Goodbye Double Click Road

Just a quick note to say that I don’t anticipate any more new content on this blog. It was a fun while it lasted, and certainly lead to many great things for me. But it’s all too obvious that I don’t have the time to keep it up any more. So rather than letting it drift any longer in limbo, I’m officially closing up the Publicious shop. I’ll leave the old posts up as a source of information and amusement to anyone who happens by.

Also, I’d like to offer great thanks to Cinnamon, Eric, and Robin for their contributions.

Happy trails, everyone. See you over at InDesignSecrets and elsewhere.

When You Click Upon A Star…

The 9-year old just pointed out to me that I should be leveraging WordPress ratings to further engage the Publicious core audience, and gather quality metrics to establish an authoring feedback loop. He also said they’re wicked cool. On that point, I have to agree with him. So now you will notice underneath the byline of each post, a clickable 5-star rating widget. Think of it as a one-click commenting system. What it lacks in semantic richness, it makes up for in instant gratificationabilty.

The widget only appears when you navigate directly to a post. In other words, you have to click on the post title first, for the widget to appear.

Comments can also be rated up or down, so you folks can rate each other’s thoughts as well.

So please, click away, and let us know what you think.

Whether it’s good…

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so-so…

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or ugly…

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Update: Publicious To Go, New and Improved!

This is why you never proofread right before bedtime. Last night I uploaded the inaugural editions of Publicious To Go, with great fanfare (OK, one cat lifted his head). Too bad I didn’t notice the utterly craptacular hyphenation in (of all things) the article on typography.

I am teh FAIL!

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After resigning myself to a life unburdened by credibility, I uploaded new and improved PDFs, this time without any hyphens whatsoever. Take that, lousy H&Js!

Publicious Links: The Educated Cheese Edition

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I know, I know: what the hell is educated cheese?

“Educated cheese” is a phrase uttered by Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley in his color commentary during a recent Red Sox game. It is my favorite new term, and I use it as much as possible, simply because it the caviar of baseball slang. And it makes me giggle and be glad to be alive. So I am trying to ignite a grassroots movement to increase its popularity. In baseball, “cheese” is slang for a good fastball. See also, “easy cheese”, “hard cheese”, and “cheddar.” “Educated cheese” is what a veteran pitcher throws when he no longer has the physical dominance to throw fastball after fastball. He can’t blow away the hitters, so he picks his spots. He finds a rhythm, and when the time is right, he lets it rip. Educated cheese. If he’s having a really good night, he may even “paint with educated cheese and salad.” But now we’ve gone beyond caviar slang to flying fish roe floating in a flaming absinthe smoothie slang.

So like that pitcher, I’ll pick my spots and hope to paint this post with nine slices of educated cheese.

First up, a tremendous short video on The Secret History of Fonts. It’s one of the Ignite series of brief, structured presentations. Most of the time, I love the Ignite format (aka, Enlighten Us, But Make It Quick). But this time, I was left begging for more. The presenter, Bram Pitoyo, should do a longer version. Beware of poor audio in spots. But it’s still worth it.

@students Creative Resource is a nice treasure trove of graphic resources and links, mostly Web related.

If it’s the second Tuesday of every third month, it must be Adobe Patch Day. That’s Adobe’s new scheduled day to release security patches, a la Microsoft. Nice to know they’re taking security as more of a job than a hobby. Not so nice to know that they have to.

Mr. Doob’s blog is where you will “find some random experiments done with Flash, pv3d (Papervision 3d), and ape”. Some really interesting/entertaining bits. My favorite is the one where you can literally bring down Google with one mouse click.

Creatives Are is a browser toolbar add-on for Firefox, IE, and others that puts all kinds of resources for designers, illustrators, and other creatives at your fingertips.

Not sure if you can afford an enterprise class publishing system? Rent one. K4 is now available for rent. How long till you can rent InDesign for a week, month, year? Hmmm. Or maybe even shorter, like you have a project and you need Photoshop but just for the weekend? $9.95 for 72 hours? Just sayin’.

Despite all our troubles: war, disease, recession, climate change, and the downsizing of the Cadbury Egg, the ’00s have been one helluva clean decade—if you judge by trends in graphic design. Everything is shiny. Blame Apple perhaps, for spreading the shiny germ. Here’s your chance to jump on the shiny bandwagon before the inevitable matte-lash: my post in InDesign Secrets, Shine On.

