(Cross posted from the company blog at MetaBroadcast)

For a decade now we’ve been told that “pixel-perfect” is an indicator of great finesse in front end dev, and it’s a phrase that still crops up on job descriptions and CVs all over the place. Hell it’s probably on my CV, having done more sites and emails like that than I care to remember.

While it’s lauded as a good thing in reality it’s indicative of an outdated mindset; of brittle and short-sighted web design where creatives lovingly craft amazing comps in photoshop with little consideration for how it’s going to be built. And why should they? Their job is selling great looking sites, implementation is someone else’s problem.

On the dev side it’s so tempting to treat PSDs like a pixel-perfect blueprint (spoilers: they’re not), lift the heights and widths of all divs straight into the CSS and make it a literal copy. That’s how you get an avalanche of websites that break dramatically if things are knocked slightly out of alignment due to a link changing, or an image is swapped out, more copy added, or everything is translated into German.

And this is long before you even think of viewing on a mobile device! Responsive has made things squishy, but the dangers of over-constraining content-managed or multi-lingual websites is not new. Liquid websites are not new. It’s humbling to remember that ugly and basic as it is the first web page works on any browser on any device over the last 25 years. We’ve retrofitted incompatibility into the internet; the responsive revolution was only necessary because we’d made everything so rigid.

JavaScript?

JS-based sites can be controversial because not everyone has JavaScript, the idea being that there are people with feature phones (particularly in the the unbelievably huge emerging economies), but even closer to home JavaScript is often a single point of catastrophic failure: some CDN’d thing might be missing, some third party script throws an error and you’re left with nothing at all. Even assuming you have the most robust system possible, nobody has JavaScript while they’re loading your JavaScript. HTML on the other hand is a crazily forgiving language.

So what can be done?

Avoid layouts that rely on conflicting horizontal alignments, avoid vertical alignments altogether. Test them with double and half the copy to make sure everything flows as you’d expect. Avoid using explicit heights and let the elements take the height of their contents. Avoid using explicit widths and let elements take the widths of their container divs where you can, using percentage widths where you must. Only build JS links to enhance existing HTML links. Keep css specificity low. Don’t introduce needless complexity when what you really want is just POSH, simple CSS, a squishy robust layout.

Take a step back and let the markup breathe.

Halloween 2014

Photography

I bloody love Halloween I do. Great excuse to dress up and party and take lots of pictures of others doing the same. It was a couple of weeks ago now but I’m still drowning in photos from TheWebIs conference and the week-long Rupaul’s Drag Race cruise I’m just back from, so while I’m dealing with all that here’s my favourite photos from a Halloween weekend spent papping for the always excellent DoucheBag then at an amazing house party.

TheWebIs in Cardiff

Interwebs

The Web Is was a 2 day web conference in Cardiff, the successor to “Handheld” from the year before, that everyone raved about for what seemed like months, so there was no way I was going to miss it. Especially as part of my effort to go to more multi-day conferences.

When the day actually came though, I have to admit to being super reluctant to start. It had already been a long week and when I missed the last off-peak train and had to shell out an extra 100 quid, I almost didn’t go. (Side note: really beginning to hate trains.) But I’ve been won over, these talks were just great.

Chris Murphy started us off and was one of the highlights for me. Excellent guy, knowledgeable about the web and a great speaker, but in these waters that doesn’t really set you apart. Rather it’s his insights into education that really interest me as Higher education for the web is such a rarity still, talking about all the parts that “normal” education misses and how the whole paradigm needs to change.

Nathan Ford gave a nice talk on the web being constantly unconstant, the ground ever shifting under our feet, which struck a chord with me having worked on so many translatable, CMS-able and responsive projects that mean the designers and developers actually have almost no control over the site!

Anna Debenham gave her “people browse the web on consoles” talk which is always interesting and backed up with stats and examples. Surprise take-home that browsing on a Wii U is pretty powerful and the web might be moving in unexpected directions.

Seb Lee Delisle was notsomuch about the practical discussions but gave a very engaging talk on doing random real-world stuff with lasers. Sounded very fun.

Emma Mulqueeny gave an insight into what she calls the “97ers”; those born after 1997 who have grown up with social media, the peer-to-peer generation, forming a web community about storytelling and identity, to police this will mess with the fragile identity structure.

Keir Whitaker spoke about a life audit in these crazy, noisy times: looking for some focus: what do we want to be known as or for? But then the more you output, better you’ll feel, and the more of your voice you’ll find so maybe the point is just to get stuff out there. Certainly something I try to do a lot: Love what you do, share it, be good at a lot, be great at less.

Phil Hawksworth gave a rallying cry to stop messing with links, the lynchpin of all websites. The line that stuck most was no one has javascript while they’re downloading your javascript

The day finished up with some panel-type chats on mental health in the industry lead by Andy Clark.

“Sometimes depression is being sad but sometimes it’s being angry and sometimes it’s pulling it together and going out with all your friends an having a great time and then not being able to speak to anyone for three days because you’ve used up everything you had.”

I think on the second day I was still digesting much of what was said on the first: much less of the second day stuck with me. My favourite talk was probably Robin Christopherson who spoke about the opportunities that computers can afford for those with with disabilities. It was interesting seeing how simple phone apps like a light-detector can have unexpectedly life-changing uses for a blind user. One funny and insightful thing he revealed was how people with impairments refer to the abled-bodied: “TABs”: Temporarily Abled-Bodied (because everyone ages!).

So I’m super privileged to be able to take so much time off and afford these trips away but I’ve seen many of these people speak before, and though they’re great, there’s probably diminishing returns. There’s so much other stuff I should probably be learning: disparate and obvious stuff like command-line git, Illustrator, Angular / Ember, portraiture, maybe even Yoga!? Basically I enjoyed the couple of days and would recommend them, I’d like to go again but I don’t know if I should.

Count to ten

Dear diary

I don’t really like the word depression; it’s terribly reductive and misunderstood by most, probably myself among them. But I was just watching a panel on depression at TheWebIs as part of Geek Mental Help Week which struck home on a fair few points, and what with the discussions around Robin Williams’ death a few months ago this stuff has been rattling around my noggin for a while now…

My dad is awesome. He’s had a ridiculous life that I’ve only scratched the surface of. He’s witty, clever charming, and I have happy if vague memories of “story time” where he’d read old children’s books like the Princess and the Goblin to the family. Apparently he was a pioneering house-husband in the area I grew up in, earning the scorn of the community mothers for being male, but that was the 80s and apart from the words to the entire Radio 2 playlist I don’t remember any of it. (Hell I might be remembering a lot of this wrong, but that’s always a risk.)

I remember many times where my dad was there for me and overall I admire him, which is probably healthy for a son, but he was also periodically absurdly irrational and hateful, lashing out at the family around him. It was pretty bad in my teen years and we weren’t on speaking terms for the bulk of it: I wasn’t allowed in the lounge or any room he was in. “Setting him off” was about the worst thing that could happen so there was a lot of walking on eggshells. Heavy, purposeful footsteps were usually the precursor to a confrontation, tears and slamming doors the end to one.

It was pretty standard I guess? After all as far as I can remember nobody got hurt, but being sat down by my father and explained to at length why he “didn’t like me”, or being made to sign a “contract” saying we’d have nothing to do with each other after I grew up, or just shouting in my face and then saying “Aha! So I can still scare you huh?” as I cowered is a bit messed up.

Maybe nobody ever explained why he did that stuff, maybe they did and I just didn’t get it. At around the same time I remember having the distinct impression that I was the only gay on the planet in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary, so god knows where my head was at. Either way I didn’t understand depression or alcoholism or S.A.D., all I understood, and what I was told repeatedly, was that I took after him, and was probably going to go the same way.

So I’ve been watching myself, most of my life, trying not to be that reverse role-model, that cautionary tale. In some ways I guess it’s been positive; I’m eventually getting better at understanding my moods, why they’re happening (which is sometimes for no reason at all) and at the self-care that can keep myself from having a mini breakdown or spiralling into a deadzone. That micro-management can be exhausting of course, but it’s probably worth it. Some spend their lives looking forward reaching towards goals, which must be nice, but the driving force in my life is mostly awkward shame at past mistakes and demanding better of myself. But hey whatever works right?

Much worse is the lack of confidence in my own faculties means I’m always in that count-to-ten moment, my breath caught in my throat. It can take days to work out with any certainty what I feel about something as I flip it over and over in my head, trying to work out if it’s legit or some irrational efemera, the longer timescales meaning it’s usually easier to subsume than react or express myself. My worst habit by far is having whole conversations and arguments with people in my head: I can get really tense and angry about things that nobody ever actually says.

Mind you 33 years in I’ve still not worked out what what I feel about my own face so maybe that’s bog-standard male emotional constipation and painfully prosaic repression? I don’t know. Part of the frustration is that people don’t talk about this stuff so it’s impossible to compare notes. I still file all this under “not that bad” but then I’m a relativist: 20 years ago I was in hospital outpatients with arthritis and trouble walking, but you can’t really dwell on the suck when there’s other kids waiting in wheelchairs.

Of course things got much better between my father and I after I left home. He said I “suddenly became human” so maybe university or living without that constant tension changed me into less of a resentful teenager. I even worked at his bookshop in the summers. Things got better still after he sobered up and got medical help. Still has his mood swings and random bouts of depression of course, especially around this time of year when it gets dark most of the time, but hey. So do I.

socialdata vs datasocial

Interwebs

(Cross posted from the company blog at MetaBroadcast)

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about social recommendations at MetaBroadcast Towers, particularly at the recent #MetaBeerTalks. I remember back in 2005 when I joined Flickr and Last.fm it seemed that open APIs were everywhere, we couldn’t wait to give our data away and The Internet would do some magic and everything would be solved soon. But nearly a decade’s past and while social media has gone mainstream it’s now all about walled gardens where everyone guards their data jealously. The panacea of social recommendations just never came to pass.

data first

Perhaps there was another difference at work here too… Last.fm, Flickr, OKCupid, as well as being from the wild fronteer of the internet were also social sites built around data instead of the other way around: Flickr was the pre-eminent site for uploading, tagging and sharing photos, people went to great lengths to make sure we could scrobble all our tracks to last.fm which gave us back nifty charts and graphs for our trouble, OKCupid had endless questionnaires that offered better and better matches the more questions you answered, and they also do some really interesting analysis on that wealth of data. In each case providing data was a means of self expression, you got tangible results back, and the data came first, the social later.

social first

Compare that to facebook or twitter; you can get interesting stats on your twitter account or your facebook page but it’s set up specifically for advertisers and pretty wishy washy at anything but the macro scale. Far from users getting something for their data these companies try and pretend there’s no data at all, meanwhile we get the uncomfortable feeling that the system is against us as we’re interrupted by promoted tweets or thrown again and again back to the dubious algorithms of “top stories”. Far from being keen to deliver our data and see what fun stuff the system does with it we’re advised to “unlike” everything to stop your feed being a wall of irrelevant adverts.

where now?

These current behemoths of online were social first and foremost. Data was reluctantly and surreptitiously tacked-on afterwards and it’s never really been a great fit. The sad thing is they’re probably poisoning the well for others too; were it not for the privacy-based paranoia they foster, streaming companies like Netflix or iPlayer might be free to do great things by adding some old-school data-first social magic to the mix. In the current social atmosphere I’m not sure I’ve seen the system that’s going to solve social recommendation for video, but if you’re already using something that gives you decent recommendations, drop us a tweet or a comment!

“never meet your heroes”, and other lies.

Interwebs

(Cross posted from the company blog at MetaBroadcast)

One of my biggest bugbears are those nonsensical, glib pearls of received wisdom that are so commonplace that they’re rarely questioned. A quick shout on the twitters brought up a few examples; lies like “Cream always rises to the top” (which implies that everyone deserves their station), or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (or permanently maimed, crippled, disfigured), also redundant statements like “It’s always in the last place you look” (obviously) or “Cheap at half the price” (…obviously).

Another saying that I’ve found to be painfully wrong is “never meet your heroes”, the idea being that they could never live up to the pedestal you’ve put them on and so can only ever disappoint. That’s probably true if your only interest in them is distant worship, but if you hope to emulate any aspect of them then humanising their achievements can be a transformative epiphany.

A few years ago I was feeling pretty disheartened about learning Javascript, spending 90% of the time hunting broken syntax. I’ll never forget watching Paul Irish — whose site was my bible of CSS hacks for years — live-demoing a JS framework when 2 minutes in he misses a semicolon, it all breaks and someone from the audience has to tell him where to fix it. Realising that it was just par for the course was a game changer for me.

A month ago I was worried that I wasn’t using a string of conferences to network properly, instead spending the time in between speakers quietly practicing photography and enjoying the fact I could edit on the move with my MBP. Again it was encouraging to see Remy Sharp — who must have known dozens of people at the conf — just sitting alone at the back, focussed fully on the speakers and not partaking of the bantz.

This has wider applications than professional too: earlier this month a couple of friends had me take photos backstage at their cabaret show at the London Wonderground and there was some overlap with another show that I’ve seen twice and loooove. I was too nervous to actually chat with them but just seeing firsthand that people you look up to are lovely in person can inspire you to be nice to people, and generally reinforces those values.

What’s the worst that could happen? You might find out they’re not all that, and by comparison you’re better than you thought. Or they could be horrible and you decide you’re better off directing your attention to more effective exemplars.

Of course idioms and sayings are terrible sources of advice; contradictory axioms everywhere.

All good things come to those who wait. // Time and tide wait for no man.
Out of sight, out of mind // Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
The pen is mightier than the sword // Actions speak louder than words.
The best things in life are free. // There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
What you see is what you get // Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Many hands make light work. // Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Familiarity breeds contempt // Home is where the heart is.
Birds of a feather flock together // Opposites attract.
Never meet your heroes // Bloody do it, it’ll be great.

Birdie Conf

Photography

Fresh from spending a week in Brighton for Reasons to be Creative and dConstruct, the following weekend I went to yet another conference! However this one BirdieConf; a one day conference about photography, and only 5 minutes walk from my flat! As if that wasn’t enough reason to go, I’ve been wanting to go to an event webconf-type event about photography for years so I leapt at the chance. It was so interesting to hear from diverse professional photographers and archivists(?) about what they did and how they got into it. As far as tips go it was mostly do what you love, put it out three and be open to random opportunities which was something to take to heart generally I think.

Strangely perhaps it felt like most of the attendees were the same web designers and developers who go to the many web conferences there are (except these ones dabble in photography too) so I’m not sure if the organises had the break-out success tat they probably wanted? Hope there’s more along these lines as I’d definitely go again.

Conference Retreat

Interwebs

As I wrote a few weeks ago I’d never been to a multi-day conference, never mind a whole-week double, so I was quite excited about my trip to Brighton to attend ReasonsTo Be Creative and dConstruct.

My fears about not actually talking to anyone were pretty much realised but to be honest that turned out fine. Listening to talks puts in a more pensive than chatty mood so I just went with it; just taking it all in, enjoying the hotel, taking a lot of pictures, experimenting with my camera, and fixing bits of this site. It made all the difference having my Macbook with me, being able to take it out and edit photos in situ was glorious.

reasonsTo

ReasonsTo Be Creative is a long-running conference that used to be all about flash, so I never had reason to go back in it its “Flash On The Beach” heyday. It was pretty spread out, with loads of talks happening over three days, most of which being people showing their work, but when they moved beyond the portfolio to the processes involved it gave some great insights into other parts of the industry. While a couple of talks were hilarious, a few inspiring and most interesting, I got the sense that there was a lot of padding; I’m sure many of them could have been cut to 40 minutes with no loss of content. The quick fire round was much more my speed, 20 people in an hour! It reminded me a bit of the great format of last years Responsive Day Out.

Over all it was really good but a couple of times I was thrown by talks being super un-PC; one otherwise excellent speaker miming a mentally ill person hanging themselves, another had slides peppered with nudity and subjected the audience to a clockwork wanking monkey for way longer than was funny or even comfortable. I might live in a SJW bubble because I was looking around in confusion but people seemed fine with it.

dconstruct

dConstruct was only a couple of days later and in the same venue but immediately had a very different feel, for one there were way more women among the attendees. (Someone even tweeted with delight that they were having to queue for the ladies loo!) It was my 5th dConstruct and the 10th in total, and though it can be a bit hit and miss for me keep coming back! happily, because this year’s was most definitely a hit; perhaps the best I’ve been to. It felt heavy, important, and real, but Jeremy Keith said it much better than I could. ClearLeft always put their audio online after the events and I’d definitely recommend checking out Mandy Brown’s talk in particular.

So yeah, a great week where I learned a lot and I got a lot done, but without all the networking that’s supposedly supposed to go on, so while I’m happy with how it went I still feel I’m missing a big part of the big whup and I’m not sure I made the most of it. Perhaps I should be checking out workshops or classes instead?

That said at the last talk I spotted a local luminary sitting at the back of the auditorium just listening alone, and thought it was pretty ok.

(Cross posted from the company blog at MetaBroadcast)

I’ve been taking about a thousand photos a month for years now, and at last month’s #MetaBeerTalks I did a short talk on the reasons why people look at your pics, and how to pander to them (ideally by taking pics of them holding cats).

What I didn’t touch on is that by far the best way to make people look at your pics is to delete most of them. This often surprises people but it stands to reason: your audience has limited attention spans so after taking a few hundred pics of an event the question becomes: which would you rather they saw; the first 20 or the best 20?

It sounds flippant but deleting down photos is actually the hardest part of the editing process. You have to distance yourself from the memory and take each photo out of context, stop thinking so much and just go on gut feeling, then decide which will work best on Instagram, Facebook, or Flickr.

Of course like many I blog and tweet too; the total time spent on content curation is insane but it’s not uncommon; Pinterest and Tumblr are basically wildly successful content curation tools. Editing down is underrated and everywhere; YouTube ads that have 5 seconds to intrigue, info pages that have 2 seconds to convince viewers they’re authoritative. It’s all the same game, condense as much meaning as possible into a single picture, a smaller layout, a soundbite, a tweet.

It’s tempting and so much easier to just make more space, add more content, put some extra into a carousel (in spite of them being demonstrably rubbish) but most of the time you should be saying less instead. In the age of micro-blogging and mobile sites your message should be constantly refined. Try to be all things to all people and you’ll end up with vague half-read articles, background noise. Ditch the fluff. Edit down.

Conference week(??)

Photography

I’m a bit of a fan of web conferences, but even with supportive employers I’ve only been able to take so much time off work. Now I’m a part-timer / contractor while the opportunity cost is more I’m still much more comfortable attending multi-day things like The Web is in October, and Reasons To… Next week! As I was in Brighton anyway I decided to stay a bit longer to go to dConstruct on on the Friday too!

I’ve only stayed in a hotel for a conference once, so making the jump to nearly a full week is crazy, but this year’s been full of that. In the last month alone at one company I’ve run the gamut from a dreamweaver-made table-based updates to a slick new build, but with the other company I’ve been mostly working in Javascript(!), doing a couple of API frontend prototypes and a chrome extension. Hell I even gave a my first talk at a meetup there! It was short and the audience was small but it’s a big deal for Mr Hates Public Speaking, so that was exciting.

I’m loving it and feeling very privileged right now; I have more flexibility and I’m learning super quickly, but I have no idea what next month holds beyond doing web stuff at least half the time, and maybe that’s OK. Similarly I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself in Brighton for 4 nights as I don’t think I know anyone else going, but worst case scenario I’ll spend the evenings going over the beautiful webby talks I’ve heard and building another wing on this site.