Pursuing Better Fluid Layouts

a post on Process

Sometime last Spring I started realizing that grid-based design was getting in the way of good fluid layout. The evidence kept hitting me in the face every time some big commercial site relaunched with a responsive design. At first blush, all would seem orderly, but after tugging at the corners a bit, and scrolling deeper into the content, I’d see cracks surfacing in the underlying structure. The grids were not holding up.

A Manual Kerning Method for the Web

a post on Development

In web typography circles you can’t go celebrating all the shiny new features released over recent years without someone lamenting the lack of kerning. Sure, foundries are doing a fantastic job identifying and correcting for kerning pairs in their fonts, and Open-type features are allowing such intriguing new CSS properties as “kerning”, but both fall short of the exacting control we type nerds are used to from not-so-distant days driving Adobe interfaces.

Responsive Images Mega-List

a post on Process

Responsive/Adaptive images have been an ongoing concern of mine (and yours, I am sure). As fascinating as this issue is, I haven’t always had the time to keep up with the latest, or recall all of the previous attempts as solving this old chestnut, so I have created this mega-list (an aspirational title at this point) to try to collect all things concerning images and how we serve them.

Programs and Pragmatism

a post on Process

Programs are not a replacement for design. There is no ready-made grid or perfect ratio that will make a design sing; any successful program is tuned to the unique needs of a project. By front-loading much of the design thinking to the initial phases of a project, programs free time for creativity to flourish in the areas where innovation is appropriate, and allow designers to leap beyond the infinite chasm of a blank canvas.

Don’t just choose a grid. Design it!

a post on Process

Last Thursday I gave a short talk on grids and Gridset at Port80 localhost in Newport, Wales. The talk introduced some to thoughts that we’ve been batting around the Mark Boulton Design studio for months, so I thought it might help to write up my talk notes here.

Web Design Power Tools

a post on Process

For years there have been whispers of “The One Web Design App”: a Fireworks/In-Design/Dreamweaver monster that will allow us to work exactly as we think best, with impeccable front-end output. It is a beautiful idea, but I’m not sure such an app would be helpful to anyone. Instead of looking for one app with one reactive approach to an onslaught of problems, we need a continual array of smart, focused tools that can be developed so quick as to almost anticipate the industry’s needs.

On Widows, and How to Tame Them

a post on Typography

Dangling from the last line of a paragraph, a typographic widow is a thought fragment severed from its context. They are the result of careless typography – and should be policed – but given the current fluid nature of our web, widows appear with impunity throughout our pages. They are a blind spot, because to notice would invite outrage on the current futility of fighting such details in our ever-responsive layouts.

Standards, not Prescriptions

a post on Development

I honestly couldn’t tell you if srcset is better than picture. How could I? It hasn’t even been implemented by browsers, let alone tested in the wild. Standardization is a good thing – it has made the life of front-end developers/designers much less stressful – but we are in danger of going too far. We are beginning to prescribe the web, not standardize, and that path can only lead to more frustration, and ultimately stagnation.

Islands of Thought in Macrotypography

a post on Typography

Proximity is one of the most ruthlessly subconscious of Design tools. Closeness relates, and every expanse of negative space severs. The deliberate and exact manipulation of space is a mark of superior Design (especially at macrotypographic levels), so let’s quit with the line breaks between paragraphs on the web, shall we?

Lorem Ipsum Dilutes Design

a post on Process

As Designers – especially on the web – we value function over form, and the function of text is to be read. Lorem Ipsum deliberately obstructs this function with gibberish, leaving the tenets of readability to be considered too late in the process (if at all). The result can be pretty, but difficult to decipher. Here’s something that might help…

Responsive Advertising: A Ranged Solution

a post on Critical Thinking

We need a solution to responsive advertising, or else most of our efforts to promote adaptive layouts to large-scale websites will be squashed by cold, hard business reality. There will likely need to be new tools built, old ones adapted, and thousands to convince. But, by defining how we – the web design community that will have to work with these requirements – think this would best be solved, and getting our ideas in early, we can be influential in bringing about a solution that solves everyone’s needs. Afterall, that’s what we do every day, right?

