Elements or Lower

Fri, 23 Nov 2007

Leoptard

It’s been said that I loves me some Apple. It’s been said that I’ll run out and buy any old crap they release. It’s been said that I’ve got a tattoo of Steve Jobs on one buttock, and a tattoo of myself on the other, such that when I clench it looks like they kiss.

These things have been said. But with the release of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, it seems that my miniature Steve has kicked me sharply in the back of the balls with his tiny, inky foot, for Leopard is just one big daily regret.

My irritants, let me show you them:

On the bright side, at least Mail now allows you to forward messages as an attachment, tempting me away from the smashing orangeyness of GyazMail. The final feature of GyazMail that I’d sorely miss is its ability to attach a Finder-label style colour to a message (which I use for “Urgent Action”, “Action”, “Reference” etc). I know that one can use rules in Mail to achieve the same thing, and perversely, to assign arbitrary colours to messages using the Show Colours menu option — but were someone to create a Mail plugin that allowed assignment of Finder-label colours to messages from a toolbar icon, and further allowed these colours to become criteria in a Smart Folder, I swear I’d love them longtime. Alternatively, GyazMail could acquire smart folders and let me use Spotlight to find messages, but that seems even less likely.

I must go. Buttocky Steve requires nourishment.

Mon, 24 Sep 2007

Using HTML for Print

Over the weekend, we launched our new registry notification cards on Buy Our Honeymoon. For customers in the UK or EU, we send out a set of 100 cards as part of the service. Previously, these had used our logo, URL and a standard message, but we’d wanted to offer customised cards pretty much from the beginning.

One of the key challenges in doing this was finding an easy way to generate the artwork for the cards without having to manually alter a template each time. In some ways, the obvious thing to do would be to generate a PDF — but that’s not easy at all. Have you seen XSL-FO?

Instead we decided to use a non-obvious choice: HTML. And it worked beautifully.

A cluster of registry cards

There’s a couple of things that it’s easy to forget about HTML:

Was the resulting file fit for use on the web? Was it accessible? No — but that wasn’t the plan. The plan was to load it into Safari and print it using a very high-quality laser printer onto some nice thick card. It’s HTML, but it’s not a web page.

Why Safari? Well, for one thing, it’s the browser I use on a daily basis — but, crucially, you can also set it to miss out the normal printed headers and footers (such as the page URL), so you’re left with the content and nothing else.

So, having set up a sample file, it just needed some experiments to get the page margins correct. And then a workaround for the discovery that Safari seemed to miscalculate some of our mm box sizes by 3mm. I have no idea if Safari 3 fixes this — but if it does, it’s just an adjustment to the stylesheet.

Thu, 23 Aug 2007

element->down();

In an attempt to cultivate more focussed blogging habits for myself, I’ve now added a companion tumblelog to this one, tentatively entitled element->down();.

With what amounted to an amorphous clog of small links and snippets finally being posted somewhere they belong, I’m hoping I may be able to more regularly attend to meatier blethering here. We’ll see.

Thu, 26 Jul 2007

Ten. Five. Two.

It’s anniversary season for Andrew.

Ten Years.

In July 1997, I set up Article Seven. My original intent was to provide graphic and web design to students organisations, with a greater emphasis on the former. But I quickly discovered that this wasn’t really a viable market niche, and that I was far better at getting things to work properly on the web than I was in print.

Although I was fortunate enough to be able to keep everything afloat, it took two years for the company to really find its feet, when I was brought on board to redesign the web sites of both Woking Borough Council and FISITA. Those relationships have lasted to this day, and form the vast bulk of the work I do. I barely feel like a freelancer: it’s like being a staff member at each place. I’m invited to Christmas meals, mentioned in Annual Reports, discussed in the staff magazine.

I moved to Woking in mid-1999, and noticed that the Council’s site contained a page of links to local companies, so I emailed them asking to be included, and offering to reciprocate by providing a consistent set of button images, since the navigation buttons on their site at the time had been clearly built from a variety of sources over time. It was my very great fortune that the Council were just about to start a tender process for the redevelopment of their site, to which I was invited to submit a proposal. At the time, I was able to promise a lot for very little money, and by spring 2000, the new site was launched.

