Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Happy Cog Redesigns MICA (or, why I'm not a Republican)

It's been awhile since I last checked Jeffrey Zeldman's Blog—Zeldman is the grandfather of things such as web standards, accessibility and usability evangelism, and the movement to ban tables and flash-based web design in favor of XHTML and CSS—but I got quite the surprise when I happened by his site yesterday. It appears that Happy Cog, his web design firm, just finished a complete re-design of the website for Maryland Institute College of Art—my alma mater back up in Baltimore. What a strange twist of connections! Apparently they even visited the campus to get a personal feeling as to what MICA is—which is kind of a shame, because I would have loved to have met Zeldman by chance. But oh well—of course, the first painting I see on the homepage when I visit the site is the work of an old friend of mine.

I did happen to get a pang of sadness for not being back at MICA—I won't lie, I have been having some homesickness/wanderlust lately here at Arcosanti. But then, Baltimore isn't going anywhere—and if I want an MFA, I can always go back to MICA (if I can afford it).

Strangely though, I realized during this same moment of missing Baltimore that there was a thread of anger, and I found out why I am not a Republican. Odd segue, I know, but it's true. I had to leave MICA for economic reasons after two years. And if the Republican theory of economics is right, that implies that I was not working hard enough—that somehow, I did something wrong, or my middle-class parents did something wrong, or that we laid on our haunches, or that I didn't pursue my education hard enough. Which is entirely not the case. Especially now, given the work I am providing for myself as a re-capitulated freelancer via Proteus Creative—even while many firms would not hire me due to my lack of degree. The reality of it was that my family got screwed when the housing bubble burst.

I'm sorry, but if Republicans want to reach out to my generation, the first have to use a tagline other than the moldy idea of the Carnegie-Vanderbilt "American Dream". They have to convince me first that "socialist" countries like Denmark, for example, where they pay a 50% income tax, is much worse than our economic model—when all the Danes get their college paid for from the day they step into pre-school.

It's funny, those Danes may be "socialists" (I'm so scared), but at least they have a college degree. Which is more than what can be said of me.

Anyway—odd political byway, but it was somehow tied into it. And I didn't quite realize how strong my feelings were in the area. It deserves its own post in all reality—but there it is.

Congrats Happy Cog on both a beautiful website and a wonderful client to work with.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sharpen the Skills (or get new ones)

I've been very focused on some personal projects the past few weeks, which is why it's been a bit quieter here than usual. There's only so much time during a day, and only so much of that time can be used for personal things—which is normal.

But, with the refocusing of my design identity under Proteus Creative, I've started to bring my skills in web design and content management systems more up-to-date. I've been working with concrete5, a CMS I recently ran across. I was impressed very early on with its ease of use, its ability to add content per "block" live and on each page, and its mentality of "it should just work". Having with some CMSs, some of which can be very cumbersome, concrete5 strikes me as lightweight, flexibla, and easy to program. I've decided to use it for both my new websites, the future Proteus Creative site, and a yet-unnamed art website for my personal works and writing that is currently in process. I'm using the art website as a testing ground to learn c5, and then apply those newfound skills to a more considerable project, Proteus Creative.

However, learning a new CMS is no small task. And the major disadvantage I have is that I do not know JavaScript nor PHP. I can use them and implement them as scripts in my HTML files, but when it comes to manipulating them I'm at a loss. The thing about c5 is that it is extremely new in the CMS neighborhood, which has no shortage of competitors. Though it was a private system used by its makers to provide clients with an easy-to-use management system for years (it's in its fifth version, technically), c5 suffers greatly from a lack of templates and a lack of functionality that systems like Joomla and Drupal simply have a crushing weight of, due to their years of open-source development. Thus, for me, a working web designer who has some gaps in his skill set, I cannot depend on a large pool of components, extensions, etc. to do my bidding. In the end, I will be learning how to implement, probably even create, my own c5 "blocks" (concrete's version of adding functionality to a website like video players, forums, etc.). This means that I will be learning Javascript and PHP.

