Archive for the ‘Meat and Potatoes’ Category

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Working with your designer

Posted on 18 February, 2009 at 6:56pm with 2 comments

One thing I’ve noticed as I work with clients is that many people, especially engineers, have little to no experience working with creative professionals. Sometimes this can lead to a tense relationship, so I’ve found it helps to lay out guidelines for interaction in a nice, explicit way. Here are a few of the more general points I end up repeating a lot.
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Anne’s Picks for Totally Awesome Interactive Fiction

Posted on 3 February, 2009 at 12:11am with 5 comments

Being a computer nerd growing up in the 80s, I was lucky enough to have first-hand exposure to some of the greatest interactive fiction games of all time. My parents played Colossal Cave together on our Apple ][ and it was my mom who figured out the answer to the insidious final puzzle. Our basement was (and probably still is) full of Zork maps, notes, and drawings from a time before FAQs were plentiful and free on the internet. Some of those games took us six months or more to solve (Suspended, I’m looking at you) and required collective effort from our entire family. It was awesome.

Many computer folk were IF players back in the day. But what you may not know is that there is still an active community of people writing and distributing these games. And best of all, both the games and the interpreters are free! I don’t think the quality of these “amateur” games is any lower than the Infocom games I played in my youth. If anything, I think the genre has grown in incredible ways, and you can find some truly unique stories and play experiences in the IF archive.

So, let’s dig. I’ll tell you about a few of my favorites, and you’ll go play them. All you need is an interpreter (I recommend Spatterlight for the Mac).
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So you want to write a Photoshop killer

Posted on 24 January, 2009 at 3:28pm with 29 comments

The Macintosh platform is well-known for quality independent software, a fact that attracts an increasing amount of professionals looking to get away from overpriced and bloated enterprise software. Indie Mac software is usually well-tailored to a particular audience, has a streamlined interface with native controls, and comes at a bargain for the price. What’s not to love?

And yet, there is still one large (and vocal) market segment waiting for rescue from their corporate overlords. I’m talking about professional designers, photographers and artists, who continue to be slaves to Adobe and its golden goose, Photoshop.

Now, there are several independent apps out there that offer some of the functionality of Photoshop. Many of these are quite good: Acorn, Vector Designer, Pixelmator. But no graphics professional is going to use any of these apps instead of Photoshop, despite the much lower price tag. The problem is not that the apps don’t have useful features. It’s that they haven’t managed to target a segment of the population that uses Adobe software to do their job and present them an alternative with the feature set they need.

Well, I’m here to help. I’m presenting four professional user archetypes of Photoshop along with what features they would need to switch to another application. Note that they rarely overlap. Hopefully this illustrates the futility of appealing to all of these people at once. Pick one segment of users and fine-tune towards their needs.

 

Pierre the Painter

Pierre and others like him use Photoshop for something we call digital painting. Their typical workflow involves scanning a sketch or sketching onscreen with a tablet, then inking and painting the sketch with different kinds of brushes. They rarely if ever use vectors because they don’t have the same organic qualities as natural media, so they usually work at a very high resolution to allow for printing and exporting at a variety of sizes.

Essential features:

Brush editor: Size, shape, opacity, blending, pen pressure. The more options the better. Brushes are the crux of everything they do.

Peripheral support:
Must work seamlessly with their pen tablets and scanners.

Color tools: A fully featured and prominent color palette as well as an eyedropper tool that they can easily swap to from the brush. Color proofing tools are important for artists who want to print their work.

Smudge: Aids blending, should ideally have similar options to the brush tool.

Layers: Pierre uses layers and layer blending to build up a painting from bottom to top. Changes to layers should be in the form of layer properties – in other words, you can go back later at any time and add/remove effects. (We call this non-destructive editing.)

Wish list:

Canvas texture: Natural media textures that affect brush dynamics on the “canvas.”

Line correction: Automatic line smoothing, perhaps as a brush option, would help correct a shaky hand when inking bold lines.

Where others have done it right:

Take a look at the oekaki phenomenon. Oekaki typically uses a simple web-based illustration tool and enjoys massive popularity in Japan and all over the world. Even though the feature set is relatively small, a creative artist can achieve a wide range of visual effects.

Corel Painter is also quite good, but much more complex and just as crufty as Photoshop in some ways.

 

Dana the Designer

Dana uses Photoshop primarily to create mock-ups and layouts, usually involving a fair amount of text. She uses vector tools to draw shapes and embellishments, typographic tools for text layout and headings, and bitmap tools to add images to her design. Assembling all the various pieces of a design into a cohesive whole means she needs to be able to work easily with many different kinds of graphic elements.

Essential features:

Robust typography tools:
Design is 90% typography, so the more options here, the better. Kerning, anti-aliasing, conversion to paths – all the usual suspects.

Layers: The ability to move, group, lock, name and otherwise manipulate layers of all kinds is critical.

Layer effects: You should be able to add basic effects like stroke, drop shadow, transparency, etc. to any kind of layer. Same for blending effects. But keep it non-destructive! Anything you add should be removable later.

Basic vector tools: A pen tool, simple shapes and lines with the option for stroke/fill on any of them. Basic pathfinding tools (join, union, add/subtract) are a bonus.

Image masking:
Designers often don’t require extensive bitmap manipulation (level correction, etc) but do need to fit these images into shapes in their design.

Wish list:

Grid tool: Rules and guides are a given, but additional tools to help you set on a grid with pleasing proportions would be great.

System anti-aliasing: For web designers. A text tool that emulates the system anti-aliasing you’d see on various kinds of computers.

Where others have done it right:

Fireworks (originally Macromedia, now Adobe) is a good example of an app with a boiled-down feature set for designers. It includes “lite” versions of many tools you can find in Photoshop or Illustrator. Despite not being as powerful, many designers prefer it for its relative simplicity.

 

Patrick the Photographer

Patrick uses Photoshop primarily for post-production work on his photographs. He imports an image from his camera, opens it at a high resolution and does level/color tweaks on the image. He may also use some limited drawing tools for clean-up.

Essential features:

Level/color correction:
All the usual suspects for photograph enhancement. Non-destructive please! If you add a correction, you should be able to edit or remove it later.

Heal and clone: Used for cleaning up artifacts and photo manipulation.

Basic drawing tools: Airbrush-like drawing tools with blending options are helpful for enhancing a subject. Used often on pictures of models.

Quick mask: Easily isolate a subject or portion of the photograph for editing. The ability to have alpha properties on a selection further enhances this tool’s usefulness.

Wish list:

Automatic depth-of-field blur: Detect elements in the foreground and blur elements in the background. Useful for when you are working with low-quality photographs.

Photo browser: Interface seamlessly with the user’s library of photographs.

Where others have done it right:

Of the four archetypes, this one enjoys the best coverage on the Mac. Both Aperture and Pixelmator do a nice elegant job of working with photographs. Both of these are reasonable alternatives to Photoshop for professionals.

 

Ian the Illustrator

Illustrators and icon designers fall into the same group and generally need the same tools. They rely almost exclusively on vector tools to do their work, and the more powerful the better. They may work from initial sketches but otherwise rarely do hand-drawn work with a tablet.

Essential features:

Powerful vector tools: A well-designed pen tool, point/handle editors and pathfinding tools are all absolutely essential. Any path, once placed, should always be fully editable.

Gradients:
Standard gradient fills are a must have, but many will also want mesh gradients or gradients that follow a path.

Export to standard file formats: One of the reasons illustrators work in vectors is so the final output can be resolution-independent. You should be able to export to a variety of standards like EPS, SVG and PDF. Bonus if you can export to AI as well.

Bitmap layer for tracing: Your canvas should be able to support bitmap layers so you can easily trace over photographs with the pen tool.

Wish list:

Icon preview: Automatically generate a view that lets you preview your icon at a number of different sizes on various backgrounds.

Hand-drawing tools: Tools that convert input from a pen tablet to paths are great, but even better when you can use different kinds of brushes that respond to pen pressure.

Where others have done it right:

Sadly, I can think of no professional-grade vector illustration tool. Some swear by the open-source app Inkscape, but I’ve never seen it used in professional circles and don’t have much personal experience with it myself.

 

Say what you will about Photoshop, it’s pretty amazing that one single app services all four of these archetypes. However, the flip side of that is that for any one of them, 75% of the app’s features are totally useless. Specialization and customer service is where independent software is strongest. If you can align yourself with your users, and if you listen to their needs, you will find yourself with a very willing audience. We all hate paying $1k+ to Adobe for a bunch of features we never use. We’d much rather pay $50 to an indie developer for exactly what we need.


The Tao of Cool, or Why Nerd Culture is a Myth

Posted on 27 December, 2008 at 12:14am with 4 comments


Homer: Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

Do you remember the popular kids? You know, the people who sat at the best lunch table, wore the most fashionable clothes, and went to awesome parties? Objectively, there was nothing particularly special about this clique, but everyone understood that they were “cool.” Coolness was in fact their salient characteristic.

What I find interesting about being cool is that it’s simply not a label you can give yourself. In this context, cool means that everyone else thinks you’re cool. Think about what that does to the locus of control when it comes to coolness. The popular kids didn’t make themselves cool – it was the rest of the school who did.

(Once in a while, someone can define a new understanding of coolness, but only if they are not trying to be cool. It is one of the great paradoxes of human interaction.)

The thing is, this phenomenon does not just apply to cool. It applies to just about any feature or characteristic you can think of to define a group of people as different from others. You can be an emo, a goth, a slut, a jock, a dork, a hipster, or whatever else, without passing some objective test that shows you have the right set of qualities to earn the label. Those are labels other people give you based on their understanding of you and the world.

This is normal and I suspect mostly understood. We all do it; it helps us formulate our big-picture worldview without spending too much processing time on individuals that aren’t immediately relevant to us. The problem is when the label starts to mean something to you as an identity.

Let’s talk about the word “nerd.” Let’s just deal with that word for a second and think about what it means. I assume that most of the people reading this article are like me and probably think of themselves as nerds. I’m also going to assume they are reasonably internet-literate and have read their share of the incredibly common treatises on what it means to be a nerd and why we’re better than everyone else (especially if you read Reddit). Perhaps the most well-known of these is Rands’ Nerd Handbook. It’s actually quite well-written, and I personally have a lot of respect for the author. But I find this particular article condescending and counterproductive. It reads like a laundry list of excuses written for people who don’t “get” nerds.

Listen. Being a nerd is just like being cool. It’s an arbitrary label originally assigned to you or people like you because you act a certain way or have certain interests. If you encounter someone who doesn’t seem to “get” you, it’s not because they need a five-page article about what you’re about. It’s because they are interested enough in you to try to get past the label and interact with you on a level that’s deeper than just “nerd” or “not nerd.” Shoving them back over the line with a huff and a mumbled “it’s a nerd thing, you wouldn’t understand” is escapist or elitist, depending on your mood that day. Take your pick — the stereotypical nerd is both.

The cool kids aren’t fundamentally different than any other clique, and neither are nerds. Yet it seems as though we keeping trying to believe that we are. It’s stupid and just as bad as telling yourself that it’s okay to act the way you do because you’re “cool.”

Embrace what you are, but don’t use a label as an excuse to stop growing. Be a good person, whatever that means to you. There are enough walls and boundaries in this world without us trying to build them higher.


Confessions of a Gifted Ex-Child

Posted on 22 December, 2008 at 10:04pm with 22 comments

butterflyIf you grew up in the eighties or onward, you probably heard the term “gifted child” a lot. Maybe you even had it applied to you. Generally, all it meant was that you got to skip normal class once a week to go to a much more interesting and fun class. I was one of those kids. In Illinois, “gifted” simply means you scored in the top 8% on standardized tests (you know, the ones that test your ability to use a #2 pencil correctly), but I didn’t know that when I was a kid. The very word itself is misleading. I thought it meant I had a gift — something that was given to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I read Gladwell’s latest book Outliers. I won’t go into the details of what he says in the book, because it’s worth checking out on your own. But the basics of what he discovered when he studied exceptionalism can be summed up in two sentences. Experts practice a lot, and must have the opportunity to do so to become experts. And seemingly arbitrary factors such as when you were born or where you were raised can have a big impact on your success.

Suddenly the truth of the gifted program becomes clear. For some reason or another, some kids got a jump-start on their intellectual development. The top 8% were identified as efficiently as possible and accelerated. I guess that’s the best public school can do, and I’ll never fault them for that. They simply can’t help everyone. But it certainly does reveal a few things about the pattern I have observed as the lot of us age into gifted ex-children.

As you grow up, the special programs tend to disappear, and by the time you reach college it’s assumed that you are capable of finding something suitably challenging on your own. Additionally, your exceptional intellectual growth as a child has probably slowed down and the other students are catching up to you. You may even be starting to see them pass you. Just like that, the gifted label is gone. Children are gifted. Adults are ambitious, hard-working, and driven.

So what happens to you now? The understanding that you are somehow different from the people around you has already become a part of your subconscious. You might struggle to fill the void of the “gifted” label with something else. “Nerd” or “geek” maybe. You might feel pulled towards engineering and computer science, where the myth of exceptionalism still thrives. Or maybe you just let it go quietly, and mourn the death of your childhood potential. It was nice while it lasted.

But the fact is, you were never gifted. No one is. No one is deemed worthy of some special gift that makes them better than everyone else. And the myth that you were may – may – have prevented you from doing the things that you needed to do to become truly great. Like working hard. Seeking challenges. And not taking anything on faith.

I spent four years in college doing more or less nothing and wasted every good educational opportunity I had because I believed I was too good for it. Because it’s hard to hear that getting good takes work – no more, no less. I’m lucky in that I have a singular love for what I do that kept me plugging away at it, but I still struggle with the notion of hard work and practice. I get angry at myself when I don’t do something perfectly the first time. I have to coach myself to keep trying. It gets better slowly but only through extreme, sometimes painful awareness of the fact that I am not gifted.

But in a way it’s kind of nice. I always felt guilty, that I never deserved whatever “gift” I got. Now I know that it’s just a frame of mind — and that can be taught. And where there are people willing to teach, we are all gifted.


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