Since that time, the site’s been redesigned a couple of times, and the Council have sponsored the development of the Content Management System that now powers their main site, community site, intranet and kiosk sites — together with SurreyWaste, The NPC, Monks and, of course, FISITA and FISITA 2008.

The initial creation of the CMS has consequently been the professional highlight of the past 10 years, although having my work nominated for an award, and being mentioned in an O’Reilly book (page 114 — what a thrill!) were inarguably bigger ego inflators.

Five Years.

And in July 2002, we moved from Woking to Greenwich. Article Seven, which had been run from the world’s best shed, grew up and found a proper studio, behind and under which we live.

I love it here, always have, and I can’t imagine wanting to move again for some considerable time yet. About a month ago, Tesco’s opened down the road, Marks and Spencers moved into the garage a couple of hundred yards away, and The O2 opened its doors. I honestly don’t know which of these pleased me more.

Just beyond the Maritime Museum, there’s a shop selling nautical paraphernalia that proclaims itself as “the first shop in the world,” being a few seconds west of the meridian. I’m about four seconds east of the meridian, and thus by the same logic, the last web development bureau in the world. I rather like that.

Two Years.

30 July 2005, my wedding day. A happier whirlwind of a day I couldn’t have asked for, followed immediately by the most carefree, indulgent and fun three weeks of my life. I really can’t believe it’s been so long already.

Shelley and I are as close now as we were then — closer, in fact, due in no small measure to working together on our honeymoon gift list service and the birth of our fabulous daughter, ZoŽ.

ZoŽ’s ten months old now, and seems to believe that Daddy is Mister Potato-Head, with removable nose and ears.

Life is good.

Tue, 17 Jul 2007

Breaking America

We’re now running a honeymoon gift list for the UK, and a honeymoon registry for the USA.

Aside from the different terminology (which actually works in our favour to help to direct the most popular search queries on each side of the pond to the correct version of the site), one of the key changes we had to make was getting the various dates and times to behave correctly outside of the UK. I’d never actually built proper timezone support into anything before, so this was something of a learning curve for me.

Dave Rolsky’s excellent DateTime modules bore the brunt of the real work for this, of course, but I was anxious to make sure that assigning the correct Olson timezone to a couple’s list didn’t become a hurdle when signing up.

Although there are 26 actual Olsen timezones for America, only a handful are currently relevant. For example, both America/New_York and America/Detroit describe Eastern Standard Time. So, instead of asking our customers to choose between them, we only need ask whether they’re in Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, Alaskan or Hawaiian time. Or Arizona, which irritatingly is just the same as Mountain Time, but without daylight savings. If you choose Eastern, you’re assigned America/New_York behind the scenes.

There aren’t many countries that have more than one timezone, of course. So I set up a small database table for the Olsen timezones, recording the country for each. When you select a country from the dropdown list on our registration screen, a small blob of Ajax kicks in to query this database. If there’s more than one (relevant) timezone for the country you’ve selected, a second dropdown appears listing those timezones. If not, a hidden field is assigned the ID value of the only timezone for that country.

There’s another small Ajax routine on each page of the UK site now to try to direct US visitors to the US version of that page. If your offset from GMT, as reported by your browser, is more than 3 hours behind, a panel is revealed at the top of the page:

The panel reads: "This is the UK version of this page.  View the US version."

We had our first sale to the US today, thanks to the glory of AdWords. Let the conquest begin!

Fri, 01 Jun 2007

Late to the Bandwagon

im in ur dalikz exterminatin ur doktrs

Wed, 23 May 2007

Back in Print

Very nearly ten years ago, when I started Article Seven, my intent was to focus on print design for students’ organisations, with web design as a secondary concern. The basis of this was my work as a sabbatical for Kent Union, plus my role as Publications Assistant for the NPC, but over time, I discovered three things:

  1. The niche market “graphic design for students’ organisations” wasn’t really a market at all.

  2. Print design is a frustrating business: you send off your artwork, wait, and when it comes back with a problem (because you’re too cheap for proofs), there’s nothing you can do about it.

  3. I was getting much more skilled at web design than I’d ever be at print design. What’s more, my poor old Acorn couldn’t really cut it. As much as I loved Photodesk, ArtWorks and Impression, anything but mono work would always come back shockingly desaturated, at poor resolution, or with myriad unpredictable glitches (exacerbating point 2 above).

