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Web Design

September 23, 2006

Designing for Blogs, Part 1: A Brief Manifesto

I'm an unabashed fan of working smarter, not harder.

In 1999, before I first happened on blog software or even the precursor called "EditThisPage," I was working with a few student programmers on a similar system in PHP, for classroom uses, collaborative projects, and portfolio-based active learning. What I really wanted to do was get away from the limitations of WebCT and Blackboard for more student-centered learning, instead of reproducing traditional classroom structures online. And I didn't want to have to keep teaching students HTML in classes that had other work to do.

When I saw that EditThisPage, Radio Userland and other applications were already doing what I was attempting to build from scratch in my dining room, I realized that the idea was so simple and such a logical next step, hundreds of people were probably doing exactly what I was doing, in different arenas, to make publishing accessible to more people. I saw that I could use blog tools for just about anything I could imagine with HTML and Flash, and save myself a whole lot of work.

And why did the blog idea catch fire as the killer app, when content management systems on the corporate side were plentiful? I strongly believe the answer is a timely combination of the rise of Google along with RSS.

Even though feed readers are having difficulty reaching non-tech users, feeds and tags are becoming an intrinsic structure in nearly everything we build. Quite simply, I won't build another freelance/contract web site that is not RSS/Atom-enabled. It's a no-brainer. Blogs are the display and feeds give the display legs. Technorati.com would not exist without feeds. And the massive social movement that is the blogosphere would not exist at all without RSS behind it.

So these days, rather than endlessly re-inventing the wheel, I'm primarily designing for CSS and the content-management shell blog software provides, a shell I can pour nearly anything into. Do I ever wish for the old blank-slate, starting fresh with a new audience/user interaction model every time?

Sometimes, but Web functionality is so crucial to interactive communities and a public commons that solo work in Flash feels empty to me, like an essential piece is missing. I think we'll end up one day defining "interactivity" as something that essentially must have more than one author, perhaps even many authors.

And lately, when I want to push on the limits of what interactivity can do, I find myself reaching for an even more robust system, pmachine's Expression Engine, where I can situate multiple blog modules in different contexts on the same page, and still retain my permalink archives and flexible CSS designs.

My only complaint so far is that I want some of the features I find in Scoop, features of audience-driven, "self-organizing" sites.

Not too long ago, someone asked me to predict where interactive media and the Internet would be five years from now. I refused to give an answer, because I don't get to decide. The beauty of a grassroots, bottom-up social movement like in the blogosphere is that the social structures provide an organic kind of direction and structure, and the social structure is the authority, not "industry leaders" or "futurists" or any other professional prognosticators striving for control or a first-mover advantage.

Interactivity is about giving up control.

What I strive to do as a designer and a participant in this grassroots social movement is to create tools that empower the most people with enough freedom to set their own directions. I'm not interested in herding cats. I am interested in watching and learning inductively from where cats go.

That's what Web 2.0 is about. That's why it rose from the ashes of the top-down corporate- and VC-driven creations that crashed and burned after all the money turned to vapor. What we valued most was what remained. Communities, interactions, strong ties, weak ties. Rich relationships over time. Rabid flame wars. Not endlessly pitching widgets while dropping names to bugger your Google/Technorati rank.

That's also why, in what some are calling a Web boomlet, I see business people desperately trying to appropriate blogs for various business models, proclaiming themselves authorities on their blog content niche as if they were following a stock professional copywriting formula, many diluting content in search engine-optimized blog sites that literally suck all the life out of the real reasons for blogging, the real reasons for writing and communicating online.

They claim they are dispensing value in a kind of knowledge-log "how-to" format, but as this genre of blogging multiplies, the sites look to me like little more than human-written, SEO-focused link farms, one step away from machine-generated link farms. Where is the real value in that?

Where I will stand in this new wash-out is with the commons, the spaces where real people talk, where conversations are alive with an energy of their own. The interfaces I will build for these communities and cybercultures will be interfaces that allow patterns of use to co-create the interface structures themselves.

The most creative, edgy projects I want to work on compulsively on my own time will not just employ user-centered design. They will allow social network structures to literally create their own designs.

In part two on this topic, I offer a visual snapshot into the kinds of blog-based sites I design, build, and often, host. One got 2,500 hits in its first 48 hours online. Others get very little traffic, because they are e-books I'm committed to maintaining as part of our common online library. Others are simply labors of love, my own contribution to the "real."