Contexts Change, Design Must Adapt

a post on Process

The last six months have seemed like two years, or maybe just two weeks. It changes based on my angle of reflection. My wife and I moved from Texas, USA, to Wales, UK, and I have absorbed a morbidly-obese amount of knowledge working with the team at Mark Boulton Design. The entire process has been bittersweet, but mostly sweet, and each new experience has exposed new areas in which to grow.

These lessons-learned have compelled me to a redesign, the focus of which has mainly been typographic proportion: between content styles, between type areas and negative space, and between levels of contrast. I also added areas to highlight my writings for other sites and the series of tools I have been developing to make web designers’ lives a bit easier (MIN and Fount, so far).

Hope you enjoy! – Nathan

Design for a Target Experience First

a post on Process

The construction of a site or app should be dictated by the content and the goals of the operators. Recently, Luke Wroblewski and others have popularised the idea of “Mobile First”, which suggests that the process of designing an experience for mobile screens at the onset is ideal, as it constrains us to focus on only what is important. But designing “Mobile First” is as arbitrary as designing “Desktop First”. While I applaud the spirit of the concept, we may be diving headlong into another catchphrase that will need unlearning later.

Sky Pie

a post on Professional Life

I am leaving Unit Interactive as of the 4th of May, and will soon start work with the team at Mark Boulton Design. In the footer of this site, those viewing this on screens wider than 800px should notice the words “Look Up for Inspiration”. This is a mantra. You see, I am trying to be the best designer on the planet. I don’t expect I’ll reach that goal any time soon, and it may take more time than I have, but arriving is not really the point.

Beyond the Generalist: Be Mega

a post on Process

There are many shapes good designers aspire to fill: T-shapes, I-shapes, Ninja Turtles. Rockstars, even. After working at a five person (at most) shop for three years, I have seen how T-Shapes work well, but I know we generalists can push our skill sets further. Ts leave a lot to be desired; there is a lot of missing knowledge and experience on the sides. A generalist can and should be more rounded. To put a metaphor on it: I strive to be Mega Man. For those of you that didn’t misspend your youth on video games, let me explain.

The Tao of Support

a post on Process

Support is the most important feature of any app. When we released Unify nearly two years ago, I was only equipped with customer service skills dulled by the years since my lackluster retail jobs in college, and an all-consuming drive to make sure people got the most satisfaction from our product. In the duration since, I have learned how to support human beings and how to face an onslaught. While I could probably write a all-too-lengthy article on the subject, I found a passage from the Tao Te Ching this weekend that perfectly summarizes my top-level thoughts on Support.

Act Accordingly

a post on Critical Thinking

The Internet and mobile devices do not make us antisocial. They make us hyper-social. Technology has outpaced etiquette, the evidence of which permeates any public space. People constantly let digital interaction interrupt real-life interaction, but if we all start viewing online as real life, we will understand that we already have societal frameworks for being social and polite in this freshly connected world.

How to Become an Expert

a post on Critical Thinking

I have been aspiring to be an expert for just under 30 years now, creeping ever forward with each bit of knowledge and experience. “Experts” are people with efficient answers and deep explanations. Malcolm Gladwell calls them “mavens” in the The Tipping Point, and correctly observes that one cannot just amass an expertise – a maven must compulsively share.

The Form of the Book, Digested

a post on Typography

The Form of the Book, by Jan Tschichold, is the authority on book design and the best book I have ever read on typography (and I’ve read many, mind you). As a web designer this book taught me how to set readable, easy-to-digest blocks of type. As the lead designer on Unit Interactive’s recently launched Curations series, I found new relevance in these pages. The principles of setting type to be read and laying out a harmonious page transcend medium and materials. A solid understanding of the fundamentals detailed in this book will make any designer better. Instantly.

In Case of Zombie Apocalypse

a post on Misc. Debris

The rec room in our new Unit offices has a door that doesn’t shut all the way, so I created some helpful signage.

The Life Raft

a post on Professional Life

It was sickening to watch the ship go down. Our main client walked in early one morning and tore a devastating gash in our hull. All hands were called; half our crew was lost. The brave few that were asked to stay knew our moments were brief. Thankfully, my life raft was ready to go.

Hair of the Dog

a post on Professional Life

My first true creative love was writing. As early as I can remember, I told stories. I have been focused for while now on growing an app I created named Unify, as well as writing professionally for the Unit Blog and Smashing Mag. All of these experieces have been tremendously rewarding, but none have given me the same satisfaction as pure creative writing – writing to no purpose but my own.