Of course, this is not a bad thing. If c5 not only avails me with a client-friendly CMS, but also forces me to learn the things I should've known all along, all the better. But it's one of those things that would be worthy of multiple days to learn in-depth—a completely new language like JS or PHP. It makes sense, however, as the whole idea of Proteus is not limited to XHTML/CSS—the idea is to create a methodology that uses all languages and capabilities—whatever's necessary, really—to make an attractive and interactive user interface for web-based applications and sites. My opinion now is that websites are no longer static pages—they are, in the typical sense of the word, applications—things you apply to your life as tools to further your function as a human being. Especially things like Facebook, Digg, Delicious, and YouTube—these are all applications in the sense that they are not static sources of information, but are particular to "you" and your needs/preferences. The only difference between them and Photoshop is that they use the nature of the internet to their advantage, using the information present in the "cloud" to create a dynamism an application that is just on your computer cannot present.

I would not be surprised in XHTML, CSS, PHP, and Javascript become the languages of a sort of "cloud computing" operating system. These things are already being used both by servers and computers—the connection between things like websites and dashboard widgets that live on your computer, and may or may not be connected to a website, are just a hint. They're probably not the UNIX of the cloud computing operating system, but these are the languages that are making the current web UI's what they are, and it would be unwise to think that I could survive in the long run without understanding them and their capability.

So it's exciting. But there's a lot of learning to do. I try to pick at it a little bit each day, working towards the goal of implementing the things I want to see into my new personal/work websites, which will then be the stepping stone into using them in a professional production environment. And even though it may be frustrating, especially givent that when I go through these "redesign phases," I can have the expectation for myself that the site(s) will be done in the course of a day or two. That's certainly not the case here—try a month or two. But despite the frustration, I know that I'm learning a ton at each step. It's the drinking from the firehouse method, but I tend to never dip into things feet-first anyway.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Things you can do at Arcosanti that you probably can't do anywhere else.

1. Have three languages spoken at one table, when the table consists of no more than 9 people.
2. Take a job where your commute is a 2.5 minute walk across desert canyon through unpolluted air, with not a car in sight.
3. Have a breakfast of a bagel and hardboiled egg while watching molten bronze being poured not ten feet in front of you.
4. See and talk with a 90-year old polymath who should be, by modern civilization's standards of activity, 15 years younger than he actually is.
5. Meet people from countries you never even thought vaguely of vacationing to—and they change every month.
6. Meet world-class circus performers, artists, and musicians who are as like-minded and creative as you.
7. Get inducted into people's family who you otherwise would never have come into contact with.
8. Pet and fall in love with a tarantula.
9. Understand in a tactile way what the human organism needs and produces in order to function: food, water, sewage, shelter, raw materials, hygiene, and cleanliness of habitat.
10. See sunsets across Precambrian-era mountains every night.
11. See lightning storms unlike anything else, unless you've lived in the tropics.
12. Feel like a soda is a unique, and unhealthy, luxury.
13. Live in the desert without air conditioning, and use the materials of the buildings you live in to help cool yourself down while expending no energy (except some of your own sweat).
14. Plan a dance and music festival synchronized with 360 others across the world, and have its locations be one of the most unique architectural experiments in the world.
15. Go to work in flipflops and a tanktop, because that's what your office's equivalent of a CEO did for nearly his entire life.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Homo ex Machina

This past week or two I've been on an organization binge—or a frustrated binge, probably, because I'm not satisfied so far. Basically, it's organizing my silicon-based brain—my mail client (and getting rid of email addresses I don't use, or at least planning to), my address book (which I almost never use), my document files, my harddrive in general, my web browser bookmarks (just got Safari 4 and it's much faster than Firefox), and my iTunes Library (huge task).

It comes partially with this whole Proteus Creative thing I'm working on. In an effort to create an entirely new system for my professional life, working on a workflow, and designing a portfolio interface, it seems like everything now needs to be sorted and categorized. Which is funny—five years ago, I would have tested as a Perceiver on the Myers Briggs (a personality assessment). Now I would be classified as a very high Judger. For the non-Myers Briggs inclined, this is basically a transition from a loose, flexible organizational style to a tight, list and category oriented style. By far, I've swung the later direction, especially over the course of the last two years. Being at Arcosanti and prioritizing my work life to such an extent, out of necessity and not just personality, has only enforced this swing. I've learned a lot here—writing project proposals and plans, figuring out group workflow in an online setting where everyone already has busy schedules; delineating phases for a given project, even the notion of deliverables (something that, on the scale of a client and freelancer relationship, just seems silly) seem now like something useful, daresay necessary. From task planning applications to automated timers and alarms, from project outlining programs to RSS feeds that can keep you passively up-to-date on the latest open source developments and "Web 2.0" script widgets—everything needs to be synthesized, digested, and organized in such a way that it is easy, quick, intuitive, and causes as little stress on my person as possible with the maximum amount of payoff.

Overkill? Maybe. But also, perhaps, necessary. For some people, it's not so far fetched. And if I want to become truly "professional" in the graphic design world, and take on big clients that work in this sort of fast-paced environment and have that amount of organization not out of romance, but out of necessity—well, I might as well match them at their own game, if not exceed them.

There is a bit of romance to it—the romance of mechanization and automization. But on thinking about this, I realized my standard for the amount of organization I want in my life: everything should be structured to a point that it could practically run itself. Of course it won't—the intent is needed to push the button or move the mouse. The intuition of my design eye, which cannot be boiled down to anything other than what it simply is—intuition—needs to be there for anything worthwhile to come out of Photoshop. After that though, File > Save As, convert to JPG, run a script that uploads it to the web which triggers an alert to my client, etc., etc. It's all there, and the computer takes care of the rest. The entire process is automated—except for that one, tiny spark that makes the giant, anodized aluminum, pre-scripted machine run. Intuition—the intent that it should, and must, work.

I'm well aware of the fact that I spend most of my day in front of a screen, and I'm well aware of the fact that I, aside from having my laptop welded into my flesh, might as well be a cyborg. As I've written before, my iTunes Library and harddrive should be a fairly accurate mindmap of my actual brain. And I think that, as technology and the Internet progresses (computing in the cloud, Google makes an operating system, guess where that's going to go, etc.) the phenomenon is only going to sharpen and intensify.

But there will always be that one thing missing to make the giant communication web in the sky run, should humanity cease to exist.

I think that the Star Trek Borg image of a future, technocratic humanity is no longer an accurate depiction of our evolutionary future. We'll imbed implants in our brain, let machines help run our organs. But we won't let them control our will. We won't submit ourselves to the cloud-brain. We're too emotional, too individualistic, and too democratic for it. Our machines will grow ever more complex, more and more complex than even we as organisms could be. The silicon in our iPods will hold more information that our carbon-based brains could ever hope to. But there will be no instigation, without us, do use that information. We may create a machine race, someday, with its own intent, maybe. But we'll never submit ourselves to the way a machine thinks. We're too inconsistent and lie too much to ourselves to ever engage, effectively, that kind of evolution.

Then again, we're also probably some of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. So I might be wrong.

But at least for now, I think the real future of humankind is not that it will be amalgamated with technology, in the sense that we become the technology. The technology may become us in the far future, but for now, the machine may be a hulking mass, indisputably efficient and effective.

But without the intent in that circle of screens, there will always be that one missing element to make the whole thing run. The intent—the intuition between scripts, will not be there. The one thing that will not be able to be quantified, or scripted. The pure chance that something, somewhere, actually tells the system, to "go." We will literally become the spirits within the machine—the ghosts of flesh in an overwhelming sea of invisible information and rigid file directories. The machine will control everything—except for the one thing it can never understand.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tree Outliner for Organization Geeks

This is a short post for all you organization freaks out there. I just recently (today) stumbled on a great little Mac app for making tree-based outlines. It is called, out of all things, Tree.

It's tiny, straightforward, and it's probably my new favorite application. Funny thing is, it's hard to make an already simple process already more expedient than it is. Since the first website I designed for a client (which would date back to high school), I would create site outlines in TextEdit. These site outlines would become the map of webpages for the website, as well as describe the navigation for the site (each heading or subheading would be a button on the homepage linking to a sub-page, with its own list of links). Maybe it wasn't pretty, but it worked, and I didn't need fancy editors because the outlines were supposed to be short, sweet, and easy to send to the client through email.

Well… I'll be using this spiffy little program from now on. It allows you to add notes, of course, to each subheading. They can be collapsed or expanded from a tree-like layout to a bullet-point layout, and you can easily drag and drop other sections from each other. The only thing I'd ask would be to be able to post sticky-like post-its wherever I want on the outline, as if it was a digital whiteboard. But that's about it. It exports things to text files and OmniOutliner too, which is a necessary feature.

In fact, just today I had finished the new site outline for the upcoming Arcosanti website (redesigned of course) using this little program. Even Tomiaki seemed to like the program—and when something passes enthusiastically under his eye, you know it has to be doing something right.

So if you're like me and constantly need a way to make simple, text-based outlines, you should really check it out by visiting this link.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Greek Gods and Design Studios

So I've a special treat for those who follow my personal work. As a graphic designer, I've gone under the domain name of secondseraph.com for a few years now. It used to be a personal site, but later transformed into a professional portfolio site as I started shopping myself around as a graphic and web designer.

As my skills and portfolio has improved, however, I've grown steadily uncomfortable with the name "SecondSeraph". It was originally a biblical reference to Isaiah's vision of the seraphim, and I had made up the name as an AOL screen name when I was thirteen. As I grew, the name grew with me, and basically become my second identity.

Well, not very designer-ish, is it? These have been my thoughts lately. As I've grow as a graphic designer, I've thought about rebranding myself more as a one-man design studio, rather than a simple freelancer (mostly because I can provide clients with a full package of print, multimedia, and web). Though I'm not quite at that stage, I am close to it. This past weekend, I felt it was necessary to make the switch.

So, in the coming month, I will be getting a completely new domain name to host my professional work. I will also be separating the art website from secondseraph to its own domain, and either get rid of secondseraph altogether or reappropriate secondseraph back to what it originally was—a personal site with a flavor of experimental webdesign, like so many other cool and crazy interactive web projects out there.

I'm pretty excited about the new professional site though. I spent almost a whole day this past weekend working on it. It's not finished yet, but I can promise you it will be a next step upward, as my redesigns tend to be. Here's a sneak peak of what you can expect:


I've always been a fan of naming things after Greek gods, and recently I took a liking to Proteus—one of the early, primordial gods of the sea. He is noteworthy for being a shapeshifter that could tell the future—if anyone could capture Proteus, the "Old Man of the Sea", he would tell them the future—after he had tried turning into anything from from a serpent, to a lion, to a tree, to water itself. It's where we get the word "protean," connoting flexibility and adaptability.

Probably a good name for a design studio, mm?

Anyway, that's the progress on so far. Look forward to more updates regarding "Proteus Creative" and where it will be heading. I'll be using a new CMS I recently discovered to create the engine the site runs on, instead of head-on XHTML/CSS programming (as much as I am a fan of it, sites are more and more run on engines now rather than individually coded webpages).

Feel free to tell me if I'm out to lunch on the logo. ;) Typically it would be aligned to the right side, but this is a screenshot of the new site, so the P symbol is centered at the top. Hence why the text is justified to the left.

The Anti-Burnout

It's been a stressful few days—funny, that it was fourth of July weekend. Tuesday seemed hellish. Maybe it was just because I felt behind in my hours and I had woken up late (at least in terms of Arcosanti time). I'm hired now—a full time employee at Arcosanti, working as a graphic designer. Happened about a week ago. Of course I was overjoyed at the news. The payment is minimal, especially for my kind of work (note to self: always know what you are worth, and never sell yourself short). But no one is here for the money, of course, including me. We're here for different reasons. But now I'm being a bit more diligent regarding the exact count of my hours. It interesting how there is a slight cultural change—maybe it's all just in my head, but it is still a change. A bit more pressure, maybe? I'm not entirely sure. Either way though, I was thankful.

This morning has improved my mood though, also thankfully. Again, kind of a late start, but the office has been quiet, and I'm back and listening to Wovenhand (probably the folk artist I like, and I love his music to death). It's a horrible feeling, to feel like you're not in your own skin. But then, when your back, its as if your whole person has flooded—you're back again. You're your normal, depthful, happy self.

I suppose it just comes and goes with the stress. I have to remember that most of this pressure is just inwards, believe it or not. No one's over my shoulder, cracking the whip. Even as an employee with a boss, I'm the one setting the deadlines, the priorities, the procedures, and for multiple things at once.

I remember an interview with the members of Rammstein, one of my favorite groups—they were speaking about how they kept their band running and happy. They've been around for a few years now, and they compared it to keeping an old car healthy, tuned, and running smoothly. When it rumbles and runs, boy does it rumble and run—but it's not the sheer power of youth that keeps it going. It's the fact that the members treat each other kindly, give each other space, and take vacations. They know their limits, and they can feel when burnout is close.

Mm… burnout. Thankfully, I haven't been there—at least, not here. But I've come close a few times. I only have two settings—on, and off. If I don't have something to grind and I'm on, I better turn myself off, because I'll just be grinding the gears.

Again, it's all about knowing yourself. Knowing your limits, knowing what your worth. Knowing that when you work, you work hard and consistently. Knowing that not everything can happen in a single day, even though it feels like you could do it all that day.