September 23, 2006 in Portfolio, Projects, Web Design, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Designing for Blogs, Part Two: Screenshots


Atlanta Media Bloggers (launched 2006)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/mediabloggers
Custom advanced CSS on the Typepad platform. Original artwork by Denny Lester.


Serendipit-e, Inc. Communities and Tools for Active Learners
(launched 2000 in HTML, relaunched Typepad 2003)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com


Spinning and Being Spun: The idea of journalism in a postmodern age (launched 2005)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/spinning


Weston Productions News site (launched 2004, now dormant)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/weston


Hilltown Farmland Preservation: A Gathering Place for Information and Discussion about Farmland Preservation in Hilltown Township, Pennsylvania  (launched 2006)
Link: www.hilltownfarmlandpreservation.org


A Bluestem Prairie: News from Minnesota's First Congressional District (launched 2006)
Link: www.bluestemprairie.com


yo-role: couture and collectible hats and purses (in development 2006)


Memorial blog for Dr. Susan Barnes (launched 2006)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/drsusanbarnes


Memorial blog for James Tillotson Whitehead (launched 2003)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/whitehead


Serendipit-e, Inc. Research & Consulting Weblog (launched 2003)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/consulting


Private Family Scrapbook Blog (launched 2003)

September 23, 2006 in Web Design | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 16, 2006

A whirlwind tour of selected web sites I've designed and built since 1994

The last time I worked with these web thumbnails was with my old Flash portfolio. As much as I've enjoyed Flash and Director over the years, they aren't the easiest end-products to update over time (unless I want to integrate a database).

So now this is my web portfolio. Some are solo design projects; some have artwork that was subcontracted out or provided by the client or ad agency. On some of the larger, more comprehensive sites, I directed the web design, programming, and usability teams as project manager. With such big sites, the team members' contributions were essential, and I am deeply grateful for their work.

Each thumbnail listed will include a short case description of the project. This is not a complete archive of all the sites I've worked on, but each one is representative of its period in the evolution of the web.

Here's a teaser... from my most recent launch...


to an oldie but goodie...


The Continue link will go from the present, backward in time, to the early days of Mosaic and the beginnings of the World Wide Web (I'm still trying to recreate my first 1994 home page, if I can just find that old Mosaic gray background [grin]). I'll keep updating this permanent link, to preserve a bit of my own web history. You'll also find below a piece I did for one of the longest continuously publishing online magazines from the earliest days of the web (CMC Magazine), still available at all its original links.


Atlanta Media Bloggers (launched 2006)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/mediabloggers

Design, hosting, and administration of group blog for local professional association. Custom advanced CSS on the Typepad platform. Original artwork by Denny Lester.


Serendipit-e, Inc. Communities and Tools for Active Learners
(launched 2000 in HTML, relaunched Typepad 2003)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com

Originally developed as an e-learning start-up in late 1999, working with a Prentice-Hall textbook project. Serendipit-e, Inc. aims to re-envision computer-assisted pedagogies so they don't simply reproduce face-to-face classroom conventions online. Focus: Active and collaborative project-based and portfolio-based learning. With the dot.com collapse, the site continues as a locus for information on e-learning, groupware, and student-centered learning. Solo design and custom CSS. I own and maintain this domain and host about 30+ public and private sites here on the Typepad platform.


Spinning and Being Spun: The idea of journalism in a postmodern age (launched 2005)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/spinning

Filter blog developed during a semester teaching journalism at the University of Montana, Fall 2005. Focus: to shine a light on new rhetorical techniques and sophisticated interactive media activities being developed in the public relations industry, to help journalism students and journalists become more aware of the methods of persuasion being used on them. Solo design and custom CSS.


Weston Productions News site (launched 2004, now dormant)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/weston

Dynamic site to highlight current projects of an Emmy-award winning freelance documentary photojournalist and film-maker and his production team based in Alaska. Solo design and custom CSS, using photographic material provided by Weston Productions, on the Typepad platform.


Memorial blog for James Tillotson Whitehead (launched 2003)
Link: www.serendipit-e.com/whitehead

A virtual memorial space using Typepad blog software, for students and friends who could not attend the Arkansas memorial service. Archives a guest book, obituaries, memorial essays, book dedications, and other events organized in Jim's honor. Launched with the permission and at the request of the family. Solo design and custom CSS. Most of the original photography is also my work.