So, I am rededicating this site with a new design and a new purpose. We will still talk about design, development, and the like… but I am warning you: it may get weird.

Sincerely, Nathan Ford

Storytelling is not Conversation.

a post on Critical Thinking

For the last fifty years or so, there were a few ways for a person to be influenced by the outside world (radio, television, printed materials, actually leaving the house) and advertisers had every base covered with their brand-related stories: a billboard with a smile, a commercial alluding to Orwell’s 1984, an ad that talked about cars like normal people do… each expertly tuned to play on our emotions.

Abused Typefaces

a post on Typography

Some typefaces aren’t bad: they’re just poorly applied. Some are so useful, they become ubiquitous, and others are just completely devoid of purpose. I like to think of typefaces more as tools of communication, with specifically designed purposes, rather than objects of art. Here are some of the most ubiquitous typefaces used in design these days, and how each is used, abused, or can be properly avoided.

The Case for Logic

a post on Process

Too often, I hear design referred to in terms generally reserved for grade-school art classes. We, as professionals in this industry, are expected to throw out rules, eschew convention, and break down any barriers to our wild creative whims. Armed with this sentiment—their egos checked only by their client’s limited pocket books—many creatives brazenly tromp down the path less traveled, knee high in the formless mirth of their fantasies, with no regard for efficacy or financial return.

The Virtue of Fear

a post on Process

Fear can be a designer’s asset, or instrumental in their own creative impotence. As designers, we need not fear fear itself, only be mindful of how it is focused.

I do not consider myself an overly emotional being, so please note that this article’s indulgence in one particular emotion is not to promote all emotions, all the time. In fact, I am particularly focusing on the ways in which we can control these emotions, specifically: fear, so that they need not override our professional behaviors (yes, I am still talking about creative people here).

Partisan Politics

a post on Miscellaneous Debris

Having spent some time experimenting with the Presidential Election and my Canon, I created a Flickr set to share the results. Take a look and let me know what you see.

Design Professionalism

a post on Process

I just finished completing a survey on professionalism on Andy Rutledge’s Design View. I am keeping my response here for future reference. If you get a chance, please contribute to the survey. Andy’s pursuit is definitely worthwhile.

Please, Don’t Call Me a Rockstar.

a post on Critical Thinking

Recently, I have came across numerous job postings, portfolios, and agency sites that throw around the word “rockstar” as a term of distinction. To me, this is a reckless misinterpretation of a designer’s role.

Pricing Prestidigitation

a post on Process

How much should a website cost? Any given web professional can produce an array of pricing models based on the complexity of a project. The amount of time estimated, multiplied by the hourly rates of those involved would probably be the most common approach, and for good reason. Costs should be a trade on efforts, and thus an hourly rate, based upon the quantifiable measurement of the professional’s abilities is the most rational approach.

Better CSS Font Stacks

a post on Typography

One aspect of designing for the web that almost immediately offends designers is the lack of fonts that are considered safe to use. While it is true that there are only a handful of web safe fonts, the ones we do have at our disposal can be quite powerful and diversely useful. On top of that, CSS gives us a nice little thing called a font stack.

Don’t Know if I’ll be Back Again…

a post on Professional Life

Dearest Advertising: It’s not me; it’s you. We have been rapidly growing apart, lately, and it is due mainly to your obstinate and dedicated grip to the way things used to be. Now don’t get me wrong, I love hearing your old stories as much as anybody, but, ultimately, they echo of fiddles on the Titanic. I am sorry, but I am too young to die drowned in memories and old habits.

What Can We Learn from Pro Wrestling?

a post on Process

Pro-wrestling has long been a pariah of intellectuals. And no industry considers itself smarter than the creative world. I say, though, we should not be so quick to judge a wrestler by his banana hammock. Considering pro-wrestling’s successful tenure, spanning 50 plus years pandering to the lowest common denominators in entertainment, and its ability to continually survive countless attacks volleyed from the trebuchets of polite society, there might yet be a few gems of knowledge that we as marketers, advertisers and creatives can adapt from our more aggressive, muscle-bound, kindred spirits. Such as…