FreeConferenceCall.com  sounds too good to be true, and they know it. There’s a “something’s fishy” graphic on the homepage. Free conferencing, free recording and downloading, up to 6 hours per call, up to 96 participants, no ads, no spam, etc. But as someone who’s used it a couple of times, and know folks who’ve used it more, I think it’s legit. And an awesome resource to take advantage of.

Last, I leave you with my favorite images of the week: the headless brides. They’re Photoshop templates for graphic artists to insert models’ smiling noggins into. Certainly this offers us a wonderful opportunity to make Frankenbrides, cat-brides, etc. ‘shop on, kids.

CS5 Revealed, For Real

Well, a little. If you like your geek in big thick slabs, check out the Adobe Creative Suite Developer Summit. It runs through Friday, May 15th and offers live, free sessions (via Adobe Connect) on many cutting edge  Adobe technologies, including stuff that may find its way into Creative Suite 5.

Note that this is a developer conference, not a user conference, so be prepared for tech talk about creating apps and plug-ins and features. Still, you don’t need to be a developer to appreciate the impact of what they’re talking about.

If you can’t watch the sessions live, many of them are being recorded so you can catch them on demand. I’ve seen some really cool stuff so far, mostly to do with Flex and Flash working their magic on the user interface of Creative Suite applications. One more reason to attend: if you watch the sessions and fill out the comment forms, you’re eligible for a free copy of Flex Builder, so you can make your own cutting edge goodies.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

I’ve always hated that little cartoon that says “better, faster, cheaper — pick any two” and not just because it’s alway accompanied by an awful cartoon of doughy little men doubled up laughing. (I’ve always been influenced by bad graphics, perhaps overly so.) It’s a fact of life, especially these days, that we need to be able to do things more quickly than ever and to keep costs as low as possible, but it does not necessarily follow that the only way to do so is to reduce the quality as well. In fact, it might be argued that quality is even more important now because you don’t want to risk alienating a repeat client or a potential customer just to save a buck. As we all know, among the best ways to work faster (and, therefore, cheaper) are those that make the computer do a lot of the work for you and/or remember frequently utilized tasks.

Adobe Illustrator is an amazingly powerful tool, so much so that I’m alway finding new ways to use it, often by accident. I will look at something — a photo, some other piece of art, maybe even an actual 3D right-in-front-of-me thing — and try to see it in terms of how I could recreate it in Illustrator. Sometimes it will involve using Gradient Mesh to get a photorealistic effect, other times it will mean reducing it to basic geometric forms to convey the impression of what I’m seeing. Every new trick or observation adds to my arsenal of skills, even the ones that don’t work out as I’d hoped.

In this blog I hope to share some of the ways I’ve learned how to make Illustrator make me look good. Get yourself a good-sized external drive, because a lot of it involves building a library of Brushes, Symbols, Graphic Styles, and Swatches and you will be compiling a vast inventory of images and templates. (It might even eventually cover ways to actually catalog your work so you can call items up when you need them; there are a lot of image collection resources out there in a variety of price ranges.)

I will also be sharing ways I’ve streamlined my workflow, shortcuts I’ve learned, and each week I hope to include a free download of some Illustrator element that ties into the topic of the post, starting with this one, a Symbol I originally posted to the Adobe Exchange community a few years ago that this past year has turned up all over the web. If you’ve missed out on it somehow, now you can have your own string of lights to deconstruct and enjoy!

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An Obvious Observation

I’ll take a break this week from the steady march of progress in developing an XML workflow to reflect on one of the major challenges in doing so. It’s so obvious you might not consider it. It also may be impossible to avoid or correct.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll share with you my relationship with Illustrator. In my job, I sometimes have to go in and make text corrections in Illustrator files. Sometimes I have to do a color correction or figure out why a particular file won’t rip. I have a technical relationship with Illustrator. I know what the buttons and menus and palettes are for.