Clemson University Public Service Activities
(launched 1999; archived from 2001)
Link: www.nutball.com/archive/psaportal

Director of major project/grant through Clemson PSA (part of the university's land grant mission) to redesign the portal and numerous client sites (Extension, Garrison Arena, South Carolina Botanical Garden, Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, and others). Approximately $100,000 funded over three years to build a lab, fund four MAPC graduate assistants to train as web designers and consultants and several undergraduate programmers. One year after formal launch in late 1999, the site was getting more hits than the Clemson Home Page. Team conducted formal usability study with coded video data (report available here) and also ran other nationally-funded usability research through the lab. Site included a Flash image map, Flash help files, and features aimed at specific audience analysis demographics.


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace
(launched July 1998)
An online ethnography and rhetorical study of of how an online fandom community both challenged and integrated into the world of traditional mass media producers.
Link: www.nutball.com


Cited as the first "born-digital" hypermedia dissertation to be accepted in the United States (cannot be reproduced on paper; usually does not read the same way twice).
Link: www.nutball.com/dissertation

Online ethnography and rhetorical analysis was accepted at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in July 1998. Since then the permanent site has received international recognition and is required reading in graduate seminars both within and outside the U.S., receiving international trAce award (UK), Dec 2000. I was interviewed in New York Times article on cult TV in 2000. Research was subject of a visual rhetoric study by Mary E. Hocks in June 2003 issue of the Journal of College Composition and Communication.

Solo HTML, graphic and interaction design for the equivalent of about 300 pages of material: text, graphics, video, and sound, with a Shockwave (Director) Navigation Map. Most "fair use" artwork taken from the fandom community remains the property of MCA-Universal.


English 860 The Rhetoric of Web Publishing course web
(launched 1999)
Link: www.nutball.com/classes/webpub

One of dozens of course webs I've designed over the years. Focus: professional communication techniques, interaction design, visual communication, and software tools such as Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash (Director in the Rensselaer iteration). I use my own sites instead of the more restrictive tools like WebCT and Blackboard that later became available to professors. I've been putting together my own groupware, chat, bulletin board, and web publishing tools since first teaching with computers in the early 1990s. An archive of my course syllabi and project specs are available here. Many of the original course web designs and non-linear student webbed projects can be accessed in my archives here.


A Webbed Student Response to Bill Joy's "Does the Future Need Us?" (launched 2000)
Link: www.nutball.com/joy

Representative of dozens of student-created sites I directed in my classes as part of Clemson's pilot laptop program through the College of Engineering. I taught first-year writing to mostly engineering students on a theme of technology-criticism in laptop-intensive classrooms for four years. Students often had at least one or more online "papers" that they webbed in with their classmates' writing, doing argument analysis on controversial issues. Students also developed service learning technology projects, and conducted original research and wrote an evaluative e-book on the laptop program for university stakeholders as well as other projects archived here.


Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication at Rensselaer
(launched 1996, from archives because it's been through several redesigns)
Link: http://nutball.com/archive/emacindex.html

Looking back at this site, I'm remembering what it was like to design for 300 baud modems as well as high speed university connections, especially since I like bold graphics. In addition to the "High Band" and "Low Band" options above (before there were sniffer scripts), I also loaded another provocative question to appear behind the big graphic while it loaded (with today's fast load times, it is impossible to see it). The goal of the site was to dish plenty of attitude while at the same time appealing to parents who help students make enrollment decisions.


Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication at Rensselaer
Link: http://nutball.com/archive/emac/web/careers.html

EMAC was a new interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program launched at RPI in 1996 between communications and electronic arts departments. I directed a team of four communications grad students who researched and wrote the content. Solo design, coding, and administration (aside from student artwork). This site won "Best of RPInfo" in 1996 and was part of the work cited when I received the RPI Founder's Award, the highest award given at the university. Enrollment doubled in just one year and the program was written up in Wired.



CMC Magazine: Going Into the Woods
(December 1996)
Link: http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1996/dec/boese/woods.html

Requested article for a special issue on Imagination and Hypertext. John December's Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine (ISSN 1076-027X) was one of the first online publications to appear on the web, publishing monthly for an international audience from 1994 to 1999 on topics related to "people, events, technology, public policy, culture, practices, study, and applications related to human communication and interaction in online environments." While the articles are in the magazine template, this creative non-fiction piece was written in branching structure native hypertext.

July 16, 2006 in Web Design | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack