest (example, example, example, example), Facebook’s excerpt might come from a cached page, or in other, more frustratingly real-life terms: an older and totally inapplicable version of the page.

Such was the hair-tearing situation Laura Lee Guhrke found herself in yesterday. The obvious answer is to rename the url of the page in question. But even with SSIs, this is not a 5m fix, and Laura has a rapid-fire contest promotional plan starting that will last into next summer (take note, readers who like to win stuff. Like Laura’s FB page and stay informed). Facebook’s cache issue was going to potentially derail her promo plans.

With both Estella (Laura’s lead designer) and Emily (our creative director) trying to figure out how to make Laura’s site work around Facebook’s caching hindrance without costing Laura a limb, a light bulb went off in my head. “I will fix it,” I said.

And I did. The solution is simple, and while we are happy to do it for our clients (just ask me!), it’s something anyone can do on their own and bypass Facebook’s cache hurdle. Use a URL shortener! Just copy and paste your URL into a shortening service like bit.ly and share the newly generated link on Facebook. You’ve never shared that link before, so Facebook pulls from the live, newly updated page.

I know, right? Facebook will be Facebook. And it’s an incredibly helpful business tool. But Facebook makes us grit our teeth every month with needs for workarounds. Luckily, this one is easy and cheap.Picture 1

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Facebook is a Privately Owned Company

August 19, 2011

Say it to yourself: Facebook is a privately owned company. Understand what that means: if they decide to change something, or something goes down at their end, you have no recourse. If you have organized your business plan / home page / photo-posting protocol around one of Facebook’s features and they decide to alter that feature or even take it down, again, no recourse. This is not to say that you shouldn’t incorporate Facebook into your business plan — you should. Facebook is a major player and can be enormously helpful to round out your online presence. But understand what you are doing.

Earlier today Facebook feeds went down for a few minutes. In that time, three of our clients emailed me to ask about it, concerned that their sites were broken (one of the three had checked other sites to note that other feeds were down, too, not just hers). None were upset with us (we have the best clients!), but there was concern that perhaps their feeds had been broken or we had mis-coded. I assured that sites were intact. But this goes to illustrate a general misconception about feeds and widgets. These fantastic bits of functionality are –by definition– generated elsewhere (a quick refresher in the fallibility of the internet and servers might be in order). The inclusion of such feeds and widgets on your site renders you dependent upon this privately-owned company. You are at the whim of a not-quite-30-year-old Harvard dropout billionaire, his lawyers, and his developers. It really kind of comes down to that. Facebook’s business plan revolves not around your needs — they are primarily concerned with their ability to generate ad revenue. Your user experience enters into that, of course, but not necessarily your business goals.

Some rumblings have made their way back to me about a number of authors who have decided that the website is dead at the hands of Facebook and they are merely going to maintain Facebook presences. Um, okay. Please see above about your entire online presence being now housed on a site for which you have no say. I can only say “Wow,” to that. And I suppose: “Good luck,” too.

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We Love Bookmarks: Reason #4

August 18, 2011

For the reader: Bookmarks can actually help you read.

You read by habit. Your eyes have muscle memory for what you usually read. If you’re used to Twitter, neither War and Peace nor Harry Potter will come easily. This is not because Twitter made you stupid or less intellectual (although there are those who will passionately argue that point), but because you’re in the habit of skimming and of learning all you need to know in a 140-characters-or-less glean. If you’re used to War and Peace, Twitter is going to be a challenge– but not because you’re too erudite for society! You, too, are missing some muscles.

IMAG0219

Bookmarks are a great way to keep yourself steadily reading something you’re not used to. The bookmark underlines one line of text and all you’re responsible for is reading that line. Move it down, read the next line. You won’t skim and you won’t read so slowly that you suddenly realize you’re thinking about your laundry, or the boy in the carrel two rows over. All students should have bookmarks for this reason precisely.

Yes, we love bookmarks.

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Check out some other reasons to love bookmarks!

  1. It does everything a business card does, but better.
  2. Remember the preschool adage: “Books are our friends”? Well, that’s still true, even now that we are all grown up. Be nice to your book. A bookmark can help.
  3. They’re cheaply printed and easily changeable.

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Yes, We Still Hate Frames

April 25, 2011

Facebook makes changes all the time and usually with little warning and less explanation. It’s become a common pattern — Facebook restructures something, there’s public outrage, Mark Zuckerberg issues an apology-that-doesn’t-apologize (“We are sorry you having difficulty with the change, but…”), and everyone grudgingly gets used to the change.

Code-level structural changes to Fan Pages, however, get a particularly fuzzy end of the lollipop. Whereas profile changes affect your personal workflow, Fan Pages are tied to your business and changes are usually subtle, sudden, and annoying (read: costly) to fix. Facebook’s most recent change brings us back into the era of (I still can’t believe it) frames. You remember — scroll bars everywhere and a URL that never changed so it was unclear where you were and impossible to link to. It was awful.

Frames had only two valid, though clunky, uses. One of which was to embed another site within your own. However, what was awkward in 2001 is simply annoying now. But Facebook’s fortune relies upon no one ever leaving their site, so Facebook tabs now employ an updated version of a rightly-euthanized type of code. Now, with iFrames (cute how the “i” makes it all seem so cutting edge, right? NOT!), when you click a link that would take you to a site, you don’t get taken to that site — you get taken to that site within a Facebook frame, complete with those less-than-fantastic scroll bars. With iFrames, Zuckerberg and Co. ensures that you never have to leave Facebook and they can continue to get ad revenue while you browse another site. Brilliant, right?

Gawker Media probably disagrees.

Frames had one other use, that was to have one section of your page that remained global while another could change. Gawker Media used an updated version of this antiquated structure (that was replaced almost entirely by SSIs before most of today’s first graders were even born) to change the their formatting across their eleven blogs, from the standard blog view to something else — a two-paned format in which the story you’re reading is wide on the left and the rest of the stories are listed on the right, in a frame, complete with — you guessed it — those annoying scrollbars. There’s no anchoring homepage. Every single page on the blog is displayed that way. Although they’ve fixed the unchanging URL-problem that plagued users ten years ago, this is also essentially frames.

It’s a terrible user experience. It’s confusing — whether you’re scrolling through the story or through the story list is dependent on where your mouse is. How do you sort by category? Or by tag? Or even by date? According to Lifehacker’s announcement the day they made the change, their major motivation was to make the user experience better, but they couldn’t have possibly tested it because across Gawker’s significant roster, users are not jumping on the bandwagon. According to The Atlantic, traffic to Gizmodo, one of Gawker’s most popular blogs, has dropped from 400,000 in January (the month before they implemented the change), to less than 100,000 today. Even with the option of viewing in traditional blog format, people hate the new Frames-style format. So much so that they have abandoned the guilty-pleasure go-to of the gawker sites. And guilty-pleasure online habits (including visiting your favorite author sites), once poisoned with a sour taste, are very hard to get back.

Facebook is a different animal than Gawker, infinitely bigger and far better integrated than arguably any other site on the web. For better or for worse, this is a Facebook world and we’re all just living in it. Business has become painfully tied to it. Too big to fail like Gawker, Facebook has become the benevolent dictator that can, on a whim, tax our resources at will and, if it wants, bring back sleeping giants.

Bottom line: employing frames might be good strategy-on-paper in Palo Alto, but it’s a very frustrating user experience online, and it’s even worse (read: so not cost-effective) to design for. But like the peasants in Cuba, all we can do is try to survive within it, hoping it doesn’t become more oppressive.

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Accelerating Beyond The Wall

April 11, 2011

We have a client who is gun-shy with her laptop. She’s older than I am, and I was already a big fan of Led Zeppelin when John Bonham died, so that dates us both pretty well. Our client is trying to use her blog, but gets so afraid of making a mistake she seizes up, does nothing, and then in frustration just contacts us (which is fine, we are happy to help). As she says, I grew up in the age of typewriters…

Well, me too (see above about John Bonham, RIP). I didn’t use a computer until my last paper of college. And at that, it was printed on a dot matrix printer and my professor (older and far more set in her ways than our client is now) marked the paper down from an A- to a B+ because she didn’t like “computerized papers”. She felt that they were less thoughtfully crafted.** Hmft!

In the technological flow described by Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, as we move forward at the warp speed of tweeting and the like***, it will become more and more important for those of us who remember typewriters and [gasp!] rotary phones to move faster to understand the world in which we want to compete. I spend so much time learning when I argue with myself that I should be doing more fruitful tasks like, oh, billing or working with new, incoming clients. But being open to ongoing education — both formal and informal — it’s critical. Kids these days are wired in.**** And these kids are now or will be competing for our jobs, just as I did in the early 90s when I was the resident mac-go-to-whiz-kid. Beware you 24-yr-old hotshots, the tweens are gaining on you.

I imagine that similar generational conflicts have occurred over history. I can see the pre-plague 14th century cooper disowning his son for coming up with a better way to build a barrel. The inherent problem is one of mindset: if it’s better, and we aren’t open to change, then the newly discovered bit of progress can seemingly invalidate an entire life’s work! But today we have an understanding of the mathematical curve of progress. Hopefully we will embrace it… Even us “golden oldies”.

**Incidentally, the paper was dropped from an A to an A- because my analysis comparing the descent of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar to that of Pink in Pink Floyd’s The Wall went right over her head. She readily agreed with all my points, but couldn’t get past the lyric “We don’t need no education,” which didn’t figure into the paper at all, but was the only snippet of the album the prof knew (thank you pre-iTunes pop radio) before my paper crossed her desk. Had I not been a UCLA fifth-year ready-to-get-out-22-yr-old I would have fought it, and in retrospect, wish I had.

***I am reminded of the “interview” scene in The Social Network where the coveted position for intern was awarded to the kid who, while playing a high-pressure, multiple-shots drinking game, is able to first hack into some school mainframe or something like that.

****Wired in, indeed! Some school district in Maine is trying to convince taxpayers that in kindergarten students need an iPad2. Operative word here: need. I can’t imagine. But then again, who could have imagined today’s world back in 1980 when John Bonham was still banging a drum?

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Make the Bestseller List #greatwebsite

April 7, 2011

How integral is a great website to pushing your sales and listmaking status?

We believe having a great website invariably assists in reinforcing the urge to purchase. The buyer is welcomed, and reassured that the purchase is supported. The difference in entering a great website vs a mediocre or poor one is similar to the difference in entering a house that is a mess vs entering one that is tastefully decorated and picked up. It’s just more welcoming and easier to get through. It leaves the visitor with a better feeling, regardless of how much the visitor may already love you (though if said visitor doesn’t already love you, a messy house is a turn-off, isn’t it?). Furthermore, if the author’s site can display a strong community aspect, then the welcoming feeling is extended past comfort into interactivity.

Of course if you don’t have a great book then there is no level of website investment will help. And if you don’t have publisher support behind you in the form of a print run that can support a list hit, then again, no effort on your part will land you on a list. And if your promo budget doesn’t support a really good professionally designed and maintained site, then don’t kick yourself over it — you will do the best you can. But it is hard to deny a connection between a great website and the ongoing building of a solid following. And a solid following unequivocally helps in terms of sales, primarily early sales which lead to listmaking. And impressive early sales almost always come into play during contract negotiations.

And the hip bone’s connected to the backbone…

* Jennie actually hit the list many months ago. I *just* found this screenshot in my files.

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