Consequently, before long, my print work trailed off to a logo here and there, and the occasional NPC newsletter.

When we launched our honeymoon gift list service last month, we began a careful marketing campaign, which included trying to make personal contact with a number of wedding blogs and magazines.

Shelley discovered a recently-launched magazine named Perfect Wedding, whose next issue was to be a honeymoon and gift list special. We contacted them, and were offered a full-page ad at an excellent price, but only if we could deliver the artwork within a few hours, as they were just about to go to press (I believe the page would otherwise have been used for a cross-promotion of one of the publisher’s other titles).

With no small degree of art direction from Shelley, the following ad was created in about two hours flat:

The most romantic gift lists ever!

I can intuit InDesign much better than Photoshop, so I’m glad that the design was much more of a traditional DTP project than an image-manipulation extravaganza.

Having picked up a copy of the new issue yesterday, I’m delighted with the result. The colours are rich, vibrant and match the screen colours near-perfectly, and there aren’t any horrible gotchas. Perfect Wedding were also kind enough to locate our ad right next to their honeymoon article, so we’re situated brilliantly.

Print work will never be a significant part of Article Seven’s output again, but it’s good to know that whatever skills I once had haven’t completely evaporated, and a complete thrill to see both our company and artwork in a major newsstand magazine.

Thu, 05 Apr 2007

Buy Our Honeymoon

At long last, and just as the cobwebs on this poor old blog start to get cobwebs of their own, the Big Project that’s been rumbling away in the background for the past couple of years finally goes live.

It’s called Buy Our Honeymoon, a site that couples can use to compile wedding gift lists that, instead of the usual department store fare, ask for honeymoon experiences and upgrades.

Buy Our Honeymoon - honeymoon gift lists for the independent traveller

While we were planning our wedding back in 2005, we were also planning an epic, three-week, three-thousand-mile road trip across the Deep South of the USA. This was to be the best holiday of our lives: theme parks and plenty of them in Florida, the honeymoon suite at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans, a touch of Elvis in Memphis, a touch of country in Nashville, the resplendence of Dollywood, the serenity of Savannah.

We realised that we really didn’t need any of the things traditionally found in wedding gift lists. We’d been living together for years, and had cultivated a fine habit of buying each other kitchen implements as Christmas presents. A normal gift list would have been slightly redundant and, frankly, a waste of our guests’ money.

And then Shelley had her genius idea: what if our guests could contribute to that wonderful honeymoon instead? But nobody likes to just dump cash into a big pot — we’d ask our guests for specific things we were planning for our honeymoon. Theme park tickets, a car upgrade, a cabin in the Smokey Mountains, meals, champagne. Actual gifts, not just cash contributions, and things we really wanted. Things that would make the honeymoon that much more special.

It turned out that honeymoon gift list services did already exist, but they weren’t quite to our tastes. We didn’t want our guests to pay a commission to the list company (we’d much rather have just paid an up-front fee), we didn’t want to be tied down to a travel agent’s packages, and we wanted our list to look great.

And, dammit, I’m a web developer. So we made our own.

Our guests loved it, many of them going well beyond the call of duty in their generosity. We asked for the dollar value of gifts in a card on the day, and promised to send photographs of us enjoying each gift on our return. Actually getting dollars didn’t really feel like just being given cash (the difference in currency made all the difference), and allowed for a palpable sense of decadence spending it. Paying for an upgrade to a convertible using cash is somehow as exhilarating as driving it (especially if you’d never have afforded the upgrade without the gift).

The honeymoon was everything we could have hoped for. A year and a half later, and I still get misty-eyed over it. A cabin in the Smokey Mountains. A cabin!

Off and on, we’ve spent the time since getting this ready to offer as a commercial product. We’ve put together a set of payment plans that range from the basic list to a list with 50 gift suggestions (individually researched by Shelley) and a custom design theme (hand-crafted by yours truly). Couples can ask their guests to bring the cash value of gifts on the day (just as we did), or to allow guests to pay by credit card immediately into a PayPal account. We don’t take any commission on gifts, and offer a no-obligation, 7-day trial of all list features.

From a geek perspective, the system to manage lists is dripping with Ajaxy goodness, and the magic of CSS allows us to offer a range of themes that transform each list from a database into a design.

I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out, and now we’re just waiting for the first trial accounts to be created.