Category Archives: work

Driven to distraction…

I work for a large university. My workload is split about 48% support, 48% production and 4% design. Needless to say, my Graphic Design skills are rusty. It’s the sort of thing you really have to do regularly or it just slips.

Anyway, recently, I had two new site designs to work on. Nothing ground breaking or particularly difficult, but the requirement was a bit more than the same old university template driven site. I tried. I tried again… and again! Those ‘rusty’ skills seemed to have seized up altogether, I had designer’s block!!

You can laugh, but I even had nightmares about not being able to get the computer to do what I wanted it to. I sort of knew the problem – my workplace is an IT production environment, not a design studio. It’s full of noise and clutter, devoid of character and cadence, it’s boring and grey, not colourful and inspirational. On top of that, the flow of work never stops! Emails, tweets, IMs, newsfeeds – there were too many distractions. Anyway, after the bad dreams the other night, I decided on an action plan.

  1. Clear my desk of clutter
  2. Tune out from the background noise
  3. Avoid electronic distractions

As it happened, it was surprisingly easy. Clearing the desk – well, that’s straightforward. Tuning out – a pair of headphones and the iPod. Electronic distractions – a little trickier, after all, I use the computer to do the work, I can’t very well turn that off!

What I did was create a new user account. I called it ‘Designer’, and I turned off everything – no email, no IM, no bookmarks – not even a desktop pic! Just Photoshop and Illustrator in my dock and a shared folder to move files to and from my main account. Using this account is like stepping into a private office, I get incredible amounts of work done without the distractions. When I need to, I just switch back. The change has been so dramatic that yesterday, having made huge progress on my design tasks, I was looking forward to coming to work for the first time in days.

So, there you have it. My #1 tip for getting things done. Create a purpose built account and use it to escape! It got me past my designer’s block :-)

and the winner is…

For a few years now, Web Directions conference has incorporated The McFarlane Prize, which recognises excellence in web development.

Although a relatively small prize, it is hotly contested, peer reviewed and any sites that are shortlisted (let alone those that win), have achieved very high levels of excellence in coding, usability, design and accessibility (that’s all together, not categories!). It is truly an achievement and I encourage people to visit the McFarlane site and view some of the entries.

Usually, the contenders are relatively small sites from well controlled environments. Not to take anything away from their achievements, but it’s tempting to think such accolades are beyond the reach of large and diverse organisations. Well, this year’s prize winner put paid to that assumption.

Swinburne University of Technology took out the main prize. For those of us in the know about how difficult it is to pull together a university website this is an achievement that ranks alongside climbing Everest, cycling the Nullarbor and completing the Hawaii Ironman.

They deserve: 1) a huge pat on the back and 2) five minutes of your time to visit their site and check what makes it tick.

Women’s Semi Final, Australian Open 1992

Women's Semi Final, Australian Open 1992
Every January when the Australian Open Tennis is on, I fondly remember back to 1992 when, working for XPress Group, I was lucky enough to be handed a Press Pass and a Nikon F2 camera fitted with a new Kodak DCS-1 back. The camera, in turn, was connected to a ‘luggable’ hard disk with (B+W CRT!) preview function that stored, from memory, about 120 images at 2048px along the longest edge. The hard disk could also accept a keyboard and voiceband modem that allowed images to be sent to news photo repositories and syndicated worldwide within … well, within an hour or so! It was amazing technology for the time – bear in mind that the Mosaic browser wasn’t released for another 15 months!

If you look at this photo, you’ll see some pretty massive compression artefacts as well as a wild colour balance issue (that purple is supposed to be royal blue!), but the product was aimed at the fast turnaround press environment (believe me, you couldn’t afford this kit at home!), and given the low resolutions involved and the fact that no newspapers were printed in colour, these technical issues were not big obstacles.

My task was to get the ‘real’ press photographers interested in it and teach them how to use it if they were interested. It was a great tool, probably the biggest issue was the shutter delay. You really had to fire in anticipation – about half a second ahead, otherwise you missed your moment.

In the end, a photo I took of Jim Courier holding aloft the cup was posted on the ‘wire’ and was picked up by the Canberra Times, appearing on the back page the next day – the first digital photograph to appear in any Australian Newspaper.

My highilight, though, was Monica Seles – one of the most fiercely determined women I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Semacode vs QRcode

This week has been a big one in the mobile phone world. Debate about the iPhone and the plans available to use here in Australia has been everywhere. At the same time, however, Telstra has been heavily pushing its venture into barcodes with the introduction of QRcodes to the Australian market.

I say introduction because that is the word Telstra are using, but in reality the technology is not theirs and has been around and freely available for download and use on java capable mobile phones for the better part of a year. They are characterising it as some sort of breakthrough, but of course, it’s not.

That’s not to say I don’t think these things have merit – I believe the concept is great, in fact, I use it regularly at work when testing sites on mobile phones and I don’t want to type in long URLs on the keypad, I just load up a code, snap it with the camera straight from the screen and it takes me there.

What is not well known is that there are two commonly used types of code: Semacode and QRcode, both seem to do the same thing and there’s no reason why you can’t have both readers on your mobile phone, so I am curious about the pros and cons.

QRcode seems to be the underdog, being mostly confined to the Japanese market and (in my simple test at least), almost half as efficient as Semacode in rendering a URL (841 pixels vs. 484 pixels), but it still seems to work well though in use, I find Semacode better.

Comparison of QRcode and Semacode

Efficiency is a key factor for usability where conditions are less than ideal – dodgy cameras, poor lighting, movement and parallex – all make it harder for the software to recognise the patterns, so it’s a given that the less pixels you have to capture and interpret, the less mistakes you will make.

Semacode also seem to be doing interesting things with Social Networking tools and have a Facebook app, so you can generate your own personal card that others can ‘grab’.

The good news is that you don’t need to make a decision. Telstra are saying in their ads that you ‘get the software from your Telstra dealer’, like it’s some exclusive deal, but in reality you can download both readers freely: I’ve been using the readers from Semacode and Kaywa, but I’ve just found this one called beetagg which apparently reads both.

You can also create codes easily, with loads of open source libraries and online tools, once again from Semacode, Kaywa and there are generators that do both from Nokia and Beetagg.

Enjoy ;-)

A week in touch

I’ve had the pleasure of using an iPod Touch for the last week. As much as I like my music, I’ve never really felt the need to upgrade from my old ‘gumstick’ 1Gb shuffle, but we’ve got one at work with the intention mainly of testing podcasts and public facing services.

Yes, the multi touch is cool, the screen is brilliant, the wifi easy to use – all just so sweet. So, what can I say about my week that hasn’t already been said a million times in a million other reviews? I’ll try to stick to a couple of things that have impressed me.
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cassowary crossing…

cover imageMy latest little design job, a straightforward wordpress theme and setup to accompany a quirky book about odd things to visit around Australia, Cassowary Crossing.

I have to say. it was nice to work with someone who has no lack of decent content. David has already filled his blog with loads of interesting stuff.