When I was in college I took some art classes to round out my liberal arts degree. I had of course taken art all throughout my education as this was during the time when schools still had funding for and interest in things like art and music. By the time I was in that college class it wasn’t as if I’d never put smudgy art pencil to paper before. Of course the results were consistent with my previous attempts. It turns out my brain doesn’t have the upgrade required to transform 3-D reality to a 2-D surface via smudgy pencil. Or any pencil for that matter. In one particularly annoying episode, my art teacher physically moved my hand to show me how a particular curve was supposed to look. I think it was the top of a pot. My version looked like something Picasso whipped up during his cubist period in an absinthe haze. That’s not what the teacher was looking for.

So, now, I don’t need a smudgy art pencil, I can use Illustrator. That should solve my problem! The computer will fix everything! Computers make everyday tasks so much more convenient. Have you figured out the obvious observation? Illustrator won’t do jack for me BECAUSE I CAN’T DRAW. Blank computer screen or blank paper, doesn’t matter, I can’t draw so anything I do will look wrong.

And here’s the crazy part. I can take classes, read books, go to seminars, do anything, but in the end, based on prior experience and my gut feeling, I’m not going to be able to draw. I understand the concept, I just can’t do it.

In a class discussion once someone made the comment that they couldn’t play the piano. The teacher said that was not correct–it’s not that the kid couldn’t play the piano, it’s that the kid didn’t know how to play the piano. The implication is that with proper training the kid could eventually learn how to do it. That’s nice and all, but what if the kid didn’t have the manual dexterity or the mental upgrade needed to transform dots on a music staff to sounds coming out of an instrument? If it was that easy wouldn’t we all be concert pianists, or in my case, expert artists?

The same issue arose with some of our writers when we implemented XML. They’re good writers, and they understood the concept of XML, but for whatever reason they were unable to transform the idea they wanted to get across into a content model. The could see the available tags, but didn’t know how to go about assigning them to their words. It wasn’t a question of training or facility with the software, it was a deeper disconnect that no amount of practice or help could fix. They’d always end up with files that needed to be cleaned up by someone else. And in the process, they were discouraged, annoyed, and slowed down, causing frustration.

So what do you do if you’re working with a person, or are the person, so frustrated by the XML workflow? All you can do is support them the best you can. Maybe they’ll have a breakthrough.

If you or your colleague never has that breakthrough, like I never did with drawing, then all the support may help reduce some frustration, but you’ll still need to clean up those files after they’re done with them. I’d recommend  building this step into your workflow from the beginning. If it clicks with everybody, then maybe you can drop it later. But if you start with the expectation that every writer is going to be able to tag content correctly all the time, you’re going to have problems with staffing and schedule. And that’s the most obvious observation: expect success but prepare for less.

Color Wheel T-Shirt

I was shopping in Target (it’s pronounced Tar-ZHAY) this weekend, getting a typically thrilling assortment of toothbrushes, socks, batteries, and gum. And then I saw this shirt. I felt like Gmail had crossed over into my real life and was placing “targeted” merch in front of me. Was it publishing geek day at the mall? Dunno, but I bought the shirt. Definitely wearing it next time I do a Photoshop training. And next Saturday, I’m going to the shoe store to see if I can score some DocBook Martens.

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The Bits and Pieces II: Content Model

The content model is an XML representation of your content. The great thing about XML is you get to decide what all the tags are and how they all fit together. That’s also the bad thing about XML. There’s no “right” way to do anything.

One approach is to determine whether an existing content model will work for your content. If you’re doing narrative texts, Docbook might be the way to go. Online help or topic-based content might work in DITA. If you’re doing assessment, QTI might work. If it’s all about math, then MathML is something to explore. If you’re doing all of the above plus more (like we are), then a combination of them all could be the answer.

In our project, we looked at all these standards (except DITA which didn’t exist yet) and tried to figure out the parts that would work for us. We realized that nothing fit exactly, and that the language used in the various models didn’t match the language we used to describe our content. That kind of freaked us out a little.

We put all those standards on the shelf for the time being and decided to analyze our content on its own, and tried to describe it using our own vocabulary.

Content analysis is something I learned about while studying linguistics in college. We would take texts and break them down into functional parts, then describe what the pieces were doing. I wrote a brilliant (in my opinion) analysis of the content structure of the LP, CD, and 8-track packaging of Blood, Sweat and Tears’ Greatest Hits album. (Yes, I had a copy of each and liked to entertain my dorm neighbors by cranking the 8-track at random times.) What I found was that each format had specific conventions about how they organized information, and that the information on all three was different. The song titles and cover art were the same, but even those were formatted differently depending on the packaging size and shape. This is an early example of content reuse, I suppose.

I applied that kind of thinking to the products we wanted to convert to XML. I sat down with the design director (who knows why things are formatted the way they are) and editors (who know what the content is and why it’s written the way it is) and pored over thousands upon thousands of pages, looking for similarities in the way content is presented, and the underlying reason that the content is even there in the first place.

This exercise took many months. In the end, we came up with a chart showing all the content chunks, stripped of their presentation attributes (font, size, and so on) and context. These were the building blocks. We theorized that you could take any of these building blocks, and put them together in any order (like Legos) and build any kind of product we could ever possibly want to build.

We found obvious things like paragraphs and heads and lists. We also found that of all the zillions of questions on all the bazillions of worksheets, we really only had about 14 different kinds. They just had different numbers of write-on lines or were stacked in slightly different ways. We also found that wildly different products, intended for different audiences, really had more in common than we thought they would. A paragraph is a paragraph regardless of the topic of the words inside. Multiple-choice questions are universal, whether they’re intended for kindergartners and have pictures of kittens, or for college students and have quotes from Ulysses.

Which brings us back to the whole “make sure your content people know what’s going on” thing. In early discussions with the various product groups, a common refrain was “our content is SO different from everybody else’s, there’s no way we can all use one model.” In our case, that just wasn’t true. When we presented the building blocks and showed how each product group’s content would fit into them, it became apparent to everyone that the nature of the content, if not the subject matter, was universal. We were, after all, presenting educational content to a particular audience, and THAT is what determined the conventions and content organization that we were doing.

Next up: how we identified building blocks.

Introducing XML Into the Wild

You’ve studied what XML is and how it can be applied to your workflow. You’ve made a stunning multi-color presentation proving it will save or make you money. The people who sign the checks are on board and enthusiastic about bringing this technology in. So you’re about 10% of the way there.

Publishing, as you may have noticed, is a creative business. We’re not making millions of standardized widgets on an assembly line. Content is the product. Its presentation is a major part of what makes your products sell. The people who create the content and design the presentation will have to be comfortable with the new XML lifestyle.

When we introduced the concept of XML to our editorial, design and production departments, we were given a block of time at a monthly managers’ meeting. I stood in front of a room of publishing professionals and showed them a color-coded screen of XML tags surrounding the content from a sample page. I showed them how you could take those tags and rearrange them or transform them into another set of tags to produce a new page. I showed them how you could search on all the tags to find content that would normally be buried in page comp files. I threw lots of acronyms at them. They all nodded sagely, asked no questions, and moved to the next agenda item. It was a complete waste of their time.

Based on that, I think it’s better to explain what XML does, rather than what it is, and it’s best to do that without focusing too much on, you know, the whole XML thing. I don’t recall being lectured on what PostScript is when starting to work with PageMaker. Knowing how your car’s engine works doesn’t mean you can drive.

If I had to do it again, I’d ask the content creators and designers what kinds of things they have to do that they consider repetitive or not a good use of their time. Do they have to spend a week paging through old products or archives to find that particular bit that they want to reuse? Is somebody spending all their time keeping track of art usage so you don’t get sued for using it where you don’t have permission? Are entire projects based on the concept that you’re going to take large numbers of pages and alter them ever so slightly for a customized use? At the end of a project, does someone have to gather all the files, package them up, and ship them to a vendor or another department for further processing for electronic use?

You can also look at your current workflow and determine where the silly bits are. If using XML can make them less silly, then there’s a good illustration of why you want to use it.

Once you know what all the inconveniences, inefficiencies, and idiocies are, you can determine how (or if) XML can help. That’s the presentation you want to give to content creators and designers. The big benefits. The what’s in it for them.

Once they get it, you can hit them with the catch. Did I not mention the catch? Yeah, the benefits only come if they put in some extra work up front. Tagging, file management, adhering to some pretty strict processes, maybe giving up some flexibility, especially on the design side. These are all fascinating topics for another time.